Chapter 5: Environment

Tai Munro

Key Ideas

In this chapter, you will learn about:

  • historical and cultural conceptions of the environment
  • Indigenous-led conservation projects

Defining Environment

Many text definitions of sustainability struggle to define the environment. Terms like natural resources and meeting needs (implied as human) are often used to communicate what sustainability is. But they raise the question, does “the environment” within the context of sustainability only matter insofar as its use by humans? Plumwood (2001) suggests that as long as humans are viewed as separate from the environment, the environment will be an object to be either exploited or protected. With this in mind, listen to the following podcast, “What is ‘The Environment’?” (10:47), originally published at under CC-BY-4.0 (Munro, 2020).

What is “The Environment”?

What is “the environment”? Do you know where the border is between environment and not environment? The environment has featured heavily in conversations about sustainability. In fact, most people assume that sustainability is really environmental responsibility and that we need to be better in how we manage natural resources. This, we connect directly to nature. So, I want you to take 30 seconds and picture your perfect nature scene. You can do this in whatever form you would like, be that a memory, a photograph, a description, or a drawing. What is your perfect nature scene?

–30 s–

If you’re not ready to come back yet, just pause me and come back when you’re ready.

Now that you have a picture of nature. I’m going to ask you some questions about it. To give you time to answer, I’ll wait 20 seconds before continuing. This may seem like a long time but continue to reflect as you may start to notice things that aren’t immediately apparent.

Where are humans in your scene?

–20 s–

What signs are there that the scene is changing?

–20 s–

How close is the scene to what you would call wilderness?

–20 s–

I have a particular fascination with how we picture things. I even used participant-led photography as the method in my research for my Ph.D. I think how we picture something or how we frame a photograph can reflect many things that are unsaid, hidden from the viewer and perhaps even hidden from ourselves. My perfect nature scene does not show any humans, but its perspective is such that the image taker or creator is surrounded by nature, embedded within nature. You can feel the sunlight on your face as you look up into the glowing canopy of trees in my nature scene. If you strain hard enough, you should be able to hear the leaves rustling and the birds singing. And yet, even though you are there, right in the middle of nature there is a barrier. You can’t actually strain hard enough the hear the birds. You are not warmed by the sunlight. Ultimately, you are just a distant visitor who may as well be looking down upon the scene. My perfect nature scene has changed for me. The boundary between me and “the environment” has reappeared.

Did you know that landscape was “not considered a fit subject for painting by Europeans until the 19th century” (Talbot, 1969)? Europe didn’t really have wilderness, except for that which was inaccessible and barren (Talbot). What “wild” areas there were existed for hunting (Talbot). Thus, landscape painting was not an appropriate medium until colonizers from Europe and England spread across the world. Indeed, in the quest to differentiate themselves from their European counterparts, the landscape, or more specifically the frontier, the boundary between wilderness and civilization, became a popular artistic subject among the colonizers in places like the U.S. and Canada (Hall, 2002).

This idea of the frontier was important because it was only once a colonizer had built a comfortable urban environment that they could appreciate nature and wilderness (Hall). Depictions of Indigenous people’s ranged from childlike to savage, reflecting the European belief that to live with nature was a lesser form of being (Talbot, 1969).

Wilderness, however, was perceived as part of the American identity, and arguably other colonized nations as well, such as Canada and Australia. The wilderness was to be preserved in a way that set these populations apart from their European beginnings, and thus began the creation of national parks (Hall, 2002). George Catlin, a painter in the early 1800s, expressed that we should preserve the animals and the Indigenous Peoples for the “refined” American to view and appreciate (Hall, 287). When the first national parks were signed into being, they focused on preserving nature and excluding the local peoples. Banff National Park in Canada evicted the local Nakoda to ensure that their subsistence practices didn’t interfere with growing tourism economies. In addition, their eviction ensured that they remained on reserves, where they could be exposed to assimilation tactics through the church and residential schools (Mason, 2018). They were allowed back into the park each year for Indian Days in order to, just as Catlin had argued, perform their traditions for the spectacle of the civilized colonizers. And thus, we preserved the frontier, the edges of civilization that we may explore while maintaining the constant movement towards progress and separation from “the environment.”

This is why in my ideal nature scene, I am unable to recognize the role of people in living with nature. I can’t see how careful, thoughtful actions would alter the landscape without destroying it. I can’t see how Indigenous Peoples might have used fire to increase the diversity of the plants, and how those increases in plant diversity would, in turn, support the populations of bear and deer and caribou that could be in this space. I can’t see how thinking of nature as anything other than natural resources and national parks might be creating nothing more than an imaginary wall that makes me think that I am not part of environment. And thus, I am part of not the environment but of the Eurocentric quest to, in Rachel Carson’s words, alter the nature of his (sic) world” (p.23).

But, this isn’t who I am. I am often stuck with language that conveys a separation between environment and humans but I don’t believe that. I do appreciate my raincoat and my winter boots but rather than seeing these as things that separate me from nature, I see them as things that bring me closer. I had never heard of the Norwegian term friluftsliv until a recent news article (Ferrier, 2020), but I have lived it for many years. I don’t have sufficient fat stores or thick enough fur to get outside in the middle of an Edmonton winter, but I can use clothing so that I can be active all year. So that I can enjoy free-air-life (Ferrier). I may not have the green thumb to grow my own food, but neither does the bear. The bear shops at the stream for salmon and the forest edges for berries, I shop at the farmers market. Richard Lewontin was one of the first biologists to question the idea that there is a genetic background for race; he found that there is not (as cited in Aronson, 2001). He also questions the idea that there is a “the environment” that is somewhere out there in need of and even waiting for human protection (1991). These social constructs of race and the environment are not unrelated.

Indigenous protected areas, Indigenous-led research, and the recognition of the importance of culture in relationships with nature are pushing back against the idea that Eurocentric organizations should invite “others” to the table. Perhaps we shouldn’t have a table. Perhaps the Eurocentric organizations need to be invited.

How do we talk about sustainability without talking about the environment? Perhaps we should be asking those people who have never needed to create a word for sustainability because it was simply part of living. So perhaps I can feel the sun on my face as I stand as part of nature and not looking at a nature scene.


Aronson, J. (2001). Profiles – Richard Lewontin. Retrieved from

Carson, R. (1962). Silent spring. Penguin Books.

Ferrier, M. (2020, September 23). Fjord focus: is Norway’s friluftsliv the answer to surviving the second lockdown? The Guardian.

Hall, C. M. (2002). The changing cultural geography of the frontier: National parks and wilderness as frontier remnant. In S. Krakover & Y. Gradus (Eds.) Tourism in Frontier Areas (pp. 283-298). Lexington Books.

Lewontin, R. (1991) Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd.

Mason, C. (2018, November 29). Indigenous protected areas are the next generation of conservation. The Conversation.

Talbot, W. S. (1969). American visions of wilderness. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 56(4), 151-166.

Indigenous-Led Conservation

As we were just exploring, the history of conservation in colonized nations is based on the idea that separation from nature, keeping nature as a space to visit but not live, was seen as more civilized than living with nature. This led to the forced removal of Indigenous Peoples from their traditional lands. Today,  things are starting to change. Indigenous-led conservation projects are becoming more common. They are also seeing success where traditional conservation has not. However, there is still a high risk that these partnerships result in tokenism and disconnect. It is not enough to take Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge or pay Indigenous Peoples to work on projects. Indigenous Peoples must have meaningful decision-making roles within these projects.

Activity 5.1: Indigenous-Led Conservation Discussion

Complete at least one of the following three readings and consider the associated questions.

Canada working towards new future for Indigenous-led conservation by James Dinneen (2020).

  • Indigenous thought leader and former Chief of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation is quoted saying that conservation can be useful for articulating the meaning of reconciliation. How do you respond to his description of reconciliation? How is it the same or different from other activities or descriptions of reconciliation that you have seen?
  • What is your view, based on your own background and experience, of what conservation should look like?
  • What are some reasons that you can think of that “the land-use decisions of Indigenous communities and conservationists will not always align” (Dinneen, 2018, On a global scale, para 3.)?

Hawaiian communities restore Indigenous conservation, from mountains to sea by Roxanne Hoorn (2023).

  • The article describes three Indigenous communities that have revived traditional stewardship approaches from mountain to sea. To do this, the communities had to overcome many obstacles in how the state and national governments had divided the land. As described, do you think that this is an example of reconciliation?
  • What is your view, based on your own background and experience, of what conservation should look like?
  • The scientific article on which this article is based was written by Indigenous and community leaders who have been working to restore Indigenous stewardship. How does knowledge from these individuals fit within the context of scientific and social scientific research and literature?

Indigenous women record age-old knowledge of bees in Colombia’s Amazon by Astrid Arellano (2023).

  • What do you think is the role and importance of Indigenous knowledge, songs, and stories within science generally and within conservation and sustainability?
  • What is your view, based on your own background and experience, of what conservation should look like?
  • In what ways is the information and knowledge the women are gathering beneficial for the broader conservation community outside of the local communities?

Systems Thinking and Environment

Ecologists often have one of the easiest times adopting systems thinking because they can recognize systems and the parts of systems in much of their work. Think back to the discussion of systems components. Predator-prey cycles — where the number of prey increases, which supports a greater number of predators, who then kill more prey which reduces the number of prey, which results in less food for predators, so the population shrinks, which allows for the number of prey to increase again — are a prime example of a balancing feedback loop. Beavers, who create new habitats by damming streams, are a leverage point that impacts large parts of the local ecosystem. The challenge goes back to the earlier quote from Plumwood about humans seeing the environment as something separate from themselves. If, from a Western lens, we see the environment as separate, then the interconnections between human and non-human are seen as weak interconnections at best. If we then try to combine that lens with an Indigenous worldview of greater connection and reciprocity, we can run into challenges just having a conversation because the meaning behind the language is so different.

Reflection 5.1: Boundaries

Choose a particular space to explore and reflect on. It may be indoors or outdoors. Start by defining the boundary of the human system in the space. Where does the system stop being human and become the environmental system? Now, try to find the holes or flaws in your own boundary. For example, did you define a building as part of the human system? Does that mean the wood that makes up the doors in that building is no longer part of the environment? See how many holes you can find in the boundary between human and environment. What does that say about the idea that there is an environment that we need to sustain?

Activity 5.2: Ecological Footprint Analysis and Reflection

Ecological footprint calculators were once very popular as a key tool to achieving sustainability because they helped provide more information about the consequences of an individual’s living patterns. More recently, there have been significant critiques that they are an attempt to put responsibility for sustainability on individuals rather than broader systems like corporations and governments. The reality probably lies somewhere in between. The value of the calculators is that they raise awareness, but do they also inspire actions? Do they help educate users on what actions they can take to make a difference? Do they address all of the domains of sustainability?

One of the most important skills you develop as a student is the ability to ask questions and think critically about sources. With that in mind, use an online ecological footprint calculator such as this one by the Global Footprint Network to assess your current footprint. Once completed, answer the following:

  • What surprised you about your footprint?
  • Are you inspired to make any changes to reduce your footprint? Why or why not?
  • What do you think was done well with the calculator?
  • What do you think was missing from the calculator?
  • Do you think that these types of calculators are helpful for sustainability? Why or why not? Use what you have learned so far to help support your answer.


Arellano, A. (2023, February 8). Indigenous women record age-old knowledge of bees in Colombia’s Amazon. Mongabay Environmental News.

Dinneen, J. (2020, January 23). Canada working towards new future for Indigenous-led conservation. Mongabay Environmental News.

Global Footprint Network. (n.d.). What is your ecological footprint?

Hoorn, R. (2023, May 2). Hawaiian communities restore Indigenous conservation, from mountains to sea. Mongabay Environmental News.

Munro, T. (2020, September 25). What is “The Environment”? Connecting with Science.

Plumwood, V. (2001). Environmental culture: The ecological crisis of reason. Routledge.



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Introduction to Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Tai Munro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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