Thursday, June 28, 2007

Nature is Trying to Kill You!

Civilization--every civilization worthy of the name--is built and maintained by making war against nature.

I was talking to my daughters about this the other day. I can be screedy that way. At six and three, they probably only have the vaguest idea of what I am talking about half the time. But this is why I think its important: most children go through a period of being sentimental about nature. By "sentimental", I mean that in the child's imagination the birds, flowers, trees, and sundry critters are more benign, more authentic than the houses, cars, streets, clothes and food from which they obtain their actual sustenance. Our food, even our pets, are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding, breeding undertaken by human beings to make them safe for our use and companionship.

I'm guessing this is a product of the post-modern age. It springs from the combination of (1) taking the fruits of civilization for granted, and (2) the decadence of a culture unwilling to do the work of preserving the gains it has made.

Most children outgrow this. But some do not: as a boy, my own brother had what started as an above average sentimentality about nature. My parents treated it indulgently, and it eventually metastasized into the pseudo-religion of environmentalism. Everything, including his actual religion, was eventually jettisoned in favor of this new faith.

Here is somebody else who didn't outgrow it: Timothy Treadwell, who wandered off into the Alaskan outback to make friends with the Grizzly Bears. This worked for a while, but one year he arrived at his bear camp a couple of weeks early, when it was still feeding season. He and his girlfriend were promptly eaten. Ross Douthat put it best:

Grizzly Man [about Treadwell] is a film about religious experience, among many other things, but not a form of religious experience that's familiar to most people in the still-Christ-haunted West. Human beings are caught between the animal world and the spiritual world, bound by fleshly requirements, but able to imagine themselves as immortal, freed from bodily concerns, quasi-divine - and in response to this problem, Christianity (and most other mainstream faiths) tells people that the way out is up, and that to escape the conflicts and miseries that come with being half angel and half ape, you need to become more like an angel, and less like an ape.

But the imitatio Dei isn't the only possible solution to the dilemma of being made a little lower than the angels. You could also go in the other direction, and give up on human reason, human self-awareness, in the hopes of returning to a pre-rational, pre-spiritual, entirely animal state . . . But Nature won't take us back.

So . . . what? What are the consequences of allowing our sentimentality to slide into decadence? I shall never tire of telling my children the story of Detroit: Once upon a time, there was a mighty city, the capital of the industrial heartland. But [lots of economic theory skipped over here] all the people that could take care of this city left, and the people that remained had neither the means nor the inclination to preserve and protect what they had been given. The result? Not but a few decades later, the natural world is reclaiming the city! Parking lots turning to fields. Trees growing right through the buildings. This is how the world ends: not with a bang, but a wimper.

So, children, the moral of today's lesson is: nature is trying to kill you. You do not need to be afraid of nature. Human beings are the smartest ones on the planet, and there is great adventure to be had testing ourselves against the rest of it. So go ahead: enjoy the hunting, fishing, hiking, rock-climbing, and white-water rafting. I've enjoyed all these myself. But be smart, because if you are stupid, nature will eliminate you from the gene pool.

Link Love:

this post was inspired by Bobvis who wrote an excellent post on a similiar issue rather more scientifically.

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