“The conquest of nature by an intelligence that does not love it.” Northrop Frye
Part One - The Beauty of Nature
In the Book of Genesis God is reported to have said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish in the sea and over the birds in the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth.” Significantly, mankind was not told to love the world – rather, we were told to “rule” it. And, as we now all know, our ruling morphed into exploiting it. No churches were built to honour the earth, and no respect was given. We have been, and still are largely above it. But the last laugh will be on us because we are blind to the consequences of our actions, as Rousseau wrote, “nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves.”
Since the beginning of time, and especially since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has had a voracious appetite for earth’s resources. We extract all that we can with no consideration for the next generation - blindly using resources at any cost. Collectively, we’ve treated the earth as if it were an infinite well, a miscalculation and deception! We’re now realizing that there may be an end of sustainable fisheries as soon as 2050, complete fossil fuel depletion, and major, and more frequent, effects from climate change - all a result of human activity. It’s an ugly legacy!
As a university student in a pre-science program at Sir George Williams, I learned about the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This theory says that any isolated system (in our case the earth) will eventually progress in the direction of increasing disorder. In the science of heat-energy this disorder is measured and called “entropy.” The Law basically says that in the universe all things devolve from order, to disorder. The end-result is the heat-death of the Universe.
Yet surely nature defies this tendency? There seems to be a regenerative life force that works steadfastly over time. For example, a fire destroys a forest, yet a few years later it becomes another verdant forest. So, is the tendency of the universe to progress towards disorder consistent with the workings of nature? On a common sense level I’d say “no.” I’d go even further: I believe that if there is any divinity in our Universe we’ll find it in the force that drives nature. This idea of mine is influenced by the Hindu concept of Shakti and the ancient Greek god Gaia – primordial, cosmic feminine energy; the creative power in all things, a Pantheism of sorts.
A few years ago, I met Richard Louv, author of “The Last Child in the Woods – Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder”, and “The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Through his research, combined with many other studies, he has shown the importance of being in physical contact with nature. He makes a strong distinction between learning about nature versus being “in” nature – education versus connection modeling. He noted that for thousands of years all our occupations were connected to nature. Not now. As a result, we’re seeing children developing a host of problems from depression, obesity, low creativity, and attention disorders.
Based on recent studies on the importance of nature, many pediatricians are actually “prescribing” nature for people. This treatment is being used as both a therapy to battle the negative effects caused by nature-deficit disorder and is also used as a preventative measure (Louv pointed out that treatments that are both corrective therapies and preventative are very unusual). An interesting point in Louv’s presentation was the incredible success that simple exposure to nature delivers. For example, daily school recesses in green landscapes were shown to raise children’s test scores. He went on to advocate that we should begin looking at a city through the prism of nature – however, this kind of urban planning requires a paradigm shift in thinking.
Some people find hope in the research of people like Richard Louv. They believe that when armed with knowledge we can change. This optimism is evident in recent books on “peak oil” dilemma – predictions that we are nearing the end of oil and gas resources because the source is, obviously, finite. Many writers are heralding a new greener age – not because we are an enlightened species, but rather because we have been pushed against a wall. We have no choice now. We know our energy needs to come from newer technologies like solar, wind and hydro power. Many see this as a good development. Personally, I believe the resource extracting multi-nationals will be desperately exploring for fossil fuels until well into the middle of this century and beyond – and many will continue to burn it (instead of investing in the new technologies). If it’s cheaper and more profitable, these companies will continue their methods until the last drops of oil and gas (coal too) are squeezed from the earth.
Part of my pessimism in human nature comes from experience. I’ve often told my Green Party friends that people will continue to pollute and produce green-house gasses until people are literally dropping in the streets. The whole idea of “climate change” is too abstract for most people…and, the worst consequences will occur long after they’re dead – so they do nothing. One example of this phenomenon comes from a friend of mine who teaches in China. He says the pollution is so fierce that you cannot see the opposite end of hallways within the buildings of the university where he teaches! Yet, life goes on. People attend lectures, etc. Oblivious.
The ability of humans to predict the future is limited. In his book “The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” Nassim Taleb posits that we are an arrogant people who consistently forget about the highly improbable events that were never forecast, yet completely changed the world. Think about the oil crisis of 1974. The price of oil went up 10 times in just a few years. Or, the attack of the World Trade Centre in New York. And, most frightening, the election of Donald Trump! All these events were not predicted or even considered possible. Yet they happened.
Taleb goes on to say, “We certainly know a lot, but we have a built-in tendency to think we know more than we actually do, enough to occasionally get us into serious trouble.” It is an arrogance ingrained in our leaders and ourselves. “Why on earth do we predict so much? Why don’t we talk about our record in predicting? Why don’t we see how we (almost) always miss the big events? I call this the scandal of prediction.” writes Taleb. He has a convincing observation, and, a good argument against us being ready for peak oil, and other improbable future events. Scientists have multiple computer models about the rise in ocean levels and increasing temperatures - they’re mostly inconsistent. Time and again we miss the unforeseen and some of the “tipping points” are completely over looked. These models are simply not sophisticated enough to account for all the possible variables.
I’ll finish Part One with two quotes that we would be wise to heed. From Michel de Montaigne, “Let us give Nature a chance; she knows her business better than we do.” And from Joseph Campbell, “When you’re in accord with nature, nature will yield its bounty.” Too bad the wisdom of these two statements have been ignored by too many, and for too long. Our reverence for nature is sorely needed.
PART II – Two Reactions
Some people are furious at our lack of effort to stop pollution and the emissions of green-house gases. Whether it’s a flawed economic system (i.e. capitalism and its narrow interpretation of the importance of the market) or the developing world’s head long rush into a materialistic life-style, the impact of human activity has brought about environmental disaster, from climate change to oceans devoid of sustainable fisheries, as I have mentioned. The future looks grim.
One reaction is utter disdain for our species, and anger. George Carlin, a counter culture comedian, has some choice words for human-kind.
“We’re so self-important. Everybody’s going to save something now. ‘Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.’ And the greatest arrogance of all: Save the planet, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet.
I’m tired of this shit… The planet has survived a lot worse than us; earthquakes, volcanoes, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference?
The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!
We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam… The planet will be here, and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
Perhaps Carlin is too dismissive of our species, but I do love his perspective on our arrogance. After all, there have been some positive developments in combatting environmental degradation such as the Montreal Protocol of 1987. This remarkable agreement drove the world-wide banning of chemicals, that when released into the atmosphere, depleted the ozone layer. The ozone layer is important because it filters ultraviolet radiation so it doesn’t reach the earth in full force. If ozone depletion had gone on unabated, then skin cancers, sunburns and cataracts among humans would have increased dramatically. It’s been more than 30 years since the Montreal Protocol and the ozone layer is recovering. This is an important example of the international community reaching consensus on an environmental issue and doing something about it. The current Paris Accord of 2015 is a move by virtually all the nations on earth to combat climate change. This accord illustrates that our species can truly get serious about the environment. Although compliance to the Accord will be the big question (especially since the U.S. has dropped out). Time will tell if our species can truly mobilize efforts for saving the environment and recognize our connection to its health.
In a contrast to George Carlin’s take on the human race there is E. O. Wilson’s book “The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth.” Wilson writes about nature with a sense of awe describing (in reverent terms) its stamina and persistence. He convinces us that nature is determined to stick around despite our relentless actions that may sometimes seem as though we are bent on eliminating it. His words are aimed at changing minds about devaluing nature’s mystery and beauty. I love his description of what goes on in-a parking lot - a place where we’ve tried to eliminated nature all together.
“Remember the micro wilderness. Nature dies hard. Even in the parking lot extremum, notice the resilient little weed that peeps from a crack in the concrete, the tuft of grass holding on at the curb, the faint colourous span of the cyanobacterial colony plastered next to the ticket kiosk. Look closely for tiny creatures that thrive in their parsimonious midst: the mite, the nematode worm, the caterpillar struggling to grow into a moth. These last-stand wild organisms, the vanguard of Earth’s inevitable return to green and blue, wait patiently for us to change our mind. Their species are still able to give back some of what we remain so remorselessly bent on destroying”.
Wilson’s beautiful description of what goes on in the parking lot makes me think of the lyrics from Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi”(Mitchel also captures the sentiment of loss and frustration that Wilson’s piece evokes),
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot.”
In conclusion, I wonder what we as a species are thinking! Why can’t we learn to live with nature and enjoy its bounty? As Joseph Campbell said, “I think our implicit disdain for nature, our arrogance and belief that we can rule it, as the bible prescribes, is a path we can no longer follow.” It’s time to recognize that our future may be inextricably linked to the wellbeing of nature. Mahatma Gandhi may have said it best, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
Our species is a part of nature, not separate or above it. We're all in it together folks.