A History of Nature

Over the 2018 Spring semester, I took the course “A History of Nature” (AHoN) at Griffith University. This course was one of two sustainability electives that I took during my time at Griffith, the other one being “Sustainable Design Principles” (SDP). While both courses added to my knowledge of sustainability, AHoN was unlike any course that I have taken before.

GCAHoN was a seminar style of class, meeting once a week for three hours. The class was mainly lecture based but had several opportunities to work collaboratively in small groups. The goal of the course was to uncover how humans have interacted with nature in the past and how attitudes have changed over time with an emphasis on Europe and the United States. To meet this goal, the course had to be interdisciplinary: ecology was mixed with Medieval European history mixed in with the American industrial revolution. These seemingly diverse topics though were brought together, though. The course taught me that the views of nature has dramatically changed throughout time. In early Europe, nature was feared and transforming forests into farmland was viewed as the ideal, for humans were “greater” than nature. Then, during colonialization, the pristine forests, prairies and mountains of the Americas were viewed as the Garden of Eden, a striking difference from Europe whose land was primarily for agriculture. In the late 1800s, nature began to blend with arts, tourism and industry, creating several different perspectives on the value of nature that often competed.

This idea of the dynamics of change in people’s perspectives on nature reminded me about the origins of sustainability, a topic that was discussed earlier in Sustainability 401. The modern depiction pf sustainability began with early origins in conservation and preservation of resources. It then shifted towards what is now know as, using resources in a way that does not harm the future. The definition of sustainability is evolving now too, focusing on resilience from the wicked problems that will be in the future. Like how people’s views on nature, the idea of sustainability has changed and will continue to change in the future.

The course itself can be an example of coproduction of knowledge, one key concept of Sustainability 501. The class was composed of students from several different disciplines: history majors, ecology students, those studying education and health majors all came together in this class.  During discussions, each student would share a little bit of information with the class, especially when there were questions that the professor could not answer. In discussions, the professor would often turn to me about questions about American history. While I am by no means an expert on American history, I was able to recollect pieces of the history I learned in years prior. In return, I was able to learn more about ecology, European history, indigenous views on the land, and religions.

I think this course had a very positive impact on my dual major experience. Often times, when learning about sustainability, I notice that the focus is always on actions for the future. When approaching the people pillar of sustainability, topics of social justice, changemaking, equity and human rights are often explored. When looking at the planet, current states of the environment and mitigating the effects are discussed. But, Sustainability is long term. Does it make sense to only consider the recent past and the distant future? I don’t believe so.  Studying sustainability should encompass the distant past, for we don’t want the poor practices of people to be repeated in the future.