We are not separate from nature. Really!?

“We are not separate from nature.” That’s what they say, anyway. Who? The followers of “deep ecology“, I guess. 

The central spiritual tenet of deep ecology is that the human species is a part of the Earth, not separate from it, and as such human existence is dependent on the diverse organisms within the natural world each playing a role in the natural economy of the biosphere.

But is this really profound, or is it trivial? “The diverse organisms” is a vague concept, bordering on the meaningless. Currently at least, it”s obvious that the humans can”t survive without  a number of other species. I don”t think anyone would question that. On the other hand, if our existence depends on all extant species, then we face certain doom. Some species are going to disappear no matter what we do, and some would even if we weren’t here.

So it has to be somewhere in-between, and that’s probably not controversial. it’s not at all clear that the statement about species helps us distinguish between deep ecology and basic common sense. But what about the idea that we are “part of the earth”?

From a purely logical point of view, it’s simply a matter of how we define “nature”. Does the term include or exclude humans? From, shall we say, an esthetic or spiritual point of view, I find the idea appealing. But if that’s the case, if there is no separation between nature and humanity, if we are part of nature, it follows that our creations must be too. Could nature create anything unnatural? Of course not. But since we are part of nature, nothing we humans create can be unnatural either. That implies that the Chernobyl disaster is no more or less natural than grass and trees growing. Or, perhaps more of an apples to apples comparison, the Chernobyl disaster is natural just as hurricanes and tsunamis.

This seems remote from the typical rhetoric of environmentalists. More commonly, this rhetoric emphasizes the difference between us and the supposedly balanced state of Gaia. In The Delinquent Teenager Who Was Mistaken for the World’s Top Climate Expert, Donna LaFramboise writes:

Four decades ago, in 1970, the first issue of The Ecologist magazine appeared in the UK. Its two-page editorial argued that when humans began farming, mining, and congregating in cities we stopped being part of the balanced natural world and instead became ecological parasites…Written by the magazine’s founder, Edward Goldsmith, the editorial compared humanity to an infection and a disease that “is still spreading.” Known as the ‘Godfather of Green,’ Goldsmith – who died in 2009 – was no easy-going hippie. Rather, his writings suggest a harsh, dogmatic patriarch who thought it was his business to micromanage the lives of other people.

The introduction of agriculture is somewhat of a logical point in time to place the separation, since it was a radical change and really marks a difference in the way humans have used the earth itself, the soil. But in real-world terms, the agricultural revolution is just the starting point for the change. The actual impact has increased gradually as the human population increased through the millenia.

So what exactly makes a practice “unnatural”? Complexity, cognitive sophistication, actual human impact on the environment? All of these have increased gradually, and there is no natural or obvious place to draw the line. 

The thinking is reminiscent of ancient myths including the one known as the Fall. In it, the separation of humans from the natural surroundings of the garden of Eden happens in a single event at a specific point in time. 

And what is the significance of humans being “ecological parasites” or a “disease”? Parasites and diseases are, of course, perfectly natural parts of an ecosystem. As, for instance, here: “Parasites may well be the thread that holds the structure of ecological communities together”.

All of this is just scratching the surface of environmentalists’ thinking about nature, given a couple of examples that don’t approximate the full range of opinions. But at least it addresses what seems to be a core issue.

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