One of the pleasures of having omnivorous reading tastes is getting to read about the same subject through unexpected angles. Although I don’t read much actual environmental non-fiction — much of it is massively depressing — most of the quirky natural science and sociology I do read ends up with something to say about ecology. My latest read is The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson, a quirky, snarkily British ramble through the history of pedestrianism. At one point, Nicholson takes a stab at the topic of walking and nature, writing,
“A quick browse among New Age walking sources will soon have you screaming for mercy as you’re told nature is an unalloyed source of goodness, purity, benign intention, spiritual insight, higher consciousness, and (oh spare me) healing.”
He goes on to point out that the nature New Age walkers reference is invariably a managed nature, an idealized version without the violence, decomposition, competition, and mosquitoes. I feel like I come across this sunshine and lollipops version of nature all the time in the spirituality-leaning sect of the environmental movement. And I think Nicholson is right to criticize it, though not solely for the purpose of popping other people’s balloons.
Labeling the not-obviously-human-related world as ‘other’ seems to produce to two basic view points: 1) nature as an opponent to subdue, conquer, and harness, and 2) nature as something pristine to worship and humans as unprincipled scourges. It’s hard not to fall into that people=bad, nature=good paradigm when we’re constantly bombarded with news of how badly humans are screwing over everything else on this planet, but the problem with both perspectives is that we position ourselves as distinct from nature, either as its conquerors or humble worshipers.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up with the special evolution edition of National Geographic lying around the house, but the more natural science I read, the harder it is for me to see humans as meaningfully separate from other animals on this planet. Other animals have complex social groups, communicate, use tools, modify their environments, have opposable thumbs. Chimpanzees and humans share 96% of their genetic data. Humans continue to compete, albeit in somewhat subtler ways, for resources and reproductive privileges. It’s true that humans have gone further than other species with all of these, but we’re still very much part of this planet and its ecosystems, for better and for worse.
To address the issues our various behaviors are causing, I feel like we need to first recognize that we are nature. Part of it, anyway, caught up in an intricate tangle of cause and effect relationships with other species. We’re not better than it or worse than it. We are it. Any serious species-wide attempt to address our ecological problems will need to acknowledge that complexity and interconnection, how much we affect other species’ wellbeing, and how much that, in turn, affects our wellbeing.
I don’t really know what nature is. I don’t think it’s a thing, category, or definable entity. I don’t know whether the smell of rain on asphalt counts as nature. And I don’t understand what other people mean when they rhapsodize about nature. Digitalis, extracted from foxgloves, keeps my grandmother’s heart pumping, but the same substance is fatally toxic in larger doses. Poison oak, while a considerable nuisance to hikers, provides food for many of the animals in the open space I visit. These factoids may seem like trivia, but I’m fascinated by how complex and interesting things are when you take the human out of the middle. Nothing is black and white. Everything affects everything else. Even wiping out the entire species of mosquitoes (something I daydreamed about while in Hawaii, trying desperately not to scratch my 14 bites) would probably have some pretty nasty repercussions we couldn’t predict.
I have no idea how to break down this us vs. it mentality. But maybe we’re in this mess partly because we didn’t have an interconnected, grayscale view of the world to start with. To be fair, it’s not our fault. No other species on this planet has had to think this way, ever. But no other animal species ever had the capacity to affect so much on this planet, either. Time to start learning.
Where do you stand on nature? Do you see yourself as part of nature, or is the whole term problematic?