A Relationship In Crisis - Reimagining Our Relationship with Nature
By Manvi Jain, Graduate Candidate International Social and Public Policy, London School of Economics
We are organic creatures made up of the five elemental forces our planet consists of, the one interconnected ecosystem that keeps us alive. So what makes us think that we are superior, different or unique? While there has always been a codependence between humans and nature, humans have increasingly gained control over nature over the last century. This brings the misconception to our mind that we have finally separated from nature to be the superior power.
Our current advancements make us feel like humans finally exist as entities separate from nature, but we are not apart from nature.
For millions and millions of years, life has existed on Earth. From the tiniest microbes to the biggest of whales and dinosaurs, we are probably the only ones with the power to reason. Twenty million years ago, we were fruit-eating, four-legged creatures who lived on trees, looked like apes and spent our days lazing atop canopies. These primitive beings evolved into animals who could walk on two feet and had opened palms, and their skull was relatively small. With time, about four million years ago, these fairly advanced apes adapted to the nature around them, gathered and ate whatever they could and formed groups to protect themselves from danger. They were curious. Then they became the Handyman, also known as Homo Habilis, who carved tools out of stone to butcher, hunt and whittle wood. With humans being thus armed, even the fiercest animals were not safe anymore. The last step was to colonise the planet and make it their own. They did take over the Earth, but rather than making it their own, they have been rapidly tearing it all down.
Throughout human history, different cultural groups have had a relationship with various forces of nature; some of these relationships and cultures persist to this day. Many attempts have been made to theorise these relations and study them cross-culturally. Anthropologist E.B. Taylor coined the term 'Animism' and identified it as "the belief that objects, places and creatures possess a distinct spiritual existence and perceive the nature around us alive." Animism can be seen in a plethora of belief systems like Shinto, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Pantheism, Paganism and Neopaganism.
Many cultures and tribes also believe in Totemism. A totem is any species of animal or plant that are thought to possess supernatural powers. For example, in Taoism, cosmic energy is believed to be everywhere, constantly seeking harmony between different elements of nature, and maintaining the golden balance of this world. The ancient Andean civilisation placed the spirit of Mother Earth, 'Pachamama', at the centre of their worldview. In India, people worship the Peepal and Banyan trees. In addition, they use sandalwood, saffron, marigold flowers, and beetle leaves for various religious practices.
This is a rather complex concept for modern humankind to grasp. Still, the Druids of Ancient Britain did accept it and focused their practices on being aligned with nature. However, with the spread of what can be termed as modern religion, older belief systems like Animism were condemned. European colonialism then spread this idea to all parts of the world, drastically altering religions and cultures worldwide. Nonetheless, as time has progressed, today, many people have started to realign with nature in the form of manifestation through crystal energies, Ayurveda, yoga, reading horoscopes with elements of nature as signs (air, water, fire and Earth) and Vastu (focused primarily on directions and energies). Nevertheless, we remain so aloof from nature. How may we explain this ignorance?
Primarily since industrialisation, our world has metamorphosed from a simple society reliant on, and at the mercy of nature, to a capitalistic one that puts no checks on its exploitation of this world. We are consumerists; thus, attaching value to ecosystem services makes us want to absorb nature, which we believe comes at a price. Once natural resources were consumed as and when needed. Today, a person's social standing or a country's growth is measured by the number of natural resources they possess. Since the advent of agriculture, humans have manipulated the world around them. We have harnessed, divided and sold natural resources for profit through mining, fishing, the paper industry, the diamond market and fast-food joints. The production process often includes the cost of production. Still, we often fail to include the natural cost and value of our resources. Thus, humans are free-riding on resources. One way we are doing this is by not considering the environmental impact of our actions. Secondly, we tend to undervalue the benefits the natural resources have provided us for ages, like clean water or air, biodiversity or ecosystem services. Our failure to do has led to unsustainable habits and practices that have enabled us to extract benefits much faster than they can regenerate.
The production process often includes the cost of production. Still, we often fail to include the natural cost and value of our resources.
In recent times, attempts have been made to integrate a complete life cycle assessment of products; however, these policies' implementation is consistently undermined by economic considerations. Since colonisation, the Earth has become just another territory that needs to be conquered; over the next few centuries, the colonisers took a new form where they came disguised as traders to get their hands on their colonies' natural resources in abundance and plundered the resources of various geographical regions and left behind the depleted remains of their colonies. This mindset has continued as we mindlessly devour resources across the globe, unhindered.
However, did humankind use their 'godly' ability of reasoning to question their ever-increasing control over nature? In the enlightenment era, economists, philosophers, and scientists considered humans rational beings and masters of nature. Humans, thus, dissected the Earth and gained power and hunger for more. We knew that our resources were limited and would run out if not given adequate time to replenish, but that remained in theory for humans, not practice.
Most of us spend time indoors in urban spaces dominated by vehicles, industries, cafes, and other human-made infrastructure. This rapidly modernising and urbanising society has made us so aloof from reality, evident from how everyone wants to take a break and go for a rejuvenating holiday to the Himalayas or the beach to 'reconnect with nature'. How ironic.
We are delusional about considering nature separate from us and our busy lives. We take photos of the sunrise and sunset, flora and fauna, go to zoos and national parks, get tattoos with natural elements, and so on. Yet, our consumerist mindset stops us from truly appreciating the valuable nature around us and all the elements of nature that were harnessed to provide us with these goods and services. It is interesting to note that it is not the tribals living in the wild who go to these artificial ecosystems of modern society. Instead, we, modern individuals, go to natural ecosystems with an elitist outlook towards nature. One such example is the fresh air we can breathe being replaced by fancy air purifiers. We have cut down trees and built oxygen plants that have allowed humans to also take over an essential aspect of human life, oxygen.
Furthermore, the Anthropocene Age has begun an epoch primarily defined as being a few centuries old, where humankind has been able to bend and shape the ecosystem and geology according to their needs which has caused adverse environmental and climatic impacts all over the world. As a result, 70% of the land has been altered to meet human needs, 77% of the water bodies no longer flow freely, 66% of the ocean's surface is affected by other natural phenomenon like plastic pollution, industrial waste dump and overfishing, the coral reefs are vanishing, the number of urban wild animals has increased, and the local biodiversity is vanishing.
Animal cruelty is an essential point of discussion when one talks about nature. Apart from physical abuse of animals for commercial purposes, animal testing in the cosmetic and medicine industry, neglect of pets in houses, hunting and poaching of animals for their flesh, fur, ebony or meet, abattoirs for mass production of meat, organised animal abuse via organising dog fights, bullfights, caging animals in zoos, circuses and animal shows, bestiality, and simple hoarding of animals are ways in which humans are abusing animals. Depraved cultural and religious traditions have also led to the severe exploitation of animals. A few examples are the Gadhimai Festival in Nepal, where about 5 lakh animal sacrifices were made once every five years. This was made illegal in 2019—secondly, the Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China, where about 10,000 dogs are slaughtered for their meat. About 10-20 million dogs are killed each year. During the New Thoung Pig Slaughter festival in Vietnam, pigs are brutally slaughtered in halves in front of spectators. In 2016, the government banned such activities, but the ban's implementation remains weak.
Another known example is the Faroe Island killings in Denmark. Around 800 pilot whales are killed every summer for their blubber and meat, and thousands of people witness it as a festival and tradition. The hunt does not spare baby whales or even pregnant whales. This raises severe questions on whether humans are so selfish that we would do anything to nature for our entertainment and greater philosophical questions about the human sense of morality. A similar situation also persists in India, where millions of fish and goats are slaughtered during Durga Puja. This makes me question the practices of the past and whether we genuinely are the 'supreme beings' with moral sensibilities.
To avoid this, people today are rapidly adopting vegetarianism, plant-based diet and veganism, primarily due to reasons like the subconscious influence of social media without really understanding the reasons behind it. Veganism is not the natural way of human life not only because we are herbivorous creatures; it is the right thing to adopt because it makes one question the morality of how the meat is produced. Is the chicken you eat raised with antibiotics in a cage smaller than your laptop?
When we pay for animal products, we enable the conditions they are raised in. Our lifestyle tortures animals, destroys nature, and threatens the future of humanity. Holding humans to the standards of their ancestors and the practice of the past is simply holding us back from evolving and using our well-developed brains to make better choices.
Our vast urban spaces and urban mindset have pushed nature out of sight and, thus, out of mind. The world is attempting to meet the urgent challenge of climate change, but can anything fundamentally change if we stay the same voracious humans? We still see ourselves as somehow separate from Earth. This disconnects between humans and nature has profound implications. Whether we realise it or not, humans and nature are interconnected, and humans cannot survive without nature. Unfortunately, we treat climate change as a conveniently ignored truth, take nature for granted, and abuse it for our wants rather than needs.
However, it is not all bad; in Ecuador and Bolivia, the indigenous groups have campaigned to recognise their rights and protection of nature and give rights to Mother Nature drawn from the ancient Andean indigenous traditions. In climate negotiations, these countries argue for the rights of the Pachamama, oppose the market-led policies and call for industrialised nations to pay the climate debt for their years of exploitation. Another example of the rights of nature movement is New Zealand. The Maori tribe got the Te Urewera National Park, the Whanganui River and Mt. Taranaki to have legal personhood.
Climate change and globalisation have widened the gap between the rich and poor and between nature and humankind. It is evident from the number of 'natural' (they are, in fact, a result of human depreciation of nature) disasters. Humans are exploiting nature, and character is reacting. Thus, if we consider humans apart from nature, nature gives up its responsibility towards us as well. Our existence is because of the Earth and its elements, so there is no Earth and us. We are one. We are made of nature, and that is the cycle of life. Can we find a way to reconnect all elements of wildlife, including humans, again in this interconnected world? Whatever is happening in the world today is because of the choices we are making. A single new idea, a small change, or simply being more cautious in using nature for our needs may start a new era where we do not feel apart from nature but rather a part of nature.
Disclaimer: This blog is a product of author’s own research. Author declares no conflict of interest. No funding was provided by any agency to the author for this research and publication.
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