My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Saturday, 9 December 2006

Nature's gifts (do we need them?)

An essay on the question, "do we need nature", written in 2003. It was written as an entry for a competition by the Economist magazine, on the issues outlined by the magazine as follows:

"Do we need nature? What are the difficult choices that need to be made in politics, economics, society and public policy? And who is right…? Those whose actions (or inactions) seek to increase man's control over nature, or those who seek to reduce man's control? Those who seek to bypass nature, or those who hope to work with it? Those who put a higher value on human development, or those who value the preservation, even the reconstitution of nature?"

Synopsis

In human eyes, nature sometimes seems to have a multiple personality disorder. It is both kind and cruel; both our humble servant and the capricious master of our fate. And we humans are likewise inconsistent. We seek to exploit nature’s resources, sometimes rapaciously, yet we worship its virginal beauty. We lord it over nature, but we fear the power of its tempests. These attitudes are evidence of a troubled relationship. Arising from our lack of understanding of nature, we are causing great damage to the global environment—polluting its air and poisoning its water. Our growing technological prowess threatens further problems.

Our conflict with nature originates from our nature as intelligent beings. All creatures thrive within their natural element: birds in the air, fish in the sea, worms in the soil. However, through science and technology, humans are able to overcome the laws that govern matter and all other life forms. The natural condition of our bodies is to walk the land and breathe the air, but we make artificial wings with which to fly, and scuba gear for breathing under water. Unfortunately, many of the outcomes of our ingenuity and enterprise are harmful to the natural environment, and therefore to ourselves.

The solution lies partly in acquiring greater scientific knowledge about nature’s processes, so as to better foresee the harmful consequences of proposed innovations. However, more significantly, we need a deeper understanding of our place in the universe. Not only does nature provide us with material resources, it also provides us with experiences that touch the soul, as poets like to remind us. There is an aspect of nature that is greater than ourselves, an immanence of the Divine. Through appreciation of this aspect of nature, we will be moved to treat it better.

Essay

Nature is a chameleon, a creature of changing colours. Nature is a nurturing mother and a ravenous beast; a treasure-store to be plundered and a sacred refuge for the sensitive soul; a wild jungle to be tamed and an eden of innocence to be preserved.

Our attitudes to nature tell us a lot about ourselves. If we see nature as the provider of infinite resources, as a whirlwind of capricious forces, as a mirror of the divine, or as the domain for scientific exploration—it is because we are beings who desire, who fear, who experience wonder, and who seek knowledge. Acting on these impulses, what we ask of nature, and the degree of our willingness to care for it in return, largely determine the character of our civilisation. There are many signs that our present global civilisation is asking too much and giving too little. The relationship between humanity and nature is under great strain; and yet the relationship absolutely must be made to work. We need to reach a better understanding of—and with—that tantalizing, ever-changing creature. We need a balanced perspective.

Daily new evidence appears of serious damage occurring to the environment as a result of human activity. One recent report was from the explorer, Jean Michel Cousteau, when he visited a chain of remote uninhabited islands north-west of Hawaii. He and the crew of his research ship expected to find an unspoiled wilderness, but instead they found tons of trash. The islands are located at a spot in the Pacific Ocean where currents converge and bring in flotsam from far away. On the beaches, Cousteau and his team found plastic toys, intact vials of medical drugs, miniature whiskey bottles, and assorted products of industry from all over the world. Numerous dead seabirds on the shores had perished due to eating morsels of plastic.

Those unpleasant products of human ingenuity washing up on remote shores highlight some of the major themes of our interaction with nature. Among them: human technological prowess and its negative effects, the complexity of the ecosystem, our inadequate understanding of that complexity, the global scope of environmental problems, and the grievous impact on the environment of our use-and-discard culture of consumerism. On the other hand, our inherent love for nature is reflected in the instinctive disgust provoked in us by hearing such a graphic tale of environmental degradation. Our relationship to nature is an emotional subject because it means everything to us. Outlined in broad strokes, nature’s gifts to us are:

  • Existence: our being alive is an outcome of nature’s evolutionary processes.

  • Sustenance: our food, drink, shelter, clothing, and all the resources that we use for survival and enjoyment, are provided by nature.

  • Intelligence: being endowed by nature with intelligence, we have the ability to understand nature’s laws and use them to our advantage.

  • Immanencei: through the contemplation of the divine beauty reflected in nature, we obtain insight and joy. Nature feeds the soul as well as the body.


When nature’s gifts are described in this way, obviously a definition of nature is being used that encompasses the whole of existence. The word “nature” has 20 definitions, according to one dictionaryii, the broadest and most abstract being: “the sum total of the forces at work throughout the universe”. A small step down the ladder of abstraction is: “the universe, with all its phenomena”. A few rungs lower is the definition that we as human beings we are mostly concerned with, in our parochial way: “the material world, especially as surrounding humankind and existing independently of human activities”. This last definition encapsulates a crucial dilemma of the human condition: we are surrounded by nature, totally dependent on it, but somehow separate from it, for it exists “independently of human activities”.


O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—W.B. Yeatsiii


What separates us from nature is our scientific and technological prowess. Natural phenomena, in contrast to human beings, unalterably obey natural laws. Fire always burns, water always flows, plants simply go on growing. Even animals, although sentient and having freedom of movement, are limited in their range of activities. Humans, uniquely, fashion wheels to reduce distance, telescopes to augment eyesight, and vaccines to prevent disease. The human mind is a remarkable instrument, able to imaginatively project itself outward to distant galaxies, and peer down into the atom, in order to discover the secrets of nature through observation, experimentation and reason. So powerful is this instrument that we can even seriously pose the question: “do we need nature?” Of course we do, but the question is meaningful because we know that we are in some degree independent of nature. Probing just how far this independence goes is crucial for our self-understanding and progress.

To start such a probe we might ask: how did it come to be that humanity, a creature of nature, finds itself independent of it? A plausible answer is that the appearance of intelligent beings is inherent in nature itself. This theory runs along the following lines. As discovered by physics, the universe began with a “big bang” about 15 billion years ago. At that moment, the whole universe existed in the form of a single point (mathematically termed a “singularity”). All matter, space and time were compressed into this singularity, which exploded outwards and has continued to expand ever since. An observation by astronomers confirming the expansion is that the galaxies are not in fixed positions, but are rushing away from each other. Furthermore, not only is the cosmos expanding spatially, but it is also becoming more complex. The trend towards greater complexity is manifested in the evolution of life. Based on this scenario, it is argued that everything that has existed and will exist in the universe, including intelligent life (e.g., us), is an outcome of the properties inherent in the universe at the beginning. An analogy is that the pattern for the whole of a tree—its trunk, branches, leaves and fruit—is contained within the seed. If this view of the universe is correct, then it is natural for human beings to be unnatural!

As a result of our unnatural abilities, human intervention in nature has far-reaching effects. This is evident in cities, where concrete covers the soil—but in the country, nature is only relatively more liberated. The roof over our head may be of thatch or steel; our home may be surrounded by a formal garden or untamed weeds; our mode of transport may be a donkey (an animal under our control) or a Ferarri (a metal beast possibly under our control). The human interface with nature has thousands of such nuances. How may we judge that any of these variations is better or worse?

The choices we make are important because they determine our environment. We act on nature to create our environment, and in turn the environment influences our health and happiness, in a continuous loop. Although we can utilise and channel nature’s forces, we cannot dominate it. At times we have the illusion that we can, because of our ability to divert rivers, breed cattle, grow genetically engineered crops, overcome human fertility problems, and perform endless other feats. However, when nature is treated with disdain, it bites back. We know this from many examples constantly reported, of suffering resulting from things that go wrong. The poisoned air of big cities, the pollution of rivers, the destruction of rainforests, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, and the unforeseen side-effects of wonder-drugs, are familiar stories. Clearly we need to be making better choices, based on a more realistic and holistic understanding of nature.

Poets have traditionally been sensitive nature’s gifts. In the springtime, when nature’s power is most lavishly displayed, they have often been moved to heights of eloquence. Yet T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, “The Wasteland”iv, begins by saying that April, springtime in the northern hemisphere, “is the cruellest month”. It is an apt symbol for the discord between humanity and nature in modern civilisation. Similarly, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a few decades earlier, wrote of nature: “All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil”.v But Hopkins’ poem went on: “And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down in things”. For Hopkins, the world was “charged with the grandeur of God”. Such awe and respect for the aspect of nature which is greater than ourselves is the antidote to materialistic greed. An appreciation for the true significance of nature will empower us to rise to the best that we can be. As stated by Bahá’u’lláh:

How resplendent the luminaries of knowledge that shine in an atom, and how vast the oceans of wisdom that surge within a drop! To a supreme degree is this true of man, who, among all created things, hath been invested with the robe of such gifts, and hath been singled out for the glory of such distinction. For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed.vi

This essay has not tried to answer specific questions on the wisdom of genetic modification, nuclear power and the like. Such questions need to be weighed up in each case by taking into account a wide variety of information from the physical sciences, economics, sociology and politics. However, when a sense of spiritual principle guides the decision-making process, it is less likely that dreadful mistakes will be made. We gain a truer perspective on nature when we seek to rise to our potential as human beings and practice virtues such as justice, generosity, wisdom, and detachment. Then, when we utilise the earth’s resources, we also remember to preserve its beauty. When we seek to channel its forces, we do so with due regard for the consequences. As we seek knowledge of its processes, we experience wonder in the face of its mysteries. We see the earth as our home for a time, and as a legacy to be passed on to future generations. We need nature, and so will they.

APPENDIX

Nature’s Nest


Like birds that flit around a mountain crest
All creatures thrive within their element
Then do we humans — need nature’s nest?


Who crazed or blessed with intellectual zest
Traverse the earth in constant discontent
Like birds that flit around a mountain crest


Unceasing in our restless human quest
To shape the world as our intent is bent
Then do we humans — need nature’s nest?


Cruelly our crude aims nature will contest
And blow us on its rocky slopes all spent
Like birds that flit around a mountain crest


But when we turn our minds to seek its best
Reveals a richer realm for our ascent
Then do we humans — need nature’s nest?


Not less than a babe at the mother’s breast
We grow in a world for us most clement
Then do we humans — need nature’s nest?
Like birds that flit around a mountain crest

Footnotes

iEntry for “immanence” in the encyclopedia at www.Infoplease.com

immanence [Lat.,=dwelling in], in metaphysics, the presence within the natural world of a spiritual or cosmic principle, especially of the Deity. It is contrasted with transcendence. The immanence of God in the world is the basic feature of pantheism. Among the most important philosophies using the concept of immanence are Stoicism and the systems of Giordano Bruno and Spinoza. In general, the great monotheistic religions have held that God is both immanent and transcendent, although individual thinkers have tended to emphasize one or the other aspect.

iiThe definitions of “nature” referred to here are from the dictionary at www.Infoplease.com

iiiLast two lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “Among School Children”. See The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama and Prose, Richard J. Finneran, ed., Scribner Poetry, 1997, pp. 90–92

ivT.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, Frank Kermode, ed., Penguin Books, 2003.

vFrom “God’s Grandeur” in Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.H. Gardner, ed., Penguin Books, 1963, p. 27.

viBaha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 177

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