It was raining. Hard.
I was trying to get to class that day in San Marcos, and the visibility was starting to drop. I had a rain jacket on, but the rain had intensified since I had left my apartment, and all I was wearing was tennis shoes. The 20-minute walk from the parking lot I could always find a spot in was suddenly much less attractive.
I decided to bite the bullet and pay to park in one of the parking garages near the center of campus.
Normally, Texas State is a beautiful campus, cross-cut by a few small rivers and streams, which lie low down in their banks due to the heat. Today, they were reminding everyone that they were still there. At one point, a road that looked safe was making me wish I had a paddle in place of my laptop.
After escaping the foot-or-so of water, it began to hail. It was one of those days.
Once I parked in the garage I was disappointed to realize it wasn’t as close to my class as I had hoped. Ten minutes later, my pants were soaked, and my feet cold, but I’d somehow made it to class with three minutes to spare. Of my approximately 35 classmates, only ten or so would show up that day.
I don’t remember the exact topic, but I do remember this: the professor made a claim: Humans are a part of nature.
I’ve told you this story so that you can understand why I felt so strange, in light of the weather, responding the way I did.
“I don’t think that’s a safe assumption,” I said.
And it was one of those moments where it seemed like a few people had wanted to say something but didn’t want to disagree with the teacher, because over the next few minutes, some spoke up in agreement with me. Others didn’t. It was what it was.
Today, the environment is a philosophically-tricky subject, because it is not covered evenly. Most of the people who are writing about man’s relationship with and ethical obligations to the environment choose the topic because they already believe that the environment is valuable and being mistreated. People who don’t have particularly strong feelings about the environment aren’t going to take the time to publish an academic paper, and those whose interests run against the environment make their cases in terms of business instead of environmentalism.
Because of this, environmental philosophers are playing a competitive game without competition. Which probably explains why three ideas appear in almost all modern texts concerning man and nature.
- Judeo-Christian anti-environmentalism
It took opening the first article I could find on Google to find a stellar example of pantheism: “We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.”
The same article also hit upon the second idea: “At the heart of the Old Story is the idea that we humans are set apart from nature and here to conquer it. Berry cited the teaching in Genesis that humans should ‘subdue the Earth … and have dominion over every living thing.’”
If true, why do places like America, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe, places with a strong historical Judeo-Christian bent, have stronger environmental protections in place than places that lack it, such as China or India?
And then, Archeo-naturism, a term I just made up, that can roughly be defined as “Past Humans were much more closely connected to nature, and modern lives are necessarily lesser because they lack that connection.”
The primary problem with pantheism and archeo-naturism is that they aren’t provable, aren’t rational, and aren’t universally applicable. And, when you add in Judeo-Christian anti-environmentalism, you start to paint a picture of the people writing these articles, layman and professor alike.
Not that there’s a problem with that, but if the environment is depending on hippies to defend it, the environment is in trouble.
By definition, humans and their works are not a part of nature. Ralph Maughan puts it more simply than I would have, writing that “deciding if something is natural or not is determining if it is, or was created by, or depends on human actions . . . the opposite of natural is artificial, or maybe unnatural . . .”
Of course, just saying that something is defined a certain way doesn’t make it so, but we should still acknowledge that at least linguistically we think of everything humans do as separate from nature. Hobbes describes life outside of society as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” which describes the lives of most things that exist in nature.1
Compare wolves to domesticated dogs. Which group has an easier life? Which group lives the more natural life?
The answers are obvious. The domesticated dog’s life is much easier, but also unnatural. Living indoors, or on a certain plot of land, being walked around on a leash, eating preprocessed food out of a bowl; all of these things are decidedly unnatural, but also made possible to the dog through the trappings of human society.
Note that Hobbes doesn’t say that nature is bad, just that life outside of society is.
But, I do think the two are at odds.
It is conceivable that humans could be a part of nature, but they could not also be a part of society because society is itself unnatural. And society lends to its users a number of benefits, technology, medicine, justice, security, knowledge, which would all have to be spurned if humans were to ‘return to nature.’
While it’s true that you could find everything you need to find in nature, all of the same things can be found in society, but without expending as much energy. You could find a clean river to drink from, or turn on a faucet in your house. You could find healthy food in the wild or just go to the grocery store.
And, we shouldn’t mistake bad choices for a lack of choice. You could make and drink unclean water in your house, just as you could buy unhealthy food at the store. What society provides is a way to make good choices in a more time-and-effort efficient way, allowing you to do things that you would otherwise be unable to do in nature, like build cities, create art, and read this blog.
The final argument you often hear is that nature is so powerful that we must be a part of it. People point to hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and earthquakes as things that prove that nature still holds sway over us.
But more than at any previous point in human history, humans can influence nature. We divert rivers, build dams and artificial rivers (sometimes called canals). We drive entire species extinct. We repopulate areas with species that have since disappeared. We carry invasive species from one country to another on our boats and planes. We frack for oil and cause earthquakes.
There exist other options that we have no reason to choose, but possess the capability to do. We could level mountains with nukes, or by the use of more conventional earth-moving equipment. We could use gene-editing to rewrite the genetic code of every living organism we could get our hands on. Nature, while not completely under our control, is within the realm of things we could theoretically control, as much as we like books and films that argue the opposite. While it may not be within our capacity at this time, there is no firm reason that it shouldn’t be possible at a point in the future.
And, we systematically reduce nature’s influence on us, because while nature is not evil, it can be unpredictable (though less so with time. We can now detect earthquakes, tornados, and hurricanes well before they happen), and that unpredictability can be costly or dangerous. So, we farm because it’s more secure than depending on nature to provide. We build houses that not only have air-conditioning, defying the outdoor temperature, but also that can stand up to hurricanes and earthquakes. We build tornado shelters, and pump clean water into our homes, while safely disposing of waste.
To put it simply, there has never been a time when humans were less a part of nature than the present moment. We shouldn’t spurn nature because it is nature, but because what society offers us is far superior, and our place within the universe makes more sense when we view it through the lens of society, which profoundly affects us every day, than through nature, which affects us less by the day, and could one day be under our complete control.
- It has come to my attention that not everyone uses the word “society” like I do. I do think I’m still within a standard definition of the word, but if you want specificity on what I mean, see definitions 1 and 1a here