Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times

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9780520217430: Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times

In an advertisement for water filter cartridges, we see a tumbling waterfall. The caption reads, "Like nature, Brita is beautifully simple." What kind of thinking is this? Is nature an objective reality that, in its beautiful simplicity, is unaffected by time, culture, and place? The word nature itself: what do we actually mean by it? These are some of the riveting questions examined by Peter Coates as he demonstrates that nature, like us, has a history of its own. Beginning with Roman times, Coates investigates the ideological and material factors that have influenced human perceptions of, attitudes toward, and uses of nature—notably religion and ethics, science, technology, economics, gender, and ethnicity. Nature is seen among its rich panoply of meanings as a physical place, as the collective phenomena of the world, as an essence or principle that informs the workings of the world, as an inspiration and guide for people and a source of authority governing human affairs, and as the conceptual opposite of culture. By examining these aspects of nature, Coates leads us on a spectacular tour of the central intellectual forces of Western civilization. The book is essential reading for those who seek an understanding of the history of ideas and the role of nature in that history.

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Review:

Every civilization has high ideals for personal and social conduct; every civilization regularly violates those ideals. So one might conclude after reading Peter Coates's wide-ranging study of environmental ethics in Western society, populated by Roman women who cry at the death of beloved pet birds and lap dogs after watching humans being tortured in the Coliseum, by 19th-century travelers who exalt the virtues of so-called primitive societies while participating in their destruction. All cultures are susceptible to the error of mistreating the land, Coates argues. Citing the work of recent historical geographers, for example, he believes that the North American landscape bore more signs of the human presence before 1492 than it did in the mid-1700s, largely as a result of destructive Native American farming practices. He also notes that Chief Seattle's famed speech ("How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?"), one of the classics of environmental thought, was in truth the invention of an Anglo screenwriter in the 1970s. While questioning the usefulness of the widely held, Western sense of shame over the sins of the past, Coates does reckon that we have a long way to go in aligning our ethics with our practices in this age of biotechnology and widespread extinction. "I am tempted," he writes, "to conclude that no matter what shape our tomatoes and frogs assume, the polarity of nature and culture will endure a good deal longer." --Gregory McNamee

From the Inside Flap:

"I am very impressed with this book. It offers much more depth on most of the historical periods than any other book I've read. . . . I couldn't stop reading it."—Michael Barbour, University of California, Davis

"This stimulating book covers a great deal of ground—from Classical and Christian theories to the Enlightenment and Romanticism and up to modern times—without overloading the reader in mere detail."—Roy Porter, Wellcome Institute

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Coates, Peter
Published by University of California Press (1998)
ISBN 10: 0520217438 ISBN 13: 9780520217430
New Hardcover Quantity Available: 2
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Murray Media
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Book Description University of California Press, 1998. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110520217438

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