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.
The human desire for self-preservation and improvement inherently separates us from nature. It is this desire and separation that shapes our impact on the world around us. Our need for success and feeling of self-security encourages treating nature as a tool necessary for our well-being. It is these same emotions that allow us to utilize technology and it is from our ability to “[modify] nature for useful purposes [that] has distinguished the human family from the beginning” (Laudato Si’). Unfortunately, it is far too often this ability that allows us to feel separate or superior to nature. This feeling leads to the abusive, destructive relationship which humankind often has found itself in. Our ability to transform nature has led to a dominating cycle of constant over-use in the pursuit of constant advancement.
Humans’ thirst for self-improvement and boundless opportunity can be traced back to the beginning of history at a national level. In the period of the Roman Empire, the quest was to build the largest kingdoms to control the most resources. It was this same intense desire for expansion that led to their ultimate demise and collapse. In the colonial period, nations aggressively pursued wealth and international power through the exploitation of resources and peoples. These exploitations and the failure to understand limits eventually led to revolutions, annihilating the gains. During the Industrial Revolution, Britain chased to combine the power of science and machinery. It is this combination of desires still being experienced today in which humans failed to understand their integral connection with nature until a widespread ecological crisis occurs. This same thirst can also be seen at the individual level of humans in our everyday lives, whether it be through constructing taller skyscrapers, building larger homes, accumulating more belongings, or competing in athletics. Humans are inclined to outdo one another, to be the best, quickest, largest, or tallest often without regard to natural limits.
Human desire for competition combined with our ability to modify nature for personal gain formulates the perfect scenario for overuse. This scenario of overuse allows humans to craft a convenient framework for situations which allows them to separate nature into elements for conservation and elements that could be utilized for success. For example, if a human identified a tree as an element that should be preserved due to its beautiful coloring on fall days, this individual wouldn’t be tempted to cut down the tree. However, if the individual knew the tree’s potential to make them incredibly wealthy due to the mahogany wood it could provide, they would cut down the tree, perhaps beginning a logging business. It is this flexing framework that leads humans to continuously use nature as a mechanism to compete, challenge, or beat.
Whether or not humans realize it, this convenient framework combined with an inclination to outdo another human being is all in an effort to dominate or tackle the essence of nature. Humans are constantly at odds with nature due to their desire for individualism and thirst for power. This complex allows human to sever themselves from understanding nature and their individual role in the larger landscape, and operate solely and in a detached manner. This detachment allows humans to shift their perception dramatically, viewing nature as a tool for them to use. This causes humans to lose touch with reality until the environment degrades.
Ultimately, human’s instinctual desire for success and competition coupled with the ability to manipulate nature lead to a disconnection with nature causing degradation. It is this degradation that then alerts humans they could have possibly done wrong, or overused. However, until nature is overused, manipulated, or degraded to a point of visible distress, or even that risking no recovery, that humans will cease to see it as a separate entity meant for their selfish desire to succeed rather than an integral extension of the human-nature connection.