People like to think we are not a part of nature. ‘Society has evolved beyond nature’. ‘Agriculture and technology allowed humans to break free from the natural world’; ‘Get away to Nature!’ These catch cries aim to separate humans from nature. They imply that our technology and societies allow us to ignore the constraints and responsibilities of living as part of the natural world.
Why do we think we have moved beyond nature?
What makes some people think we have ‘evolved beyond nature’? Perhaps it’s because of the things we can do; because we have agriculture, because of our complex societies, because of our use of tools and machines and because we can alter the physical and biological environment around us?
Let’s think about that.
When we look at the animal kingdom we think it’s amazing and natural. It’s natural when we see ants behave as farmers – protecting aphids and harvesting their sweet excretions.
It’s natural when wolves form packs – providing the group social and hunting advantages.
We call it natural when chimpanzees use slender grass stalks as tools to harvest termites from a nest.
And we call it natural when a beaver fells the trees and builds a dam – altering riverine flows and stream ecology creating a habitat suiting its form.
We’ve seen these displays of co-operation, communication, ecosystem engineering and intelligence in many documentaries and when you think about it, we’re very similar. It’s not that big a leap! Humans are as natural as any other animal.
Humans and their actions are natural it’s just the scale that’s different
It’s not the things we do that makes us different, it’s the scale of our actions. Our actions are on a greater scale than ever before.
Bigger, more powerful, more productive is the human way. We’ve gone global. The size of our ‘footprint’ is what makes us different.
Humans have dammed enormous rivers – more than a few streams. They have cleared thousands of hectares of rainforest for agriculture – more than a few fields, and fished every ocean with boats that can catch hundreds of tonnes of fish – more than a few coastal schools of fish.
At first glance these large scale activities, like converting entire prairies to agriculture and damming enormous rivers, appear to set us free from nature. Initially they give us bountiful supplies of food and water, but have they actually bound us closer to nature?
Let’s think about that; have all these advances actually bound us closer to nature?
These sorts of advances have allowed the human population to grow exponentially. This brings with it greater urbanisation and investment in roads, buildings and other facilities. Today there are more people and more ‘achievements’ to lose when things go wrong. Recalling a few recent natural disasters highlights this point.
Agriculture is a massive undertaking. Farmers all around the world are affected by nature. Good rains and sunshine bring good crops, but drought, flooding and pests bring disaster, poverty and perhaps famine. Simply because of the massive scale of our agricultural production, there is much to lose if nature is unfavourable.
A Flea on An Elephant’s Back
Imagine the world 400 years ago. Bison roamed the plains of North America, the Ural Sea provided bounties of fish and the southern ocean was exploding with whales and seals. In those days cutting down a few trees in Brasil was an insignificant loss when you consider the size of the Amazon rainforest. The loss of those bison harvested by the Plains Indians had a negligible effect on the resilience of the entire bison population. The Inuit harvest of the odd bowhead whale had little effect on the resilience of the bowhead whale population.
Back then, human actions had a negligible effect on the stability and resilience of the natural world. Humans, at a global scale, were essentially free of the burden of environmental stewardship. Free to act without thought for the future. Free of the burdens of repercussions and costs for their actions. True, people could damage their local environment, for example pollute their own stream, but it was rare for their actions to have an impact over an area bigger than an area as big as a modern city. If Nature were an elephant, human actions nothing more than a flea on it’s back.
Today humans are global. Their activities operate on the global scale. For example, globally, humans have doubled the rate of nitrogen entering the land based nitrogen cycle, they have altered the amount of ozone in the atmosphere affecting the entire planet, they have altered the food webs of the oceans through their demand for seafood and now are altering global climates and ocean currents though the release of greenhouse gases and deforestation.
The impact of our human activities is now on a global scale, with the ability to affect the natural systems that have provided us with a stable and resilient environment which in turn allowed us to flourish.
So no longer are our activities ‘like a flea on an elephant’s back’. Because of the advances our society has made, the scale of our activities now binds us closer to nature. If we want to continue to enjoy the natural environment and benefit from its stability and resilience we have to consider how our actions impact it. Our success brings with it the responsibility of stewardship.
Natural stability and resilience brings favour and good fortune, it’s in our interest to maintain that stability and resilience. Maintaining that stability and resilience is the challenge for the future.