Martin LeFevre: Our view of nature establishes our worldview, and our worldview determines our view of nature. They are not the same thing however.
One’s worldview flows from one’s ideas or insights into human nature, while one’s view of nature reflects one’s ideas or insights into life, truth and God. And ideas and insights are very different animals.
Until man began to incontrovertibly decimate and destabilize the Earth’s interwoven ecosystems, the prevailing view of nature in the West was the Christian one. It’s concisely and poetically expressed in Genesis:
“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”
Crucially, God’s purported command came before the fall of Adam and Eve. So it’s peculiarly and particularly ironic that the ‘go forth and multiply’ injunction has been a rallying cry for man’s domination of the earth since the fall, one that Christians still follow despite man’s decimation of the earth. Of course many Christians deny man’s destructiveness, be it as the Sixth Extinction, or climate change.
A corollary of the dominion story of Genesis is the conquering narrative of the American West, and colonialists everywhere. For them, “nature was a battleground, a contentious, dangerous, alienating landscape, as unconcerned as an absent God, and just as powerful.”
Now that humans have domesticated nature (except for the euphemism of “climate change”), the tendency is toward a feel-good narrative. As a natural world doyen of the New York Times intones, “If you could watch skinks taking the afternoon sun, you would have no trouble understanding that wild creatures take great pleasure in the world.”
In this view of nature, humans aren’t masters or conquerors of nature, but rather man is magically made and operates just like all other animals: “It is to understand that we all exist in a magnificent, fragile body, beautiful and vulnerable at once. Not to ascribe human feelings to nonhuman animals…only to recognize kinship.”
This sentimentalized view of nature does not hearken back to the romantics as much as derive its treacly sustenance from a three-decade long project by philosophers of science to erase the difference between man and nature by locating human emotions and the human condition itself in evolutionary facts and fancies.
In the New Age conflation of man and nature, “the fallen world is peopled by predators and disease and the relentlessness of time, shot through with every kind of suffering.” In other words, “the fallen world” includes and encompasses nature, and “every living thing that moveth upon the earth!”
The self-deception is so great in such a view of nature that its proponents can say with a straight face, “I am not anthropomorphizing here.”
Let’s be clear. “The fallen world” belongs to an origin story of man (albeit the still influential foundation myth of the Old Testament), not to the predator-prey dynamic, which is as old as multicellular organisms. Placing predators in the same existential category as “disease, the relentlessness of time and suffering” is inane.
While animals certainly experience pain, both in nature and at the hands of humans, suffering requires psychology, which only humans (and perhaps higher mammals to some degree) possess. When we witness an elephant clearly mourning the death of her calf, we rightly say she’s suffering. But an unlimited capacity for suffering is a distinctly human trait, one that has been venerated in some religions.
Including nature in “the fallen world” of Christianity is to neither understand the Genesis story (which contains, in philosophical terms, a “theory of human nature”), nor to have an actual relationship with nature. Adding, “We also dwell in Eden, and every morning the world is trying to renew itself again”, compounds the conflation. Which world, the natural world or the human world?
It’s simply a denial of reality, both on the individual and human species level, to maintain, “We belong here, possum and person alike, robin and wren and rabbit, lizard and mole and armadillo.” Through no fault of their own, millions, perhaps billions of people don’t feel they belong anywhere. And at least since the first cities, most people don’t belong in nature.
Indeed, however many scientists try to erase the difference between man and nature, and however much New Agers personalize nature, alienation from nature is the human condition.
Given that the human adaptive pattern, arising from the evolution of ‘higher thought,’ is inherently separative, and that symbolic thought has alienated us from nature and is fragmenting the earth to the point of ecological collapse, what does it mean to have relationship with nature?
It means to hold these truths in one’s awareness, and observe without the observer in nature, even if it’s just in one’s backyard or patio.
Undivided awareness gathers non-directed attention, which allows insight into oneself and the human condition. And the awakening of insight does not project or anthropomorphize nature.
Methodless meditation heals the ancient rift between man and nature within one. And since human consciousness is a single stream below the surface level, ending thought/time and igniting insight begins to heal humanity as well.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
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