Friday, March 4, 2011

On our obligation to nature

I wonder whether the state of society and environment that we are faced with has been inevitable since the very beginning of the human species. We are faced with massive challenges of health and futurity. All the world and all the species that comprise it are at stake. Glaciers and watersheds and trees are at stake. These are the systems that support us, and that nurture us in ways we are unable to fully understand. The Earth will of course continue to exist with our without us, regardless of the environmental destruction we are causing through our careless behaviour. Yet I wonder, are humans behaving in a way that is natural? Are consolidation, economy and industrialisation natural outcomes of our mental capacities? Is the consequent environmental degradation associated with those social constructs a natural outcome?

I think back to defining moments in our history, and wonder whether it just had to be this way. We have been evolutionarily graced with mental capacities and abilities to communicate and feel emotions (not to say that other species aren't graced with these features), as well as the ability to used these abilities to dominate our landscapes and ecosystems. Therefore I wonder whether environmental degradation by a species capable of thinking a natural thing. I think we can trace the roots of much environmental harm to the settling of people. People chose to spend time in a single place, and plant a seed, and hope that it grew into a plant that fed them, rather than let nature do that for them. Yet hunter-gatherers survived for many hundreds of thousands of years, successfully. I would not be typing this blog post if they didn't survive. These groups of people were social, and they had customs and rituals. They would move around in search for what nature provided them. In fact, with agriculture, we have in some sense tried to play nature. Agriculture of course has led to segregation of efforts, and time to do things other than search for food. If you think along the lines that I have, this inevitably leads you down the road of humans extracting too much from a place, and not being in harmony with a place that is expansive. Wants inevitably grew over time, and contact with people from elsewhere made us want what they had. People from one place set out to conquer people from another place, with weapons and violence. They did so because they wanted the control of resources to satisfy their wants. Time passed, and consolidation of power happened because people have been able to use coercive power to wield control. Consolidation happened not only in government, but also in the the ability to provide necessities of life - water, food and shelter. All of this has led to environmental harm, as I've discussed previously in the blog.

Many might say from a religious or ethical standpoint that nature was created for us, and therefore our control over it is axiomatic. Some might say that we are just another animal species, and that since we've been graced with such amazing capacities, we are just implementing those capacities in a way that ensures our survival and comfort and pleasure. Yet I do feel that we cannot think of ourselves as just another species out to survive for ourselves. The argument of survival of the fittest just doesn't hold water in our world. I believe, as Wendell Berry has alluded, that there comes a point in the spectrum of mental and emotional capacities that we assume the burden of obligation - the obligation to be kind and respectful and caring to what it is that sustains us; we have an obligation to nature. Our societies and communities are full of obligations and defined by them - taxes and trust and e-mails and phone calls. In some sense, we cannot call ourselves human if these obligations didn't exist. So why not make the logical leap to an obligation to nature? Such an obligation will not allow us to think that what we do - clear cut forests, build massive artificial lakes, construct tall buildings - is natural. Progress in the way we've defined it cannot be assumed to be natural. Our mental and emotional capacities place on us the burden of defining our societies and communities and priorities with reverence, consideration, respect and wonder for all it is that surrounds us. We are obliged to do so.

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