Our Complicated Relationship with the Natural World

The great triumph of modern technology, and the global economy, is that it has managed to insulate large sections of mankind from the rigours on nature: people living in developed countries do not have to worry about being too hot or too cold, or being hungry, or being stranded with nothing to drink. They have no fear of predators, and do not have to regulate their lives by the rising and setting of the sun, or by the changing of the seasons.

In a sense, one could say that history is the story of the human struggle against the hardships of nature, and finding ways to live in relative comfort, no matter where one happens to find oneself on the face of the globe (in spite of the fact that an individual human being is one of the most vulnerable creatures in the known world). According to current understanding, homo sapiens evolved in the equatorial regions of the African continent, but, even there, our hairless bodies, and lack of sharp teeth and claws mean that the chances of a single person being able to survive for long on their own are quite slim. People derive their strength from being able to work together in groups, and to their ability to develop technologies adapted to whatever environment in which they are living.

The larger the human group, and the more complex the technology, the less subject people are to the day-to-day demands of nature. People who live by hunting and gathering, may have very sophisticated social structures and be skilled in the art of survival, but the way that they live from day to day is strongly determined by climate, the seasons, geography, and other basic realities of nature. The same applies to people who live primarily by managing flocks and herds of domesticated, or semi-domesticated animals. However, in agricultural societies, the situation is different. A small number of people can produce enough food for a larger number of people, people can have specialist trades and professions, and population density can grow. This allows the development of cities, and the creation of urban environments in which people can live in relative comfort, even in geographical locations to which human beings might not be physically adapted. Our notion of history has always been a study of the rise and fall of these city-based civilisations, mapping how different powers have emerged, grown to a certain size, spreading their influence over a wider geographical area, and then going into decline, to be replaced by a new, emerging, power which then follows the same trajectory.

Something that is generally lacking in this study of history is a consideration of what impact the separation from nature has upon the young people growing up in city-based civilisations. Human societies and human technologies evolve over periods of hundreds of years, but human beings do not. We are essentially the same creatures (in terms of biology) as those who were living by their wits hundreds of thousands, or millions, of years ago.

To a large extent a human being is born without an instinctive knowledge of the skills that they need to live in any particular place, or in a particular culture: almost everything has to be learnt. Originally, just in order to survive in a potentially hostile world, people would have had to develop a range of attributes from a young age: physical strength, agility, awareness, intelligence, etc., with the natural world posing a real threat to children who failed to learn. As parents, and carers, it is natural that we should try to protect children from the dangers and hardships that we may perceive in the natural world, but if we are too successful in doing so, we isolate children from the learning environment which they need in order to develop to their full potential.

A further problem is presented by the fact that complex societies (such as our own) require at least some of their members to master abstruse ideas relating to legal systems, science, religion, and government; these are subjects one step removed from the natural world. These were the areas which schools were originally meant to address – educating a select few from each new generation in the art of government. Historically, these educational programmes met with varying degrees of success; generally it is not easy to train people to be on the one hand physically strong and capable in practical activities, and, on the other hand, to also be skilled in administrative tasks. The marked historical tendency is for ruling elites to become weak and unmotivated after a few generations, and for power to shift to a new group of people who had had a more rigorous upbringing. Meanwhile, in advanced civilisations previous to our own, all the non-academic knowledge which helped to make life possible – farming techniques, textile working, metal-working, building techniques, engineering, etc. – were passed on within village communities by people still living in relative proximity to nature.

This was the case in Europe in the centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution: the high degree of urbanisation and centralised government that had prevailed in much of Europe in the time of the Roman Empire was avoided, but people still enjoyed many of the benefits of an advanced society. Most people lived in villages, local communities were strong, and most people were involved in farming, but there was still a legal system, and an advanced level of technology, as evidenced by the cathedrals and other public buildings dating from that period. Over the course of time, power shifted between different groups of competing aristocrats, but the essence of European civilisation was preserved by ordinary people working together on a local level, with day-to-day life dictated by the passing of the seasons, and the cycles of nature.

The factor that precipitated a change to this way of life would seem to have been Europeans stumbling across the New World: the exploration and exploitation of the New World led to creation of new global trade routes, and then, in order to supply these new trading routes, the industrialisation of manufacturing and agriculture. This in turn caused people to migrate from the countryside to the towns breaking the connection between people and the world of nature.

This process has continued to the present day with the result that a greater percentage of the world’s human population lives in an urban environment than ever before. Inevitably, people living in cities have different ideas from people living in the countryside – and develop different technologies, that, from their perspective represent progress and make life (in the city) better.

Over the past few centuries people have developed machines to grow their food for them, make clothes for them, and do most of the work that people used to do for ourselves, and for many years this was considered by people around the world to be a good and desirable thing. Now, it turns out that this technology is incompatible with the world of nature, and that unless something fairly drastic is done in the not-to-distant future, our technologies might render our world uninhabitable.

Re-forging a Healthy Relationship with Nature




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Gareth Lewis

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