It’s an age old story. A cliché in fact. “Become one with nature”. Buddhists teach it. Philosophers long for it. New age wellbeing proponents aim for it. In this modern age, as we become more environmentally and ethically conscious, it seems obvious that we should be trying to live in harmony with nature. However, just playing Devil’s Advocate for a second, I would like to propose a different view of mankind’s place in the Universe…
In London, United Kingdom, I once heard one of my teachers say to another during lunch, “Chris Bicourt is an idealist”. I thought about that a lot. When someone calls you an idealist, it’s immediately assumed you’re a force for good in the world. But that’s the thing — ‘good’ is a very subjective term these days. One person’s “good” is another person’s “bad”. And in an age where truth is obsolete, and social media polarises everyone’s opinions to the point where everyone passionately believes they’re right, ethics are as varied as people’s fashion choices. Which leads me to think that if you took ethics out of the immediate debate and focused on the long term, what would be the course of humanity?
OK we’re getting a little bit existential now. We all know that there are certain ideas and questions that never get voiced because they are so controversial and won’t get through the filter of modern opinion. Or they’ll get lost in the huge amount of differing opinions. The top of ‘the environment’ is one of those things. If we take a step back, though, and look at the holistic driving forces that form opinions about mankind’s relationship with the world, we actually find that the ‘harmony with nature’ idea is a thread running throughout human history. For example, and in the example I want to give in this article, mankind’s relationship with nature has been a topic of constant discussion with philosophers, historians, scientists and even magicians, going right back to the dawn of civilisation (in China, India, Egypt, Greece and all over the world, not just the English-speaking world!). And in those ideas are certain repeated notions. They are:
- Humans are part of a single constant concept of ‘Nature’ as much as the planet earth and all its forms of life are as well
- The path to enlightenment (and happiness) is through a node or nexus where humans and nature coexist in complete harmony
- To damage or fight to ‘control’ nature (being earth and all forms of life including plants and arguably the ecosystem in general) is to move further away from enlightenment and happiness
It’s this notion of controlling nature that got me thinking. The general idea is that man has this inherent, ethically ‘bad’ desire to control or master nature. We see this in the evolution of, and man’s dependence on, technology. Discussions about Artificial Intelligence, the Metaverse, and its ‘dangers’ are an example of where this can be seen shaping the conversation. Or in other words, all technological advances are inherently seen as bad for mankind because they move us away from living ‘in harmony’ with nature; social media is killing conversation; technology is making us all dopamine addicts; we’re glued to our phones; you know how it goes.
But this is where I want to offer an alternative viewpoint; what if of mankind is not meant to live in harmony with nature? What if controlling nature is an essential part of man’s purpose on this planet? What if advancing technology is as essential to mankind as free thought and reproduction? Bear with me a second. Every single scientific discovery in mankind’s history has come from conflict. A desire to combat a challenge, or try something that nobody else has tried before. Human beings are essentially solution-oriented creatures — we like to challenge ourselves, we like to solve problems. We also have a thirst for knowledge and a desire to better ourselves. Which is why civilization advances. Now, it is true, that not all these advances have been for good (Oppenheimer’s bomb anyone?), BUT, there is a lot of good that has come out of man overcoming, or controlling natures challenges.
Now take something as mundane as social media, and a society bingeing on dopamine-fuelled digital experiences. We could look at it as the decay and degradation of society. Or we could look at it as fuelling a debate that has made us more aware of the dangers. And from that we are able to develop new understanding and practice of things like mindfulness, wellbeing, being in tune with our senses, etc., all the things that the people who practice champion as being the solution to the problems arising from our technological advancement (and move away from, or to control, nature). Same with things like food — the wasteful and ethically dubious consumption of meat around the world has given fuel to the rise of vegetarianism, veganism, etc. And finally, take the environment: the damage mankind has done to the environment has given us a huge understanding and awareness of the importance of the environment and how to exist without harming it.
Without the drive to dominate and control the world around him, mankind would not have discovered any of the things above. In fact, to my point less subtly, if we successfully lived in harmony with nature, we’d be back living in caves and grunting at each other. And while some ancient civilisations managed to do it better, the need to be at one or at peace with your surrounds is always, always going to be shattered by the natural instinct of the human being: to grow, to advance, to dominate and control the world around them.
My argument is this: what if that is the natural balance? Mankind, locked in a constant struggle with mother nature. Again I go back to my point that every single step in the evolution of human civilisation on this planet has been fuelled by conflict, tension between the natural way of things and man’s desire for a new way of things.