When Did Nature Become Moral?

When did nature become a good for cities? When did city dwellers start imagining nature to be something they were missing? Today, urbanites’ moral associations ...

When did nature become a good for cities? When did city dwellers start imagining nature to be something they were missing? Today, urbanites’ moral associations with nature are so obvious and widely shared that a recent New Yorker cartoon of a couple at the dinner table was captioned: “Is this from the community garden? It tastes sanctimonious.” For better or worse, most of us are so steeped in this view of nature that it is hard to imagine how it could be otherwise. But it once was.

Many believe that nature became an ethical force in city life—a process Justin Farrell calls the “moralization of nature” for urban inhabitants—on account of 19th-century industrial cities. The lack of access to clean air, water, sunshine, and green space in crowded, polluted urban environments—in contrast to a real nature “out there”—transformed nature from a material into a moral good. These unnatural cities, the argument goes, forced people to see nature as not just something good, but something good for you: spiritually, emotionally, even physically.

Yet if this new version of nature was only a reaction to industrial cities of one era, why should it remain so tenacious and ubiquitous a notion? Today, it is not just residents of formerly industrial cities, like New York or London, who view nature as good. “Green cities” are an increasingly popular concept invoked in public policy around the world, taking very similar forms from Detroit to Abu Dhabi. Sustainability and resilience are master tropes for urban planning in a wide variety of environments that are now facing 21st-century urban-environmental problems.

Are today’s dreams of green cities inspired by the same forms of moral nature birthed in the 19th-century industrial metropolis? Do the public-health movements of the 19th century connect to 21st-century adaptation and mitigation efforts to combat climate change? And how might we update explanations of the causes and consequences of such views of nature in order to better understand urban-environmental interventions today?

Four new books by sociologists help answer these questions, by addressing how and in what ways this new view of nature originated in cities. Two accept the industrial-city origin story of moral nature and show how these 19th-century beginnings resulted in changes to how people perceived nature and how unequally access to nature was distributed. The other two interrogate moral nature’s origins, by seeking to understand under what conditions nature came to be seen as an ethical good in the first place.

When read together, these books remind us that the moral view of nature in which we are steeped is not timeless and unchanging. Rather, it is a product of specific material conditions and historical conjunctures. Read today, they remind us of the consequences of these moralized views—particularly due to the patterns of race and class exclusion they produce—as we build tomorrow’s green cities on yesterday’s principles.

Dorceta E. Taylor’s The Rise of the American Conservation Movement and Justin Farrell’s The Battle for Yellowstone exemplify the industrial-city hypothesis: that urban greening originated in industrial urbanization; that “unnatural” cities produced moral nature. As the wilderness was tamed and cities grew, nature—in increasingly domesticated forms, such as parks and pets—became an object to care for, moralize, philanthropize, study, and preserve. Such a view suggests that “nature appreciation” is a trait of “city people,” a product of societies that are “technological, urban, and crowded,” as Roderick Nash put it in his classic Wilderness and the American Mind, first published in 1967.

This hypothesis is the departure point for Farrell’s book, which is about competing moral arguments (as opposed to economic, scientific, and legal ones) over Yellowstone National Park’s nature. He begins by accounting for the origins of a moral orientation toward Yellowstone (and, implicitly, other national parks and wilderness areas). With the end of the American frontier and the growth of American cities, Farrell argues, nature became a “respite from a city life that was increasingly crowded, impersonal, polluted, corrupt.” Consequently, Farrell argues, in the early 20th century a new vision of nature—one based on “spiritual” morality—came to compete with older “utilitarian” and “biocentric” frameworks. He then uses this typology to explore several cases of contemporary environmental conflict in Yellowstone—over buffalo, wolves, and fracking.

Taylor’s sweeping history of the urban origins of the American conservation movement confirms Farrell’s opening argument. It does so by linking “two realms of activism”—mid-19th-century urban-environmental conservation and wilderness conservation—and emphasizing that these two activist groups shared a common class, as well as views of moral nature.

Her protagonists are the “outward bound”: essentially naive urban elites who had a love/hate relationship with cities, and who, inspired by transcendentalists such as Thoreau and Emerson, “juxtaposed” nature against “the ugliness of towns.” She observes that “those most likely to go searching for wild nature were affluent, well educated, or well connected socially and politically.” Taylor then highlights the effects of moralization on access to nature. She reveals the class, ethnoracial, and gender biases in these conservation movements and demonstrates their consequences: the exclusion of various minority populations and inequalities in the use and presence of, and public debate surrounding, natural resources.

These books effectively show how moral nature becomes, for better and for worse, a moralizing force. Beyond the cases they examine, they might be read as cautionary tales for practitioners, policymakers, and even urban-gardening enthusiasts. They are reminders that it is easy to find the romance in dirt-caked vegetables if you are not the farmer who has to get up to tend them in rain and frost; that it is one thing for white hipsters in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg to perform agrarianism in community gardens, and quite another for black residents of Harlem with a racial history of forced labor on Southern plantations.

Both Taylor and Farrell offer, in short, a deeply sociological understanding of moral nature’s effects. What neither provides is a robust explanation of the idea’s origins: how moral nature came into existence, or how it has traveled and transformed over time.

The moral view of nature in which we are steeped is not timeless and unchanging, but a product of specific material conditions and historical conjunctures.

These questions are helpfully addressed, if not fully answered, by two new books that offer new and different explanations for how—and at what times—the city could be understood to have been a source of moral nature.

Stefan Bargheer’s Moral Entanglements rejects the industrial-city hypothesis and the urban elites / progressivism story embraced by Taylor and Farrell, instead making a pragmatist argument for what he calls the “banality of morality.”

Through his study of the rise of bird conservation in Britain and Germany, Bargheer finds that moral ideas—about nature or anything else—are not preexisting abstract sentiments held by certain populations (for instance, urban elites) that provoke action (such as national park conservation). Instead, moral ideas emerge through individuals’ quotidian practices and encounters. Bargheer contrasts British people’s experiences of play (bird-watching) with German people’s experiences of work (agriculture and forestry), finding that the British came to value birds as toys, while Germans valued birds as tools.

Bargheer’s argument suggests that cities produce moral attitudes toward nature by being particular kinds of experiential environments. What’s wonderful about his account, in contrast to Taylor’s and Farrell’s, is that he directs our attention to the physicality of everyday nature experiences, and especially to how changes in the ways we work and play with nature produce different moral sentiments about it.

Bargheer’s is not a principally urban book, but it is a good reminder that the 19th-century understanding of cities as places without nature was, indeed, partly a product of physical conditions. Those cities lacked green space, housed their poor in slums and tenements, and suffered from pollution and public-health problems—these conditions helped birth the idea of nature as some good “other” that could be added to urban environments. In this way, Bargheer’s argument is congruent with Farrell’s and Taylor’s, though he arrives at his conclusion through different means.

But how might we understand broader transformations in nature’s experiential landscape? Bargheer scales up to the level of institutions. He finds that differences in bird valuation between England and Germany have diminished since the 1970s, as the British model of birds as objects of play has been adopted across the European Union. The model was chosen not because of abstract debates about how to value birds, but because, when EU-wide bird laws were passed, the British model for monitoring and conservation became the template. So, Bargheer shows how different ways of valuing nature are eventually enshrined in institutions that then reproduce those practices—such as conservation organizations that encourage birding.


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This insight can be usefully scaled up even further. Beyond institutions like conservation groups or urban greening committees, there are larger patterns in these experiences—more macro changes in work, play, technology, and the built environment—that have altered the dominant forms of moral sentiments over time.

For instance, I have argued elsewhere that industrial urbanism brought about a shift in the ways that nature is commonly experienced in the Global North and West. The modern division of labor has meant that larger numbers of people sell their labor to buy food rather than engage in subsistence agriculture, while only a select group of professionals now slaughters and prepares animal meat for consumption, cares for sick or injured animals, or disposes of the dead. For the rest of us, these activities are deliberately hidden: at the margins of cities, behind closed doors, within the walls of museums. The majority of us have our nature experiences at museums, zoos, parks, and recreational gardens, meaning that we primarily have “moral” experiences of nature rather than utilitarian ones (whether or not we are bird-watchers, and whether we live in Germany or the UK). The other ways of experiencing nature have simply become less accessible.

Bargheer’s perspective, then, raises additional questions about continuity and change, as well as periodization—how far back might these sentiments go? Are present ideas about nature continuous with older histories than industrialization’s? Is modernity simply one giant drift in the human experience of nature toward moralization?

To that last question, Michael M. Bell’s City of the Good answers: yes. His explanation of moral nature offers a second alternative to the industrial-city hypothesis. While Bargheer focuses on small-scale, individual-level practices, Bell zooms out, situating contemporary sentiments about nature (and religion) as part of a much longer tradition of changing moral ideas.

In contrast to both Farrell and Taylor, who link moral nature to 19th-century industrial cities, and to Bargheer, who locates its origin in individual practices rather than any specific historical moment, Bell traces moral nature back much further: to market cities of the early Christian era. For Bell, nature became moral not because of European and American industrialization, some two centuries ago, but because of the growth of cities some two millennia ago.

That is: Bell links moral nature to the rise of what he calls “urban” and “bourgeois” ways of life outside of contemporary capitalism and class configurations. He argues that the growth of new ways of life in cities comprehensively transformed the Western moral universe, specifically by birthing contemporary conceptions of moral nature (the natural) and the divine (the supernatural) as separate from human society.

many Americans work and play in what are, fundamentally, 19th-century environments: industrial cities and national parks.

“The spread of city life associated with the rise of state societies raised new moral concerns … that little troubled the pagan forebears of city folk,” he writes, adding, “Commentators have long noted the vertical axis of conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Equally decisive is the horizontal axis of bourgeois conflict: between bourgeois and pagan, the people of the city versus the people of the countryside.”

For Bell, it was cities in general—not simply industrial cities—that were the source of moral attitudes toward nature. And, within those cities, it was not so much the elites acting as a specific group of moral entrepreneurs that caused these attitudes to grow, but rather broader participation in what he describes as cities’ “class-based” lifestyles. Forms of “bourgeois living” arose with cities, he explains, defined by cities’ needs “for division of labor, record keeping, and an increased centralization of authority and the means of violence, all of which enable differential accumulation of wealth.” These, he argues, are the lifestyles most of us inhabit today, whether or not we live in a city.

But, if the majority of us in the West now experience bourgeois, class-based life rhythms wherever we live (in urban or rural environments), how do we account for lasting, significant differences in experiences of nature? As Bargheer observes, there are still different ways to bird-watch. And as Taylor shows, there is clear differentiation along the “vertical” axis of class in attitudes toward nature, both historically and today. If we agree with Bell, we are still left wondering: what is specific about the constellation of moral ideas about nature that emerged in Europe and America at the end of the 19th century?

All of these books are timely; they echo much contemporary scholarship working to overturn the 19th-century understanding of cities as places without nature and replace it with more complex accounts of the changing socio-natural configurations of human settlements. Where does this leave us in terms of understanding moral nature today?

In some ways, contemporary urban environments appear to be experientially different kinds of places from those of the past. By this logic, today’s cities should be altering existing notions of moral nature, specifically when it comes to sustaining the illusion of cities as places without nature. Several generations of kids, from postwar London to deindustrializing Detroit, have now grown up in the urban wilderness areas of cities “returning” to nature. More recently, extreme weather events, such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, have made the idea that we can keep undesirable or dangerous forms of wild nature out of cities increasingly untenable.

At the same time, much of contemporary urban sustainability planning, resilience discourse, and everyday life reflects familiar versions of 19th-century moral nature, even if it is couched in the language of contemporary concerns. In the United States, basic patterns in inequalities of access, for instance, have not changed much. Minority populations that are underrepresented in national park use today are the same ones that had trouble accessing those spaces in the 1950s and that suffered environmental injustices in cities in the 1960s.1 Many members of these communities are also now being placed at risk of being displaced or priced out of their homes by green upgrading in urban coastal neighborhoods.

This suggests a continuity in certain kinds of nature experience. Such continuities are largely a product of the built environment and the history of particular places. Farrell’s and Taylor’s accounts of 19th-century moral nature—and the patterns of exclusion baked into those understandings—appear quite contemporary because, in the United States, many aspects of the physical, social, and imaginative environment have not changed very much since then. Climate change and sustainability may mean that greening cities today is more about building housing and public transport than planning parks or preserving open space. But the fact is that many Americans work and play in what are, fundamentally, 19th-century environments—we still work in industrial cities and play in national parks—that consist of similar material and symbolic forms of nature.


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So, there are direct historical and physical continuities linking 19th-century moral nature to contemporary urban nature politics, at least in the West. And perhaps because this is the vision of (historically) European and American elites, it is also the version of moral nature that continues to get reproduced. Scenic landscapes are the backdrop of tech employees’ work optimization apps and healthy fast-food lunch restaurants. Public parks and green spaces remain central components of the urban fabric and of new plans to improve quality of life. “Green” households, neighborhoods, and cities are an aspirational norm, inspiring block contests, community organizing, and design competitions. At least for now, this kind of moral nature appears to be here to stay.

If anything, there are signs that core 19th-century European and American moral nature ideas now have an even greater reach. Today, nature is valued as a signifier of sustainability, resilience, and good quality of life not only in European and American cities, but also in new “smart” cities across Asia and the Middle East, and in “megacities” of the Global South. This commonality is surprising, because cities outside of the West have other available aesthetic and normative frameworks for moral nature, widely varying experiences of urbanism, and environments often ill-suited for green displays.

Though none of these books are about contemporary green urbanism, all four offer tools for understanding it, in the form of historical and theoretical perspectives on how today’s moral nature is created and invoked. There are implicit hierarchies in this view of nature, which each of these books makes visible by highlighting moral nature’s role in creating the urban environments in which we eat, play, and interact. We would do well to consider these lessons as we plan and build tomorrow’s green cities using yesterday’s morals.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloomicon

  1. See Glenn Nelson, “Why Are Our Parks So White?New York Times, July 10, 2015.
Featured image: Photograph by Ignacio Tiraboschi / Flickr