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Nature between Propaganda and Ideology

Maiken Umbach & Mathew Humphrey explore different uses of Nature in Propaganda and Ideology, from Italian Fascism to contemporary environmentalism.
The Pontine Marshes are a large area of partially wooded swamps in Italy, about 30 miles southeast of Rome. Much of it lies below sea level. For many centuries, humans have tried to tame this wilderness without much success. Here you see a painter’s impression of the swamps from 1833. The ancient Romans were the first to try and cultivate this land. The marshes proximity to Rome, the epicenter of the classical world’s most famous empire, made this particularly important. The Romans drained the swamps with a complex canal system, but the infrastructure quickly disintegrated and malaria infested mosquitoes ensured that the land was barely touched in the centuries that followed. This changed under Italian fascism.
Mussolini initiated a bonificare, or land reclamation program, in the Pontine Marshes that became very important and fascist political propaganda. Here we see a festival celebrated in one of the new towns that fascists built on the reclaimed land. In some ways, this is a story of modernity conquering nature. The fascists called it the Battle of the Swamps, likening the land reclamation to a military campaign. Chemicals were used to kill the mosquitoes. 2000 families with unimpeachable fascist credentials, were selected to live in the new settlements. Each family was assigned a two story country house, and oven, a plow, a stable, some cows, and several hectares of land.
The 10 year operation, and especially Mussolini’s frequent visits to the site, are repeatedly filmed by [INAUDIBLE] for fascist propaganda newsreels. And yet, the role of nature in this propaganda effort is complicated. The bonnificare was not just modern, it also harked back to tradition, and indeed, to nature itself. Like many fascist projects, the reclamation symbolically connected the new regimes mission to that of classical Rome. It also promoted a lifestyle that freed people from the alleged negative effects of modern life in industrial cities and allowed them to rediscover the virtues of rural life. Between 1932 and 1939, the new towns of Littoria, Sabaudia– which you see here– Pontinia, Aprilia, and Pomezia were built on the Pontine Marshes, alongside smaller villages.
Their rectangular grids and classical architecture echoed ancient Roman designs. They were also deliberately modest in scale, ensuring the new settlers had immediate access to the surrounding land. And they were, of course, to work as farmers. What was created here was, therefore, an ideal fascist nature, that in turn would nurture ideal fascist subjects. Nature, in other words, was enlisted into a program of ideological re-education. The role of nature in propaganda and ideology was often about harnessing its power to provide plenty for human populations. This may involve development, as in draining marshes for agricultural land, but it could also involve preserving areas of undeveloped natural habitat for human recreation, offering an escape from the confines and routines of city life.
Nature can also be framed as a repository of authenticity and intrinsic value. That is to say, it has value independently of services it may provide to human individuals and societies. Nature here is a place of purity and innocence, a counterpart to the corrupt and diminished life on offer in urban environments. Now this view is not new. The naturalist, John Muir, wrote in 1873, that “living artificially in towns we are sickly, and never come to know ourselves. By contrast,” he said, “God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild.” An Muir was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park in the United States, seen here.
This way of viewing nature as offering alternative and superior source of value, which requires political protection and becomes prominent with the rise of the contemporary green movement from the 1960s. Their primary concerns around pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction, species loss, and deforestation are all tied in with a particular understanding of what we learn about nature from the science of ecology. Ecology is unique in this regard. We don’t have a chemistry party or promotion of a geological politics. We did, however, have an ecology party in the UK before it became the Green Party, and we do have an ideology known as a Ecologism. So why is that? Well, take a look at this image.
This is the first ever picture of the whole Earth taken from space, by the crew of Apollo 8 in 1968. Just two years later, the first Earth Day was held on April 22nd 1970. Ecology stresses the relationships between organisms and their environments, bringing out the interconnections between all forms of life. And this not only corresponded with the views of modern environmentalism, but also seem to provide them with scientific support. This image shows the Earth as a unified whole, a blue oasis in an otherwise lifeless solar system, helps to reinforce the view of the Earth as a singular web of life. Nature is always present in political ideology and its accompanying propaganda.
This presence may be implicit, but assumptions about nature– including human nature– are always there. Nature’s role here is ambiguous and diverse. Nature may be a resource for modernity, for example, or be seen as a last refuge for authentic living, to be preserved at all costs. It may be humanity’s friend or enemy. Humans themselves may be seen as inherently cooperative and social, or as self-interested and cruel. How we frame and understand nature affects our collective life usually. All politics is, to some extent, the politics of nature.

In this film Maiken and Mat explore different uses of Nature in propaganda and ideology, from Italian Fascism to contemporary environmentalism. Maiken suggests that its role is often ambivalent: on the surface, Mussolini’s regime prided itself on its ability to bring nature to heel – but at the same time, like other fascist movements, they also sought to promote the alleged moral benefits of people living in close proximity to, and in communion with, the land. Why not take a moment to look at one of the Fascist propaganda newsreels produced by the Italian company “Luce”, which she refers to in the film.

Later 20th-century environmentalists, Mat suggests, had a less instrumental view of nature: they saw the ‘wilderness’ as something worthy of political protection in its own right. Yet they, too, attributed particular ideological or ‘moral’ qualities to it: communing with nature bestows helps people overcome the evils of civilisation, which Muir describes as ‘ugly’.

Mat also concludes that all politics is, in some sense, about our relationship with nature. What is your experience? Do your attitudes to what is nature, or what is “natural”, inform any of your political beliefs and values? Or have you ever been at the receiving end of claims that political values you defend are “unnatural”?

Further reading:

Mat and Maiken have co-authored an article on the relationship between nature and authenticity, of which you can read a short summary below.

The Nature of Authenticity: Experience as a Political Resource by Maiken Umbach, Department of History, University of Nottingham & Mathew Humphrey, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham

Invoking authenticity is a ubiquitous practice, but one that we feel is poorly understood. In this article we seek to change the parameters in which the idea of authenticity is debated. Unlike other political buzzwords, authenticity has rarely been the subject of sustained critical analysis; scholars have mostly confined themselves to ‘unmasking’ invocations of authenticity as inherently contradictory: if identities are imagined, then so are their alleged authentic expressions. But real or not: if people believe in authenticity, it matters, and had and has real political consequences . We pay particular attention to interplay between political intentions and vernacular re-codings of representations and practices of authenticity, across long historical time-spans. To understand these, we combine different genres of evidence, from political manifestoes to quotidian practices, from paintings to mundane objects, which are typically studied in distinct academic disciplines.

We focus upon authenticity claims across three distinct spheres. The first of these is nature. Because we understand invocations of authenticity as a strategy to naturalise ideas, nature, understood as ‘wilderness’ (seemingly) free from human manipulation, is a prominent motif in this story. The desire to ‘live in integrity’ with nature forms a key part of the ideational language of authenticity. For a range of historical actors, authenticity has represented an antithesis to the alienating effects of civilisation, which offers a space where human beings can reconnect with their own authentic selves. But to serve this purpose, nature needs to be ‘framed’ to make it legible as a repository of authenticity, and our first section traces the history of such framings, uncovering some of the aesthetic, theological and ideological subtexts of landscapes. The second dimension we explore is that of production. This moves the discussion from authenticity as place to authenticity as process. In many historical invocations of authenticity, the work of the individual craftsman epitomises the transference of an authentic human essence onto the object of labour. Notions of authenticity are not, however, absent from discourses about mass production either. In the imaginations of various modernists, the world of arts and crafts became a sphere of outmoded kitsch, while genuinely modern industrial products embodied the authenticity of the new times. Moreover, objects can be bearers of authenticity not only because of their production, but also because of the way in which they are consumed. The process of consumption is the third strand that we investigate in this article. While consumerism has often been denounced as the apogee of inauthenticity, historically, appeals to authenticity have also served to legitimate particular modes of mass consumption, and contrast them with illegitimate forms of consumption characteristic of social or national outsiders.

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Propaganda and Ideology in Everyday Life

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