issue 217 - March 1991
The end of nature
Human beings could soon have total dominion over Nature.
Is this what we really want? asks Judy Gahagan.
The whole valley was full of impenetrable wreathed cloud, pure white, the palest greys rounding its changeful cupolas and beyond their uneasy marble the great Alps stood intertwined with translucent folds of mist; the peaks themselves were strewn with the strange light of fresh snow; the veils broke, waves of light gaining on seas of light and the rose-gold light of the rising sun. It was like the first day of creation.'
The eyes of Lower Sixth Science Ski Trip turned on him puzzled: 'What have you brought us up here for, sir?' He had no immediate answer. He only supposed that if the sunrise had been a laser show that they had paid to enter they wouldn't have asked the question.
The students' bewilderment illustrates a vast hole yawning at the heart of modem consciousness where our innate response to Nature should be. The hole may engulf us as catastrophically as the other hole - the one in the ozone layer. For deprived of an innate feeling for Nature and our place in it we have no basis whatsoever for making ethical decisions about scientific and technological research. Only the market exists, the murderous impulses of the most powerful, and the bottomless depths of our own greed for material things. And a fragile rootless idea about 'harm' which collapses into blindalley debates about costs and benefits: by how much we must reduce our motoring to keep global temperature increases between two degrees centigrade and four degrees centigrade; how sentient must an animal be to permit us to stuff it with poisons; how can we clone trees to replace the ones destroyed by acid rain?
The hole within has brought us charred forests; poisoned seas congealing between concrete tourist complexes; enchanted islands turfed over for golf; precision-planted, herbicide-loving, storm-resistant cloned sycamores; and the hapless oncomouse bio-engineered to be susceptible to cancer.
Our present greed is perhaps understandable. For without material benefits what does the modem rich-world person have left? But to save ourselves and the world we must hunger for different things. Particularly for lost states of mind. The ones you enjoy when you are not lonely, guilty, bored, top-dog of the universe. The ones which might get Lower Sixth Science standing enraptured at the sunrise murmuring, 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God'.
You have to travel in time and culture to get an inkling of what such awe of Nature might be like, for most us at the millennial end of the ravages of modernism have forgotten. There have been peoples who lived intimately and reverently with Nature. People who lived in the forests and knew the plants and the herbs, for their medicinal properties, but also for their spiritual and mythological properties; the aboriginals of the Australian deserts for whom every rock, every wallaby was evidence of their cosmology in the Dreamtime. For whom that harsh environment was friend and the source of their existence. For whom harming Nature would have been harming themselves. Such people experienced no separation between their material, artistic, social and spiritual selves. These people did not believe they were more important than the other species they lived among. So why should they dominate the natural world? Or exploit it for purely material motives?
'Aha,' say Lasermind and Great Moghul, 'that is why they didn't survive.'
But a few of them did survive. Some of them are trying to save the forests now. What we learn from them may get us out of our present mess.
For such peoples still have their place in the cosmos along with the rest of Nature. Not like us. Not top-dog. We have no place in the cosmos for we have no cosmos - only dominion over Nature and loads of gadgets. We have no past. Just a future of More and More and Just Us In Charge. Alone in our Themepark with Supertrout and Bio-bunny, for whom we feel no more affection than we might for a couple of Coca-cola bottles, and of course Lasermind and Great Moghul.
But even in our own recent history there have been powerful voices who understood that love and reverence for Nature would be the only ethical and intellectual basis for science, art and politics. Not God (necessarily) but Nature. A century and a half ago in the badlands of the English industrial revolution the prophets already sensed the devastation to come. One of them was John Ruskin, art critic, poet, naturalist and political philosopher, (the description of the alpine sunrise is taken from his Deucalion). His ideas about the symbiotic relationships between Nature and art, between Nature and science, between Nature and the politics of work and community, anticipated many of the ideas of the post-modernists (or New Agers) writing today. Yet his world was very different from ours.
For a start he and his contemporaries believed that every tiny detail of Nature from the mouse's whisker to the plantain leaf revealed divine purpose. They spent long hours interpreting verses from Deuteronomy about the structure of dew-fed leaves as opposed to rain-fed leaves or from Genesis on the shapes of mountains, trying to decipher 'God's handwriting' in the complex structures and colours of flowers and birds. Nature was a revelation not a resource.
Soon natural theology (and God) was to be pushed aside by Darwinism and evolutionary theory. Yet Ruskin clung stubbornly to one central fact: for all the power of Darwin's theories in explaining the emergence of species, they were never able to say why Nature seemed so beautiful. Indeed Darwin wrote that the very sight of the peacock's glorious tail made him feel sick. For what was the point of its beauty? He didn't know. It is a question which will agonize the bio-technocrats with identical sycamores and headless chickens when it comes to a marketing angle:
'You must admit it looks kinda tacky,' says Great Moghul. 'You guys have got no design sense. Give God his due; he did have taste... I mean how are we going to market it without some autumn woods or a bit of wildlife or something?'
Ruskin was convinced that science could only make real progress, as opposed to destructive progress, if it was informed by a love for the beauty of Nature. 'All true science, as opposed to modern science, begins in the love, not the dissection, of your fellow creatures,' he wrote.
And it wasn't just science that had been sundered by modern technology. Ruskin's speciality was the study of architecture - especially the Gothic. In the high clustered columns, the complex vaultings, the elaborate tracery and abundant faces, foliage and creatures of the Gothic cathedral he saw direct human expression by mediaeval builders of natural forms.
'What's the point of digging up the views of a long dead eccentric and the customs of primitive people? For better or worse we've moved on,' says Lasermind.
But the point is that the human psyche is unitary. The seeds of ideas past, present and future from all cultures lie dormant in all of us. We only have to find the conditions for them to blossom again. Those seeds are our potential for change. We have to begin to water the roots of our spirituality in Nature.
'You can't put the clock back or stop the march of scientific progress!' protests Great Moghul.
Yes you can. You can reset the clock where you like and change its time-scaling. And you can re-route the march. For science shall be what we decide it shall be. It can be reductionist, as it has been for a few centuries - fragmenting Nature to even tinier elements and sticking them together again as they were. Or as in the case of genetic engineering, in the way we find more convenient - or the way which will heap up more cash. Or it can be integrative and ecological - emphasising connectedness between all living things following the lead of the quantum physics which suggests a Nature of unbroken wholeness, an intricate order in which things are not separate but folded in each other. We can either deny, as in mechanistic science, a sense of kinship with Nature or make it our starting point. But most important is that we demand scientists not to leave half of their minds outside the laboratory - the part that loves nature.
Modern science is based on the idea that science is dispassionate and value-free; that science can only be 'done' if scientists repress those domains of their mind which are concerned with value and feeling. Trapped by their own scientific education they become vehicles of blind market capitalism.
But many of them are already aware of the 'other' hole - not just in their minds but in the minds of most of us. And some of them are also aware that science in tandem with profit-seeking spells apocalypse. They are calling for ethical committees, far-ranging discussions and guidelines. And the guideline that we should give them is a sense of nature to be husbanded and stewarded. Not dominated. And certainly not destroyed.
Judy Gahagan is a freelance writer and former psychology lecturer based in London.