The Question is Why?

Leave it to the likes of Shell Oil and The Economist Magazine to pose this inanity: “Do we need nature?” This question was the topic of their annual essay writing contest this summer.

The question is one children are too clever to ask. “Daddy, do we need nature?” just doesn’t fit with the other big ones that give parents the shakes, like ‘where do babies come from?’ or ‘what happens when you die?’ Children’s questions, unlike those of oil executives and financial magazines, are about exploration, wondering how things work and why things are the way they are. Need is never an issue with children. If you ask a child if we need nature, you’ll likely receive a resounding “YEEEES” as a response. [Then again, you might get the same response if you ask if she needs the new Summer-time Barbie play-set.]

What children don’t know yet, and perhaps the top of the capitalist hierarchy has forgotten, is that a need can be defined only by an objective — there is no absolute, solitary need, and no need without want. One does not need to eat unless one wants to live.

Whether we need nature therefore depends on two deeper questions: 1. what do we want?, and 2. what the hell is nature anyway? Dangerous as it is to universalize human wants, Psychologist Abraham Maslow took a reasonable shot at it and came up with five big ones: 1. physiological goals — having the immediate physical means for survival such as food, water, shelter, and sleep; 2. security goals — feeling that the means of survival will be maintained; 3. social goals — having human relationships including friends, family, and community; 4. esteem goals — feeling valuable or important; and 5. self-actualization goals — feeling that one’s skills are being properly utilized and personal growth is being achieved with a positive impact.

As for defining the word nature, definitions range from the all-inclusive ‘material world and its phenomena’, to the more exclusive ‘primitive state of existence, untouched and uninfluenced by civilization or artificiality.’ Does nature include human beings among the material world, or are we a separate entity? This question has great impact on whether we need nature to meet our wants. If we are part of nature then surely we need it if we want to survive long enough to meet all those other lofty goals of safety, love, and esteem. On the other hand, if we are separate from nature, perhaps we can get by without it. Then again, perhaps it can be used to our advantage somehow. The latter, all too common perception of humanity as separate from nature, is a major threat to our species chances of meeting our ‘needs’.

Any definition of nature which assumes that humans stand above, or apart, from the rest of the material living world is delusional. There is a natural legal system that is as true and unforgiving as gravity, though more complex and unpredictable. It is the true invisible hand, but it has proven its own existence time and again.

Take an example of a law within this system: the more food a population has access to, the more that population will grow; if the population grows too fast eventually it will reach a point where food is scarce, and the population will fall again. This law applies as much to humans as to rabbits. However, assuming that we are above or separate from this natural law, we grow more food using new technologies in order to solve our global hunger problems.

Paradoxically, our political policies and actions allow vast quantities of food to be destroyed by farmers, distributors, retailers, and end users of food; and more than half of the people living in the political West actually suffer from an overabundance of food, as obesity sets its sites on becoming the world’s leading health concern.

The all-inclusive nature has distinct cause and effect rules of conduct. The decisions we make with regards to nature are crucial to not only our survival, but also our loftier needs. Any decision made with the aim of circumventing nature’s laws and controlling the situation ourselves, consciously or not, is doomed to failure, as the ‘green revolution’ of the 1970s aptly demonstrated. The more scientists tried to help poor farmers in ‘underdeveloped’ countries with pesticides, poisons, and other subtle manipulations, the worse the situation became — the pests grew bigger, badder, and more resilient — in short, they adapted. The green revolution took a shotgun approach, poisoning not only pests but also soil and water, which in turn poisoned fish and birds, which then poisoned their predators. Humans were ultimately poisoned by high levels of toxins throughout their environment, especially in the flesh of the animals they ate. Despite the abundant lessons in this massive experiment gone wrong, we still use many of the same pesticides today, and in many cases with the same shotgun approach. Furthermore, we are now doing similar experiments with genetically modified crops, using them abundantly around the world without yet achieving even a laboratory understanding of the potential results.

In the wake of this and other evidence that manipulating nature does not help us meet our needs, here are some child-like how-to questions Shell and the Economist might consider: If attempting to control nature is ill-advised, how can we make wiser political, social and economic decisions that meet human needs? Controlling and manipulating nature hasn’t seemed to work, so perhaps we should simply let nature take its course, and leave those whose needs aren’t met to fend for themselves. The problem with this approach is that it was humanity’s attempts to control nature that have left so many people’s needs unfulfilled, so continuing on our current path seems rather unjust, even unethical.

Surely we need programs. Of course all the programs designed to correct our societal ills and imbalances have either outright failed, had unintended consequences, or simply weren’t enough to solve the problems we had already created, and are still creating. Why, with our big brains, our adaptability, our innovation, can we not create programs that meet our needs and fulfill our goal of living well?

Author Daniel Quinn has compared social and political programs to sticks in a river designed to impede its flow, and has said that the river’s source is vision. Our current vision is one of dominion and control of nature as a means of meeting our needs, i.e. our wants. This vision isn’t working — how many of us can truly say we’re content with our world, that it meets our needs for love, community, security, esteem and self-actualization? So many of us don’t even have the basic means of physical health or survival.

So what kind of vision might allow for the kind of world that meets our needs? The answer is held in that complex and unpredictable web of life, in which no other species is damaging the planet or its own members to the extent that human beings are. In this web also live groups of people who still manage to meet their needs and live well, surviving mostly untouched by Western civilization. The members of these tribes possess all the same flaws as the rest of us, selfishness, anger, hate, jealousy; and yet they are not tearing each other apart with crimes, terrorist acts, extortion, or civil war. Am I saying we need to live exactly like them? No, but a shift in our cultural vision from one where humans either need or don’t need nature to one where humanity is part of nature would be a great start. Perhaps a side benefit would be that pedantic needs analyses on nature would transform themselves into awestruck, childlike how-and-why musings.

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