Nature is Not “Out There”

It would be great to be able to be legitimately amazed that people don’t understand that we depend on the natural world for literally everything, and that anything that upsets its equilibrium is bound to harm us, too.

But we can’t be amazed by people’s ignorance of our dependence on nature. Just as prehistoric humans (or hunter-gatherers, or traditional farming cultures) understand this dependence from experience, so industrial humans learn the opposite: That nature, to the extent that it’s not simply our servant, is just a matter of aesthetics. Species die, the atmosphere warms, topsoil washes out to sea – all too bad, of course, but none of it really matters. Somebody will figure it out. Won’t affect us.

I was reminded of this ingrained mentality by an NPR report last week about plans to build a coal depot in coastal Washington state. Some neighbors oppose the project, understandably enough, because it will be an eyesore and will dirty the air and the water, among other drawbacks.

The reporter raised another issue: What about the fact that the depot would facilitate the burning of coal, which is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas? (The depot would ship U.S. coal to China.) Well, said one opponent of the project, that’s not an effective issue to raise. People don’t care about climate change, he said. “People care about their own lives.”

Somewhere, perhaps, there’ll be people who aren’t affected by climate change – a process, already well under way, that will alter the very climatological terms under which civilization itself arose. These will be people who don’t need food, or water. The climate that’s changing is the one that allowed agriculture as we know it, and hence civilization itself, to develop.

Those terms are now becoming obsolete, as warmer air leads – for starters — to faster cycles of evaporation and changing rain patterns, like more flooding in some places and more drought elsewhere.

The descendents of those first agricultural societies increasingly developed their technology. Somewhere in the past few hundred years, it reached the point that people stopped needing to rely on nature directly for their living: hunting their food, or growing it, for instance. Somebody else did that for them; now even the waste we make is sent far away.

We believe ourselves outside of nature, independent of it. That’s a comforting fiction, as it leads us to downplay the value of what we’re so busying destroying. But it won’t be comforting forever.

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