Nature has played a very important role in the discussions presented in this column. Nature is the foundational source of the organic stimuli for which human nervous systems were built. Most of the time, it presents stimuli within the range that we can most easily absorb. These stimuli are neither too abrasive, too overwhelming nor too low-key or frictionless. In other words, nature becomes the source of our physical and emotional grounding. This positive side of nature acts as a template for human interaction and, in particular, human bonding. Without at least some aspects of nature in our daily living environment, human society would fall apart. This is distinct from all the animal, vegetable and mineral products that nature provides humans. But what is important to think about is that nature, as commonly viewed, is not simply a source of things to consume, but rather a whole enveloping ambiance to absorb. Many of us appreciate this distinction when we take our walks in the park or our trips to the country. We become reconnected to ourselves, feel at one with ourselves. Chicago, my home town, has the motto of Urbs In Hortus (City in a Garden) because most residential streets have patches of grass and trees between the streets and sidewalks as well as lawns between the sidewalks and homes. Boulevards have greenery and trees on median strips. And apart from the big parks, there are a lot of small parks strategically located throughout the city. This is all wonderful, and it is nature at its tamest and most accessible.
But nature doesn’t always behave so nicely. Nowadays, nature is creating a whole series of new twists to the wild unruly behavior that frequently made humans feel so fragile and perishable in the days before modern technology came into its own. Climate change is multiplying and exacerbating the natural catastrophes that drove people to modern technology as a vehicle for rising above the perishability of nature. Except that our interventions to control nature have begun to have the opposite effect. The effects of technology have so disrupted nature that our relationship to nature is, in a strange way, beginning to look as powerless as before the creation of modern technology. All the heat waves with the resulting wild fires, the proliferation of hurricanes and tornadoes, the increase in earthquakes due to fracking, the breakup of traditional weather patterns in different regions of the world, the rising water levels of the oceans that threaten to swallow up coastal communities as well as islands. The earth is definitely not what it used to be as a result of the increasing use of fossil fuels. And even were we to switch now to solar, wind and biomass for the majority of our energy needs, the earth would not suddenly return back to “normal”.
And then there is the problem of the pandemic, which has been so disruptive. The pandemic is not so much the result of a misplaced attempt to control nature as it is an attempt interact with nature in inappropriate ways. HIV supposedly entered the world of humans as a result of a human-chimpanzee sexual liaison in Africa. By the same token, Covid 19 entered the world of humans as a result of the consumption of wild animal meat in China. Meat from bats or meat from an animal like a civet or pangolin that had been kept close to the bats. I know that the theory has been questioned by many since it was first proposed. But many other pandemics have been started by human contact with animals, so it seems to me that at some point, humans went to bat caves in China. And why would they go if it wasn’t for the potential meat.
So humans destroy nature as a result of the mediation of technology. And then they try to commune with nature in inappropriate ways as a desperate attempt to try to gain some pockets of extreme organic stimulation and thus feel more vibrantly alive. Except that the organic stimuli that they target are stimuli that they are unable to properly absorb because of the microbes involved. And in the case of Covid 19, this then leads to withdrawing even more from many aspects of the world of primary experience into the increasingly mediated world of Zoom.
So we are now at the point where we are confronted with two distinct worlds of experience: a technological world which is increasingly bland, sterile and numbing and a natural world which, because of climate change and pandemics, is becoming increasingly dangerous. And people become more inclined to rely on the technological world, because of the surface safety that it offers. And less inclined to rely on the natural world, which should be the main source of grounding in human lives, but which instead has been gradually moving to swallow people up.