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.”

everything here is natural!

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.

a candid shot of my kitchen counter

For further thoughts and information about the integral connections between humans, our stuff, and our world, check out The Story of Stuff.


About Julia Bloom

singer of songs, lover of words, asker of questions, runner of miles, mother of Lu&Si, darlin' of Nathan
This entry was posted in big ideas, lifestyle. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Humanature

  1. Nnox says:

    I keep forgetting to check your other blog–just popped over and found this nifty post, I haven’t been thinking about the “dichotomy” you articulate, but I have been thinking about resources in general, maybe my comment will tie in, in any case, your post deserves comment.

    I write this comment from what could be described as the most “unnatural” place on earth: my place of work. I work in a printing plant, it is huge, nearly a million square feet of unnaturalness. But, as you say, there is really nothing unnatural, if suddenly this place was forever abandoned it would eventually crumble to dust.

    Resources. Stuff. American wealth. It is my view that Americans (and I suppose people from all “developed” countries) are not really wealthy, we are simply able to buy stuff, ie. resources, (including my boys’ fearsome collection of Nerf guns) for far less then the resource is actually worth. Our cheap stuff, our wealth, exists because somewhere in the world a resource (human and otherwise) is being harvested and processed at a grossly undervalued rate. Some obvious examples are our clothing, much of which is made by the 3rd world underclasses. Also our kids toys. Also our non-native foods. Also our petroleum. We complain about the high cost of gas, but we are not even paying close to fair market price for it.

    As to human resources, Americans directly benefit from child labor, just not here, where it can be seen. The foreign wage-earners that will never save a nickle, never own a thing, they allow me to take advantage of Walmart’s latest Rollback.

    You remind us that some resources, like the fallen tree leaves, don’t really go away, they just change. So it is with all resources. Cast our minds back not long ago, only the reach of a few generations, and we find a fabulously rich ante-bellum southern US, rich, why? 200 plus years of free human resources. Sure, slavery was abolished 160 years ago, but the wealth created still moves and flows through our society. There is still the blood of Africans in American’s bank accounts today.

    Resources can also be overvalued, due to outright fraud and fabrication, for the purpose of enriching a family or cabal of some sort. The diamond engagment ring is a classic example. The diamond engagement ring hasn’t been around that long. It has been a while since I read a history of diamonds, but I remember that a family/company, I think it was Debeers, initiated a campaign to cement the diamond ring as the cultural norm demonstrating engagement. They have succeeded. And the “wealth” they created has caused unspeakable crime and misery in nations where diamonds occur naturally. It has also caused so many men, Nnox included, to borrow money to buy a nicely cut rock. The foolishness of this is astonishing! Diamonds do have intrinsic value due to their hardness and durability, there are many appications for industrial diamonds. But the delicatly coiffed woman blushing as the handsome suited gentleman opens a tiny box and the dazzled look in her eye and the “Diamonds are Forever” lie written above the advertisment is a wholly fabricated and false value. If I could, I would swallow my wife’s diamond, and let nature take its course. Btw, I do not mean to diminish symbollism and commitments etc, I only state that the Diamond as symbol of love and marriage is an impostion on the world, and a fairly recent one. It’s value is a destructive, but lucrative, (for a few) illusion.

    Your cute picture of (I’m guessing) Luthian is, you’re correct, wholly natural. And so is the floating mat of debris that moves around somewhere in the Atlantic, I read about this a while ago, its huge, like the size of a state or something.

    I better land my rant. I just re-read your post, maybe humans will someday use “our large and complex brains” to create sustainable, “natural” systems. But you know Nnox is rather a pessimist, I suspect the haves will continue to pillage the have nots, happily clipping coupons and buying generic diapers. And, the more powerful among us, will keep slapping little countries around, will keep thinking up new ways of blowing things up, and, I’ll say it because this is an old post and not likely to be seen by too many people, we will continue to step on dark skinned people everywhere. Call me what you will, world, that’s what’s happened/happening.

    If this doesn’t fit with your post, Blooms, feel free to not put it up and just message me your thoughts!


    • juliabloom says:

      Once Nathan & i played a song at a party, and when we finished, a drunk woman with a far-off look in her eyes mumbled, “you guys speak the truth.”

      i’m the drunk woman right now 🙂 – thanks for your comments, Nnox. Oh how i wish there were more conversations like this going on every day in Estados Unidos!

      Yup, i think you’re right that the powerful will continue to exploit the weak – but you know me, i have this scrubby stubborn hope that somehow love will conquer all as only love can, without violence or dehumanization. I just get a little nervous pondering that hope actually coming to fruition, because I usually am more of a power-abuser than a lover. But that’s probably my old fundy sheep & goats theology grabbing hold of me.

      In reality, I think the world is often more marbled than distinct in terms of who is abusing and who is being abused. And the stuff we buy and use is all tainted with blood and injustice. I don’t really know what to do about it. The best I can come up with at the moment is to keep engaging in the everyday struggle to make the choices that will be best for my neighbors all around the world, and for future generations.

      And write to my congresspeople, and keep talking about it like we’re doing here. And let my children in on the struggle and the truth I’ve learned about these things. It can’t hurt, anyway.

  2. Pingback: Ain’t That Grand | The More I Learn the More I Wonder

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