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Semantics of Nature

Nature is at an end. Whether it’s a rainforest pierced by a road, a glacier melting from climate change, or a “wilderness” managed by professionals, nature no longer exists free of human intervention.

We are Living Through the End of Nature, Paul Wapner posits in the title of his new book, a look at what it means to live on a planet where the presence of humans is felt in even the most isolated places.

This new relationship, he contends, is forcing us to reevaluate how we think about the environment. The old discourse is too black and white. One position argues: Humans use too many resources, and the job of environmentalists is to hold back the tide and save what’s left of the wild world. Alternately, there are those who still think of nature as susceptible to mastery.

Neither view, Wapner contends, takes into account the complex reality that is increasingly inescapable.

“We tend to draw a line: here’s nature, here’s not nature,” says the School of International Service professor and director of the Global Environmental Politics program. “The birds in your yard aren’t seen as nature because they’re being fed by your neighbor.”

Wapner sets forth a different paradigm. “Ultimately we want to allow for a relationship, to encourage humans [to] take a role in which they enhance biodiversity.

“We should be intervening—by capturing wind, capturing solar, by participating in a way that highlights the principles of justice. We don’t have to embrace a narrative of mastery to recognize that we’re going to need technologies. The only question is how we’re going to intervene. Not whether we can intervene.”