Images of nature and the green voter

Many political columnists, editorial writers and others, informed or otherwise, seem base their expectations of support for green parties on their perceptions of public concern about the environment. Such concern undoubtedly is widepread. That the electoral success of green parties around the world falls far short of these expectations then provides a handy stick with which to beat green parties: something is wrong in the way the greens are presenting themselves. Very often the ‘analysis’ (I use the term loosely) boils down to criticism of the left orientation of green parties or of particular politicians: “If only the greens would stick to being an environmental party as they are supposed to be,” cry the commentators.

This suggestion is nonsense, as I have discussed previously. The left orientation of green parties around the world is a consistent and coherent representation of green ideology, and the ecological worldview that underpins it includes and integrates a concern for social justice.

So, what other explanation could there be for the performance of green parties in national elections?

While green parties are not the environmental parties of blogging myth, ‘ecological wisdom’ certainly is one of the core elements of the green political self-image. However, if the way that greens understand ‘ecological wisdom’ does not chime with an individual voter’s conception of nature, that person is much less likely to cast a vote in the greens’ direction. People who are in one way or another “concerned about nature” can express their concern in very different ways.

One example from New Zealand is the case of the Kaimanawa wild horses. The Department of Conservation, which has primary responsibility for managing the herd, lists the horses under “animal pests” (here) while the Kaimanawa Wild Horse Welfare Trust describes how “The Kaimanawa horse has a mystique all his own. He is charismatic and a little arrogant yet delightfully charming and gentle” (here).

How can we make sense of such variable views of the natural world? An article recently published by Arjen Buijs summarises some very interesting findings from in-depth interviews conducted with members of the public in the Netherlands. Five “images of nature” emerge as sociological ideal types from this work (pp.424-428), as follows:

Nature as wilderness. People holding this image of nature view it in ecocentric, holistic terms, and whole, functioning ecosystems are valued more than individual animals or plants. Only pristine nature is seen as real nature; nature means the absence of visible human influence. Nature is also seen as fragile. Thus there is a strict divide between real nature and human culture, and human interference in nature should be minimal.

Autonomous nature. This view is biocentric and individualistic, meaning that the values of nature are seen to reside in individual beings rather than ecosystems, and that every living being deserves protection. Nature and culture are again seen as separate but, as the focus is more on individual beings, nature can be encountered in a city garden as well as in a wilderness reserve. Nature that can make a space for itself in urban spaces is seen as resilient rather than fragile. Human interventions in nature and programmes of ecosystem management are treated with distrust.

Inclusive nature. Nature and culture are interrelated and mutually dependent. All living beings are defined as part of nature, including humans. Again the values are biocentric and individualistic, with a strong reverence for the life-force of all beings. Careful and considered human interventions to promote conservation of threatened species, the protection of special trees, and so on, are supported.

Aesthetic nature. This view of nature focuses on the uses of nature for human experiences of beauty or belonging, or visitors’ recreational activities. The values expressed in this image are human-centred, though not strongly so. Nature and culture are seen as interrelated – humans are co-producers of landscapes – and nature needs management to preserve its aesthetic qualities and its recreational worth.

Functional nature. The values expressed here are intensely human-centred. Nature should be managed intensively both to maximise its productive capacity and to improve its aesthetic quality. Nature is resilient enough to handle human intervention and improvement; ‘wilderness’ is a term of disapproval for unmanaged, disordered and useless nature.

I’ll acknowledge (as does Buijs) the non-generalisability of this research. For all sorts of reasons, it cannot be assumed to directly translate into another context such as my own here in Aotearoa New Zealand. The indigenous philosophy of Maori is very different from the western tradition; the norms of the Pakeha (European) pioneer tradition, inherited by their descendants, are also rather different from those of the sedentary inhabitants of ancient European cities; The Netherlands possesses few mountain ranges and fewer volcanoes, so far as I am aware; and the population density of The Netherlands is approximately 25 times greater than that of New Zealand. These and other factors might well mean that New Zealanders’ experiences and conceptions of nature do not register in Buijs’ typology.

At the same time, however, I have to say that all five of Buijs’ ideal types do seem very familiar to me from the New Zealand context. I’ve met them all. And even if Buijs’ types do not exactly hit the mark in New Zealand, the fact that widely differing conceptions of nature do exist among the voting public certainly kills off any simplistic ideas about an ‘environmental party’ being the way to electoral success.

One of the interesting fault lines that Buijs picks up on in these different images of nature is the belief about the nature-culture divide. Those who perceive a separation between the natural world and the human world fall into the first two types, the images of nature as wilderness and autonomous nature. People holding such views may be attracted to green politics but it is usually a brief fling as they rapidly find themselves at odds with their fellow members. The simple fact is that their environmental beliefs do not fit with a party which holds that “the basis of ecological wisdom is that human beings are part of the natural world.

I have observed – and now understand why it is – that this mismatch comes as a particular surprise and disappointment to people who hold a wilderness image of nature, especially given the often deeply ecocentric values that they embrace. I also have a feeling that this political disappointment is one of the sources of the “greens are too left wing for me” line of thinking. The more philosophical explanation for the breakdown is that greens just don’t subscribe to the wilderness image or the nature-culture divide.

What does this mean for green politics in New Zealand? Well, quite simply, not everyone who holds a concern for the environment can be considered in any way a potential green voter.

We can fairly reasonably assume that those holding a functional view of nature do not gravitate towards green parties; given the above argument for excluding the wilderness and autonomous nature images from the green orbit, we are left with the inclusive nature and aesthetic nature images as those most likely to correspond with green voters’ perceptions. I’ve no idea how many people this might represent, but taken along with Barry’s consideration of the “eight tribes” of New Zealand, it does strongly suggest that the potential green constituency is not particularly large.

So we might then conclude that maybe green parties are not actually under-performing after all. At the very least, party members should ignore the simplistic assertions of the commentariat about what they should be polling and how they ought to position themselves on the political spectrum in order to do so.

And green politicians might also think twice about chasing a mirage of easy votes in the political centre; even if the dreaded ‘left-wing’ perception is doused, fundamental differences in beliefs, values and images on environmental issues mean that many ‘environmentalist’ voters may still not be drawn into voting for them.


Arjen E Buijs (2009) Lay people’s images of nature: Comprehensive frameworks of values, beliefs and value orientations. Society and Natural Resources 22, 417-432.


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