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Preserve, reserve, or conserve?

How exactly do we define our relationship with nature? A new book chapter explores.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods

Having worked in the design and development industry as a landscape architect and urban designer for over 25 years, I have been fortunate to live in different countries and work on projects around the globe.  While I was living or working in each place I had the privilege of seeing change happen globally: the evolution of Dubai from a city whose airport terminal consisted of two rooms to a major Middle Eastern hub, parts of rural China evolving into second and third tier cities, coastal tourism development in Malaysia and Thailand, and increased urbanization at home, in and around Toronto.

It is a combination of my profession, this exposure, and these life experiences that gave me the opportunity to witness changing landscapes, and it raised questions about the legacy we are leaving future generations. I had many questions, fewer answers, and many observations. In discussions with a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, whose focus is on the philosophical theory of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation (semiotics), he asked me to write a chapter about nature for an academic publication he was compiling: the International Handbook of Semiotics, 2015 edition, published by Springer. I jumped at the opportunity to develop formulated thought about the questions I was confronting about the changing world, nature, and our attitude towards it.

My chapter contribution, Oikos: The Sign of Nature, explores our varying, colliding, and, often, at odds, relationship to nature, as it acknowledges humankind’s need to be in nature for a balanced and healthy existence. This is diametrically challenged by land values, increasing population, and development. Increased globalization, increased development, and intensification are putting more and more strain on our natural resources, and on nature and natural areas. Yet, for a sustained and healthy life, humans need respite in nature, association with nature, and the ability to experience it.

Our diverse attitudes and confusion about nature are evident in our references to it. Is nature to be preserved in its original state? Is it something to put on reserve, a commodity saved for future use? Is nature to be conserved, to be kept safe from being damaged or destroyed? We tend to use these terms interchangeably even though they have subtle differences. These blurred lines in how we as humans interact with nature allow it to be negotiable. Yet we seek nature out when we need respite or relaxation or when we consider destinations for vacations as a place to regenerate ourselves. Oikos: The Sign of Nature is an investigation of our mixed associations with nature and the natural world. We need to continue this discourse when we consider our partnership with nature and make decisions that impact the legacy and world we want to leave for future generations.

Gunta Mackars is a principal and landscape architect in our Community Development team.

Gunta Mackars

For a sustained and healthy life, humans need respite in nature, association with nature, and the ability to experience it.

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