I’ve been studying history lately, and one thing that I’ve been struck by is the way in which humans harnessed the power of nature through things like farming and water power. Obviously, mankind has made a lot of mistakes in how it has treated nature, and I absolutely recognize that in many ways we are now more conscious of how we’re harming our planet than we once were (though I also understand that turning that consciousness into meaningful action is a separate issue).
But, overall, I can’t help but think that we are moving past using natural resources in the way we once did. It seems to me like our modern technologies and medicines are less rooted in natural solutions than they once were, and that modern humans are less connected to nature than ever. Experts, what evidence is there to support (or contradict) my take on things?
Yours is not an unusual opinion. Many people feel that we are less connected to nature than our forebears, though it’s not always clear that this is actually the case. One look at the various diets and lifestyle plans that purport to replicate the ways of the distant past can show you clearly that many present-day people have an anxiety about the relationship between the modern world and the natural one.
But there is no escaping the power of nature–not then, and not now. No homeowner, for instance, will tell you that they can completely ignore the world outside. From siding replacement to basement waterproofing, a huge amount of the regular maintenance and repairs that homeowners do today are related to the natural world. Human shelter has come a long way over thousands upon thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean that we are now ignoring the things we’re sheltering ourselves from!
Other technologies have advanced, too: we’re building more things out of synthetic material, of course, than we ever were in the early days of humanity. But humans have been transforming the materials we use for as long as we’ve been around: logs and stones may be more identifiably natural than steel and plastic, but they’re still natural materials transformed by human hands and technologies. The difference is somewhat philosophical: everything we create must be made from the materials we have access to here on our planet, after all.
We now have more ways than ever to find medicines, too, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve stopped looking at the natural world. Pharmaceutical companies still test natural medicines and look to folk medicine traditions for leads, even if they also take cues from advanced medical studies. Consumers can still turn to natural medicines and, for instance, try using Tremor Miracle to treat essential tremors. And the large natural supplement market still draws much of its inspiration from the world of natural medicines, say the experts behind ephedra diet pills.
There are hard truths about the ways we humans affect our environment, and we should all pay careful attention to such things. But when it comes to more philosophical matters, our relationship with the natural world is, in many ways, a matter of perception as much as a matter of reality. Take, for instance, the facts about genetically modified organisms. There are legitimate concerns about overuse of GMOs, like the idea that insufficient diversity on farms could lead to sudden losses of crops and result in shortages. But there are also less concrete concerns that, experts say, are far less founded. The amorphous idea that a genetically modified food is less “natural” than a typical farm product ignores the fact that humans have long been tweaking their farm products: grafting and hybridization, to name just two techniques, have been around for huge chunks of human history. GMOs are in many ways just an updated version of these techniques, explains a supplier for canola seeds in Australia. Avoiding all modification in plant products would practically mean resorting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle–and since we humans are animals ourselves, with our own instincts and communities, would even that choice be “natural”?
In some cases, our obsession with the “natural” can go beyond the questionable and reach a point where it objectively runs counter to fact. Take, for instance, the common perception that we spend less recreational time in the “natural world” than ever. That’s simply not true: in fact, simple outdoor hobbies like hiking were virtually nonexistent a few hundred years ago. Even walking for pleasure in more civilized areas was rare until the 1800s, and spending time in the wilderness without the purpose of hunting or doing other forms of work was reserved for eccentrics until at least the 1900s. The hobby emerged slowly in that century, and outdoor sports eventually exploded in popularity during the 1970s “hiking boom,” which also saw the rise of related sports like rock climbing. Today, more of us are hiking than ever.
The answer to your question, then, is a little complicated–and also invites further questions. It’s true enough that there are ways in which we have to deal less with nature. Increased urbanization has placed more humans in cities, modern materials less “less natural” in important ways, and modern technologies take us further and further from our simple roots. But nature hasn’t gone away, and modern shelters and outdoor gear are still designed to deal with the same unyielding natural power. Meanwhile, in other ways, we’re more natural than ever: our improved mobility and increased appreciation for nature has put more of us on hiking trails, for instance, and we’re increasingly aware of the ways in which we can damage our environment.
Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to grapple with the ways in which our relationship with nature has changed–and to keep a particularly keen eye on the ways in which our understanding of nature obligates us to control our own actions. If you want to feel closer to nature, we suggest you focus your efforts on good work that will help keep our planet green and healthy for future generations.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — John Muir