Nature, Culture and the Production of Race

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

Kari Norgaard
University of Oregon

Like most environmental sociologists I’ve long been troubled by the limited view our discipline has taken of what has come to be known as “nature” and “culture.” Indeed, the notion that the experiences of ‘modern’ peoples and societies can be understood without accounting for the beings and material processes known as ‘nature,’ is a nearly universal sociological premise. 

But what if a wide variety of cultural practices, cultural toolkits, the range of resources available for cultural constructions of meaning are fundamentally shaped by other entities classified by our culture in the blanket term “nature?” What if the actions of the other beings and entities in the so-called ‘natural’ world themselves participate as animate actors in the dynamics of social power (e.g. Todd 2014, Watts 2013)? What if cultural sociologists were leading the way in the project of ‘interspecies ethnography?’ Instead, any word search of sociological literature will reveal how the term ‘environment’ rarely refers to anything beyond the so called “social” environment. Yet human societies have long co-evolved with the other-than-human entities we now classify into the generic category of “nature.” That such relationships continue unacknowledged in the “modern” social contexts that sociologist of culture study is no accident. I have argued elsewhere that negating the relevance of nature for the social, material, cultural, spiritual and emotional components of human existence has been central to the discursive legitimation of the “modern” social order in North America (Norgaard 2019). Today this framework profoundly limits the scope of our sociological theorizing. It is my hope that cultural sociologists will expand attention to the relevance of the natural environment for cultural practices, cultural productions and the nature of social power. To that end, I here offer specific examples of how “nature” matters for cultural productions of the notion of race. I close with some reflections of the consequences of all this for our ability to adequately theorize the changing climate.

For present purposes, we can take “nature” to mean both the larger complex of plants, animals, rocks, minerals and other beyond-human entities with whom humans share our world — some of which flow in and out of human bodies, as well as their historically contingent social constructions. While many worthwhile volumes are crafted on the topic of “nature,” my point here is fairly simple: not only has the field of sociology rested upon a particular divide or “dualism” between nature and culture, the categorization of a wide swath of other beings and entities into a single construct defined as inert and in opposition to the “human” and the “social,” has profoundly limited our understanding of present society and social power.  If the notion of nature as a generic classification for the myriad of other species with whom humans share our world is a cultural construct, what cultural work does this term perform? For whom is this work achieved? With what consequences for the sociology of culture today?

Julian Go (2016) describes how “The very notion of the “social”—as a space between nature and the spiritual realm—first emerged and resonated in the nineteenth century among European male elites to make sense of and to try to manage social upheaval and resistance from workers, women, and from so-called natives” (195). Certainly, this separation and negation of the natural world as a component of social action within sociology is part of the ongoing system of settler-colonialism in North America. Settler-colonial nations such as the United States have aimed to erase not only the presence of Indigenous peoples, but the ecologies with which they are embedded, and indeed the relevance of nature itself. And the near hegemonic success this discourse has achieved has allowed settler-colonial states to erase their footsteps as they go, so to speak. This mutually co-constructive attempt at the erasure of Indigenous peoples and nature makes the insights of Indigenous scholars and Indigenous cosmologies particularly useful reference points for the present conversation. For example, Goenpul Aborigine scholar Aileen Moreton-Robison (2015) writes that the indigenous perspective produces particularly valuable contributions to the study of race and whiteness. Moreton-Robinson notes that in contrast to and alongside emphases on the role of slavery, migration, and the development of capitalism on racial constructions, Indigenous scholars bring attention to how land and land ownership matter for the construction of whiteness.

As a non-Indigenous settler, my own limited understanding of Indigenous cosmologies comes from a decade and a half of research collaborations with Karuk colleagues and friends in Northern California. For the people I learn from, “nature” in the form of salmon, eels or acorn trees is much more than a platform for human action or a space within which “environmental resources” might be distributed unequally. These species are part of the human society – teachers, tricksters, and treasured relatives to whom people have real responsibilities. Karuk Department of Natural Resources director Leaf Hillman references the Karuk Creation Story as he describes the intimate and serious social obligations Karuk people have to other species

At the beginning of time, only the spirit people roamed the earth. At the time of the great transformation, some of these spirit people were transformed into trees, birds, animals, fishes, rocks, fire and air – the sun, the moon, the stars… And some of these Spirit People were transformed into human beings. From that day forward, Karuk People have continually recognized all of these spirit people as our relatives, our close relations. From this flows our responsibility to care for, cherish and honor this bond, and to always remember that this relationship is a reciprocal one: it is a sacred covenant. Our religion, our management practices, and our day-to-day subsistence activities are inseparable. They are interrelated and a part of us. We, Karuk, cannot be separated from this place, from the natural world or nature…we are a part of nature and nature is a part of us. We are closely related. 

Nature and Cultural Productions of Race

In the 30 years since it was first crafted the theory of racial formation has become the central and most important explanation for race, racism and racial outcomes in the discipline of sociology (Sapterstein, Penner and Light 2013). Yet within this powerfully generative framework there is a surprising absence of sociological attention to the importance of land or nature as a material and symbolic resource for the process of racial formation (Park and Pellow 2004). Instead, emphasis within recent theory has been on the vitally important, but more strictly social aspects of race making. If racial formation is the socio-historical process by which racial identities are “created, lived out, transformed and destroyed” (ibid, 109), then what might we gain by adding in attention to the natural environment as a key part of this process? 

Nature matters a great deal in the project of race-making both because it is the ultimate source of all material wealth, and because the notion of ‘nature’ or ‘the natural’ is one of the most potent ideological resources available for making claims about what is ‘real,’ ‘inevitable,’ and ‘just the way things are.’  The reorganization of relationships in the natural environment has been crucial on a material level for the consolidation of state power and the generation of capitalist wealth for Whites on the one hand, and at the symbolic level in shaping the perception that these processes were both inevitable and good. Racial categories may be constructed in order to justify access to the natural environment, and the right for a given group to manipulate it according to their worldview and interests. Discourses of Native people as savages or closer to nature and Whites as civilized and therefore rightful leaders and decision makers justified direct genocide. The creation of racial categories of White and Indian and their particular contents thus paved the way for so called settlement, and the generation of White wealth through further manipulation of the land – e.g. in California via hydraulic gold mining, the taking of land for farms and urban areas, and modern forestry practices. 

Secondly, the content of racial categories often underlies lived out racialized experiences of the natural world. Some of these racialized experiences are of environmental exposure (pesticide poisoning of Latinx farmworkers, the exposure of Vietnamese American women and men to toxins in nail salons), while others like the disproportionate ability of Whites to access and enjoy and ‘pristine’ wilderness areas for recreation, are of environmental privilege. In other words, one importance of racial categories is that they justify the current situation whereby some people have environmental privilege and others extreme negative environmental exposure. Moore, Kosek and Pandian (2003) describe how the view that Indigenous people were naturally tougher was used to justify lower pay scales and longer working hours for Indigenous miners in the Peruvian Andes. Similarly, the supposed stealth of Indian men justified their placement on the front lines in warfare (e.g. WW II, Korean War, Vietnam War), at the same time as Indians’ purported lack of the fear of heights justified their exemption from safety precautions in the building of skyscrapers. In agricultural communities, notions of white people as pure and innocent work alongside beliefs about Latinos as uneducated to blame those who have been poisoned by pesticides for their own exposure. At the same time, notions that Latinx people are expendable deflect the moral implications of their experiences (Marquez 2014, Viramontes 1996). In each case the likelihood that one’s body contains particular chemicals, or will be found relaxing on the beach, becomes part of what it may mean to be Latinx, Black, White or Native in the world today. Note that it is also through references to particular notions of nature that these racial categories may be justified — as in the way that the notion of nature as wild or dirty enables the concept of a Native ‘savage’ whereas very different constructions of nature as pure and pristine underlie notions of white purity and innocence.  Furthermore, these notions of nature may then be imposed back onto actual landscapes, as for example the concept of nature as ‘pristine’ and apart from humans is then imposed on wilderness areas.

Thirdly, as Omi and Winant (2014) emphasize, “race and racial meanings are neither stable nor consistent” (2). Indeed the meaning of racial categories, or even the categories themselves may be transformed through transformation of the natural world, whether the alternation of forests to commodity production, or land transformation and subsequent urban migration via the Dawes Act facilitated the development of a pan-Indian identity (Nagel 1994). Justification for the unique racial categories of American Indian and White comes from the association of Native people with the natural world. At the same time, these categories are materially solidified through the unequal wealth outcomes that result from different kinds of relationships with material nature. 

Fourth, it may be through relationships to the natural environment that people resist racial and ethnic categorization. In Northern California during the time of outright frontier genocide, the fact that Karuk people lived further inland where they had access to mountains meant that at least some were able to hide from vigilantes and militia – a fact reflected in the greater portions of the Karuk population who survived into the 1880s as compared with the coastal Wiyot people (Raphael and House 2007, Secrest 2003). During this time, the intimate knowledge that people had of their land facilitated their survival.

In each of the abovementioned aspects of racial formation, ‘nature’ is not just another ‘inert’ site for the enactment of power, but it is through multidimensional relationships with the material natural world that state power is enacted, negotiated and resisted through cultural productions of the concept of race (see e.g. Scott 1998, 2008). In other words, the natural world itself is a “tool of structuration” (Giddens 1991). Again, all this is so in part because nature is the source of material human existence and wealth in the form of food, water, minerals and more, and because the natural world holds profound symbolic significance.

A Few Closing Thoughts on Climate Change

For at least the last ten years I’ve longed for my discipline to bring its best thinking to in particular the social, pollical and moral problem of our rapidly changing climate. Climate change may be the most serious ecological problem our world has faced. Climate change too is fundamentally about race and racism, as well as the erasure of Indigenous modes of knowing, being and thinking. On the one hand, racial inequalities and the racialized state have served as a mechanism to displace problems onto indigenous communities and communities of color. Laura Pulido and co-authors (2016) underscore that “vulnerable communities, in this case communities of color, are essential to the functioning of racial capitalism” (26) which, drawing upon Robinson (2000) they define as “a distinct interpretation of capitalism that acknowledges race as a structuring logic. . . Racism, as a material and ideological system that produces differential meaning and value, is harnessed by capital in order to exploit the differences that racism creates. In this case, devalued communities, places, and people serve as pollution sinks,that enable firms to accumulate more surplus than would otherwise be possible” (ibid). And as David Pellow (2015) notes with respect to racism and the environment:

“The very existence of the modern U.S. nation-state is made possible by the existence of toxins –chemical poisons–  that permeate every social institution, human body and the non-human world. To be modern, then, is associated with a degree of manipulation of the human and non-human worlds that puts them both at great risk. To be modern also appears to require the subjugation and control over certain populations designated as “others,” those less than fully deserving of citizenship, as a way of ameliorating the worst impacts of such a system on the privileged. These two tendencies, the manipulation of the human and more-than-human worlds – are linked through the benefits that toxic systems of production produce for the privileged and the imposition of the costs of that process on people and non-human nature deemed less valuable and therefore expendable” (57).

Environmental decline in the form of species loss, toxic contamination, energy shortages and now climate change is literally reshaping the baseline conditions around which human social, economic, political and cultural systems are organized. Especially in the face of climate change scholars across the natural and social sciences have begun to theorize the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ – described as an entirely new geological epoch in which human activity is fundamentally reshaping the ecosystems of the earth (Steffen et al 2007).  But exactly how this level of environmental degradation translates into specific social outcomes is a complex process that too few sociologists are tracking. Now in the face of climate change, the importance of the natural world for social outcomes is just beginning to gain more mainstream attention within the discipline of sociology. Climate change also evokes an urgent need to rethink many aspects of western social, economic and political systems from the organization of energy around fossil fuels, to the sustainability of cultural values of excessive consumption, and the relevance of epistemologies that presume a separation of the social and natural worlds.  

Climate change is anthropogenic, or human caused. But humans have existed on earth for a long time. Climate change is neither inevitable nor natural. In the big picture, the organization of economic activity around fossil fuel extraction and use results from specific and very recent management decisions regarding for example the extraction of coal as a fuel source, the organization of elaborate global and national transportation infrastructure, the globalization of economies, and militarization — each of which are in turn undertaken within the logics of capitalism and colonialism. Predicted climactic changes described by the scientific community are not ‘inevitable’ acts of nature, but equally nor is climate change an inevitable outgrowth of human activity. Many of the dominant discourses surrounding climate change rely upon Indigenous erasure. 

Indigenous erasure manifests in our climate discourse in part through erasures within peoples’ collective sociological imaginations. Erased from the dominant sensibility is the possibility of an animate world, the possibility that humans and the other species we often call “nature,” might work together to create abundance (Fenelon 2015, Watts 2013). Erased are notions of belonging, responsibility and reciprocity that are simultaneously harder and harder to maintain under capitalism. Now in the highest esteemed institutions of the land it has become difficult to acknowledge or imagine that the natural world matters for the social, that there are spirits in all living things, or even that there are viable forms of social organization beyond capitalism. 

Kari Marie Norgaard is author of Living in Denial, Climate Change, Emotions and Everyday Life (MIT Press, 2011) and Salmon and Acorns Feed Our People: Colonialism, Nature and Social Action, (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming July 2019)


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