Man versus nature?

Nature is perceived romantically as a sort of utopia that contrasts with the distopia of the urban spreads and their frenzied materialism. The image of the ‘noble savage’ depicted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, living harmoniously with nature, free of the ‘evils’ of selfishness, inspires environmental fundamentalists until today.


On the other hand, the anthropocentric and unfortunately still very much current view, is that man, being the main component of creation, has the right to exploit ad infinitum, the natural resources of the planet, that were predestined to him by some divine decree. However, we cannot deny that other species have their own place as well. There are more microbes in a cubic centimeter of soil than there have been human beings in all of history. Only recently, we have started to question these two extreme positions to find the point of balance. Businessmen, politicians, scientists and common citizens try to make a bridge between the preservation of the inherent beauty to our fragile blue planet and the rational use of its resources.

The difficulty however, is that the very dialectic for both these extremes that reflect our position regarding nature is mistaken. It is not Man against Nature or that he has been fighting with it for a long time and now has to dress himself with another mentality in order to ’save’ it. Even our bodies are made of the same elements; it is the same air, water and food that sustain each of the body’s molecules. The cities are also just transformed Nature - the rocks that have become cement and steel, the trees that have been converted into beams, flooring and furniture, the ancient forests that have ended up as petroleum and later as plastic.

Nature is not something that starts where the cities finish. It’s everything we can see, touch and feel. It is worthwhile to reflect on the implications of quantum physics on our world vision. More than 80 years ago, it abandoned the division between observer (typically a human being) and the observed (typically inanimate matter). Both form one whole. One influences the other. Admittedly, this doesn’t only refer to matter, but what we do with it in the construction of a society. This doesn’t mean that the conscious entities called souls are matter, but together they form all situations that compose our reality here.

While we continue to see Nature as something separate, a passive subject like an unconscious patient on an operation table, we will not understand depth of the interrelationship and interdependence between ourselves and our planet that has been a like a long-standing marriage, which has gone sour. The dance between the observer and the observed implies that the external problems in Nature and therefore in society are the manifestations of the contamination and confusion that reign within us. They are inseparable.

Einstein’s famous phrase is important here – we can never change anything with the same mentality that created it. Klaus Töpfer, the United Nations Environmental Program executive director has put it very clearly: “Our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, but it has simply not kept pace with our ability to alter them. We can continue blindly altering Earth’s ecosystems, or we can learn to use them more sustainably.” Our capacity to change ecosystems is proportional to our capacity to change our own consciousness.

Our true work goes way beyond of cost-benefit discussion of environmental programs. It also goes beyond the discussion about the needs of other living beings or the debate about what sustainable development really means.

In 2008, the world reached a historical milestone. For the first time, more than half the human population, 3.3 billion people was living in urban areas – many of them dreaming nostalgically about the Nature that used to exist in a more pristine state and forgetting that they are part of it. Destroying nature is destroying ourselves – literally. And by the way, how long before you get back to your deserted beach or house in the mountains?

Ken O’Donnell

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