How we made nature the other (and why this might be a really bad idea)
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Note: This is an excerpt from the book: The Pointless Revolution! (Everytime Press, 2019). The original version was published as part of the Appendix section.
Perhaps our key problem with nature is the word itself; or rather, what its use as a catch-all term for anything in the world that isn’t either human or ‘man made’ signifies.
Though our English word ‘nature’ has its roots in the Latin ‘natura’ (meaning essential quality or innate disposition), which in turn has echoes in ‘natal’ (as in ‘birth’), our application of the word to delineate the rest of the environment from ourselves is indicative of a fundamental schism. The manner in which we use and generally understand terms like the natural world, Mother Nature and natural healing casts nature as the other. As an externality. There’s us, the humans, and then there’s it, nature. This so-called nature includes everything else in the biosphere, plus all aspects of weather, geology, glacial oscillation, plate tectonics, lunar activity and, since Darwin, the ongoing process of evolution. Some of us probably include the rest of the cosmos in the nature basket. Point is, in our common conceptualisation, nature – or environment – lives outside us.
In one way, of course, this is no big deal; just a banal result of the basic I/Not I dichotomy. Furthermore, as a social species we were always going to group identify in Us/Not Us terms. You might even say it’s only natural. Yet, when we look around us, it’s not hard to see how we humans are living in a fashion that jeopardises our survival within the planetary biosphere that sustains us. In addition, we have come to regard nature as both a larder and a general commodity for our exploitation. As property. Indeed, since the Agricultural Revolution profoundly shifted the dynamics of food supply, our relationship with nature has been based on dominance. We are the masters, the owners, and we have a bunch of gods, tools and deeds of title to back us up on that. Little wonder our current economic, political and cultural orthodoxies continue to generate the kind of unsustainable resource use, atmospheric and oceanic pollution, and subsequent biodiversity loss that seems increasingly likely to bring our species to an existential crunch point.
Would such a trajectory even be possible if we genuinely – not just in a dry, intellectual fashion but in a deeply intuitive, attitudinal way – regarded ourselves as part of nature? In nature? As animals, just like we regard antelopes, fish and owls? As natural phenomena, like trees, clouds and mountains? Bit part players in a symbiotic, synergistic unfolding? What if we didn’t even recognise the Human/Nature distinction?
Not for one moment am I suggesting that our disconnect from nature explains all our cruelties and follies, nor indeed that a re-connection will magically cure all our ills. However, I am suggesting that by extracting ourselves from the environment we evolved in, and are adapted to, we concurrently laid the foundations for both the individual psycho-emotional and broader herd-think conditions required for the development of abstract societies, and the denialist cultures we find ourselves in now. We wouldn’t live the way we live, and maybe wouldn’t even have an ‘environment issue’ if we didn’t fundamentally regard ourselves as somehow outside of nature and specifically excluded from its finely tuned balance.
Whereas the promulgators of middle class guilt would like us to believe that capitalism and Western society is the cause, it is plain that our separation from nature pre-dates modern consumerism by thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. In fact, what we see in many ancient cultures and cosmologies is the personification and deification of nature, where the wider world is cast as the other and our relationship to it rooted firmly in servitude and fear. For most of human history we have lived in the thrall of nature’s uncertainties – would it rain, etc – as well as its inevitabilities; principally disease and death. Given this, it is no surprise that our forebears strove to tame a world that always seemed to threaten them with extinction, using everything from prayer and ritual sacrifice to spears and skins. For all our self-righteous hindsight we can hardly blame our ancestors for wanting to survive, just like we can’t reasonably criticise birds for building nests or lambaste penguins for hanging out in huge huddles when it gets too cold.
However, unlike koalas or leopards, we evolved the brain power to elevate and energise our survival strategies to the point where caution and justifiable fear morphed into control and dominion. As an apex predator we out-flanked the other animals, adapted to and planned for a broader range of environmental contingencies and, with language, were able to codify and transmit accrued knowledge and practise in a much more precise way. With time we were able to put an ever increasing gap between ourselves and the things that threatened to eat, freeze and invade us. Then, when we invented agriculture, we started to believe that even starvation could be held at bay. That we could always have food.
Nature 0, Humanity 1.
Unfortunately for our early farming forebears, grain surpluses did nothing to mitigate the certainty of death. Nor did bulging granaries and complex social organisation do much to prevent plagues, droughts and earthquakes. In fact, not even the gods seemed prepared to step in and prevent us ageing and dying – notwithstanding that we slit the throats of bulls and sometimes murdered virgins to show them how serious we were about this ‘not wanting to get sick and die’ stuff. Dammit, that pesky nature just wouldn’t go away.
Still, we kept on trying and eventually we concocted a way of living that was so sanitised, so removed from seasonal fluctuations that we were able to externalise nature as a mere photo opportunity. A news spectacle (cyclone, tsunami, heat wave) or a nice family friendly wildlife documentary. Nature is something we watch, rather than participate in. We go camping in it. We ‘get back’ to it. Either that, or consume it – mine it, harvest it, catch it, kill it. And now of course we’re actively tweaking it, fiddling with the DNA of plants, people and other animals in an attempt to render nature entirely in the fashion of our own liking.
So what, you might think. Isn’t this just evolution at work?
My word it is. In fact, that’s part of the point I’m trying to make. If humanity gets so smart that we undo ourselves with our cleverness, then evolution will have seen off yet another species. If, in trying to immortalise ourselves, we create the conditions for own demise, so be it. The central denial – that we are not animals and, therefore, somehow not truly mortal – and the manifold avoidance strategies it has fuelled, will have directly contributed to bringing about the very thing it was most afraid of. (Irony much?)
In saying this I am not contending that civilisation collapse and/or species extinction is inevitable. Likewise, I am not arguing for a return to living on the savannah in small clan groups subsisting on root vegetables and running away from lions. Apocalypse and utopia are both simplistic narratives, so let’s leave them to the bourgeois hairshirts and other fundamentalist droners.
Rather, I am pointing at both the hubris and denial (fear) that operates in our collective cultural subconscious, and also at the more obviously manifest mechanisms of command and control that we see across every ethnicity, in all religions and every political and economic system, as well as up and down the class and wealth ladder. In fact, everywhere in human societies. Moreover, what I’m suggesting is that our ingrained us/it view of nature is no longer serving us (or it, for that matter). Aside from collectively creating dead zones in the ocean and sowing the seeds of potentially catastrophic methane release from melting permafrost, when I look around me I see people everywhere on mad individual crusades to purchase this, achieve that, be sexier and do, climb or listen to the 1001 compulsory whatever the fuck. Maybe none of this would concern me – and I wouldn’t be writing this book – if it felt like we were all happy doing this.
Drilling right into the core, it strikes me that our relationship ‘with’ nature (as if it were somehow something other) is akin to our relationship with one another and, perhaps even more salient, ourselves. It’s not just that a foundational separation – I/Not I – is required for identity consciousness to arise and for you and I to experience what we call a life, it’s that once the distinction is made the I, like every other complex system in the universe, is in the persistence business. It’s just that in our case the I knows that it will one day cease to be I; will merge back into the Not I. Into nature. This central awareness and the resulting fear of unbeing have driven us to more clearly define and ‘thicken up’ the border zone between life and death, between us and nature. Between each other. It’s as though we have been beating a kind of retreat from what we truly are. And hey presto: squeaky clean air-conditioned condos, gated communities and digital atomisation. Not to mention the bewildering idiocy of presidentially promised border walls and the freakishly immobile spectacle of Botox faces and silicon tits. It’s like King Canute on steroids!
For it’s one thing to make prudent plans and execute clever strategies to survive, it’s another to create a form of survival mired in self-defeating fear and suicidal arrogance. After all, mortal terror is ultimately futile, and even the most pridefully constructed and complex systems of defence will yield to the unravelling of time and entropy.
Thus, the term ‘nature’ should be an almost meaningless banality, synonymous with ‘universe’ and ‘existence’. Everything is in nature…even you. Even these keystrokes.
PS: To read more, order your copy of The Pointless Revolution! (in print or electronic formats) here.