Living within a town or city, a landscape defined largely by steel, glass, and asphalt, it’s difficult to even contemplate a bond with nature. A bevy of straight lines, sharply-defined rectangles and squares seem a million miles away from streams gushing over moss-covered rocks. When we close our eyes and are asked to picture nature, it is the latter that floods into our minds. But amidst that manufactured world, are we so far from nature? In fact, are we ever very far from nature?
Human Versus Nature
Of course, our next question is what exactly is nature. Usually we recognise nature as the plants, animals, geological processes, weather, and the physics of our world, the ones that involve the transformations of matter and energy. It seems simple enough. Although, it has its complications. What often unites the various definitions is an insistence that nature is not associated with humanity. We’re on one side; nature’s on the other.
That’s a critical component to the various definitions. One from the 1660s stated how nature is “the material world beyond human civilization or society; an original, wild, undomesticated condition.” We hear that again and again. For instance, there’s another stating how nature “refers to the ‘natural environment’ or wilderness—wild animals, rocks, forest, beaches, and in general areas that have not been substantially altered by humans, or which persist despite human intervention.” You get the picture, I’m sure.
Our resistance to nature is also apparent elsewhere. Some look to the Christian religion as being responsible for our perceived role as master of the natural world. From Genesis 1:28, we’re told “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” It’s impossible and unreasonable to lay it all at religion’s door. Still, religion no doubt laid some of the groundwork for our inability to see ourselves as part of nature.
Our Fraught Tie With Nature
So, here’s the problem. How can we be a part of something over which we’re intended to have dominion? That’s at least a part of our problem. We feel this push and pull. Some of us seek to be overlords of nature, thrilled at our ability to improve and control nature. Look at the debates that surround genetically modified foods. For a variety of reasons, we’re tinkering with nature. Some are vehemently opposed to us doing so while others insist the benefits outweigh the risks.
Still others of us simply cherish the inherent and balanced bond we have with nature. It is awe-inspiring in its glory, something that contributes to our well-being. Whether we’re regarding plants or animals in our landscape, the nightsky or even images of nature, we derive sense of serenity and happiness and peace. We acknowledge and experience the benefits of being close to nature. Yet, still many of us often resist
Maybe part of our problem also sits with a lack of humility. We are a very adaptable and ingenious species. We know how to survive. Over the millennia, we’ve done so exceedingly well. Where we’ve encountered problems, we’ve readily set about trying to find ways to overcome the obstacles with which we’re presented. Hence, we’re left to think we’ve got this relationship with nature sorted.
Without question, we’re uncertain about which way to turn. Many of us yearn to embrace our place in nature. We feel we are beholden to nature as an overarching lodestar for our existence. In opposition, others look to the myriad inventions and scientific discoveries they feel place humans at the very least en par with nature and more often than not, in the driving seat. But is there a middle ground where these two apparently disparate visions regarding our tie with nature can meet?
We Are Nature
Where did it all begin? None other than in the stars. As in the stars, all life on planet earth, including humans, is composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. We are comprised of the very same elements as every other living creature on earth. So, it’s a simple equation, then. Evidence would suggest we can consider ourselves a part of nature.
But there’s another hurdle. Remember those definitions of nature. Problems arise because of our tinkering. All those miraculous inventions that have radically changed our lives were wonderful and life-altering. However, according to some, it’s those “alterations” and “interventions” that push us further away from being a part of nature.
Busy As A Beaver
Although, in terms of “alterations” of a landscape, we have to recall, we’re not the only species who are busy at it. Beavers, for instance, offer a good example of a creature who does a lot to alter its landscape, creating and intervening.
While they may be the national animal of Canada, they’ve got a few Canadians riled with their “interventions.” Still, they’re just living their lives and acting to improve their surroundings. A central element of their landscape would be ponds and the lack of one is easily remedied with a hallmark component—dams. As highly skilled engineers, they set about downing trees and weaving the branches together to form a dam. Afterwards, any waterproofing of their invention is undertaken with the use of mud.
By damming a river, a beaver can make an immense impact on the landscape. Natural processes of flooding, erosion, sedimentation and so on all come into play. Such activity would readily be considered as an alteration of the landscape. Humans do much the same, albeit at a larger scale.
Not So Unnatural As All That
If we now recognise, we’re not the only ones, what of all our tinkering. Anyone entering a city would likely not consider it a part of nature—likely quite the opposite. After all, our towns and cities are largely comprised of metals, glass, and concrete. On first glance, we would say it’s so unnatural. Hang on, though. Of what are these materials composed?
A primary ingredient of our buildings is steel. It turns out, one of the central cast of characters making up steel is none other than iron ore, sometimes along with scrap metal or simply from the latter alone. It is a key resource we extract from Earth. It’s the fourth most abundant element in the earth’s crust. Isn’t a primary component of many of our skyscrapers and townhouses an element of our natural world?
Similarly, take plastics. They’re often synonymous with the word synthetic. The word synthetic, itself is, by the way, often associated with being “unnatural.” However, a synthetic is merely stating something is the result of a synthesis. There’s nothing inherently unnatural about it.
So, plastics arrive in our world by way of a process of synthesis. And what are the main elements of plastics? Well, they’d be long chains of carbon compounds. Carbon, of course, is an element we humans know very well. Remember, that’s one of the elements derived from the stars above, from which we’re made. So, we can literally thank our lucky stars.
Given the similarities we share with our beaver friends, altering a landscape cannot prevent us from being a part of nature. Moreover, as we’ve seen, we share one of our main building blocks—carbon—with not only other animals. We also happen share it with the “synthetic” compounds of plastic or the ingredients of steel. Evidence would clearly suggest we’re a part of nature—even our cities would happen to be. So, what’s to hold us back from claiming a genuine place in nature?
Our definitions of nature insist we’re not included. Where do we stand now? Do you think it’s simply because we often suffer from a lack of humility? To put it mildly, there is no question humans are very savvy. We demonstrate ingenuity and great intellect and have overcome numerous adversities, solving countless problems we’ve faced over the centuries.
In a matter of seconds, we can plunder a forest that has been thriving for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The greatest creatures of the sea, the whales, survive mere seconds from the keen edge of a harpoon. We are the architects of brilliant structures across the centuries that leave of us all awestruck. Think of the Taj Mahal in India, the pyramids of Giza in Egypt or Westminster Abbey in Britain. There are numerous structures that are breathtaking in their beauty and brilliant in their structure. And then there’s the developments. Simply the fact it’s possible to now undertake a face transplant is a marvel alone. Although, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Although our capabilities may have led us astray. Generally speaking, due to our lack of humility, we are sometimes placing our own interests above that of others. To be humble, we need to more accurately perceive ourselves as a part of nature. We need to exhibit more modesty and seek to focus on the needs of others rather than ourselves. It’s not all about us.
Maybe that’s what has happened. By virtue of our successes and our ability to believe we have thwarted nature in the game of survival, we are less humble. Hence, to regard ourselves as equal to these creatures seems implausible. It cannot be.
The Human, Nature Divide
The debate regarding the relationship of humans and nature is a very old one. Although, I wonder if the question itself isn’t ironically evidence of the difficulty. The question is suggestive of a polarity—humans on one side, nature on the other.
Emma Marris, writer of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World states how humans are “already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not.” Maybe we think we’re running nature. Although that’s part of our problem. Making such a statement is based on the premise that we, as humans, are distinct from nature.
Because some would argue we’re not running anything. We’re interacting with other parts of nature with varying expected and unexpected results. Like the beaver building its dam, there’s an impact. Similarly, humans also have an impact on our surrounding nature. That’s all. It’s sometimes quite substantial. But to note our actions are any greater than that of a beaver, relatively speaking, is somewhat arrogant.
Yes, we build great structures. A beaver dam will become dilapidated in a matter of years. Ours will just take a little longer. Ultimately, even a pyramid, bring comprised of rock will, over time, weather and decay. Like everything in nature, there will likely be very little of it in a few millennia.
Moreover, it’s like saying I’m running my body. No I’m not. There are trillions of cells along for the ride who are helping to call the shots. Anything we do in this world is ultimately a collective effort. We are a part of nature and all aspects of that nature have a say.
Some Final Thoughts
Maybe as a genuine part of nature, it’s a matter of appreciating we may not know as much as we think we do. It’s through our humility we do so. After all, before we came along, nature had been at this for hundreds of millions of years. It was through the miracle of nature that all living creatures, including ourselves, came to be. And we all know the human species, in particular, is a masterful creation. As we’ve seen, humans and beavers and myriad other creatures have aspired to great heights as a part of nature. We must all take a bow.
Biello, David 2013 “How Long Have Humans Dominated the Planet?” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/length-of-human-domination/
Cohen, Steve 2021 “The Limits to Human Domination of Nature” https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2021/08/23/the-limits-to-human-domination-of-nature/
Green, Kristophe and Keltner, Dacher 2017 “What Happens When We Reconnect With Nature” https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_happens_when_we_reconnect_with_nature
Thompson, Claudia 2021 “The Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Foods” https://www.livestrong.com/article/213053-pros-cons-of-gmo-foods/
Torres, Marco 2022 “Our Food Industry in 8 Words: “We Think We Can Do Better Than Nature” https://wakeup-world.com/2018/07/03/our-food-industry-in-8-words-we-think-we-can-do-better-than-nature/