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'Natural' Doesn't Always Mean Good, Part One
The massive damage humans have done to the natural world has provoked a backlash that could be just as dangerous, or more. There is a growing global rejection of technology and almost anything human-made in favor of whatever is more 'natural.' But a simplistic rejection of modern technologies eliminates many of our best options for solving the problems we've created.
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
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.