Given that purely scientific accounts of ‘environmental performance’ and ‘development’ cannot fully explain the environment and its interactions with people, this paper investigates how nature has been historically and sociopolitically defined in different societies. The analyses and observations presented in this paper are based on a critical literature review and on case studies of two ‘coal capitals’, one in Guizhou in China and the other in Jharkhand in India. The study examines the historical representations of environmental campaigns (particularly from the 1950s to the 1990s) in the two countries, and discusses how historical, sociopolitical and ideological factors have affected conceptualizations of nature and how they are reflected nowadays in people's narratives concerning the environment. The paper concludes that the Chinese pattern of development, as well as of knowledge construction, reflects a greater intention of homogenizing the public with the language of development deployed by the centralized power; meanwhile, the Indian pattern allows a greater space for the representation of conflicts, including people's struggles against the state. The comparative analysis enriches our understanding of people's responses to official perceptions of the environment endorsed by modern science and governance.