Human’s Relationship with Nature
In the 1700’s, a famous astronomer from France, named Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, started to name his discoveries, new constellations, with man made objects. He would look into his telescope, point it up towards the stars, see a pattern then give it a name. He named one constellation Horologium Oscillitorium, honoring Christiaan Huygens and his invention, the pendulum. He named another one Microscopium, after the microscope. In fact, from the 70 constellations known at that time, Lacaille added over 14 new ones, all named after instruments. Little did he know that his decision to imprint the sky with Man’s creation not only broke thousands of years of astronomy tradition, but reaffirmed a behavior that had been working its way into the core of our society for the past several thousands of years – Nature was no more, and Man ruled every element and realm.
Allow me to illustrate how we have become so disconnected from Nature, the effects that it has created on our society, the gains it gave us, the damages it inflicted, and why, despite obvious future complications, we find ourselves challenged over what to do. We have made an habit to over analyze, saturate our theories with numbers, and spit out new solutions to only realize that their application was impossible and their success unattainable. In fact, the explanation lies in our history, how we are as a species, and why, what seems like a simple change, will demand from us, a drastic change in our values and in the way we live. Do not worry, I am not here to tell you that the world is doomed, that we have five years to fix it, otherwise life will cease to exist. Quite the contrary, we are masters at adapting and surviving and hopefully, by the end of the evening, you will have a better understanding of our current situation and what can be done to remedy this unhealthy modern paradigm.
On a small note, I would like to point out that I have just used the word “remedy” to introduce my rhetoric. The definition of “remedy” is the following: a medicine or a treatment for a disease or an injury. It is a means of counteracting or eliminating something undesirable. It comes from Latin remedium: “RE” meaning ‘back’, also expressing intensive force, and “MEDERI” which means ‘heal.’ Humans are not a bad species. We do not need to condemn ourselves with guilt, despair over how we have been so irresponsible. Who we are today, what we are doing and what we have been doing is quite logical and predictable. Just like a child who was told not to play with fire, and did, then got burned, now we need to tend the wound so that it can heal properly.
One of the first places we need to look into, is mythology, and more precisely, the history of our mythology. Now bare with me, we will not delve into a study of myths, gods and religions. I am simply going to outline certain key elements that pertain to our relationship with nature. Now, according to Mercia Eliade, in his book Myth and Reality, one of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models of behavior. Joseph Campbell, in his book “The Power of Myth” described them as having four basic functions: the Mystical Function–experiencing the awe of the universe; the Cosmological Function–explaining the shape of the universe; the Sociological Function–supporting and validating a certain social order; and finally, the Pedagogical Function– explaining how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. In other words, whether be religious or folkloric, these stories passed over time helped us shape our system of beliefs and values.
The place of Nature in mythology is extremely interesting. At the beginning, humans were afraid of it. The early civilizations revered the elements – fire, wind, water, earth, and thought than certain animals were their elected representatives. We refer to this practice as animism, where plants, animals, inanimate objects and natural phenomena possessed a soul. The divine was illustrated in the world around them and humans saw themselves at the mercy of it. Nature was bigger than them. In the Mapuche mythology, a group of indians in the region of Patagonia in South America, the Ngen were spirits that managed, and governed nature. The Ngen were created by the Pu-am, the representation of the universal soul, who wanted the Ngen to assure the order and the laws of admapu , the rules of the Mapuche tradition. If a Mapuche needed to obtain something from nature, he was to first respect the spirit then give an offering.
Then came the gods. The earliest ones were still depicted in nature. Per instance, in the Aztec mythology, Tepeyollotli, the “heart of the mountains”, was the god of earthquakes, echoes and jaguars. He was portrayed as a jaguar leaping towards the sun. In the Egyptian mythology, Aker, one of the earliest gods worshipped, was the deification of the horizon. He was originally illustrated as a narrow strip of land, representing the horizon, with heads on either side, facing away from one another, a symbol of borders. Since the sun reaches its peak in the zodiac of Leo, these heads were usually those of lions.
As humans moved away from believing in the power of the elements, and seeing the divine in nature, a most fascinating event happened. They started to created entities, gods and goddesses, with human forms. These deities, with arms, legs and faces like ours, were now in control of the elements, of the universe, of life, and of the earth – no more was Nature master of her own domain. Poseidon, a god from the Greek mythology, ruled the realm of the sea. A human form with a beard, riding a chariot carried by horses or hippocampus. Nature was now tamed by the human god, at the mercy of his whip, reduced to a simple means of transportation. In this picture, Egyptians have evidently moved away from symbolism. It shows Shu, the air god, a human form, supporting Nut, the sky goddess, another human form. Geb, the god of earth, at the bottom, showed in earlier records with a snake head, has now moved into a full human form. Two characters, with human bodies and animal heads are helping Shu. In this attempt to explain how the world works, humans are the divine, and animals, or nature, are reduced to mere helpers. Even in Hinduism, Prajapti, “lord of creatures”, a deity presiding over procreation and the protector of life is shown looking like a human.
Now some will tell me that these images are not to be taken literately. Everyone knowns that they are only figments of our imagination and not a true representation. But saying that would be diminishing the power that images have and the impact it has on the subconscious when repeated millions of times over hundreds and hundreds of years. Studies in communication and marketing have proven over and over the impact of repetition, whether being true or not.
There is one character, present in several mythologies who differs in its representation: Faunus, Roman god of the forests, plains and fields and Pan, Greek god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. There is also Cernunnos from the Celtic mythology. Although we known little of his significance, his depiction leaves no doubt on the point being made. Each is a variation of the Horned god. A entity half human, half animal. With horns or antlers, a beard, and often baring legs of a goat.The meaning of such mixture is left for debate, perhaps it was an attempt to unite the old divine, Nature, with the new one, humans. Nevertheless, one thing for sure, this creature, the gross character, this half human, half beast, became with time, the flagship for Man’s savageness, witchcraft and the image of the devil.
So, at the beginning, we had the divine in Nature, now the divinity is in humans, and Nature is under its control. What was to come was even worse – a total loss of respect and a quest to destroy it.
The last two thousand years have been dominated by the rise of monotheism, the belief in only one god. Today the three predominant monotheistic religions are judaism, christianity and islam. As you can see on this map, together they cover most of the world. Different in the their form and beliefs, their attitude towards Nature is the same. The planet is to serve Mankind, and humans are to serve God. Mankind’s goal is to rise from this imperfect world and join with God who lives above, in the heavens. Nature is either savage, evil, or in great need to be corrected. Its resources are like a giant bottomless bag in which we can serve ourselves indefinitely. By putting humans as the perfect creation, mankind was no longer limited by Nature. Quite the opposite. Being divine masters and immune of any consequences, we were free to do what we wanted and manipulated the planet to our wishes. This narrative has unfortunately been the driving force in our relationship with the planet for centuries.
By having dominion over nature, humans came to believe that they were also its protector, even its savior, if needed. It is no surprise when looking into the Old Testament and reading the story of Noa and his arch, saving every animal on the planet, that we find ourselves today believing that it is still our responsibility, once again, to save the earth. Although the rescue boat has changed into our total trust in technology, the thought is the same: we are separate from Nature, we know better than Nature, and only WE have the power to save it. If life is to subsist, it will only be because of us.
And the question arises, why should we save Nature when for thousands of years, everything about it has been looked upon with aversion, annoyance, as a symbol our own limitation, as the enemy. Our industrial era has excelled in claiming that the growth of mankind had to be made to the detriment of Nature. Still today, we believe we have to choose one over the other. Why should we start to re-consider the sacred in the elements and in the animals, when the idea of pervading life in the “un-human world”, has been considered “childish”, and typical of “cognitive underdevelopment”, by our most distinguished philosophers and men of sciences. Why should we regress and act like “primitives”, as some suggest? Why is it that living in the country, rather than in the cities, a place glamorized by the feats of human incredible ingenuity, is culturally seen as simplistic and filled with a lack of vision. Let me ask you a question. Would any of you give up the comfort of your modern day convenient life – with your computers, your cars, your access to any kinds of food anytime, and your gadgets, to save a forest or a fish, or a mammal that you most likely will never see in your life.
The answer lies in our choice of values. And here is where the topic becomes tricky. It has nothing to do with numbers, statistics or any graphs. Technically, we are absolutely capable of living in a world empty of any wilderness. Technically, we could have every crop, every chicken, every fruit, every vegetable, every tree grown inside in artificial indoor places. We can engineer pretty much anything. And what we can’t, we are working on it. In fact, we have become so good at it, that we now know we can act like gods. What before was only an assumption, or a wish, is now a fact and a reality. And consequently reinforces our belief that our technology is the only thing that can save the earth.
We love our numbers. We love our capacity to create equations. We brag about how we are able to explain everything in the world, in the universe with numbers. Between 354-430 AD, St. Augustine wrote “Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.” Today, we continue and say that the underlying element that connects everything are numbers – it is the universal language we claim. We fantasize about meeting other people from far away galaxies and communicating with them through numbers. In the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, Professor Karl Barnhardt, a nobel prize physicist, entertains a meaningful conversation with Klaatu, an alien, through formulas and statistics. On Tv, there is a show where a young genius mathematician helps the FBI solve cases that normally would be too hard for humans to figure out. And how does he do it? With equations. We throw numbers at everything and all the time. Our DNA has been reduced to a simple equation of letters. Our food has been dissected into numbers – the perfect diet consists of X calories, Y carbs, Z proteins, and well 0 sugar of course. We look at life and everything around us in a simple way: input and output. It is what separates us from the animals, it is what makes us so special, our ability to manipulate numbers. Therefore, it is only logical, that we look at Nature in the same way. And for the past 20 years, the scientific community, the environmental community and the politicians have been raging a war of numbers. Each side claim to have the right statistics. My numbers are better than yours. And yet nothing changes. Why, because of the place of Nature in our values.
On a side note, to illustrate how far our obsession of quantifying everything has gone, it seems that the planets in our system have now a dollar value. An astrophysicist of the University of California in Santa Cruz has been appraising the planets. With a complicated and special formula, he came to establish that the value of Venus was a penny – of Mars, $16,000, and of course of the Earth, 5 quadrillion! Talking to the Daily Mail in London, the scientist declared that: “The formula makes you realize just how precious Earth is and I hope it will help us as a society safeguard what we have”. Indeed, how obsessed we have become.
The idea that technology will save everything is a dear one to all of us. In our modern society, technology has moved to a god-like status with the power of total redemption – if only we could invent or come up with a solution that will fix all our problems, nullify all our undesirable deeds, and allow our consumption based culture to keep growing without much interference, this is our idea of heavens.
Let me ask you another question. Do you care about child labor in a place, half way across the world, where you will never set foot? Do you care about domestic violence in a house, somewhere on another continent, in a city you probably never knew existed? Do you care about a 10 year old virgin being sold for human trafficking. Why? If we look at the numbers, there are absolutely no incentives to care. And even more, there are no reasons why there should be any laws to prevent it. The reason there are laws, the reason we care, it is because of our values. It is because of what we believe to be good, and what we believe to be bad. And those values are the foundation of our system. Sadly, in our modern world, Nature has never been a concern or a priority. It has never been part of our values.
Now, why is it so hard to change? Because despite the fact that we love to believe we are a logical and smart species, that our brain is in charge of every decision, unfortunately, we are still governed by our physical needs and our emotions. Do you remember when I talked about the child who was told not to play with fire and still did? Well, we are physical beings. We need to experiment, we need to feel to understand. How do you think we have achieved so much. It was certainly not because we listened to all the people who said it was impossible. The trait in our behavior that pushes us to new limits is the same trait that makes us ignore all the warnings. We know that cigarettes will kill you. It is even written on the package. But each of us also know someone who has smoked two packs a day for the last fifty years and is in better shape than most of us. We know that we have overfished the oceans, but living in our convenient and global economy, it is hard to know what it means. My point is that as much as we want to sensitize the public and ourselves about the impact of our lifestyle on the environment and the decline of wild animals, we will need to acknowledge the dynamic of how we behave, how we think, and most importantly, how we get to change. As human beings, we need to physically feel to understand, we need to experience the consequences of our actions. That is why we have laws. Because we need limits. And for the last 50 years, we have become masters at breaking any limit encountered. We have transformed deserts into blooming plains. We have engineered crops to yield five times more. We have manipulated our cattle to grow faster. We are experts at making things bigger and faster. So how can we care or value something which we have had as our mission to defy? Why should we care for something we have believed to be an obstacle to our survival?
Some people in this world have never set foot in a forest. Some have never seen a night sky saturated with stars. Some have never seen the ocean rolling on a white sandy beach. With ecology classes gone from schools and sciences classes slowly disappearing, how can children be even taught about the dynamics of life? How can a child be aware, or even have a sense of what nature is if he has never even experienced it.
We have a choice to make. And let me say that, whether you choose one over the other, is not better or worse. Each has its pros and cons. Each has its advantages and consequences. Each is either good or bad, it just depends on where you stand. If we, as a society, choose to have a world dominated by technology and engineering, constantly improving at making things bigger and faster, at the detriment of Nature, than we just need to keep doing what we are doing. I am sure we will be able to find technological solutions to pretty much everything. But If we choose to have a world where the wilderness can still be experienced, where a father can take his son fish in the outdoors. Where a child can snorkel the bay and marvel at thousands of flickering moving colors, then we will have to change. Not because of numbers, not because we need to save the earth, not because climate is changing, but because we value Nature. Because we want Nature to be part of our world. Because we believe that our responsibility is to be humble, respectful and caring citizens of this planet, of this universe. Not to destroy it or act like its savior.