Is Nature our enemy?

Nature is one of the most complicated terms in English or any language. It carries the weight of projected human fears and hopes, the marks of history and political conflict, the grounds for moral legitimation or condemnation.

Peterson, A. L. (2001). Being Human. University of California Press.

Hurricanes that have increased in number and volume, forest fires that have burned larger swaths of land, flooding, mudslides, viruses, and extinctions are multiplying. The planet is experiencing cascades of disasters that overwhelm human adaptation efforts.

Is nature our enemy?

For most of human history, and for ancient peoples especially, the answer to that question would have been ‘yes’. At every turn prehistoric farmers, hunters, gatherers and herders had constantly to battle the elements to put food on the table. In Medieval Europe, when the stories of Hansel and Gretel and Little Riding Hood were written, nature was represented as a hungry wolf, an evil force with malicious intent, ever ready to attack and consume the vulnerable children of the village. Plagues and diseases were a feature of urban city life, an invasion of human settlements, a product of the devil or evil forces from outside of otherwise peaceful and vulnerable God-fearing folk.

It matters less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function.

This was not by any measure a universal human attitude. Inuit and other indigenous people around the world developed a sense of partnership and community with nature even in the harshest environments, embedding themselves into the natural order. Animals, birds, and even rivers and trees were endowed with spirit and force, which could be destructive or generous. Many civilizations also grew to understand nature’s harshness as part of the order of the world, a way of creating balance and humility.

Humans often mistake their interactions with nature as a form of natural intentionality. It could be thought of as a twist on the idea of an ‘attribution error’. An attribution error happens when people explain individual actions as functions of the innate characteristics of the actor rather than as responses to a situation. In this twist, the actions of a natural or artificial being might be interpreted as intentional, and worthy of either blame or admiration. So, it might matter less to us whether an inanimate force is real, and more whether we interpret it broadly as a good or bad function. The cultural attitudes around nature affect how we make decisions, how we plan, how we use resources. Humans’ interpretation of nature then becomes a cultural force shaping decisions about how to understand the natural world, and the feedback cycle between natural and social worlds accelerates.

With the coming of the Anthropocene and the ‘triumph’ over nature wrought by the industrial revolution, newly-urban city folk softened their fears of nature and began to view it as benevolent, even spiritual and inspirational. During the late 1800s at the height of the colonial era, European estates became filled with exotic trophies, animals, plants, tokens, and artefacts gathered from around the world. The astounding successes of scientific methods convinced Europeans that they could master nature. Europeans were uniquely able to distance themselves from the worst of nature’s wrath, and so they perceived a kind of immunity to its harsher judgements. This sense of immunity allowed Europeans to believe, as they sheltered in cities that became dirty and disease-ridden, that nature was nothing to be feared. A view of the ‘natural cathedral’ and the wilderness ethos fueled a global tourism industry as Europeans sought benign natural experiences in remote locales.

Where are we today? Unsurprisingly, the ‘friendly wilderness’ image has not caught on with people in colonial situations, because culturally and materially their struggle continues and is made worse by colonial relationships. These experiences have heightened a material approach to nature quite different from the ‘wilderness’ view. This view sees nature as a complex partner in human endeavors, sometimes vicious and sometimes generous.

Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.

Today, climate change has upset the sense of immunity, insulation, separation, and benevolence enjoyed by the world’s cultural elites. Wilderness offers no escape from disease, extinction, pollution, and disasters, perhaps except for a brief respite and retreat. There is a growing awareness that nature is not defeated but is increasingly outside of human control and understanding, and nature is pissed.

With our classic inability to see past ourselves, some engage in an attribution error of growing proportions, nature is blamed for all of our own mistakes. The response is either resignation or a call to war. Resignation in this sense means divvying up spaces on the lifeboat. Going to war means we’ve forgotten that a war on nature is exactly how we got into this mess. And also that war hardly ever ends well even for the victors.

What are we to think in a time when nature seems to be again our enemy? There are plenty of people around all over the world who have a different view. Indigenous peoples with centuries of learning and experience understand nature as a complex system, of which we are an integral part. Consciousness, morality, and will is also natural, and not unique to humans. A reflective turn is needed to shift our understanding. We need to pierce the sense of immunity, separation, and distinctiveness that has led us down this road. The Anthropocene shift pushes us towards a degree of humility. It prompts a sense of connection and complex systems thinking which will not only bring a better understanding of nature, but will enable our survival and adaptation to it.