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.
In his recent 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis asserts, “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live…We are part of nature.” Pope Francis brings to mind the notion of holism, in which each piece or unit of this planet can only be understood as part of the larger biotic community. Conservationist Aldo Leopold underscores this concept in his novel A Sand County Almanac. In the passage “Thinking Like A Mountain,” after shooting and killing a wolf during a hunting expedition, Leopold saw the flames of a fierce green fire extinguish in the eyes of the wolf. When the flames burned out, it was only then that he realized the interconnectedness of every living thing and how wildlife populations are part of the larger picture of life itself.
Like Pope Francis and Aldo Leopold, global societies perceive themselves as a part of nature in varied ways. Thinkers posit we should see ourselves as part of nature, but simultaneously be able to establish a boundary of veneration for natural places as reflected in the Daoist philosophy. Daoism looks at the vastness of reality and emphasizes being natural as being true to oneself. The philosophy is critical to progress, wealth, consumerism, and industrialization, and thus, upholds appreciation of wild places and treating nature with respect. Therefore, both preservation and an integration of society and nature are crucial. The Deep Ecology Movement can be seen as the Western world’s expression of Daoism. Deep Ecology advocates for biocentrism in place of anthropocentrism, in which Earth’s needs come first before our own human-centered desires. Many countries often lack the capacity to do this. The growing disparity between First and Third World nations inhibits a respect of natural boundaries when everyone is immensely different in relation to capacity, resources, and lifestyles. Thinking in terms of equitable sustainability offers a way to reconcile competing aspirations between countries that are on the precipice of ecological cataclysm.
The question now becomes: How do we define nature? Nature is understood as the state, condition, or quality that is before, separate, or outside of society, human history, and volition. One may say our perception of nature is socially constructed. Due to our consumer-based society, nature is viewed as an instrument of monetary value rather than holding intrinsic worth. Consequently, the crisis of the Earth is not a crisis of nature but a crisis of society itself. We have defined nature as untouched, but humans and nature are linked through cycles of reciprocity. Nature without a human fingerprint is incomplete. But at what point did we stop seeing ourselves as a part of nature? Or rather, what happens when we start to view ourselves as a part of nature in the age of the Anthropocene, when humanity’s impact on the environment is unprecedented? One might say it begins at birth and through processes of socialization.
Environmental writer and reporter, Emma Marris, argues that we are taught to see ourselves apart from nature. For example, we are taught national parks are the epitome of brute nature at work; however, nature is everywhere and all around us—one just needs to look for it. Nature can be as minuscule as the plant that grows between the cracks on the city sidewalks. It is embodied from the shores of Lake Michigan to our metropolitan parks and vacant lots.
Alas, to “think like a mountain” and see ourselves as part of nature has been a mindset seldom embraced by societies over time. The perception of humans as being separate from nature has given way to environmental debasement on a planetary scale, in which the subjugation of nature and humans has gone hand in hand.
Ecological collapse can be dated back as far as the ancient Sumerians, the Mayans, the Polynesians of Easter Island, and the Roman Empire. For instance, increased climate variability, in addition to air pollution, deforestation, and lead poisoning, has been associated with contributing to the demise of the Roman Empire. The rise of capitalism and the subsequent Industrial Revolution led to key changes in population, energy, industrialization, and urbanization. Today, we have surpassed the 400-parts-per-million threshold for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and such is a consequence of primary factors like fossil fuel burning and large-scale agriculture. Subsequently, oceans are rising and acidifying, Arctic permafrost is disintegrating, and thousands of animal and plant species have become displaced, endangered, or threatened. Human activity alone is forcing more than 800 species into extinction in the past 500 years. We are in the age of the Anthropocene, which is the geological epoch radically impacted by human activity. Such phenomena have coincided with its emergence and as a result our carrying capacity is increasingly shrinking.
The earliest discernment of nature is akin to the story of Adam and Eve, who were banished into the wilderness by God. Wilderness was believed to embody a sense of God, where the forest became a metaphor for the encounter with the Creator, but also a place of insatiable temptation. Settlers thought inhabitants needed to be purified and tamed. Subsequently, the land was seen as a vessel of economic advancement and dominion. This same ideology can be seen today, as forced exclusion and environmental devastation have become a global policy and the means in which we attain “progress.” This is true in contemporary cases such as the Dakota Access crude oil pipeline, deforestation and the extraction of the Amazon rainforest, and the climate-change refugee crisis perpetuated by First World nations.
If we want to withdraw from this state of disconnectedness, it is never too late to begin to view ourselves as a part of nature and the wider biotic population. We can restore our relationship with nature through valuing the sacredness of all life. Therein, lies the solution to one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Pope Francis. (May 24, 2015) “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home.” Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html
Marris, Emma. (July 13, 2016) “Emma Marris – Nature Is Everywhere We Just Need to Earn to See It.” TEDNPR. Retrieved May 29, 2017 from https://www.ted.com/talks/emma_marris_nature_is_everywhere_we_just_need_to_learn_to_see_it
Light, John A. (January 26, 2011) “Was the Roman Empire a Victim of Climate Change?” PBS. Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/environment/was-the-roman-empire-a-victim-of-climate-change/6724/
Ahn, Edward. (n.d.) “The Roman Empire’s Effect on its Environment.” Retrieved May 29, 2017 from https://romanenvironment.wordpress.com/environmentalproblems/
Kasnoff, C. (n.d.) “The Plight of Endangered Species.” Endangered Earth. Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://www.endangeredearth.com/