What is the nature of the idea


Dr. Thomas Kirchhoff

To person

born 1967, studied landscape planning and philosophy. After working as a landscape planner, research assistant initially at the Chair of Landscape Ecology at the Technical University of Munich, since 2010 at the research facility of the Evangelical Study Group in Heidelberg. Main focus: ecological and lifeworld concepts of nature, in particular theories of ecological units, theory of landscape and wilderness, biodiversity concepts, theories of the human-nature relationship.

For us, nature, landscape and wilderness have mostly positive meanings. Why is that so? Why do many people long for nature? Why do we protect them? What is the difference between nature, landscape and wilderness?

Landscape describes an area viewed from an aesthetic point of view. (& copy bungo / Photocase)

In the search for answers, one should note: Firstly: assessments of natural phenomena are culturally shaped. They differ from culture to culture and are subject to cultural and historical changes. For example, in Christian culture, mountains were seen as a terrible wilderness for centuries; around 1600 they began to be interpreted as an expression of divine majesty and to be revered; nowadays other motifs than fear of God dominate when we are fascinated by mountains (see below). Second: Nature conservation is a modern phenomenon that only emerged around 1900. The reason for its emergence was not an ecological crisis, but the (still widespread) criticism that as a result of capitalism, industrialization and urbanization, regional differences in customs and traditions disappeared and people were ’uprooted’. That is why they wanted to protect traditional cultural landscapes in their regional uniqueness and as a home from destruction through industrialized land use.

Nowadays we protect nature in particular for two reasons: purposeful reasons relate to its usability (see below), emotional ones to the aesthetic qualities and symbolic meanings that it has in our culture as landscape or wilderness (see below). Ethical reasons, on the other hand, are of secondary importance: They do not provide sufficiently precise criteria for which nature should be protected. In addition, apart from the demand for responsibility for living beings capable of suffering (pathocentrism), they are probably not conclusive.

Nature conservation goals are set based on social interests and cultural values. The natural sciences provide knowledge on how to achieve these goals, e.g. B. ensure the survival of a certain species or limit global warming to a certain value. They also provide information about the consequences of environmental changes, e.g. how climate change affects vegetation. In this way, you can support specific nature conservation goals with rational arguments. But you cannot decide which goals we want to pursue.

Nature as a useful object: resource and ecosystem

The premises of a sawmill in Baruth (Brandenburg). (& copy picture-alliance / ZB)

When we value nature for its usefulness, we adopt a purposeful perspective. Nature then has only instrumental value, i.e. it is a means to a purpose set by us, such as forests as a source of wood for the furniture industry. It serves us primarily through so-called production and regulation functions that enable us to live a healthy, safe and comfortable life. Ecological processes produce renewable resources such as oxygen (through photosynthesis), drinking water (through pollutant degradation), food and renewable raw materials (through growth). Evolutionary processes create biodiversity, which we use as a resource, e.g. for breeding and genetic engineering (species, genes), pharmacy (active ingredients) and bionics ('inventions' of nature as a model for technical products). Regulate natural processes if they keep certain environmental conditions constant in a manner that is favorable for us (self-cleaning of water, control of pest populations by natural enemies, etc.).

The lotus effect is an "invention" of nature, which serves as a model for technical products. (& copy Mikromaus / Photocase)

In a rational perspective, nature and environmental protection should ensure that the natural production and regulatory functions are preserved. For this purpose, sections of nature are often viewed as ecosystems, i.e. as a structure of effects made up of various organisms and their inanimate environment that provide ecosystem services. Species protection is pursued from a purposeful, rational perspective, because every species is a potential resource. It is controversial whether the stability of ecosystems increases with the number of species.

Nature as an aesthetic-symbolic object: landscape and wilderness

In nature conservation, rational arguments have dominated for several decades, which are supported by references to actual or supposed ecological constraints. In everyday life, however, nature is above all the object and place of emotional experiences. It has so-called eudaimonistic value because it is linked to the idea of ​​a good, meaningful life due to its aesthetic qualities and symbolic meanings. The prerequisite for this everyday perspective is that we no longer live - dependent on nature - in a rural and rural society, but - at a distance from nature - in an urban, industrial, high-tech society.

The eudaimonistic value of nature, unlike its instrumental value, does not result from the physical properties of natural phenomena. Thus it cannot be derived from scientifically and ecologically describable properties (just as the artistic value of a painting cannot be derived from the chemical properties of the colors used). Rather, we assign this value to nature within the framework of culturally shaped patterns of perception and interpretation. That is why the same physical piece of nature can be perceived, interpreted and evaluated differently, even in opposite ways. Our emotional experiences of nature are always subjective and individual, but they always move within the framework of culturally shaped, intersubjective patterns, so that one can discuss them.

"Landscape" and "wilderness" are the result of two such patterns of perception and interpretation. That means, when we speak of landscape or wilderness, we are not talking about an object of the nature of a field or water catchment area, not about a scientifically describable state of nature and also not about ecosystems.

Landscape: aesthetic wholeness and utopia of harmonious human-nature unity

Only in the modern era did the word landscape acquire an aesthetic meaning that still dominates today: "Landscape" was initially called in the technical language of painting the central perspective depiction of a beautiful area as an individual whole. The term later entered colloquial language and referred to an area viewed from an aesthetic point of view. In this, a sensitive observer sees an area formed by nature alone (natural landscape) or by nature and human hands (cultural landscape) as a harmonious, individual, concrete whole.

A landscape can be compared to a melody: both exist only as mental images. Because only in our imagination do the individual phenomena such as tones or forest, stream, meadow form a meaningful whole. The wholeness results from our aesthetic perception. Today, in our culture, seeing landscapes is a natural (for adults), culturally practiced skill. Therefore one could mistakenly think that landscapes are naturally given units.

Seeing landscapes has great emotional significance for us: We can thus subjectively-aesthetically keep parts of the world present as a whole after the metaphysical idea of ​​the world as divine work, which has been valid since antiquity, has lost its validity. Paradoxically, seeing the unity of the landscape presupposes objectification, individualization and distancing, which it aesthetically abolishes: we can only because we analyze nature scientifically into individual phenomena and have objectified it as a resource and can therefore live at a distance from it (urban) look at them aesthetically without interest in use. Otherwise we would not see a landscape, but only a side by side usable individual phenomena such as forest (as a source of wood), stream (as a fishing ground) and meadow (as a source of food). Only because we see ourselves as free, self-determined bourgeois individuals and no longer as people who have a given place in the divine order, can we view sections of the earth's surface as individual wholes.