We Are Nature

Mid Ocean ridge

The mid-ocean ridges are where new crust is added to the earth… The extrusion of submarine basalt flows supplied by feeder dykes at mid-ocean ridges may be less spectacular than the foaming lava fountains of Hawai’i, but it is more important to the world. This is how the ocean floor grows. It grows by stealth in the dark. …World seismic maps show a thin line of weak earthquakes closely following the ridges. The ridge as a whole is buoyed up by the heat that comes from below. The rift at its apex is the seam at the suture of creation. This is where plates are born and where they part company forever… In the simplest system to read, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the new crust is destined to move in the direction of either the Americas or of Europe and Africa….

Water from the sea can seep into the spreading system. In some of the more active spreading ridges it becomes superheated and charged with minerals in solution. This water then discharges through hydrothermal vents… at depth iron sulphide—or pyrites—builds fantastical chimneys. They are encrusted dark towers, and crazily teetering tubes. … The chimneys can reach sixty metres in height. Fluted and branched, they look like the façade of Gaudi’s famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia….Will the sea floor ever become the ultimate tourist destination? …For myself, I would prefer this last, inaccessible, wild place to remain in its dark security. The human touch has been so devastating elsewhere. This may be one place where we should satisfy our curiosity and then move on.”

Reading this passage from Richard Fortey’s book The Earth: An Intimate History made me wonder where humans fit in. The earth is ever-changing. Under the ocean, new crust is created while old crust is destroyed. In this process of change, fantastic creations appear. But when change on earth is the result of human action, it is, Fortey says, “devastating.” Fortey later in his book likens humans to ticks, calling us short-term parasites on the earth.

Michael Lind of the Breakthrough Institute calls this the “desecration paradigm.” He writes, “The desecration paradigm treats human appropriation or alteration of biomass, minerals or landscapes as an immoral profanation of something sacred…. The desecration paradigm makes no appeal to legitimate human interests. Rather the human race itself is seen as an evil force, alien to ‘nature’ which is identified with the entire universe other than human beings.”

Lind disdains this view that accords “nature” an intrinsic value unrelated to its value to us. The value in nature is exactly its use to humans, as Lind sees it. He approvingly quotes Lyndon Johnson’s Inaugural Address, “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say ‘Farewell.’ Is a new world coming? We welcome it – and we will bend it to the hopes of man.”

Lind adds, “His vision of nature is of a nature waiting to be transformed for human uses by technology. Adherents of the desecration paradigm would prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks, that ‘the unclimbed ridge’ is off-limits to tourists in a ‘road less wilderness,’ and that ‘the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground’ remains merely potential and the ground unplowed.”

In their views, Fortey and Lind have in common a dichotomy: Humans on one side, nature on the other.

Wait, if humans aren’t natural what are we?

Of course, a traditional answer is that we were created separately by God, and nature was put here also by God for our use. It does not appear that either Lind or Fortey are relying on this religious conception for their world views. Ultimately, they must both acknowledge: We are of this earth as much as any other life form. We are nature.

It is the dichotomy of humanity and nature as two separate spheres that is artificial. We cannot live without changing nature any more than the earth itself can cease to destroy and create itself. Our dilemma is not whether we preserve nature or use it. It is how we can best live as one part of the natural world. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. Lind acknowledges the need for environmental protection. When he quotes Lyndon Johnson he writes, “Johnson helped to usher in the modern era of environmental awareness and protection.”

Johnson looked on the environment as something to be “transformed for human uses by technology.” Fortey on the other hand, falls in with those who would, as Lind says, “prefer that ‘the uncrossed desert’ remain uncontaminated by human footprints or wheel-tracks.”

Are these the only choices? Must we either use the earth as raw material as if we were not of it, or leave as much of it as possible alone for the same reason?

But we are nature; we cannot subtract ourselves from it and stand aside. Another point of view I came across is that of the earth as our home (the original meaning of the now ubiquitous prefix “eco”). This perspective is put forward as the Humanist view in an article by William R. Patterson in the journal Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism.

Patterson sets out the humanist view of ethics. “Humanists believe that ethical values are created by human beings and that those values should be based upon the consequences that they have in the lives of human beings, whether they generate greater happiness, health and overall welfare for individual humans and for humanity as a whole. …The recognition that human beings are the sole source of moral decision-making leads to the acknowledgement that we should develop a profound sense of empathy and altruism for others, based upon our common humanity.”

Thus, Patterson writes, “Humanists are equally able to distance themselves from religious positions that place humanity at the apex of life by divine fiat and those on the opposite extreme which place a sacred value on the earth that militate against any use of the environment by human beings.”

Humanists see the measure of value as human beings. However, Patterson says that recognizing the interdependence of life that is revealed by science can “lead a humanist to embrace a moderately biocentric approach to nature. At the very least, a strict form of anthropocentrism must be rejected. Humanist David Schafer offers a useful middle ground with what he calls inclusive anthropocentrism.”

Patterson suggests that as Humanists we see the earth as our home. While our first concern is for ourselves, that is humanity, we know this earth with all its life forms is our home and we must keep it healthy in order for us to thrive. He says, “The world is, as Carl Sagan would say, our ‘pale blue dot.’ The earth is humanity’s only home and one we must cherish despite its flaws and blemishes.”

Perhaps this way of seeing ourselves within nature can allow us to thrive as humans on this earth while maintaining our home for not only ourselves but the other living beings with which we share the earth. The earth is ever-changing and so are we. We cannot help but change the earth ourselves, yet our interdependence with all life on earth means we cannot despoil this home of ours. We must take good care of it, for we are nature and we cannot separate ourselves from earth and life.

postscript: I do want to note that the pessimistic view of humanity that Richard Fortey expresses in a few places is by no means a theme of his book. Rather the book celebrates the earth and the scientists who have learned about it. It is well worth reading.

–Vicki Linton

photo from NOAA Photo Library on Flickr; Clam shell bed around a thermal mound in 2800 meters. Pacific Ocean, mid-ocean ridge.
Photographer: A. Malahoff. Credit: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); Univ. of Hawaii.

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