Natur and Umwelt are highly contested terms in German history and criticism, with both having numerous meanings, often being used interchangeably in daily and political life, and causing difficulty to then interpret environmental texts.
Umwelt (translated as environment, most of the time) is usually used to describe the conditions of life surrounding human beings, for instance, air and water quality, soil quality, noise and green spaces. These factors also include advantages and problems of urbanization, the damage caused by humans in industry and agrarian production, construction sites, motorized transport, etc.
On the other hand, the term Natur is used to describe natural spaces untouched by civilization. These include flora and fauna that was not changed through agriculture and is still ‘wild’. In practice, this applies to very few German or European landscapes, including the Swiss mountain areas which are too steep to climb or access.i
The term Natur dates back to Antiquity and is connected to the Latin natura and the Greek physis and their meaning of growth and fertility. Humans are interconnected with nature and rely on its resources, but the way Natur is nowadays used in Germany often no longer reflects this and excludes humans from the vocabulary as a contrasting entity. While nature develops and destructs itself all the time, it becomes an amorphous term designed without a material center and outside the human sphere.
Since the eighteenth century, the term Naturgeschichte [natural history] was most popular with reference to Plinius the Elder and his ‘Historia Naturalis’, which most often dealt with geography, ornithology, mineralogy and later zoological and botanical discoveries (for instance, referring to Carl von Linné or Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon). It was a description and classification of nature, whereas the metaphor of the evolving human to grow apart from nature was seen as an accomplishment of progress and early emancipation in civil society.ii
Nature as a term is closely connected to time, deep time, the Anthropocene, and planetary boundaries, often used politically or socially to argue for or against climate changes. There is no European Natur or Umwelt, just European Umwelten in the plural. We also need to distinguish animals as an often-cited separate component of this nature, as they are both part of Natur and Umwelt. Even in the early stages of the German environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s, unberührte Natur [untouched nature] and Wildnis [wilderness] () were concepts that were untangled and demystified.
Most Germans tend to associate the term Natur with something positive, whereas Umwelt triggers them to think of environmental pollution and human interference and destruction instead.iii Natur was also used during the Romantic period to discover the ‘nature of nature’ in poetry, literature, and draw conclusions on the nature of humans before commercialization, deregulation and liberalization destroyed many natural spaces, as forests and soil were some of the earliest polluted spaces in German history.
Natur can refer, first, to creationist nature as a force of creating life (natura naturans from the Latin), where nature is a force and power as well as a process and, second, to nature as the materially created (natura naturata), both of which are determined differently according to cultural context as well.
As a distinction from both terms, German authors temporarily preferred the term Mitwelt [common world] to illustrate that the environment, humans, and nature are all equal and equally connected to each other. It also emphasizes the spatial construction that hierarchically the world is not taking the human with it or excludes it. It has not become a staple in German language learning, though.
Umwelt is a much younger term historically and has been coined by the biologist and zoologist Jakob Johann von Uexküll (1864-1944) as a word after 1920 that refers to all living beings having their own subjective activities and perceptions about the world.iv It is a hierarchical term which refers back to the human being as its own centre. The notion of Umwelt as we use it today developed from the translation of the English ‘environmental protection’ in the 1970s. Nonetheless, each book on the topic defines it slightly differently.
Research on the environment (as Umwelt) centers on the relationship to society and space as Raum, which can be spheres, such as, the atmosphere or biosphere, as well as global spheres. It is a subject-centered term that all-too-often remains a local one rather than being able to explain global structures to one’s satisfaction. In work medicine, for instance, there are zones of the environment (Umweltzone(n)) to assess possible spaces and processes in the workplace.
There are three parts to the term Umwelt, which aid in its interpretation as well. First, it could be the material or substantial world (stofflich) of energy and materials, even regarding the labor power of human beings which requires food sustenance. Second, structural environments (strukturelle Umwelt) form the level at which legal, political, economic and technical frameworks are described. Third, the intellectual and spiritual environment (geistige Umwelt) is a framework in which society is lived, thought, and believed and also raises the question of values, which usually ties in with environmental protection.v
i Bundesamt für Umwelt. „Umwelt und Natur“. Homepage: https://www.energie-umwelt.ch/definitionen/1512-umwelt-und-natur-definition Accessed on July 15, 2023.
ii Freytag, Nils. „Natur und Umwelt.“ EGO Europäische Geschichte Online. < http://ieg-ego.eu/de/threads/hintergruende/natur-und-umwelt/nils-freytag-natur-und-umwelt> Published on May 7, 2016. Accessed on August 2, 2023. p. 3-4.
iii Ibidem. p. 20.
iv Freytag. p. 3.