I’m standing at the foot of a magnificent glacier in Iceland — it’s towering, deep-blue face dripping and glistening, a broad, thick river of ice curving down through the jagged, black canyon the ice has cut through a still-active volcano. From a distance, the scene was magnificent, but just a still life. Here, up close, everything is so incredibly dynamic, the earth alive; the melting and moving and cracking ice, steaming geothermal vents spewing their sulfuric clouds, fresh volcanic rock just being colonized by the first mossy plants. It’s humbling to reflect, at this one instant in time, on the millions of years it took nature’s inconceivable power to create this majestic scene, and to realize that those forces will still be at work hundreds of millions of years after this instant, and I, are gone.
Eventually, of course, this massive river of ice will be no more, a victim, in part, of anthropogenic climate change, but mostly of the larger natural forces that make and melt glaciers in the first place. The volcano and surrounding mountains will surely also succumb to those same greater powers. Iceland — a geological spectacle of volcanoes and plate tectonics building the Earth up, and ice caps and glaciers and raging seas all inexorably tearing the Earth back down — is the place to witness these natural processes at work, to understand their power and vast time scale, and to put the relatively puny and temporary forces of humanity in perspective. The dynamism of this place confronts you with the inescapable truth that, for all the ways in which humans are changing the natural world and all our hubris about our species’ power, the far greater forces of nature are still in charge.
Even here, though, in the face of this truth, it’s hard to be humble. Our anthropocentric arrogance runs deep. From our schools and literature, from our academics and our poets and our priests, from everywhere across time and cultures, people are taught to believe that we are special, that humans are the pinnacle of nature’s creation, the center, and that the fate of Nature is in our powerful hands. We are taught that Nature is ours to use, and ours to protect, but ours.
“Earth was given us as a garden, cradle for humanity, tree of life, and tree of knowledge placed for our discovery,” says a Unitarian Universalist hymn.
"The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the Earth he has given to mankind," says Judaism’s Psalm 115:16.
Islam teaches that “Humanity is located at the axis and center of the cosmic milieu.”
The Christian God gave Adam and Eve “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth." (Genesis 1:28)
It’s understandable that our cultures and faith stories would see things this way. It is the nature of human cognition itself, after all, to perceive the world "out there" from in here, from where we stand. We make sense of everything relative to ourselves. That puts us at the center of our own existence, but also creates the sense that we are separate from everything else. There is you and there are others. There is the place you are in at any given moment and other places. There are your experiences and job and lifestyle and needs, and those of others. As Albert Einstein put it,
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.”
This delusion allows modern environmental prophets the hypocrisy of proclaiming that humans are part of Nature and that we have to live that way, but also that there is Nature, and separately, there is us. As Bill McKibben put it in the book that vaulted him to wider renown, humans have caused The End of Nature. Not the “The Alteration of Nature” or “The Disruption of Nature” or even a plaintive lament for “The Suffering of Nature.” The END. McKibben wrote that humans have “ended nature as an independent force.” Which is poetic and appealing, but appallingly anthropocentric, to say nothing of scientifically naïve.
Or consider another high priest of modern environmentalism, biologist Edward Wilson. In his bestselling book The Creation, which he devotes to “the restoration of Eden,” Wilson writes of humans that, “We strayed from Nature with the beginning of civilization.” Wilson defines Nature as ”that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact.” As though humans, for all the unprecedented and egregious harm we certainly do to the natural world, are not part of that natural world, that we are not a species too. His remarkable ants are “Nature,” and plants and fish and bacteria and the biological and chemical and physical forces that make and shape and run the biosphere are “Nature,” but not the human animal. Where Homo sapiens are, Nature, as E.O. Wilson defines it, is not.
This anthropocentric arrogance, and hypocrisy, that we are part of Nature, but that we are separate from Nature, is necessary for the central conceit of classical environmentalism; that humans and our special powers and our modern technologies and products and progress have despoiled Nature, ruined Nature, and the solution is, as Joni Mitchell wrote, to “turn the bombers into butterflies” and “get ourselves back to The Garden” — the idealized Garden of Eden — the pre-human ideal of Nature, the way IT was meant to be until WE came along and mucked things up.
To believe that requires you to separate humans from nature. You have to believe that we are behaving unnaturally. You have to reject the obvious truth that humans are just one species, doing only what every other species naturally does, using every available tool and skill and instinct to survive, the most universal natural imperative of all. Only by denying this inescapable biological truth and separating humans from Nature can classical environmentalism set up the hero — Nature — and the villain — Us, a threat so powerful that the fate of all things is in our hands.
That allows for the appealing, but naïve belief that the thing that makes us different, our ability to reason, is so powerful that it can overcome our basic animal instincts and show us the way Back to The Garden, to the mythical virginal Nature that represents the world unravaged by the horrendous hand of man. As McKibben says, “We are different from the rest of the natural order, for the single reason that we possess the possibility of self-restraint, of choosing some other way.” Reason to the rescue. As Wilson puts it, “When waters lap over downtown Miami and the species counts plummet to the point that they can't be ignored anymore, when we see how badly we are destabilizing the world, then I think we'll turn to reason. And with reason, we can solve these problems.”
It is a hopeful case. But believing that we are so intelligent that we can consciously conquer our ancient animal instincts and, effectively, outwit the natural ways we are programmed to behave, is beyond naïve. It is pious, and ignorant, and worst of all, dangerous, because it places our future in the hands of a solution that can’t work.
(more upcoming in Parts Two and Three)
Garden of Eden art by Jan Brueghel de Oude, Peter Paul Rubens via Wikipedia