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Journal of Civil Society
Vol. 1, No. 3, 195 –209, December 2005
JULIANNE LUTZ NEWTON & WILLIAM C. SULLIVAN
The Environmental Council, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA


ABSTRACT
Civil societies are related in complex ways with the nature that surrounds them. Drawing upon ecological principles, social, economic, and political theories, and empirical evidence from environmental psychology, we explore the ongoing dialectic between nature and culture—how humans alter nature and nature alters humans, their cultures and associations— with particular reference to civil society. In our view, civil society scholars overlook much by not paying close attention to nature. Nature provides opportunities for citizens to work together to improve their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Joint action can improve the physical and psychological health of people while also restoring and protecting natural systems. Indeed, a vibrant civil society is essential to achieve the many nature-related goals that require coordinated action at landscape scales. At the same time, nature provides appealing opportunities to strengthen the types of social values and institutions that are vital to all versions of civil society. We consider the various forms of civil society that are needed to promote healthy, appealing environments, using specific examples of community-based civic engagement. We particularly endorse citizen-run associations (i) that embrace nature-respecting normative values; (ii) that work with land and undertake political action; and (iii) that encourage participants to become more alert, engaged members of their natural homes.

Introduction
Civil societies are related in complex ways with the nature that surrounds and includes them. People turn to nature for food, fiber, energy, and shelter. As they do so, they inevitably create social arrangements that take local nature into account. Climate, soils, waters, terrains, biotic communities—all play roles in shaping social orders. As people adapt their ways to local nature, however, they also alter it substantially, by burning, cutting, tilling draining, and building. Nature thus affects culture at the same time that culture shapes nature, and not just once but continuously. As environmental historian William Cronon explains:

. . . environment may initially shape the range of choices available to a people at a
given moment, but then culture reshapes environment in responding to those
choices. The reshaped environment presents a new set of possibilities for cultural
reproduction, thus setting up a new cycle of mutual determination. Changes in the
way people create and re-create their livelihood must be analyzed in terms of
changes not only in their social relations but in their ecological ones as well.
(Cronon, 1983, p. 13)


Cronon used this dialectic to begin a comparative study of land-use practices in seventeenth-century New England. It was a time and place when nearly everyone gained sustenance directly from land, both Indians and colonists alike. Economic and social institutions visibly bore the imprint of New England’s rugged features. Today, our links with nature are no less real, yet they are, for many people, far less visible. It is easy to know why. Only a few people are engaged regularly in drawing food and fiber from land. Beyond that, many powerful forces, other than nature, play roles in shaping culture. We can find nature when we look for it and it sometimes arises in fury, but it is otherwise easy to ignore.

Our aim here is to consider how this nature– culture dialectic plays out today, with particular reference to civil society and to the questions that are or might be posed by students of civil society. In our view, civil society scholars pay too little attention to the natural world. Much is lost by this lack of attention. Even in an era of virtual realities, humansocial patterns remain extensively influenced by natural surroundings, visibly and invisibly, for good and ill. Nature retains its importance. As for the other side of Cronon’s dialectic, nature today is routinely and massively altered by people. What we overlook on this side of the nature–culture interchange are the many ways that nature’s potential benefits depend upon wise decision-making by people. Not only can we reshape nature but we must do so, and more sensibly than we are doing. Only by working together can we enjoy landscapes that promote our health and welfare. Healthy, prosperous landscapes depend upon sensible collective decision-making. Government can do some of this needed work but civil society, we contend, is also vital.

Perhaps most exciting for civil society scholars are the opportunities that nature provides for citizens to labor together to improve their landscapes, working both on the land and in the political realm. Such joint action would change the land itself—in good ways, we would hope. Yet, this work can also produce, in true dialectic fashion, changes on the cultural side. It can foster greater senses of community and interdependence while awakening people to nature’s beauties and functional ways (Abrams, 1996). The shared work of promoting nature, that is, can strengthen some of the social values that are vital to all versions of civil society. Indeed, we argue, nature provides one of the most promising settings in which to foster the kinds of values, practices, and arrangements that civil society scholars deem vital.

Modern society suffers from a number of pervasive ills, including the recent decline (Putnam, 2000) or awkward transformation (Wolfe, 2003) of civil societies. Many ills have to do with the degradation of the human condition, including poor psychological functioning (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1983; Kuo & Sullivan, 2001a; Taylor et al., 2001), compromised physical health (Fitzpatrick & LaGory, 2000; Frumkin, 2001), potent senses of uselessness and alienation from one another (Bellah et al., 1996), powerlessness (Wiebe, 1995), and placelessness (Kunstler, 1993)—all ironically unfolding parallel to the rising wealth of the economic elite. Along with these specific, human ills is the relentless degradation of our lands, waters, and airs (Reid et al., 2005). It is our argument that these ills share fundamental traits. All of them, not just the last, are linked to the ways we interact with nature and one another.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, the philosophical character Philip Carey sums up the human predicament. “It seemed,” Carey thought to himself, “that there were three things to find out: man’s relation to the world he lives in, man’s relation with the men among whom he lives, and finally man’s relation to himself” (Maugham, 1942, p. 318). Carey’s first question is the subject of our inquiry, yet it is tightly bound to his second question and not unrelated to his third.

We proceed in this article as follows. After setting the stage (using a classic, naturerelated movie), we briefly consider ways that land has figured in American thinking about civic virtue and the good society. (By land we mean the entire functioning web of soils, waters, plants and animals, including humans; by nature we simply mean all non-human forms of life and life forces, from the isolated street-side tree to the vast wilderness area.).We then survey the principal ways that nature affects human welfare (aside from providing food, fiber, and shelter), drawing upon recent psychological research and the fundamentals of ecology. Following this discussion, we turn to the other side of the dialectic. For reasons that we explain, vibrant civil society is essential to foster patterns of land use that are ecologically sound and that connect people with nature. The forms of civil society we have in mind would limit the capitalist market while reducing the ill effects of commodification. They would seek, not to supplant the state or protect against an overreaching state, but instead to promote democratic governance that is strong enough to contain excessive individualism and foster the kinds of nature-related public goods that the market does not and cannot supply. We discuss and endorse a public sphere (including civil associations) in which citizens (i) take nature seriously; (ii) engage in reasonably informed discussions of ecology and environmental ethics; and (iii) work to enhance their natural homes. At the same time (and by way of conclusion), we offer cautions, both about the difficulties of managing nature-related civic associations and about their inevitable limitations.