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Man Changing Nature
People cannot live apart from nature...And yet, people cannot live in nature without changing it. What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places. The making of these differences is the making of the world...
And so it can hardly be expected that humans would not change nature. Humans, like all other creatures, must make a difference; otherwise, they cannot live. But unlike other creatures, humans must make a choice as to the kind and scale of the difference they make. If they choose to make too small a difference, they diminish their humanity. If they choose to make too great a difference, they diminish nature, and narrow their subsequent choices; ultimately, they diminish or destroy themselves. Nature, then, is not only our source but also our limit and measure.
-- Wendell Berry
How much should we humans "interfere" in Nature?
As Wendell Berry so beautifully pointed out, no species, including man, can live without changing its surrounding environment. It just is impossible. So the real question is not DO we change Nature or not, but HOW do we change Nature?
There are only two ways to change something as far as I know: to improve its condition or to worsen its condition (Larry commented "Many people go through life pretending they are changing nothing at all!"). To me, an improvement in condition would be to make whatever it is more able to thrive--such as adding compost, minerals, and micro-organisms to soil to improve its fertility, which in turn could provide more nourishing plants to feed animals and people which would contribute to their ongoing health. To worsen a condition would be to make something have less of an ability to survive or to end its life altogether--such as to spray toxic chemicals in a home that make the home's inhabitants ill.
If we take a look at our human actions and their effects on Nature, most of our actions worsen the condition of Nature. But there are also many actions that improve the worsened condition we have created--such as organic farming and gardening, recycling, habitat restoration, feeding birds in the backyard (I added this because I just looked up to see our backyard birds enjoying the food Larry put out for them last night) and other such activities. It's obvious that we humans should maintain the integrity of the ecosystems in which we live and restore what we've damaged, for all the same reasons that we care for our private homes and maintain and restore them when damaged.
But there are bigger questions.
Should we let nature run its course, or make a human intervention? Should we, for example, dam up rivers or let them flow? Should we change the course of hurricanes to prevent the destruction of our human property? Should we stop natural cycles of any kind from occurring?
And at an even deeper level, should we be making genetic modifications or employing nanotechnologies that can affect our bodies and the environment at the smallest, most fundamental quantum level of matter?
The whole question of man versus nature cannot be answered until we address the basic wrong assumption inherent in this question: man is not separate from Nature, man is part of Nature itself. We repeatedly forget this--subject to the influences of the industrialized world in which we live--and yet, it is the basic fundamental we must always remember if we are to come to the correct actions we take as humans.
Here is the confusion...
When we say "man" in our current cultural context, we refer to a man living in an industrialized society, separated from his supporting ecosystems, with little awareness of or conscious participation in the natural flows of life. Yes, this "man" is at odds with Nature. And, it is correct to isolate that which damages life from the rest of life in order to give the rest of life the chance to survive (just as it is correct to put a patient with an infectious disease into quarantine so others may live).
But there is another "man", the whole human being which includes a functioning spirit. This "man" is able to consider how his own actions affect the entire planet and all it's creatures and make decisions motivated by love. It is not correct to assume that humans as a species cannot participate in Nature as a positively contributing species. We are not inherently bad. At our most fundamental spiritual essence, we are abundantly good.
There have been and are today many men and women who fit this description of man. One that comes to mind is Luther Burbank. For those of you who don't know Luther Burbank, he was a horticulturalist who lived in California and did his best work at the end of the 1800s. He developed new plant varieties to serve the needs of mankind at a time before the science of genetics was known.
To make these new varieties, Mr. Burbank used a time-honored practice that followed Nature's own processes, a practice that has been in use for millenia by many humans and has led to the creation of the varieties most useful to man today. He would decide which characteristics he wanted in a particular plant--hardiness, flavor, color, fragrance, etc--choose plants with these characteristics, cross-fertilize them, and then select from the next generation of plants those specimens which best demonstrated those characteristics. Then he would replant their seeds and select again. And after patiently doing this through a number of generations, he would have plants that would consistently reproduce with these characteristics. He was widely known because of his exceptional ability to apply this natural process with successful results. He added his human participation to a process that was already occuring in Nature. His was a human intervention, but it was to guide a natural process, and had an intent to enhance positive traits that the plants were, to some degree, already demonstrating themselves.
Today, our scientists make a different kind of human intervention when they create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Like Mr. Burbank, their purpose is to make the plant or animal as useful and productive as possible for our human needs. But unlike Mr. Burbank--who used domestication, selection and controlled breeding over long periods of time--with GMOs scientists insert genes from various organisms--human, plant, animal, bacteria or virus--into crop plants and farm animals. It is fundamentally different from traditional breeding because it forces the exchange of genes across species barriers, which does not occur in nature. It creates "mutant" varieties that would not develop on their own through natural processes, such as tomatoes with viral and fish genes, goats with spider genes, and potatoes with jellyfish and chicken genes. Scientists have even injected human genes into rice.
GMO food tampers with the very building blocks of our health. Though we may not feel any effects when we eat this food, it is genetically strange and may very well affect our own genetic makeup. In the ten years or so that GMOs have been used, already they have shown to irreversibly contaminate the genetic makeup of wild and cultivated plants and animals. I see no reason why they would not affect our bodies in the same way.
The difference between Mr. Burbank and modern GMO scientists is motivation. Mr. Burbank was motivated by a spiritual love for plants and his fellow humans and wanted to exhalt the positive characteristics of the plants to benefit all life. GMO scientists are motivated by financial profit. On their list of priorities, shelf life is more important than good taste or public safety.
I'm not in favor of man intervening in Nature in ways that are contrary to the natural processes of life for the profit of a few, which ultimately does more harm than good. I'm not against profit per se, just profit that occurs at the expense of the rest of life.
I am in favor of our human participation in Nature when that participation comes from a desire to express our human selves physically, mentally, and spiritually as beings of Nature, and we take a hand in applying the processes of Nature to life at large for the benefit of all.
Indeed, I believe we have a destiny and purpose to add a positive human dimension to the whole of Nature, which is not quite hwhole without our human participation. We each have within us the gifts needed to fulfill this purpose.