Man, a Threat to Nature?

Discussions on the environment and environmentalism are often assuming a “man vs. nature” point of view. According to this view, man is a “threat” to nature and whatever man is doing causes harm to nature and, in the long run, to man.

But the exact view of what is man and what is nature is very seldom communicated. It should however be reasonable to assume there are at least three ways we can discuss man and nature. The most extreme view should be that man and nature are different in any way – that nature is whatever man is not and vice versa. If this view is adopted, we will end up with what is sometimes called Ecofascism, a view that essentially describes man as the threat to nature. Some ecofascists claim the “best” thing for the world is simply to wipe out humankind, or at least a big part of the world population.

The opposite extreme would be the claim that man is a part of nature and that everything man does is therefore also a part of nature. This view makes more sense historically, since man, following the theory of evolution, is a product of nature and is always acting in and with respect to nature. This should not, however, be interpreted as a view that is basically apologetic to everything man does to his environment. On the contrary, since man is part of nature and fundamentally dependent on “nature” he destroys the basis for his own existence if harming “nature.”

A third view would be to adopt a view somewhere between these two extremes, which would mean man is both part of nature and could be seen as a distinct part of it that might be acting in a way threatening nature (and also his own existence). Most people, I believe, would adhere to this “middle” position, even though the rhetoric used is often borrowed from a somewhat ecofascist view.

The question we ask is, Is man a threat to nature? The answer needs not be discussed at length, since most people would agree (whether correct or not) that this is so. We are often described as non-reflecting, non-understanding profit-seeking machines that care not for nature or the well-being of the next generation of our species.

This view of man being very focused on short-term profits and generally neglects or ignores long-term costs is often confessed to in discussions on environmental issues. Even in the “balanced” middle between the two extremes discussed above, man is seen as a parasite on nature and the main reason for the imbalances in the ecological system.Examples often used are the mining for natural resources and the drilling for oil, or the overcutting of the rain forests (the “world’s lungs”) . In the former case, our quest for riches devastates large areas of land just so that we can “be richer,” even though it is at the expense of our own well-being long term. Or we, as humans, exploit the treasures of nature in order to make use of the energy stored in the depths of the earth (or the sea) just so that we can produce more goods and products. And the rain forests are devastated and essentially threatened by our shallow quest for materials and comfort.

In this view, it seems man is identified as a special condition in nature. Man is a product of nature, but a product that does not honor the contract – man does not contribute to the harmony of nature and is in most ways a threat to life on earth per se.

Locusts and Elephants

This view is however too simplistic and narrow. If man is really defined as an absurdity, a creation of nature that is responsible for the imbalances in nature, then nature is the balance and man is that which causes the imbalance. This, essentially, is the view of the ecofascists – man is a threat to nature.

But even if this view is accepted as the definition of man vs. nature, there are obvious problems we must deal with. Man as a short-term profit-seeking animal put aside, there are other species in nature that definitely fit the characterization of man.

Elephants are well-known to be a migrating species. The reason they migrate is simply that they eat everything that can be eaten in an area, and are forced to move when they run out of food. When elephants arrive to a green and naturally “prosperous” part of the savanna it is only a matter of time until all the green “riches” are devoured. Are elephants a threat to nature?

The same story can be told of locusts. Big swarms of locusts, as described in many historical documents as well as in the Bible, devour everything and leave when there is nothing more to feed off. This may be a problem to farmers, but it should also be a problem to other animals living in the area taken hostage by a swarm of locusts. Are locusts a threat to nature?

The Role of Technology

The answer to this question is always “no.” Even though both elephants and locusts fit the description of man, in the sense that they are short-term profit-seeking animals that fundamentally upset the balance in nature, they are not thought of as a threat to nature. Rather, they are – as being non-human – often seen as parts of the ecological system. Furthermore, they are seen as a necessary part of the system, making room for new plants, insects, and mammals through their devastation of status quo. Then how and in what way is man different?

The difference between man and elephants or locusts is often said to be technology. The reason man is a threat to nature when causing imbalance in the system, while other animals having the same effect on their environment are not, is that man uses technology. Man’s not being limited to the state in which he was brought to the world means he has overstepped the “authority” he has been given by nature; man has, through adopting technology, not honored the natural contract.

The essence of this argument is that development and progress is seen as a bad thing. This is an argument for primitivism, an argument saying any kind of creation that isn’t directly the effect of “nature” is a perversion. But this argument too doesn’t supply good reason to condemn man as an anti-nature creature.

If the use of tools and the creation of shelter and community are threats to nature, which is essentially what this argument says, then all species making use of such things should be condemned. What about beavers making dams through establishing shelter? What about chimpanzees using tools to find food? What about birds making nests in the crowns of trees? What about animals digging holes to provide shelter?

These animals aren’t condemned as humans are, even though they are obviously making use of technology. Rather, their technologies are deemed “natural” and “part of nature” (even though they are created by these animals just like a hammer is created by humans).

The argument is thus not about technology per se, the argument is against human technology.

There may be many reasons for singling out human technology as a threat to nature whereas other kinds of technology are not. For instance, it is rather obvious that the level of complexity and efficiency of human technology is (at least for the latter centuries) much higher than other animals’, which means human technology could – at least theoretically – be a graver danger to life. (Talking of, for instance, the atom bomb this should be an obvious conclusion.)

But if technology in itself is not the problem, which is obviously the case, and thus that only certain types of technology is – then what is the reason for condemning a whole species? Shouldn’t it be much more legitimate and honest to condemn that kind of technology? Or even better: shouldn’t the argument rather supply a legitimate basis to condemn certain uses of certain types of technology that pose an obvious threat to our environment?

The argument and the conclusions drawn from it don’t go well together. It seems the argument could, if restructured in such a way that it becomes a legitimate argument, supply a good basis for identifying high risk technologies and thus take the necessary precautions so as to minimize risk or at least limit damages of its use. It should also allow us to identify which technologies can be adopted in order to protect or even strengthen nature’s natural balances.

But these are not conclusions championed by the proponents of the argument – the “environmentalists” wish to abolish technology. One might wonder what is their real goal. As has been shown above, man cannot be singled out as the only short-term profit-seeking animal (if that is an established truth) and it also cannot be established that technology per se is a threat to “nature.” It is not even true that all human technology is a threat, but the conclusion is still that it should be abolished.

What is the real goal? Perhaps the real goal of this argument, the agenda of the environmentalists adhering to this view, is something other than finding a way to establish harmony between “nature” and “man.” The agenda, it seems, is to establish that man is basically unnatural and thus not a part of nature, which makes the argument fundamentally circular. One might wonder, if the purpose is to identify man as something external to nature, something not part of or created by nature, then what is the ultimate goal?

What are the conclusions to be drawn from identifying man as literally unnatural?