One of the biggest and most dangerous mistakes we make is to assume that humans are not natural, that we are capable of acting in ways that are unnatural, and that we are somehow separate from nature. The belief in our separateness impairs our ability to have good relationship with the rest of the planet, and contributes to the harm we still seem to think we are entitled to cause. We may be natural, but we are going to turn ourselves into an endangered species if we do not preserve our own environment. Air, water and soil are not infinite resources, no matter how much we may want to pretend otherwise. Neither is oil, gas, or coal, on which our cultures currently depend.
All the wrongs in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the planet stem from that which we have made. Our industrialisation, our sciences, our meddling with nature, is all a direct consequence of our own, inherently creative nature. Our cleverness invents ever more ways to kill, damage, pollute and degrade.
At the same time, if anything is going to save us as a species, it will be that same capacity for innovation. We might yet invent our way out of the problem of fossil fuel dependence. We might yet create more sustainable ways of living. We might invent more social justice, and discover better ways to act as caretakers for the rest of the planet.
Anyone looking to ‘nature’ as a big, vague amorphous thing that isn’t us, might note that nothing else out there seems to be using its innate abilities to try and take care of other creatures, so why should we? It’s natural to predate, and seek the best for ourselves. It’s natural not to want to share, and not to care too much about the weaker things we squash. It’s natural to compete and to destroy competitors. It is natural to put our own comfort first, to think in the short term and pay no regard to the challenges future generations may face. Does the locust swarm worry about the farmer, or what tomorrow’s locusts will be eating? Of course not.
Nature is vast and diverse. It’s very easy to pick the ‘lessons from nature’ that you want to learn. As with yesterday’s post – nature taken as a whole thing can indeed be shown to offer nothing by way of inherent justice. But how about individual communities? Behaviour that harms the herd, or the pack, doesn’t tend to be tolerated by communal creatures. When we talk about ‘nature’ it’s like talking about the Bible – you can always find an example that will support your point of view.
As humans, it is in our nature to create. That’s not limited to the bardic arts, or even to science and technology. Our languages, social structures, laws, beliefs – these too have been created. We are capable of incredible ingenuity and innovation. There may be no justice in nature, but it is in our own natures to imagine its existence and strive towards it. There may be no fairness inherent in the world, yet still we can envisage fairness and make it part of our dealings with each other. It may be natural to let the weak and injured die, but we can choose to care for them. It would be arrogant to assume we are the only creatures capable of imagining in this way. Everything that has spirit may well be capable of imaginatively engaging with the whole, and creating anew. Trees are forever hybridising, inventing new forms of self. Nature gets into every niche. Urban foxes most certainly know how to innovate!
If we can imagine it, then it can exist. If we can imagine it, it is not unnatural, because we are part of nature. I doubt there were a bunch of mammals thinking ‘no, we’d better not get back in the sea, it’s not what’s natural for mammals’ at the time the first whales and dolphins were evolving. We cannot do other than what it is in our natures to do, but the potential within our nature is vast, perhaps infinite. Just because we can imagine a thing doesn’t make it a good idea, or clever. We are all capable of imagining things it would be better not to do, and as a species we don’t seem too great at enlightened self interest. But apparently that’s natural as well. For the purposes of long term survival, it’s going to require a bit of a rethink though.