Worshipping nature doesn’t help humanity
As human lives and communities are destroyed by floods in Australia, and we recall the devastation of the Haiti quake one year on, it’s appropriate to reflect on the continuing challenge humanity faces to work out how best to master nature.
As much as we can be in awe of the beauty of nature, we should resist the naive nature worship that ignores just how arbitrary and destructive it can be.
While we are in fact part of nature, we are that part of nature that is aware of itself. We are able to imagine and construct ways of shaping and managing nature to neutralise its (and our) dark side.
Some will protest that such a view is mere human hubris. They take the view that it is folly to try to master nature. They believe we should instead seek simple harmony with it.
It has seemed only natural to most humans throughout history, however, that we find ways of fighting the disease, cancers and genetic disabilities that nature cruelly inflicts. It has seemed only natural that through accumulating knowledge we seek to direct and pacify its destructive outbursts.
Now much of the talk about humans and the environment frames the discussion as if humans are not part of nature, and in starting this reflection I have begun to fall into similar language.
In fact, everything we do is natural. Even when we restructure a river and valley to create a dam, we do no more than a bower bird is doing in re-creating its environment to win over its potential mate, or, more apt, than a beaver is doing when it fells trees to secure its habitat. It is only ‘natural’, as I have said, that humans seek to control and master nature.
The difference with humanity, however, is the evolution of both consciousness and a moral instinct to defeat suffering and death. That evolutionary combination has expressed itself in an accumulation of scientific knowledge that affords ever increasing opportunities for us to work on nature to develop its gentler, more beautiful, character and to subdue its tempestuousness and destructiveness.
And so we forge tools from the earth itself to protect ourselves and prosper; we develop moral codes and culture to master and civilise our own human nature; we change the course of rivers to control and manage water; we manage and modify food sources to defeat famine; we develop drugs to defeat germs, viruses, and cancers, indeed to defeat pain itself; we take control of and direct our reproductive processes; and we even dare to tackle our often disabling and limiting genetic makeup.
When we see the destruction and human tragedy of a flood, hurricane, earthquake or eruption, or indeed when we are simply touched at the individual level by a life tormented by a cancer, we should redouble our commitment to supporting private and public expenditure for scientific research. And we should redouble our commitment to programs whose purpose is to subject nature to that part of itself that is most able to control it and promote its kinder aspects – humanity.
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