Nature or Environment? The work of Pétur Thomsen

“Umhverfing is an Icelandic word for the state between nature and environment” says Pétur Thomsen of his project titled Umhverfing. There is clearly no equivalent word in English but the concept itself is intriguing.

Icelandic photographer Thomsen has spent the last several years documenting the transformation of undeveloped areas around Reykjavic into suburban developments. He calls this process “nature being transformed into environment”.

This distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ is an interesting one. The conservation movement is in the habit of equating ‘nature’ and ‘the environment’.  ‘Environmentally-friendly activities’ are defined as those activities which contribute to preserve some concept of nature. By ‘environment’ Thomsen clearly means something different. He means the human built environment or maybe a better phrasing would be the environment in which people choose to live. For the most part, human beings have become incapable of living in ‘nature’. Rather we have to live in a built environment with all the comforts and services that brings with it. Thomsen documents the process by which a ‘natural’ space is converted into an environment in which people can live.

Thomsen does not explicitly make a value judgement about the events he is documenting. However, many people viewing this and similar work would, today, interpret these developments as being ‘destructive’ of nature and wilderness in the interests of yet more suburban development. This interpretation is, however, a very recent cultural way of looking at development. Until relatively recently (late 19th century), most art portrayed human expansion as a positive event – the taming and civilizing a wild and dangerous wilderness. The painting below epitomizes this perspective as civilization hovers over America moving from the already tamed and civilized East (on the right side of the painting) to the still wild and dangerous West (on the left of the image).

Only recently have we realized that our living environment can only continue to exist within a larger context – the larger environment of a healthy ecosphere. This has resulted in a progressive change from our view of development from ‘civilizing’ to ‘destructive’. Thomsen’s use of a language that contrasts ‘nature’ with an ‘environment’ that we can actually live in brings back the idea of development as a civilizing influence even as his images convey human intrusion and landscape destruction.

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