Rethinking nature


In Western culture, humans often view society and themselves as separate from nature. We view cities and suburbs as if they are disconnected from the surrounding forests, prairies, wetlands, etc. It is very easy for us to see wilderness, an image that we most likely associate with that of a national park, as “nature,” and civilization as a distinct concept. In reality, we are as much a part of nature as the ants on the ground and the birds in the trees. The buildings we build are as much a part of nature as the tunnels that those ants make underground and the nests that those birds make in the trees.

Is this cultural dichotomy of nature and society actually causing more harm to the environment in the long run? It’s hard to determine with certainty whether or not this is true; however, it’s safe to connect the dots that if we cannot directly see the way that our resource consumption affects the land around us, then it’s easier for us to put issues caused by overconsumption from our minds.

For instance, the average American produces approximately 1,500 pounds of garbage every year, only 550 pounds of which are recycled or composted. When that waste is picked up from our driveways every week and taken to a landfill, it’s easy for us not to think about it anymore, but what if it wasn’t picked up every week? On average, each person creates approximately 5.5 cubic yards of garbage each year, and if you multiply that times the average household size (2.54 people), then each year the average household would have half the volume of a gray whale worth of trash in their yard. It’s far more real to us if we imagine it being in our yards, instead of being able to ignore it once it’s been transported to a landfill.

Additionally, the vast amount of resources that go into producing the food that we eat is largely ignored when we consider our daily diet. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States ranks #1 worldwide in consumption of beef and poultry, and #3 in consumption of pork. That ranking is based on the total of thousands of metric tons consumed, not per person per year, which means that as a nation with a population of about 300 million in 2010 when those statistics were calculated, we are consuming more meat total than China, with a population of over 1.3 billion. Additionally, about half of our corn production in the United States, and the majority of our soy production as well, is utilized to feed livestock. The meat production industry is incredibly land and water intensive, yet we have the highest consumption in the world. It is very simple for us to eat meat three times a day when we cannot observe the amount of land and resources it takes to sustain that type of lifestyle.

The resources that are used to create the civilization in which we live are all acquired from Earth’s environment. The key to a better future is creating a balance with our relationship to the environment. Balance in the way that humanity views nature and our role in it. Balance in the way we live our lives and the amount of resources we are using as individuals.

Sustainability is that balance. As we look toward the future of the human race on Earth, we have to look at what we’re doing now and whether or not our behaviors are sustainable for the next century and further. The term sustainability does not necessarily imply that we must abandon many of the things that we cherish in our society, it just means that we must adjust these conventions to fit our vision of the future. The amount of resources we consume must be in balance with the amount of resources Earth can provide, to ensure that we can continue to have these conventions for years to come.

How do we combat these misconceptions about humanity’s role in nature? One way is to bring more nature to the cities. The Greening of Detroit, one of Foundation Beyond Belief’s past beneficiaries, is working to make the city of Detroit greener by planting trees in spaces that are not yet paved. Additionally, we can become more conscious of the ways in which our behavior is guided by this misconception and attempt to mitigate the effects in our own lives and educate others as well. Collective individual efforts can make a large impact if good choices are made.

Since humanists do not believe in an afterlife, this Earth is all that we have, so we have to put in the effort to protect it. As rational thinkers, it is important for the humanist community to address these misconceptions that may further environmental negligence and take on an active role in living and promoting sustainable lifestyles.

For more on this topic, read The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon.