Hey, I know what let’s do. Let’s bust up a false dichotomy. Ooh, I’ve got one – how about “human vs. nature”?
I’m thinking about birds and buffalo. Birds, most of us know, are quite resourceful nest builders. In their nests, one can find bits of plastic bags, pieces of shiny streamers, small sections of twine, and more human “trash” items. Birds seem to make no more distinction between “natural” and “human” than they would between “natural” and “bird.”
This summer our family visited Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. One afternoon we and a host of other carfuls of humans spent a good half-hour driving about one mile along with a massive herd of buffalo making their way through a pass in the hills.
We saw babies nursing. We could have reached out and touched a buffalo many times, as they walked the road alongside us, crossed the road, stopped and stood pensively in the road. We saw a shirtless man in the midst of them all, peeing into a stream. (Yes, we really did.) That seemed to surprise us more than the buffalo. We spotted two bulls, and I noted aloud that we were pretty vulnerable if the buffalo decided to charge, stampede, avalanche . . . whatever buffalo do.
“They probably think the cars are totally normal,” Nathan reminded me, and I thought about how today’s mommas and bulls were yesterday’s babies, who had likely also walked the pass accompanied by carloads of camera-wielding tourists. The buffalo, like the birds, seemingly make no distinction between “human” and “nature.”
Only we humans live with the false notion that we and the scads of stuff we produce are separated from nature. We show our children three pictures – a squirrel, a flower, and a computer – and ask, “which one isn’t part of nature?” and teach them it’s the computer. We don’t teach them that the materials and fuels used to make and run the computer all came from the world around us, and that when we don’t want the computer anymore and “throw it away,” it will be buried under the ground where it will – very eventually – be broken down and spread into the soil, air, and water of “nature.”
This false dichotomy, I think, has stalled us in our efforts towards a sustainable future. Though we may not phrase it this way, many of us have lived as if we must choose between “nature” and “human” and since we’ve gotten pretty comfy with mocha lattes and fast cars, we’ve tried to forget about future generations and just enjoy life before the ice caps melt.
But humans – and all our past, present and future material possessions – ARE natural. As much as we’ve risen above the creatures around us (though that’s debatable – is there any species more cruelly and creatively violent than ours?), we are cut from the same biological fabric. We depend on the same sun, water, soil, seasons as the rest of nature, and we and our stuff lie back down in that soil, decomposing into nature, just like everything else on our planet.
The items and processes we have created, rather than being separate from nature, are part of nature. They influence countless layers of the “natural” world. They are remaking “nature” as we know it.
How about, instead of insulating ourselves in a cushy dream world that is destroying our actual world, we use our large and complex brains to build systems that function sustainably, like the web of systems we already depend on? Nature has produced systems that make use of the waste products from other systems, so that there really is no “waste.” (A simple example is how the leaves a tree drops in the fall decompose into the soil to enrich the soil, from which the tree will draw nourishment as it grows – a “closed-loop” system with no unused “waste”. An example of how absurdly wasteful human-created systems can be is that industrial agriculture now uses ten calories of fossil-fueled energy to produce one calorie of food.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean we must junk the cars and toss out the computers (far from it – we should use well the items we already have produced, though maybe find better uses for them or recycle them). It does mean that we can no longer pretend to choose between “human” and “nature.” Instead, with as much information as we can gather, with a good sense of all the factors involved in whatever situation we each find ourselves in, we can try to make the best choice for humans – for nature – for us, our neighbors (of every species), and our planet.
For further thoughts and information about the integral connections between humans, our stuff, and our world, check out The Story of Stuff.