Humanity and nature

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Published on February 17, 2014

Author: Stephenwr

Source: slideshare.net

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Thoughts on the relationship between man and nature

Economist Essay Contest Humanity's Nature By Stephen Roloff Many years ago, I spent an intense week at a nature lodge perched on the shore of Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. The huts faced an idyllic but shark-infested beach, and the Corcovado rainforest, known for its savage estuary crocodiles and ravenous packs of feral pigs, pressed around us on all sides. In spite of all this nature in the raw (the dangers exaggerated to keep guests from straying), it was the human element of the place that left the most lasting impression. Half of the visitors were there to explore the jungle, spending their days sweating down trails in search of scarlet macaws and howler monkeys. The other half lived for the sea, and the chance to wrestle an arcing swordfish from Drake Bay. The two camps were divided along (American) party lines, and dinner conversation invariably skirted - often unsuccessfully - around heated argument. The only clear consensus seemed to occur on days that the Republicans brought back fresh tuna sashimi. To me, a Canadian in the mix, the two groups' relationships with nature couldn't have been clearer: nature as communion experience, and nature as resource experience. The question at hand will likely provoke debates similar to those evening meals, and my reaction remains a lingering sense that the real question - and answer - lie elsewhere. "Do we need nature?" The 2.8 billion people living below the World Bank poverty line of $2/day certainly do. So I suppose it's the first world "we", those with the privilege to debate - do we need nature to solve our problems and theirs? So volatile a question begs definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines nature as "The phenomenon of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, and landscape, as opposed to humans or human creations". The problems begin; like many people, I chafe at the notion of a nature that we're not inherently a part of, one that we've somehow transcended and outgrown. Of course, it's not hard to imagine feeling a little detached when you're busy dodging floods, droughts, pestilence and predatory animals. Thousands of years ago, we deified nature (as a capricious female), and sacrificed crops, animals and each other in attempts to appease her. The problems persisted, and so we concluded that God was "other", separate from nature, and male… and that we had his blessing to subdue the earth and rule over it in His name. Nature, chaotic and godless, was outcast. In the landscape, it was harnessed and forced into retreat by cultivated fields and towns dominated by church spires straining towards heaven. In our hearts, the turbulent tug of emotions was deemed sinful, and we created restraining dogma worth fighting - and dying - for.

As we began to understand and control the natural world both without and within, our rationalizations became more sophisticated. With a little more time on their hands, the Greek philosophers wrestled nobly with what it meant to be human. Add to their voices those of René Descartes (I think therefore I am), Horace Greenly (manifest destiny) and a few others; our separation from nature was, at least conceptually, a done thing. The way was clear for the technologies of exploitation to evolve without restraint, and we came to invest in them much of the faith once reserved for our Gods. Two years ago, I witnessed some harsh global realities at the Worldwatch Institute's "State of the World" conference, as a stream of well-spoken academics presented a disturbingly lucid picture of environmental decline, toxic pollution, loss of water reserves, species extinction, wilderness destruction, and rampant desertification. While environmentalists have their Flat Earth Society - styled opponents, few seriously contest that many of our current assumptions are rapidly approaching their limits. We can argue the numbers, but whether in 20 or 50 years, all those SUVs are going to be paperweights. Granted, for as long as humankind has been capable of prophecy, we've been forecasting our own imminent doom. Perhaps it's our fragile ego, the desire of each era to feel historically unique. However, this time there's a significant difference; over 6 billion humans exist in the space occupied for centuries by 200 million (we only hit the first billion mark in the 1800's, and the second in the 1960's - our numbers may easily reach 9 billion by 2050). With a footprint that big, we'd best start listening to the oracles. On both sides of the debate, the rhetoric is heating up, and there's no shortage of denial. Some industrialists seem to be playing a consequence-free endgame, dodging from resource to resource as they become depleted, trusting that science will keep pulling (cloned) rabbits out of its hat. Many naturalists want to throw out the progress with the heavy water, ignoring the facts that unnatural damage may require unnatural solutions, and that we're too numerous to go "back to the land" and too… human to make serious changes to the way we live. I visited Papua New Guinea in1983, at a time when the newly independent nation was closed to tourism. Together with a journalist friend, I traveled by dugout canoe up the Sepic River to the village of Kuvenmas, where we engaged in a unique mealtime debate. They wanted to know about the boxes… the boxes that kept food cold, the ones with people talking on them, and the ones that flew in the sky. We naively insisted that the jungle paradise around them could provide everything they needed to be happy. They wouldn't have any of it. They wanted those boxes. No insidious marketing schemes at work here - just human nature. A respected psychotherapist once asked me what I thought people wanted. I ventured "to be happy"? He shook his head; in 30 years of practice, he had observed that people consistently choose security over happiness, security meaning that life will meet the expectations created by our genetics, childhood experiences, and cultural influences. If "first world" security is partly derived from having more stuff, and "third world" security from having more children in lieu of the stuff… is either capable of breaking the chain?

Modern society is still dependent on the natural world to provide breathable air, clean water, food, fuel and the majority of pharmaceutical drugs. However, we're standing at a remarkable - and controversial - threshold. Biotechnology seems poised to provide an incredible range of options in agricultural products, cultivated animal and fish stocks, and pharmaceuticals. Granted, we must first decide if this is the next logical step after natural selection and selective breeding, or the ultimate arrogance on a suicidal path. Options such as human cloning and gene therapy are even more controversial. Having mapped the human genome, we're in possession of a remarkable dictionary, and the temptation is enormous to write creatively in this new language. Building on Moore's law (of increasing computer capacity), author and scientist Ray Kurzwell suggests an approaching singularity (the vertical limit of an exponential curve) in which we intimately merge with our technology. One recent headline says it all: "DNA Could Be Basis for Power Computing". We do not, strictly speaking, need external nature. Our drive to master nature has quite possibly brought us to the point of transcending it altogether. Oncoming circumstances may leave us with little choice. And if nature doesn't go down without a fight? A worst case scenario: as the global ecosystem continues to deteriorate, a select group of humans sequester themselves underground with sufficient resources to sustain life independent of natural processes. In a page from an apocalyptic science fiction novel, they could hybridize themselves for the new conditions, eat vat-grown foods, and inhale synthesized oxygen. Given the undesirability of the above, a bigger question arises as to whether we can similarly synthesize the intricate checks and balances in the web of life, and whether we're capable of visionary stewardship over the planet. At this point, the nature we most desperately need is not the external one that can be the subject of debate, but the internal nature that cannot. Ironically, many of our greatest scientific minds have arrived at a point of convergence between physics and metaphysics - the assertion that the universe only makes sense as the thought process of a great mind. The external nature that we have conquered is a product of that God/mind/spirit, however defined. If we wish to survive on a planet pulled out of natural balance by our will, then our gestures must be informed by a deep respect for, and connection with, that guiding spirit. There is compelling evidence to suggest that we're subtly linked to each other, whether through "collective unconscious" (Jung), "morphic fields" (Rupert Sheldrake), or biologically via DNA exchanged by bacterial mitochondria. For all our individuality, we are all intimate parts of our global problem, and simultaneously of its solution. Interdependence, integrative thinking and holism - these are some of the modern day buzzwords that sustain my hope for the future.

Humans are distinguished from other animals by opposable thumbs, a large relative brain mass, and a capacity for self-awareness. Our salvation may well lie in the latter; in the words of William James, "Man alone of all the creatures of earth can change his own pattern. Man alone is the architect of his destiny". A more hopeful destiny may yet be claimed by bold entrepreneurs, inventors and iconoclasts acting within a fluid framework of global responsibility. There is potentially a dynamic and fertile polarity between global capitalism and holistic ecology, a balance similar to the one continually struck - and unstruck - between management and labor groups, each needing the other to keep honest. Sadly, the United Nations may be the closest thing we've seen to a global union; we may need another. There have also been promising developments in the relationship between traditional rivals. Today's environmentalists are not merely crying foul at the "global conspiracy", but working to place a value on natural assets, and suggesting solutions compatible with current economic models. For their part, the corporations are entering into the debate, and beginning to recognize some of the responsibilities of global stewardship. Kyoto may have largely failed - but at least it happened. And us, the ones who want the boxes and the babies and the better lives, how can we embrace this notion? The answer is likely different for each person - but it might include practicing tolerance, embracing duality, suspending judgement, making choices that are as responsible and informed as possible, carefully choosing who we give our proxies to, realistically assessing personal needs, making the contributions that we can, and listening, always, for the voice of spirit - whether in a forest, a church, a laboratory, or a boardroom. It all boils down to our stubborn nature, and perhaps a little chaos theory. History suggests that, as a species, we don't make significant changes until we absolutely have to. The strategies to reinvent our relationship with nature may well only appear as the old systems collapse. Hopefully the circumstances won't have to become too dire, and we'll have the resilience to survive the transition. And if not… nature will likely do just fine without us.

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