Recently I’ve been talking a lot about defining Paganism. Inevitably I’ve used the word ‘nature’ rather a lot to do this, which in turn brings up the question of what we mean by ‘nature’ in the first place. All too often we define nature in opposition to culture and other human activity. That which is most natural, is often understood to be that which has least been meddled with by us. This is not my definition.
Most of the time, if I’m talking about ‘nature’ it’s because it’s quicker than listing off all the things I mean. Land, sea, sky, geography and geology, plant, animal, fish, insect, bird, invertebrate, micro-organisms, bacteria, atoms. I also mean weather and climate, the cycle of the seasons, tides, the moon and stars, the cycles of living and dying, the process of eating. I mean bears shitting in the woods. And that’s a lot to drop in to every blog where the idea of nature seems relevant.
We are mammals. We are part of nature, and I think it’s our insistence that we are somehow separate from nature that causes most of the trouble. My impression is that for most of human history, human culture has simply been a way of managing our relationships with each other and with everything around us. Culture does not need to be at odds with nature. However, we’re on a trajectory to seek ever more control over the natural world, and to escape from its realities. Somewhere we crossed a line. We stopped doing a version of the things creatures do to make life more bearable (making shelters, using tools, singing etc) and started a process that makes this world ever less habitable for us.
So when it comes to issues of what humans do, rather than calling it ‘unnatural’ – which risks perpetuating the problem, I think we need to rebrand it as ‘bloody stupid’. We have natural impulses towards ease and convenience (like every other mammal out there given half a chance). When we knowingly take the ease and convenience to such extremes that it makes us physically and mentally ill and threatens the existence of life on the planet, that’s not unnatural, that’s stupid. It’s stupid because we’re choosing it, either by ignoring what’s happening, imagining we can get away with it, or being too caught up in the idea that this is what people do, to do differently.
We’ve told ourselves huge, complex stories about how being human means being above, and separate from nature. We’ve told ourselves that the rules of living and dying do not apply to us. We’ve told ourselves that we can have infinite growth with finite resources, and that we can burn everything, poison the water, chop down the trees, count the profits and expect life to carry on serving us.
Mostly what nature does when things get out of balance, is rebalance. Get too many of something, and the things that predate it will have a few really good years, and either the old balance returns or a new sort of balance is found. Life goes on. Not all species go on, but life endures. We are not separate from this, but the checks and balances to us will come from us. If we insist on poisoning ourselves, we will be poisoned. The more we try and fool ourselves into thinking we are not part of nature, the bigger the backlash is likely to be.