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.
By assigning the label “nature” to the world we have separated ourselves from it. Might I say that again: by assigning a name to nature, we inherently separate ourselves and in turn place an anthropomorphic value on something inherently non-human centric. As humans have evolved, we gained a thought process of analytical thinking and intense focus. We became the epitome of an apex species. We developed language- the ability to place symbolic meanings to thoughts and ideas. We can ponder the opportunities of the future instead of the present moment of survival. We expanded to having dominion over all of the environment. We have been able to build homes and cities, unlike any other species.
But what have we lost in the process? Being human means we have the capability to achieve anything we can imagine. With this, we also hold a responsibility to care for the immense, yet delicate world we inhabit. It is inherently our duty to protect the planet due to our capabilities. As humans evolved the choices we made and separate systems we developed contradict natural systems, and in turn have unforeseen consequences.
When human beings developed spoken language around 100,000 years ago nature that was once inseparable from our existence became an afterthought. Nature was an idea, formed into an “other.” We no longer depended on the unscathed environment alone to provide us with sources of food. From a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we then began developing clay pottery to store food. We removed the need to depend solely on an environment to sustain us and could remove our food sources from environmental conditions. The evidence we have of agricultural development comes from pottery, tools, and seeds dated back 12,000 years. Written language did not exist yet, but the beginnings of human detachment from an enviro-centric lifestyle had already begun. When we began agriculture, we were in control of how and where plants grew. We existed in a separate realm. We were able to transition from nomadic loves to stationary, building our lives separate from nature around it. We began the process of developing systems separate from nature.
We are only beginning to understand the implications. In many ways, we have lost our connection to what is a part of human wellbeing, the wellbeing of the ecosystem. The study of ecology began only in the 1890s with zoologist Ernst Haeckel, based on his holistic approach to biology. With the development of ego, we have separated ourselves from the environment from which we emerged. This can be both negative and positive, in that we have lost intuition and instinct, yet have constructed a world we made for ourselves through cities and homes. We are safe, comfortable, and seemingly unaffected by the natural flux of nature and its unfairness. We live detached, viewing nature as a place of unchanging peace in the fact of its natural, unlawful existence. We live in separate systems that do not lend themselves to being natural and resilient.
Being human means we have complete control over resources for the means of survival. This is not always justified. Natural disasters destroy human-made systems. In the past decade, the instances of extreme wildfire have increased so dramatically that it can no longer be labeled as an anomaly. In July of 2018 alone 2 million acres went up in flames. This is due to inadequate understanding of natural cycles and poor forest management. Negligence and ignorance of the environment have caused innumerable damages. If we studied and learned natural systems we would not have immense property damage and fatalities due to wildfires. Enhancing education on naturally occurring wildfires would prevent the vast burns in the future. We are also quickly reminded of our feeble condition during large storms when the homes that we have made separate from the earth are then destroyed by it. Hurricane Katrina was one of the first major hurricanes to gain attention. It came ripping through the Gulf of Mexico in August of 2005 causing $125 billion dollars of damage. Due to little knowledge of the original geography, Katrina caused 1,836 fatalities. If the natural ecosystem of the New Orleans area was considered in city planning then the extensive damage would have been mitigated. When we separate ourselves from nature it weakens our state. We build systems in society that do not follow the way nature works, and in turn, we are at risk of being destroyed by it. For example, no amount of technological advances can change how powerful storms affect buildings. To be detached from nature means we are weakened. Working as a part of nature has innumerable benefits, but is rejected by people through modern measures of societal wealth.
Modern economies are not based on natural cycles. Economic gain is expected to increase continually. In nature, nothing can grow exponentially without a complete ecosystem collapse. A continuous expectation of unstoppable growth is unrealistic and will be damaging in the long term. Like every system that does not mimic natural systems, they are bound for collapse. To reattach to the environment we must create systems that mimic natural cycles. When building or planning we must consider the ecosystem services present in the local area. If we continue to neglect these facts and continue with command and control action we will indisputably destroy ourselves. To do so we must create complex systems that are resilient. Optimization for one single output creates weak systems in the face of disruption. Ecosystems have multiple species holding one role so when disturbance naturally occurs it will not cause complete destruction. Understanding how complex systems behave and hypothesizing outcomes should be a common practice of any anthropomorphic system. The social and economic health of societies would improve if we do so.
If we detach from nature we cannot place the value of environmental health first. When we lose environmental health then we lose economic and social health. For humans to work within nature we will have to work within systems that are non-linear. Currently, most of the systems enacted in the human realm are linear. We extract, produce, use, and dispose. Nature does not work that way. Nature operates through constantly regenerating other systems with waste from the other. Natural systems have points-of-no-return, where linear growth causes a change that, after a certain point, is inevitably irreversible. We must understand this to be able to shape our human-made systems into ones that work sustainably, the way nature does.
To live naturally does not mean we must move out of our houses and again live as nomads hunting and gathering, but instead that we must alter our behavior to reflect the cyclical nature of the environment. In the future systems need to be resilient to change, non-linear, and constantly regenerate new growth. A new growth that as humans, we must start within ourselves.