How We Became Estranged With Nature10-12-2012
“An albatross dips towards the sea, then lifts again, beating its wings as if repelled by the opposing magnetism of the water.” Beginning her book, On Extinction, with this scene of natural collision, Melanie Challenger’s image soon unfolds as her gaze turns down to the expansive water. "The sea is deathly calm, spread out like a cerecloth. Then a rocketing breath hurls a rainbow into the air." With this Challenger paints the experience of watching a rising blue whale.
Ms. Challenger sent us a copy of her book here at the Arendt Center, suggesting a connection with Arendtian themes. She is right. What albatross and whale mean, how we see them, and the ways in which we increasingly don't are the themes of Challenger's book. What is most visible in our world, she writes, is the loss of wonder at the natural world, the old Platonic thaumazein, “the wonder at what is” that is the birth of philosophy.
Modern life, however, seems to not simply repudiate the experience of thaumazein, but also the notion that anything occurring in nature is inherently meaningful, or, to put it in the economic terms which so pervade our thought processes, that anything has value “as it is.” Modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, replaces the wonder at the world with doubt regarding the world's existence or our ability to know it. But doubt does not have to lead to disregard. And even disregard for nature is not an adequate description for what Challenger has in mind. Human beings have and will continue to recognize the economic possibilities of nature, which is less disregard than use; it is precisely this use and exploitation of nature for economic purposes that bestows meaning on nature for modern man. Wonder and doubt have both been replaced by an attitude of unremitting mastery.
Of course, everyone does not seek to exploit nature, or accept the ultimately wishful assertion that man is superior to nature and that any natural activity is either superfluous to human life, profitable to man, or a problem man must figure out how to overcome. Pressed on whether one supports or rejects the vast damage man has committed to the earth, be it in the form of global warming, obliteration of environments, or human-induced extinctions many times the rate of estimated natural extinction (see the Guardian’s Human Activity is Driving Earth’s ‘sixth great extinction event), most would say they do not support it, that we must live in a more sustainable way.
Watching “Planet Earth,” however, and then donating some money to Greenpeace is not going to radically change things. It is necessary to recognize that this language of sustainability, of “green” products and efforts, including efforts made by some businesses, to condone the most destructive practices of global industry are largely technical or superficial solutions which mask the need for a more fundamental discussion that addresses not simply the symptoms of modern exploitation of nature, but seeks to understand what we are doing and why. We must think about and discuss both the relationship between nature and man and the basic activities that gives form to and conditions our lives. In other words, to address the destruction of our environment, and why we are acting in this manner, we must adopt Arendt’s proposal “to think what we are doing.”
Indeed, “to think what we are doing” is the underlying impetus of Melanie Challenger’s On Extinction. Confronted with her own “fragmented connection with nature,” Ms. Challenger writes “I became aware that I was living through another mass extinction of animals and plants without even knowing it, this one due to human behavior. I wanted to explore the idea of extinction in the light of this new, sobering reality.” Her “chief interest…in gathering a history of how we had become so destructive to the natural world and its diversity” springs from a determination “to understand why…marvels of nature were imperiled and why that should matter.”
Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition provides a wonderful banister upon which we may begin to think, with Ms. Challenger, about our proclivity toward exploitation and destruction of nature. Broadly speaking, the rise of human induced extinctions (which began to increase dramatically in the 18th century) and the massive exploitation of natural resources accompanying industrialization may be traced to the rise in prominence of homo faber within the vita activa, followed shortly by the succession of the animal laborans. “The modern age,” Arendt writes, “has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.” This reduction of the active life, comprised of labor, work, and action, into a life of mere laboring follows the modern commitment to infinite economic growth, and therefore limitless consumption, alongside an obsession with the life process itself.
The modern obsession with the life process is characterized by a continuous process of consumption. The laboring process is cyclical – we have needs, labor produces consumables to meet those needs, consumption occurs and the process begins anew. Arendt writes: “laboring always moves in the same circle which is prescribed by the biological process of the living organism and the end of its ‘toil and trouble’ comes only with the death of this organism.” It is not the biologically necessary process of labor and consumption, however, which has led to our massive exploitation of the earth’s resources, but rather the over-consumption symptomatic of the emergence of what Arendt calls a waste economy, “in which things must be almost as quickly devoured and discarded as they have appeared in the world, if the process itself is not to come to a sudden catastrophic end.”
Exploitation and abuse of nature, however, does not derive strictly from our capacity to labor and the emergence of a modern society captivated by necessities of life and addicted to the endless laboring process. We are not simply laboring animals, but also fabricators, and it is from this perspective of homo faber that nature divorced from man is almost meaningless. Nature, Arendt writes, “seen through the eyes of homo faber, the builder of the world, ‘furnishes only the almost worthless materials as in themselves,’ whose whole value lies in the work performed upon them.
Reading Challenger's On Extinction with Arendt in the background calls up a picture of a society dominated by the never-ending process of labor and consumption coupled with humanity's ability to deny intrinsic value to nature; with such a picture, one cannot help but consider, in Challenger's words, that “the lunacy of pursuing profit despite all warnings to the contrary” may be characterized not as a reckless and irresponsible gamble pursued by some but rather the unavoidable consequence of living within and being a member of modern society. While we may question how anyone “back then” could have supported the almost total depletion of the whale population for oil, for example, there seems to be a similar ambivalence in our own time, as many bemoan the warming of the planet and nations pledge reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while the world’s leading economies and major oil companies are concurrently jockeying for drilling rights in the arctic to fuel the vehicles and supply power for those same people reflecting upon the destruction of nature and wishing it wasn’t so.
The consumerist society knows no boundary lines, and in the places most vulnerable to global warming, economic actors do not see tragic, avoidable destruction, but rather increased opportunities to profit from the exploitation of nature. While in Nunavut, Ms. Challenger spoke met an Inuit asking why she was there. Telling him that she was researching the changing relationship between the Inuit and their landscape, the man replied, “Nunavut’s future won’t be in the land…It’ll be funded by minerals.” Explaining that the Meta Incognita peninsula was recently surveyed and found to have significant deposits of iron, lead, gold, and diamonds, the man concluded by saying “The more the ice melts…the more they’ll get.”
Asking, and trying to answer a question such as why we have become so destructive to the natural world is by no means a worthless endeavor, even though it doesn’t always lead to directly positive results, or even anything tangible, unless one counts the confusion caused by the immensity of the subject. The simple fact that we do ask these questions though, people all over the world, every day, demonstrates that we are still ultimately world-seeking people conditioned by a world which includes the human artifice and earth’s nature. So despite the dominance of animal laborans and our fixation on limitless economic growth, despite the assertion of homo faber that man gives meaning to nature, man, seemingly in spite of himself, will still sometimes experience the state of thaumazein. If there is hope for better relations with the natural world in the future, hope in man recognizing the futility of limitless economic activity and exploitation of nature for objects of increasingly little permanence, then this hope rests in part with our capacity to still “wonder at everything that is as it is.” Ms. Challenger’s work provides a timely reminder to the importance of this wonder.
Ms. Challenger’s US edition of On Extinction may be pre-ordered and previewed here.