“You don’t need to do anything, because if you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomenon of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that, and there is nothing wrong with you at all.” ― Alan Watts
Nature, or rather “nature,” has been the inspiration for many poems, religions, ad campaigns and social movements. Our conception of nature contains an essence of purity and harmony. We imagine fields of colorful flowers, green forests and soothing ocean waves crashing against beach rocks. We buy “All-Natural Yogurt,” natural cleaning products and worry about our effect on nature.
By doing so we treat nature as something other, a force separate from humanity. There are natural disasters that happen to us, as if we are viruses attacked by the planet’s immune system. We blame ourselves for destroying ecosystems and rally to save the planet! We feel guilty about our effect on other species and condemn ourselves for our impact. In all of this, we draw a line between nature and human existence.
Through this kind of faulty thinking we have created a false dichotomy between ourselves and the rest of existence. We forget the splendid truth of our our origins experienced during sunsets and in the expansiveness of a mountain view. We feel, at times, there is a missing a piece to the puzzle. Maybe we are the missing piece.
Here are four misconceptions about human impact that create unnecessary hostility and alienation towards our very existence and pit us against the world we call home.
1. We are nature.
Not a part, we’re it. What else could we be? We are composed of the same material as everything else in the universe. We come from the Earth, not as an accident or some cosmic fluke, but rather as a flower blossoms. We are the ongoing process of particular conditions in atmosphere, minerals and time (I’m talking evolution here). We look around and see a world separate from ourselves, yet our very existence is inseparable and dependant on the whole of it: from atoms to skyscrapers. We’re as natural as the trees, bees, fleas and seas.
2. What we create is natural.
Following this logic, if we’re natural, then so is everything we do. What else could nature create but the natural? However, we use the term “unnatural” to describe all sorts of human creations: plastics, buildings, GMOs, nuclear bombs, processed food, etc. Calling these “unnatural” is a put down on the objects themselves and on our own place in nature. It’s tough to swallow, but plastic is as natural as a potato. Plastic just undergoes a different process, Humanification. Humanification means creation by humans, which, as stated before, are a natural process in themselves.
3. Natural does not mean good.
If you are feeling uneasy about the idea of natural plastic, it’s probably because of the assumption that natural=good. However, when we do this we mistakenly make an appeal to nature and commit the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy occurs when we make an ethical inference about an object based on it’s natural (or unnatural) properties. For example, natural forests are “good” because of the pleasant effect they have on us while taking a walk, whereas litter is “bad” and “unnatural” because of its apparent interference with the beauty of the forest.
Furthermore, hurricanes, poisonous mushrooms and sinkholes are also natural. However, we rarely label them as “good” because of the negative effects they have on human life. In addition, surgical intervention, antibiotics, and pasteurization are not found outside of humanity, therefore labelled “unnatural,” yet we generally view them as good. Likewise, plastic is not “bad” because it’s unnatural, but rather because of the impact it has on human life and lifeforms valued by humans.
4. Impact is not good or bad.
Lastly, if we are nature, what we create is natural and nature is neither good nor bad, then our impact must also be neither good nor bad. Worrying about saving the planet isn’t an environmental issue per se, but rather a matter of human self-interest. Simply put, we want to keep existing and have a nice place to live. However, instead of stating this outright, we disguise it with a tone of guilty indebtedness to the natural order.
Human beings are a force of nature. It’s incorrect to state that a shift in plate tectonics or a hurricane is “bad” for the natural world. They are the natural world. At the same time, destruction of ecosystems, extinction of species, overfishing of the oceans and climate change are all aspects of natural human forces. In order to make an ethical judgement about this we would have to observe our effect on the world outside of the natural order. Which is impossible.
We are the natural order. Playing our role isn’t an impact, it’s simply the way of things. As a species, we fear change, especially monumental, Earth altering change. However, the rest of the universe seems to move quite easily through change. If these changes include the end of humanity, then that’s the way of it. I’m not being fatalistic, we can make huge strides to maintain a livable environment for generations to come. In the end, like everything else, our existence will end and a new paradigm will begin.
Dropping Our Distinctions
We often try to bargain with ourselves. Maybe since we have the capability to recognize our own destructive behaviors then we can change our ways. Yes, we do have the ability to change and we should if life is our ultimate value. On the other hand, if we end up causing our own extinction, then we share the same fate as billions of other species who were not equipped to survive. It’s not right, it’s not wrong. It just is.
The point is to recognize that we are nature. Validating our existence by attempting to be natural, to become one with nature is as futile as trying to bite our own mouth. Whether we live in a big city apartment or wooden shack, we cannot escape what we are. We can strive to be happy, to be free and to care for ourselves and others. However, mentally distancing ourselves from the carbon in our cells and oxygen in our lungs has a profound impact on how we feel about our place within the swirling stars. Instead, let’s drop the distinction, stop striving and just be.