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In The Green Studies Reader (2000) Laurence Coupe suggests that ‘Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language’ and argues that ‘green studies […] hinges on the recognition of the complexity of that word and of our relation to whatever it denotes’. The opening section of this essay reviews the difficulties this question has posed to contemporary ecocritical theory. It discusses in particular the tension, identified by Martin Ryle, between ‘nature-endorsing’ approaches – those that take certain texts at face value as ‘true’ records of landscapes, natural processes and environmental practice – and ‘nature-sceptical’ approaches – those that interrogate the uses to which ‘nature’ is put in texts e.g. the social paradigms being proposed.

Part two of the essay argues that nineteenth-century critics have already confronted this specific question – what is nature? Parham then seeks to establish his own approach to what nature ‘denotes’ with reference to what he sees as the most thorough nineteenth-century attempt to theorize the ‘natural world’ – John Stuart Mill’s essay ‘On Nature’ (1874). The body of his argument studies Mill’s essay and highlights the following key arguments: that Mill’s scientifically based understanding that nature has a ‘primary’ or ‘original’ meaning independent of human ‘constructions’; an examination of Mill’s definition of ‘intelligent action’ whereby ‘the activities of men’ are subject to nature’s laws while, nevertheless, ‘Nature [is] a scheme to be amended, not imitated, by Man’ (i.e. within ‘the absolute limits of the laws of nature’ the human race should be free to make adaptations, as indeed do other species); Mill’s conclusion that both human social organisation and the natural environment result from the choice made as to how we live within the ecosystem: ‘by every choice which we make either of ends or of means, we place ourselves to a greater or less extent under one set of laws of nature instead of another’. Finally, the paper looks at how Mill employed this notion of ‘nature’ as the basis for social organisation in the ongoing development of his ‘Principles of Political Economy’. The paper concludes in support of an argument, made by Ryle, that ‘ecocriticism, like green politics, must be centrally concerned with the historical development of “human nature”’.

In: Culture, Creativity and Environment
This volume sheds new light on how today’s peripheries are made, lived, imagined and mobilized in a context of rapidly advancing globalization. Focusing on peripheral spaces, mobilities and aesthetics, it presents critical readings of, among others, Indian caste quarters, the Sahara, the South African backyard and European migration, as well as films, novels and artworks about marginalized communities and repressed histories. Together, these readings insist that the peripheral not only needs more visibility in political, economic and cultural terms, but is also invaluable for creating alternative perspectives on the globalizing present. Peripheral Visions combines sociological, cultural, literary and philosophical perspectives on the periphery, and highlights peripheral innovation and futurity to counter the lingering association of the peripheral with stagnation and backwardness.