I often go on and on about our relationship to nature, but Alain de Botton touches on something in a Treehugger article that struck me.
Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.
This recognizes how we assume that we relate to nature based on our mythologies, in contrast to the reality of how we really perceive nature and our relationship to it based on how we work things out practically in the real world. If you want to know what people (or societies) believe about something, don’t listen to what they say. Look at what they do and how they spend their money.
I listened recently to a TED talk by Paul Root Wolpe on the ethics of bioengineering. He talks about three phases of evolution. The first phase involved what we have come to understand as Darwinian evolution in which nature does all the work of random mutation, adaptation and selection. When we settled down into agricultural communities we realized that we could speed up this process and manipulate it in order to get traits of plants and animals that we wanted. So, we domesticated animals and selected plants with features that helped us cultivate easier, like large-seeded grains that did not fall off the plant until we harvested them. This second phase of evolution speeded up evolution from something like millions of years to thousands. So, the process was still pretty slow for a long time. However, we have entered what he calls the third phase of evolution in which we are able to actually design lifeforms and manipulate them in ways that do not require the process of Darwinian evolution. Paul Root Wolpe spends most of his talk describing the myriad of ways that scientists now are able to manipulate and use the building blocks and components of organisms and life to create all kinds of technologies and organisms.
One that really blew my mind was taking neurons from a rat which then organized themselves on a microprocessor into a network which was then used to run a computer. One experiment used a computer to monitor and understand the signals in a primate brain that moved its arm. Then the computer mirrored the monkey’s brain pattern to move a prosthetic arm in another room. Finally, the monkey was shown the arm that the computer was moving. Eventually the monkey stopped moving its own arm and was moving the prosthetic arm with his mind, essentially having a third arm that it could control. Another was wiring electrodes into the brains of animals which then made it possible for scientists to control their movements, running rats through a maze basically with a joystick. Wolpe mentions that some students involved in that particular experiment asked whether what they were doing was ethical, overriding and controlling another organism, effectively taking away its autonomy.
Wolpe as an ethicist calls for ethical discussion and consideration of these technologies. The point is that we are now capable of technology and manipulation of our natural environment in ways with which we have not, as a society, fully grappled. When we consider, not what could happen in the future, but what is possible right now, it is clearly true that nature does not terrify us. I wonder, however, if we terrify ourselves. I have close friends who are very confident in both technology and science to basically “do the right thing”. They think that the systems in place and the nature of the scientific community and process will basically take care of these ethical problems that some worry about. As is obvious to any casual reader of this blog, I do not share their confidence.
Our relationship to nature is the most important issue facing human beings today. For the vast majority, the nature of this relationship is simply assumed and goes unquestioned. The idea that we should recycle, change our light bulbs and not throw trash all over the place does not even scratch the surface of our relationship to nature. Yet this is the extent of most people’s probing of our relationship to nature. Until we deal with basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what that has to do with the natural systems that make up our planet, we will continue on a trajectory destined for disaster. As Paul Root Wolpe describes there is a sense in which our relationship to nature has changed dramatically, and we must understand and wrestle with these changes. However, there is another sense in which our relationship to nature does not and cannot change. This final reality will eventually catch up to us if we do need deal with it.
It seems to me that the idea that we perhaps should terrify ourselves relates to the concept of sin, in which we recognize potentialities and possibilities within ourselves that we do not want to realize or which we regret acting on. Sin is often described as brokenness or, better yet, broken relationships with God, other people and the planet. This seems to describe the state of our current relationship to the planet in which we continue to simply ignore the relationship or pursue an unhealthy kind of codependence that necessarily involves mental gymnastics and denial to sustain it.
As with healthy relationships with God and other people, we must first recognize that we are already related to them in some way, even if negatively (e.g. atheists or oppressive systems). Our civilization is designed in many ways to obscure and deny our relationship to the planet. So, the first step is to acknowledge our relationship and dependence. Then we can begin to listen to what we know about how ecosystems work and change our lives and systems to live within these systems rather than exploit, deplete and destroy them.