Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course Environmental Sustainability.
In Genesis 1:28 of the Bible, God looks upon his creation of mankind and bestows upon them the gift of the Earth. He accordingly instructs them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” From a historical perspective, I personally find it amazing that this was written two millennia ago, in a time when civilization was still only breaching the frontiers of the human experience. Despite the world being such a significantly different place and developmentally ancient in relative comparison to the modern day, it becomes evident to me that we’ve long been a species engrained to find pride in our ability to overcome adversity and thrive in our environment. Perhaps arising as a component of necessity in evolution, this sense of pride makes sense. Because nature once wasn’t always viewed as it is today—the realities of the all-giving components within it were also more strongly contrasted against an all-consuming world of danger.
Despite always being a land of bountiful harvest, what nature once meant between our generational worlds was still much different. Nature once meant drinking water from a seemingly innocent stream and dying prematurely from cholera. It meant a bad drought season causing famine for you and all that you held dear. Women would write wills prior to childbirth and the infant mortality rate stood at twenty times what it is today. What nature once embodied more-so than a force of giving was terror. In the time the Bible was written, one can only take pride in having seemingly conquered this force. In the process of transforming and manipulating nature to yield its rewards, we obtained a sense of transcendence over nature when coupled with having built the barriers that confined us from its pain. So significant was this perception in fact, that it even convinced the people of the time that we held an aspect in ourselves so powerful that human achievement could only be through divine right and appointment.
The pride we took in this trend served only to continue through the generations. As we continued to develop new technologies, birth-related fatalities grew to be of almost no concern, industrialization took place, and quality of life ascended. We attributed it to the ethos of “mankind above all” and took solace in our perceived dominion over the earth we inhabited.
However, a startling reality has become all too apparent as a global tragedy of the commons creeps upon us. The wanton disregard for how we’ve treated nature is beginning to have measurable effects on our concrete thrones erected atop the lands where natural systems once stood. In 2006, Hurricane Katrina was deemed the first climate-refugee producing event. Increased ocean temperatures associated with anthropogenic activities have created storm seasons so disastrous that the very terminology of “natural disaster” has been called for review by many. Projections for the upcoming decades and centuries hold similar blight outcomes as we continue to emphasize the importance of harvesting and utilizing natural capital in an unsustainable manner. Mass migration, economic collapse, famine, and war all exist as potential realities if nothing is done in regards to addressing the rates and manners in which we consume.
We’ve made the misconception that because we’ve pulled away from the painful realities within nature, that we’re better than nature. In recognizing superiority, we demand a recognition of non-unity or a complete non-acceptance of the fact that we’re a cog in that same machine. The great irony of this all is that the same elements of nature that drove us to evolve “apart” from one another are the same ones that will drive us to reframe our perspective to reimagine ourselves as integrated within nature, should we wish to continue to survive and progress as a species. Those same painful realities have managed to find a way of creeping up on us and inspiring fears of uncertainty and loss of the same luxuries it afforded to us in the first place.
And that’s not to say that all we have to learn from reaccepting our part as a component of nature is effective resource-management as some sort of mitigation technique. All that exists to environmentalism isn’t avoidance of prophetic doomsday. There are components of ourselves that we’ve also grown astray from that can be relearned through embracing a reality in which we are part of nature.
Take the culture of modern consumerism for example. Inherently, it is antithetical to being integrated with nature. When we value ourselves by what we own and even socialize through the same goods, we partake in something that is shockingly not healthy to the human mind. In the last hundred years, people have grown increasingly distant from one another. The demand for property has yielded more, larger homes in which there’s less interaction. Despite being more connected than ever in history with one another through smartphones, the internet, and social media, individuals have less real-valued friendships and less need for walking out of their secluded world to engage with others. Now, I’m not calling for something as drastic as the abolition of technology, but rather am suggesting that perhaps awakening our connectedness and part in the natural world can reinstill a healthy fostering of human-needed community. When we embrace the collective world as our home and all the components in it our worldly possessions, perhaps we will be more inclined to participate in a shared collectivist experience that reflects this rather than incessantly obsessing over the private homes and goods that we currently prioritize.
I can’t help but think that, had the authors of the Bible possessed a crystal ball in which they could see the future, they would have called for a good session of revisions in an editorial meeting. It’s all too clear in the present day that a dominative perspective toward nature is one that ultimately bears great consequences. It’s only through humbling ourselves and realizing we’re just as much as a part of nature as we are inhabitants of the earth that we can truly pave a path for continuous, but more importantly, profound living.