“The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.”—Chief Seattle, The Chief Seattle’s Speech
“Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of Man.”—Rousseau, Emile or On Education
“Oooh, so Mother Nature needs a favor?! Well maybe she should have thought of that when she was besetting us with droughts and floods and poison monkeys! Nature started the fight for survival, and now she wants to quit because she’s losing. Well I say, hard cheese.”—Mr. Burns, The Simpsons
In America today, it is a common presumption—and an entirely rote and over-used marketing technique—that if something is “natural,” it is inherently better/healthier for us and better/more sustainable for the planet. It is also assumed to be of an intrinsically higher quality, much preferable to anything “artificial,” “synthetic” or “man-made.” Nature has now become automatically equated with goodness, thus frequently cited as a guide for the proper way that things should be done.
This is based on the accompanying proposition that it is immoral for us to think of ourselves as somehow higher, or more important, than the rest of the animals inhabiting our planet, as well as the Earth itself, and that this arrogance is leading us down a path toward mutually assured destruction. What right, it is asked, do Humans have that privileges us at the expense of these simple creatures who—unlike us—live harmoniously in-tune with Nature? Who do we think we are?
But what does it even mean for something to be “natural”?
As Rousseau states so eloquently above, strictly speaking, something can only be considered “natural” if it does not include an admixture of Human creativity or artifice—“the hands of Man”—or is merely a product of the blind force of the evolutionary process. Once we use our reason or imagination to alter any element of the beautifully uncontrived world, it becomes something-else—and apparently, something lesser for it. But if we follow this line of reasoning to its inevitable conclusion, then there is not one single element of Human life that can be considered “natural,” or put in even harsher terms, we are entirely un-natural beings.
Ever since that world-historical event, roughly 200,000 years ago, when the first “Human” gazed into a pool of water and realized that the creature staring back was himself—becoming Self-conscious—we have been engaged in a relentless process that has moved us further and further away from “Nature.”
The first prompting of this unprecedented Self-awareness must surely have been an appreciation for the privilege of his very existence and the sheer beauty of life and the world around him. However, this repose was to be short-lived because the second recognition must have been of his fragility, finitude and inevitable death—of which, as merely an animal, he had been blissfully unaware.
Death is the natural end of life, yet now fully conscious of the sweetness of existence, the last thing in the world he wished to do was die.
Generations passed and with it our ingenuity grew. We created tools to make life easier and more efficient, and built shelters to protect ourselves from the harsher elements of Nature; we domesticated animals for agriculture and travel, and covered our naked bodies with their hides; we tamed fire to bring light and warmth to the darkness, and re-routed waterways for our protection and convenience. Gradually, Nature began bending to our will and to our whims, serving us in the pursuit to better preserve ourself and push the prospect of death further and further toward the horizon.
In short: we progressed. We painted our art upon the canvas Nature had provided—transforming the face of the Earth and its strictly “natural” beauty.
All across the world civilizations began sprouting up, accompanied by ever-more contrivances: abstract thought, writing, painting, sculpting, music, dance, theater. Our imagination inflamed to even greater heights by these second-hand imitations of our initial vain artifices, we advanced still further from that once blessed state of Nature: the source of goodness and happiness; innocence and simplicity; health and virtue.
But our pride swelled as we continued to Self-directedly evolve and progress—leaving far behind our animal brethren to the restrictive demands of necessity. We soon realized that our uniquely creative powers made us free to do much more than just rearrange Nature—we could control it, and perhaps, one day even overcome the tyrannical laws it imposed upon us. Incredible revolutions of Industry and Technology were then set in motion in an attempt to gain mastery over Nature, creating the once unimaginable longevity, prosperity and comfort we enjoy today.
Yet this was still not enough for us. After such great success in our coup against the external world, we turned our instruments of innovation upon ourself, beginning a new project of internal reconstruction. We created glasses to strengthen our eyes when they grew too weak; false teeth to replace real ones when they fell out due to old age or neglect; vaccinations to spare us from the lottery of disease; artificial organs and limbs to replace the natural ones that failed; and pills for every conceivable symptom of irregularity—even ones that prevent the most natural purpose for which all organisms exist: procreation/replication.
So I ask again: What’s so good about Nature? Why have we become so obsessed all of a sudden with things being “all-natural,” with “no artificial ingredients”? But more importantly, what does that mean for us—for you and me? Is creativity truly the opposite of Nature? And if we really aren’t higher than the rest of the creatures inhabiting this planet, and Nature itself, then what does it mean for us to be natural?