Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Nature: The Insider's View

We live at a momentous time in history punctuated by a race between two tipping points. On the one hand, anthropogenic effects such as increasing poverty, populations, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat destruction are swiftly pushing the biosphere to the brink of disaster, with no less than the collapse of civilization looming on the horizon. On the other hand, humanity is rapidly waking up to the fact that civilization in its current form is simply not viable, and that we must mobilize quickly, likely within a generation, if we are to avoid catastrophe. For now, it remains uncertain which of these tipping points will be surpassed first, but we owe it to future generations (human and nonhuman) to do everything we can to hasten the arrival of the latter. You may be surprised to learn that the external tools needed to set humanity on a new, sustainable course—including technologies, knowledge, and wealth—are already in place. The central problem in this crisis is our response, which remains sluggish. (For skeptics and non-skeptics alike, I strongly recommend Lester Brown’s updated book, Plan B 4.0, an outstanding and insightful summary of our current ecological predicament and available external solutions.) (1).

The most critical sustainability issue still to be resolved, then, is not external, but internal—a matter of perception rather than technology. The industrialized world remains crippled by an outdated worldview, one founded on a long-standing, yet erroneous assumption—the existence of humanity outside nature. Thus, for example, despite the fact that nature provides the material basis of the economy and that we clearly live on a finite planet, economists (and many others) regard the natural world as a subset of the economy and continue to speak of limitless growth. Yet clearly the opposite is true; the economy is a subset of nature, as evidenced by the fact that we are approaching or exceeding ecological (and thus economic) limits around the world. Another closely related imperative is human domination over nature, which has reduced the natural world to objects and resources (forests as board feet of lumber, oceans as commercial fisheries). Perceiving ourselves as outside of, and superior to, nature, we feel entitled to exploit natural “resources” at will. Emotionally isolated from the nonhuman world, we are left adrift in a sea of objects without any meaningful home, let alone a desire to protect or nurture that home. In addition to new technologies, economies, and lifestyles, then, the sustainability revolution must include a radical shift in worldviews, one that reconfigures the human-nature relationship.

How did we get so far off track? How did nature become “other,” something to be dominated and exploited? The human-nature divide dates back more than 2000 years, closely tied to the development of Western civilization (2). Early Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, while regarding nature as a vast living organism, nevertheless separated humanity from the rest of creation, citing analytical reason as the critical distinguishing feature. Later, Judeo-Christian traditions carried this idea further, positioning humans at the apex of creation, with divinely decreed dominion over nature. Suddenly, the natural world resided at the bottom of a “Great Chain of Being,” with humanity positioned at the halfway point between beasts and angels. Nature in these religious conceptions was sometimes conceived as evil, forcing humans to repress their “lower,” animal nature in order to realize a “higher, celestial stature. Increasingly, the notion of conquering, exploiting, and enslaving nature became engrained in the Western mind.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, human dominion over nature became secularized, now driven by the scientific revolution. No longer linked through a Great Chain, a conceptual chasm formed between humans and nature. Such luminaries as Galileo, Newton, Descartes, and Bacon cast off lingering fears of divine retribution and transformed nature into dead matter—thoughtless, clock-like machines to be exploited for great gain. The eighteenth century Enlightenment, buoyed by new technologies together with unbridled confidence in reason and science, completed the disenchantment of nature and expanded the conqueror mindset. Interestingly, a more secularized version of the Great Chain of Being returned into vogue at this time, sowing the seeds of what would later become the science of ecology. Yet the gulf between nature and humanity remained largely intact through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, sustained by the twin notions of inexorable progress and civilization’s triumph over nature.

If no counter-revolution had occurred promoting intimate links between humanity and nature, I would hold out little hope for our ability to reverse the current slide toward civilizational collapse. Yet just such a counter movement has been underway since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, beginning with philosophers like John Ray, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza. During the eighteenth century, the Romantic Movement picked up the torch; poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake resisted the hegemony of analytical reason and objectivity, pointing instead to the power of emotion and subjectivity, personal experience and imagination. During the nineteenth century, philosophers and scientists such as Hegel, Thoreau, Darwin, and Huxley argued convincingly for a deep continuity between nature and humanity, a trend continued in the twentieth century by Muir, Leopold, Carson, Berry, and many others. Like their Romantic forerunners, the latter group emphasized the role of subjective experience, emphasizing the importance of awe, wonder, and reverence. Within science, the notion of Earth as a living organism has come almost full circle; once advocated by the ancient Greeks, today this idea is put forth by some proponents (though, I should add, not by most scientists) of the Gaia Hypothesis.

So now it’s our turn. We must complete this counter-revolution, reversing the multi-millennial mindset of Western cultures by reinserting humanity inside nature. We must learn to see ourselves not as conquerors of an external nature but as co-creators existing within nature. The “Insider” view is now strongly supported by sciences ranging from physics and chemistry to ecology and evolutionary biology. And it is bolstered by a growing numbers of philosophers, educators, nature writers, spiritual organizations, and grassroots movements (3). Only by completing this transition in perspective can we hope to accomplish the “Great Turning,” moving from an "industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society" (4). Our efforts can be aided by learning from indigenous peoples, who have always considered humanity to be part of nature (5). Importantly, this fundamental shift can be realized within a broad spectrum of religious and secular worldviews, so there is no need to advocate a single, one-size-fits-all perspective.

One way or another, dramatic change is coming soon. The world’s top scientists are in agreement that, if we blunder onward on our present destructive path, the near-term consequences will include decimation of the biosphere and the breakdown of civilization, with unthinkable human suffering. Conversely, if we mobilize quickly, likely within a generation, we can find a new, sustainable path. In addition to implementing new technologies and behaviors, getting the “inside view” of nature will be an essential element in this Great Work of our time.

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York, 369 pp.
2. Marshall, P. 1992. Nature’s Web: An Exploration of Ecological Thinking. Simon & Schuster, London, 513 pp.
3. Hawken, P. 2007. Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. Viking, New York, 342 pp.
4. Macy, J. 2007. World as Lover, World as Self: Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal. Parallax Press, Berkeley, 206 pp.
5. Nelson, M. K. (ed.). 2008. Original Instructions; Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future. Bear & Company, New York, 384 pp.


  1. That point you make about "limitless growth" is so refreshing to hear. There was a moment, after learning the basics of thermodynamics, that the unsustainability of capitalism as we know it became clear to me, and that was one of the big "a-ha" moments of my life.

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