As an evolution-based survival technique it’s natural for a species to see itself as superior over others if it is able to actually be superior. And by “superior” one might mean an ability to alter their surroundings to ensure their survival and ease of living. But as a species starts to dissociate itself from the daily grind of the majority of the planet — real minute by minute threats from predators, disease, hunger, and weather — that species might begin to believe in some inherent right to use others without any qualms or critical thinking. Perhaps this is how factory farming and deforestation begin, deeply embedded in both evolution and a culture of privilege and supremacy.
How can we evolve past our genetic programming for survival? Surely culture takes us there as, from generation to generation we indoctrinate ourselves in air conditioning, cheap food, the internet, and elixirs that ward off the measles and mumps. As a species that’s come from the grassland, however, we’re used to a wide open plain where we can see threats coming from a distance. This is why we work so hard to distance ourselves from nature—nature as tooth and claw. That distance is metaphysical and also very immediate and obvious, just take the amount of lawn our urban areas have. The default aesthetic mode is a monoculture of shortly-clipped grass that evokes not only the wealth and prestige of European aristocracy translated into the American dream of home ownership, but the implied safety of being able to see our kids play or pets chase a squirrel.
But lawns are dangerous and destructive. A plethora of studies show that children who are allowed free play in a more natural setting—shrubs, trees, flowers, streams—are more creative, better able to work in groups, and have improved test scores. Workers in office buildings with a view of more complex nature are more productive and healthcare costs go down, while patients in hospitals with a similar view recover sooner. Urban nature filled not with lawns but with diverse tree cover, shrubs, and flower beds are not places for murderers to stalks victims but places where air and water are cleaned and spirits lifted. When we hear a bird or see a butterfly or smell a flower or touch a caterpillar we are instantly transformed—taken out of ourselves and our own language into the language of others, or to put it more succinctly, our empathy for others and ourselves clicks into action.
When we are devoid of nature in our daily lives—either at home or in our commutes to work and school—we lose, and all life around us loses with us. Nature is not a magical vista we escape to on a weekend trip, something to recharge our souls; nature is a daily exchange of thought and form, of learning the language of others, of being in the presence of all that has given us the rare opportunity to allow ourselves to be either supremacists or cultivators of equality. When we see ourselves as better than or separate from a moth, a beetle, a bird, a coneflower, an oak, a stream, or a prairie, we fuel not just our survival but our downfall. That complex reality is a gift, just as diversity in the natural world is a gift. Daily nature is or calling, a biophilia programmed within us, and when we push it aside we feel the subtle chaos of anger, depression, and illness rise within. We don’t know it, we can’t name it, but when we stop for a moment in a wood or field we understand it and wonder why we live the way we do, and why that living is a drug we can’t quit until nature forces our hand.