“Nature” has truly fallen on hard times. Not only are many of the living things we usually associate with the term in bad shape – forests burning, coral reefs bleaching, plants and animals disappearing from the face of the Earth in untold numbers – but the very idea of nature has frayed almost beyond recognition. Since the turn of the millennium, many of the leading theorists in the environmental humanities have been arguing that the concept of “nature” is part and parcel of a distinctly modern ontology which is at the root of the disastrous changes that seem to be everywhere underway. Instead of nature, we are told to speak of “ecology,” “the more-than-human-world,” “natureculture,” or any number of other terms that will supposedly enable us to sidestep the insidious implications of “nature.” Yet ironically, these concepts are often made to perform the very same rhetorical work as the term they are meant to substitute: they anchor a critique of modern society.
In this talk, it is argued that this use of the term “nature” and its various pseudomorphs is indeed a distinctly modern phenomenon, although it is also shaped by a history that reaches much farther into the past. Since the Romantics, nature has served to designate the other side of modern society and its destructive force, to name that which has been lost and must be recovered. This suggests that ecocritical scholarship should not abandon the term, but that our continued use of it must heed the lessons of conceptual history.