At the recent Paris conference (some would say “historic Paris conference”..we shall see) a slogan was born..and may indeed live to mark history.
We are not fighting for Nature, we are Nature defending itself.
This catchy phrase begs a couple of questions: What is Nature? and How do we humans fit into Nature? The answers are pretty relative, from the more or less conventional view that Nature is something ‘out there’..in the fields, in the forests, in the mountains or in the sea..in fundamental opposition to the Human, or at least to that which humans have been up to in the later stages of evolution, most obviously in the recent centuries of urban techno-industrial revolution, but actually as far back as at least ten millenia and the beginnings of the neolithic revolution, primal sedentarism and the end of the hunter-gatherer .. to the other-extreme concept that everything, absolutely everything, that humans do or can do is nothing more than another manifestation of the evolution of the natural world..in short, the doings of Nature. Somewhere in between, we have the take that while humans are indeed products and agents of the natural world and undeniably subject to its laws and forces, we have become disconnected from the rhythms and constraints of Nature due to our ever more artificial -in both design and construction- environments and lifestyles..we have become something like astronauts on Mars, we live inside our vital bubbles on Earth as though it were an alien planet. And, occasionally, we are suddenly surprised to discover that we are still animals, clad apes, inside our plastic bubbles..we are still Nature. This is the surprise that the slogan conveys so well: we are not fighting for Nature, no.. no, we are Nature defending itself.
It is this element of surprise about ourselves, surprise about our identity, surprise that we are, still and in spite of ourselves, Nature..that seems very interesting to me and that points us towards an answer to the question of why it is profoundly important to get back to Nature. We might even say that it is a religious question, in the sense that it is about re-connecting (re-ligare)..it is about humans reconnecting to themselves. Many early human belief-systems or life-codes -religions- have this idea at their core. Yoga, for example, means literally ‘union’ and refers to the uniting or joining of that which has become separate from itself..for example, the human soul and the divine. In zen the practice of meditation aims to overcome duality, the sense of separation or opposition between mind and body, between self and other, on the way to illumination. This project of seeing ourselves as we really are – whole, and wholly and utterly connected to everything around us – is perhaps the apex of human experience and a major part of it is the realization of our connection to Nature, the realization that we are not separate from Nature, the realization that we are Nature.
In modern times, parallel to the perception of our disconnection or distance from Nature, we have constantly maintained the intuitive belief that contemplation of the natural world is favourable to the health and vigor of humans. Poets, artists and scientists have regularly affirmed this..but until recently there wasn’t very much hard evidence to back such claims. This has changed in the early 21st century as scientific research has presented multiple studies which support the idea that exposition to Nature has positive therapeutic effects for humans. National Geographic recently published a feature detailing several such studies: This is Your Brain on Nature. One conclusion is that being immersed in natural surroundings has a significant influence on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, allowing it to reduce its activity and rest, leading to a reduction of stress and focus on negative emotions, more creativity and problem-solving capacity, and generally better performance of the brain. A cognitive psychologist speaks of the “three-day effect”..”a kind of cleaning of the mental windshield that occurs after three days of immersion in Nature” and which leads to “improved mental performance.”
The Nat Geo text features many examples of how getting back to Nature does us the world of good, but for me the most striking instance is that of South Korea and what some consider to be the new function of the country’s forests. South Koreans – work-stressed, digitally addicted, academically pressed..as many as 70% say their jobs/hours make them depressed – have turned to forest therapy for relief. Visits to forests among the population have risen by over 30% in just three years. They have what almost amounts to a national plan for forest healing. “Human well-being..is now a formal goal of the nation’s forest plan.” More than timber, the fruit of the forests in South Korea today is human health.
Another positive consequence of re-establishing our connection with Nature is that we get to see more clearly the damage that, thru our contemporary lifestyles, we are doing to the natural world..and the ramifications of this destruction for all forms of life on Earth. Including us. Indeed we may even perceive that what we are doing is destroying our world and destroying ourselves. Without this change of consciousness it will be very difficult to effect the change of direction that is required of humanity in order to survive on this planet.
And who knows?..we might even come round to the rallying-cry of not just fighting for Nature..
“we are Nature..defending ourselves!”