Humans and Nature: Three Perceptions of Reality

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People normally cut reality into compartments, and so are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

In my work as a conservation biologist, I often experience an arrogance by many adult humans as they refuse to embrace Nature as their home. These people seem to reject the idea that :

We humans need Nature, but Nature doesn’t need we humans

I often find myself searching for the root causes of this human separation from Nature that is prevalent mostly in humans over the age of 25. I have grown to realize that this separation from Nature is a cultural thing that is driven by an individual’s psyche –  the human soul, mind, or spirit. I prefer to call this deeply embedded phenomenon a person’s “worldview” –  a particular perception of life or conception of the world which could be right or wrong. The behavior of a person is driven by his or her worldview.

There are three human worldviews of Nature’s reality that drive how human beings relate to Nature and how human beings affect Nature.  They are:

Worldview #1: We humans dominate and control Nature.

Worldview #2: Nature can be understood by separating and understanding each individual part of Nature.

Worldview #3: Everything in Nature has an interdependent relationship with everything else. Parts of Nature cannot be understood without reference to the whole. 

Human Dominion and Control of Nature

Currently, the modern and predominate human worldview of Nature centers around the idea that people can control and predict Nature. Modern systems science has shown that this worldview does not portray reality and is blatantly false. Nonetheless, a large percentage of the human population over age 25  (excluding scientists and environmental educators) believes that modern human technology will prevail and prevent bad things from happening to we humans.

Recently, an important word, “anthropocentric”,  has emerged in the literature.   The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Anthropocentric as a:

viewpoint arguing that human beings are the central or most significant entities in the world. This is a basic belief embedded in many Western religions and philosophies. Anthropocentrism regards humans as separate from and superior to nature and holds that human life has intrinsic value while other entities in nature (including animals, plants, mineral resources, and so on) are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.”

Anthropocentrism suggests that human beings are preoccupied with a “me first” attitude. Much is written about the human idea that economic growth is far more important than the preservation of the earth’s resources. “Consumerism” is defined as a preoccupation with activities that result in consuming Nature’s resources. The result has led to a great concern by many humans that these excesses have resulted in potentially destructive changes in Earth’s climate as early as 2050. These concerns are prevalent in the younger human population who believe that the destructive anthropocentric practices of many humans over age 25 will result in an uncertain future for younger generations of humans.

These concerns have resulted in a great deal of climate activism by young people. One example, among many, is the activities of 16 year old Greta Thunberg . Greta has inspired and organized youth groups who have become vocal about how the older human generations are leaving an environmental mess that will need to be cleaned up by young people. Greta has attracted a lot of attention and has spoken before the United Nations and other influential world bodies.

Reductionism – separating and understanding each individual part of Nature

Reductionism is the claim that the properties of any complex and varied object can be explained by separately studying a set of fewer, more basic, elements within the phenomenon. For example, reductionism asserts that you can completely understand how an automobile engine operates by disassembling that engine, laying the parts on the garage floor, and studying each part separately.

In practical terms, reductionism states that every biological theory and fact may be deduced from studying the simplest components of the biological system in question. This would mean that, if we were to know perfectly the traits of every biological process in an organism, for example, we would be able to predict the behavior of the organism they compose. But we can’t. A good example is modern medicine where a doctor diagnoses a specific malady in a patient and prescribes a specific pill to fix that problem. Charles Eisenstein says:

What is the cause of, say, strep throat? Well, obviously it is the streptococcus bacterium, right? The problem is a germ. The solution is to kill the germ. On one level this may be accurate, but consider what this approach renders invisible and leaves out. First, it leaves out the question why one person exposed to the germ gets sick, and another does not. Especially if someone gets repeated infections of strep, it might be more useful to see the germ not as the cause, but as one of the symptoms of the disease. It also ignores the effects of repeated antibiotic treatment, and whether that might somehow contribute to vulnerability to reinfection. In medicine, focusing on the immediate, linear cause of a disease can destroy or impair the possibility of a real cure, whether on an individual or epidemiological level.”

In addition, the reductionist approach to taking a pill to fix a problem ignores the possible side effects of a particular medication.

Reductionism fails to consider the relationships between parts where, in reality, Nature is a network of interrelated parts. Classical science and engineering have successfully used a reductionist methodology where one separates and simplifies phenomena in order to predict future events. Nevertheless, in recent decades the limits of reductionism have become evident in phenomena where interactions are relevant. Since reductionism separates, it has to ignore interactions. If interactions are relevant, reductionism is not suitable for studying complex phenomena such as ecosystems in Nature.

As I noted in an essay on environmental education that I have written:

It should come as no surprise that, despite being surrounded by an interdependent Nature, we humans think in bits and pieces and not relationships. From the day we start attending school until we graduate some 12 to 20 years later, we are embedded in an education system that operates in bits and pieces. We attend math classes where we must focus only on math. We take history classes where we must focus only on history. And we take music classes where we are taught to focus only on music. To prove that we have learned something, we are required to take separate exams in each subject and receive separate grades“.

Much of modern humanity’s reductionist worldview comes from this questionable structure of our education system. But yet, the reductionist worldview does not paint an accurate and realistic view of our home – Nature. A holistic worldview of Nature’s interdependence can paint a reality upon which we can live in a sustainable manner.

Holism is the study of relationships between everything

There are plenty of phenomena that are better described from a non-reductionist or holistic perspective. For example, insect swarms, flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of animals, and human society exhibit behaviors at the group level that cannot be determined nor predicted simply from individual behaviors or rules. Each animal makes local decisions depending on the behavior of their neighbors, thus interacting with them. Through the study of interactions, group behavior can be well understood. We cannot define the behavior of a bird flock or a fish school based on the behavior of individuals only. The relationship between the birds or fish must be defined. This also applies to cells, brains, markets, cities, ecosystems, biospheres, etc. Since interactions generate novel information that is not present in initial nor boundary conditions, predictability is limited. There is no shortcut to determine the future state of a system other than actually running or computing that system in real time.  

Nonetheless, many people continue to harbor the false reductionist worldview of being able to predict and control Nature. These people fail to acknowledge that Nature is a complex network of interrelated and interdependent parts. Without a consciousness of interdependence and inter-connectivity in Nature, humans will continue to proceed along a destructive pathway that could spell disaster for the human race by about the year 2100.

This leads us to search for some form of action that might prevent the calamity that will result from an errant worldview.

Our youth, our scientists, and our environmental educators can save humanity

Our youth represent about half of the human population on Planet Earth that is 25 years of age or younger. Typically, these people ( as well as scientists and environmental educators) do not harbor the reductionist worldview of the older humans. Young people are not yet culturally conditioned to a worldview where Nature is viewed as a reductionist machine. The fresh minds of young people are open to new ideas and new world views. These young minds have the potential of becoming our next generation of environmental leaders. These young minds, with guidance of environmental educators and scientists, have the potential of embracing Nature is a system of interrelated and interdependent parts. In doing so new generations acquire a holistic worldview of Nature that is the necessary foundation for the sustainable existence of humans on Earth.

Hope For Mankind’s Future Comes From Instilling A Deep Consciousness For An Interdependent Nature In Our Youth

I have the privilege of overseeing an environmental education program that works with students from fourth grade through high school. The fundamental emphasis of this program is that nothing in Nature is isolated. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. Over the years, I have been able to show that, when my students move on in life, they retain and practice this fundamental idea. It becomes a holistic worldview for them. It is my hope that their newly acquired worldview will become a legacy for future generations that come in contact with them.

In this way, those of us who are environmental educators, scientists, or stewards of Nature have the potential of modifying humanity’s worldview of Nature so as to create a consciousness for the interdependence of all life.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays that present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   The emphasis is on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview includes the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and place-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the passing of this consciousness to future generations.


Why Do I Write These Essays?

Nothing in Nature exists in isolation. The movement of life’s energy, which originates in the sun, takes place because everything is interconnected and interdependent. Your consciousness of interdependence in Nature means that, every time you engage Nature, you ask yourself how a creature, a plant, yourself,  or a natural object is connected to another and to Nature’s greater scheme of things. With this awareness you are prepared to protect Nature’s environment that sustains you. And, you create your legacy by encouraging others to do likewise.

If, after reading my essays, you find yourself embracing these ideas, I am thrilled in knowing that I’ve played some small part in setting this world view in motion in your mind.

Please Comment

The purpose of this web site is to build a dialog between myself and my readers. I invite you to offer your comments, your critique, and to share your ideas with all of my readers in the comment space provided below.

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

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