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 ENVS 390: Integrative Environmental Seminar.
“The rich diversity of the world’s cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth.”
—Aldo Leopold, The Upshot
As long as there has been poetry, there has been the pathetic fallacy: the idea that nature moves in harmony with human emotion. Truly, it is difficult to hear a bird sing in the morning and not find comfort in the tune. It often seems that no creature can make a joyful sound and not be at peace with the world. But, harsh as it may seem, this is simply not the case.
In reality, the bird calls because it must. We may never know exactly why it sings or what its song means, but obviously it is for more than just the pleasantness of the sound. Birds must communicate with lovers, fight with rivals, feed their young, and warn their friends, just as all other animals must. Nature does not exist to serve as a metaphor for the emotions of humanity, so why is it so often relegated to this role?
In this technological age, it is easier than ever to forget our origins. We can fly across oceans, flatten mountains, drain rivers, and turn entire landscapes into concrete jungles. With nature so under our control, bending its biological and physiological processes to fit the will of metaphor seems like a natural step; how easy it is to forget that we come from the Earth when we’ve made it to the moon. When we perceive ourselves as rulers over the environment rather than inhabitants of it, we see the biosphere and the ecological systems within it as a whole world that exists solely for our exploitation.
Urbanism centers around the notion that it is possible to be entirely separate from the wild, and it stems from the growing perception of separation between our worlds. We are still impacted by the same natural processes of life and death, but somehow it seems that the pageantry of our elegant built environments takes away the edge. When our society moved beyond the bare necessities, it stopped seeing life as a struggle for survival and started seeking comfort and amusement. Death no longer lives out in the open with us; it lurks in the shadows and moves along in whispers and glances. When we do not have to worry about where our next meal is coming from or what dangerous creatures lie ahead, it gets easier to forget that life is never risk-free. Our hospitals and supermarkets may sustain us, but they cannot obfuscate the fact that death and disease are fundamental characteristics of existence.
As we drifted away from the constant struggle of life in the wild, it became easier to look upon nature’s abundance as rightfully ours. Too many humans saw nature as a limitless resource, and took from it accordingly. Even now, with all of our capabilities to see and learn about the entire world, it is difficult to really comprehend the peril that many ecosystems are in and harder still to do something about it. After all, most of our knowledge of these far-off places comes to us through a computer screen.
Is it all bad, though? We may no longer think of ourselves as members of the ecological community, but this is only because we have been able to achieve such self-sufficiency. There may have been enormous human and environmental costs to industrializing the world, but our development of new technologies has also brought unprecedented benefits. Literal billions of people carry the sum of human knowledge in silicone boxes in their pockets at all moments of the day. Deadly plagues have been reduced to outdated entries in medical texts. Moving away from our unity with nature is but a side effect of our unprecedented success as a species.
Perhaps the answer is to have sympathy for both sides of the man-nature duality. We cannot go all the way back to nature, and that may be a good thing. Much of modernity truly improves our lives, and it would be foolish to admonish so many of the things that bring us health, safety, knowledge, and understanding. However, to believe that we no longer exist within nature due to the success of our species is simply wrong. A biocentric perspective does away with this falsity and serves to benefit the entire biosphere, not just the people within it. Habitat degradation, deforestation, pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and many other impending environmental catastrophes would not be received as passively as they are by governments, media, and the general populace. The side effects of human progress are our own fault, but in an environment-inclusive perspective, “progress” is redefined to improve humanity only within its broader context.
In short, having an awareness of our place on Earth, rather than the fallacy that we exist outside of the natural world, would stop us moving forward so blindly. It would be less acceptable to create islands of garbage if we understood how we are connected to the ocean—not in a figurative way, but in a way as natural and absolute as the biogeochemical cycles that govern Earth. We would be more than humanity; we would be a part of something as large as life itself.
Our roots never left us. Children are born with a desire to play in the dirt, to explore the woods, to swim in lakes, and to chase frogs along creeks. It is time to stop seeing the environment as a bounty, and look at the world once again through the honest eyes of children.