Our Relationship with Nature

*Please note: I haven’t been posting recently because there have been so few comments that I was not convinced anyone was reading my entries. If you read this entry, please post a comment (click the “Comment” link at the end). You don’t even have to write anything; I just want to use the number of comments to estimate how many people are reading. If no one is reading these, then I’m not going to bother posting any more. Thanks, John

Till now man has been up against Nature; from now on he will be up against his own nature.  ~Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1964

There is a basic antagonism between the philosophy of the industrial age and the philosophy of the conservationist. – Aldo Leopold

Environmental problems develop when there is an unhealthy relationship between humans and the environment. The ways people approach, treat, and think of nature depend on their self-image. According to Wilson [1] there are two competing types of human self-image, exemptionalist and naturalist. Exemptionalists believe that humans exist apart from environment and hold dominion over it. In western civilization, most believe that God made the environment for our benefit, and that we have the freedom to use it as we see fit. Using technology, we can improve our current environment or adapt to any new environments. In contrast, naturalists believe that humans have perfectly adapted to our environment through millions of years of evolution, but that we are now rapidly destroying that environment. However, we can only be happy when we live in our original, natural environment because it is prescribed in our genes. The basic principle of organic evolution called habitat selection states that species prefer and gravitate to the environment in which their genes were assembled. Thus, we are completely dependent on our environment, including other species.

Wilson supports the Naturalist view. He states that the failures of the Biosphere 2 project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioSphere_2) show that we and our environment are fragile and that our current technology cannot be used to create artificial sustainable environments. Exemptionalists claim that new technologies (power of the human mind) and free-market economies will provide adequate resources for the growing population; however, Wilson points out that there are limits to the amounts of water, arable land, oil, and food (including seafood), that can support us, and all of this is complicated by global warming. Exemptionalists are taking a gamble when they advise pressing forward with current policies and assume that technology will provide solutions to these growing problems before they become disasters. Ecologists like Wilson don’t like these gambles because they know that if we lose, we lose everything.

Wilson [1] believes that economists, who generally take the exemptionalist point of view, promote policies that are inconsistent with sustainability. Their economic models ignore human behavior, and they ignore the environment. A big problem is that they assume that there are adequate resources for all countries to have the same standard of living as the U.S.. However, the U.S. can only maintain its standard of living by using the resources of other countries (“economic miracles are not endogenous”), which we will demonstrate in detail later. Finally, economists do not use full-cost accounting, i.e., they don’t include the loss of natural resources. In this book I advocate a naturalist approach to solving environmental problems and achieving future sustainability.

The different approaches to nature are illustrated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Elves lived symbiotically with nature and are presented as pure and good, while the ugly and evil orcs used resources like trees in a non-renewable way and transformed their environment into a wasteland. Clearly, to Tolkien it was evil to destroy the beauty of nature. In the Lord of the Rings some humans sided with elves and some with orcs, just as today humanity is divided between naturalist and exemptionalist camps (I’m not trying to say that exemptionalists are as ugly as orcs).

I am a naturalist rather than an exemptionalist, so I believe it is most effective to work with rather than against nature. You must always keep in mind that Nature is a powerful force; it is constantly at work, and while your short bursts of work may be more intense, and the use of energy from oil can magnify your efforts, eventually Nature will win because it has limitless time. How did streams cut through mountains to create water gaps? How did ancient mountains almost completely erode away? In ”The World Without Us”, Alan Weisman [2] describes what would happen to our structures (cities, buildings) if humans disappeared. It wouldn’t take long for nature to completely erase the evidence of our existence.

1. Wilson, E.O., Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. 1998, New York, NY: Vintage Books. ISBN 367 0-679-45077-7.

2. Weisman, A., The World Without Us. 2007, New York, NY: Picador. ISBN 416 978-0-312-42790-0.


About johncayers

John C. Ayers is a Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University. As a geochemist he specializes in sustainability and also the chemistry of natural waters. He has been PI on 5 and co-Pi on 2 grants from the National Science Foundation, and has a publication h-index of 14. He has been Associate editor of American Mineralogist and Geochemical Transactions of the American Chemical Society, and does GIS consulting for the ERS group. He is currently writing a book titled " Sustainability: The Problems of Peak Oil, Global Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation."
This entry was posted in Economics, Environment, Future, Science, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Our Relationship with Nature

  1. Ben Iobst says:

    I stumbled upon your blog one day by searching for something related to sustainability for my company and reacted, "Hey, I know that guy!" It's been good reading. I haven't commented yet, but have kept up with most of your new posts and have been trying to go back through the previous ones. Keep up the good work! Also, let me know when your book is out. I'd love to read it.

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