Humans and Nature: Safety Not Guaranteed

Marathon runner attacked by bear. Colorado woman rescues son from jaws of mountain lion. Alligator drowns child at Disney World.

These are just the most notable animal-human encounter headlines from the last few weeks. Google “hiker dies,” and you’ll find several more stories from recent days of people who tragically lost their lives in wild terrain.

Each of these stories is surprising and dismaying–difficult to comprehend. Things seem to be going just fine, and then suddenly nature strikes and someone’s life is in the balance. Social media and mainstream news bring these encounters front-and-center, and we collectively wonder how such a thing is possible in modern society.

Disney should have been patrolling the local waterways, relocating dangerous wildlife, monitoring children at the shore, and putting up signs everywhere warning guests about natural threats.

Lost in nearly all of the conversation about that particular incident is the fact that Disney has built a massive resort in the midst of a complex ecosystem that’s been present and evolving for countless years before humans artificially built their vacation village on top. Is it reasonable to think that with over a million alligators in Florida any human planning is going to be able to ensure a gator won’t be in a given area? When a business has already put up signage saying not to enter the water at the boundary of the resort, should they further have to explain that it’s because a predatory native species everyone should know about may be lurking there in the habitat it’s reigned in long before humans showed up?

Much of the world is now an artificial expanse of human civilization that blankets the existing wild environment. No one expects in suburban Colorado to find a mountain lion in their yard. No one expects to come across a bear and cub while running a marathon. No one expects a child wading into the resort lagoon to be pulled underwater by a gator.

No one expects these things because we believe that our modern society is one of total human domination, ingenuity, and control. We are the top predator, the hunter, the inventor, the architect. Wild predators and wild terrain are dangerous nuisances that should already be engineered out of our experience of the world.

There’s no question we are a dominant, controlling species today. We now alter the climate of the whole planet. We’ve caused many of the Earth’s animals to go extinct or become severely underpopulated. We explore high and low (and leave our mark with trash)–in the near space of our solar system and in the deepest depths of the ocean. No other animal on the planet has done or is doing this.

At the same time, things were not always this way for us. Before they went extinct, there were a number of animals that we were prey to–giant hyenas, cave bears and cave lions, snakes, saber-toothed cats, and others. We were not always at the top of everything, and no matter what we want to believe, we’re still not in control of everything. There remain predators and wild environmental features that can threaten, wound, and kill us.

So, yes, it is absolutely shocking and saddening when someone is severely hurt or even killed by the tooth and claw of nature. My heart breaks for anyone who’s lost a loved one to a violent storm, jagged terrain, or a deadly creature.

But the reason these stories are breaking news is the veil of civilization makes them less common and existential than they were for hundreds of thousands of years. Our faith in utter domination and control may one day be an all-encompassing reality as we continue to alter the planet: no more animal attacks, threatening storms, or fatal terrain. But for now, our existence is one of fragility and unpredictability. Our reality is that safety is not guaranteed. We are always wrestling with the elements and need to be vigilant–whether it’s at a resort or deep in the woods.

 

Humans and Nature: Time to Wake Up

Human beings have not always been around on this planet, and they were definitely not always in Australia. It was only about 45,000 years ago that a group of enterprising Homo sapiens–probably from the Indonesian archipelago–got in some kind of boat and rode the ocean until they happened upon the massive isolated continent of Australia. According to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, they encountered a wild world of oversized kangaroos and koalas, a species of marsupial lion, birds twice the size of ostriches, “dragon-like” lizards and snakes, and the giant diprotodon–a two-and-a-half ton wombat. It was a vibrant ecosystem of striking creatures, with a long-evolved order and rhythm. It didn’t take long for the human arrival to disrupt it.

“Within a few thousand years, virtually all of these giants vanished. Of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing 100 pounds or more, twenty-three became extinct. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and rearranged. It was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem for millions of years…The moment the first hunter-gatherers set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”

Human beings’ emergence, migration, and gradual domination of nearly every inch of the planet have been reshaping the Earth since long before the Industrial Revolution and our current fossil-fueled era. Talking about human-caused environmental change and damage shouldn’t be anything radical or surprising. The only thing that is relatively new is the impact we have on the whole Earth–a comprehensive impact that dramatically alters the only planetary home humans have ever had. You may not care much about a few dozen strange species in Australia several thousand years ago, but you should be extremely concerned about the possibility that the Earth will no longer be pleasantly habitable for us in the not too distant future. This is a threat to our own existence.

Take a look at some of the news just from the last week:

Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Stunning New Low in May

This May Was The Hottest May on Record

Alaska 10 Degrees Hotter than Normal From March to May

First Mammal Goes Extinct Because of Climate Change

Earth’s Atmospheric CO2 Concentration Permanently Passes “Point of No Return” Level

If you haven’t been paying attention, this week wasn’t some sort of anomaly for disturbing environmental alarms. You can find similar headlines for every week over the last several months (and years, honestly). We’re wrecking the planet in unprecedentedly vast and swift ways.

It’s too late to deny or ignore. Too late to put climate change any lower than the top spot in global priorities. Too late to have a president that has to be urged by scientists not to allow more oil and gas exploration rather than simply knowing the state of the planet and saying absolutely not. Too late for an already insufficient international climate agreement to be undermined by the short-term interests of the most powerful economic institutions.

Ancient species extinction in Australia may not have been a change or threat that affected the early sapiens miles away in other continents. They probably had no idea it was even happening.

But today we can no longer be naive or pretend that drastic environmental shifts are only occurring far away from where we are in ways that don’t impact everyone. They’re happening in your backyard; they’re happening in my backyard. We cannot hit the snooze button and go back to dreaming everything will be fine. It’s time to wake up.

 

Humans and Nature: Our Place in the World

In 1870, an expedition entered the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. There had been unsubstantiated rumors of remarkable natural features there, and so a team was put together to go explore and report. Early on, a man by the name of Truman C. Everts was separated from the group and went missing. None of the rest of the group knew if he survived. Initially, they rode around on their horses trying to find him. They were unsuccessful. As they continued to travel through the area, they left clues and supplies in the hope that Everts was still alive.

He was, in fact, but just barely. Over the next several days after going missing, Everts would find himself clinging to life through a whirlwind of what the wilderness could throw at him. His horse ran away with nearly all of his gear. He spent a night in a tree with a lion waiting underneath. He suffered severe frostbite on his feet. He took refuge next to some of the hot geothermal features, only to accidentally break through the surface of one of them and scald himself. 150 miles from the nearest settlement, Everts began hallucinating, promising himself that he wouldn’t die in the wild.

37 days after being separated, he was found on a hillside. With little to eat, he weighed just 50 pounds. Burned, frostbit, emaciated, delirious, he had barely survived. He slowly recovered, later writing a popularly consumed account of his lonely struggle in the elements. He prophesied that one day soon that area would be made comfortably “accessible to all,” and that when that day comes, “…I hope, in happier mood and under more auspicious circumstances, to revisit scenes fraught for me with such mingled glories and terrors.”

How should we think about nature? How do we think about nature?

The complex, decades-long march of technology has allowed us to comfortably settle into robust homes and cities, and most of the world seems easily “accessible” and safe. If we were to drive through Yellowstone National Park today, we would barely give it a second thought that at one time it would take all of the human ingenuity and willpower possible to survive through the often uncompromising harshness of the environment.

Is the natural world a kind of frontier? Most of the early European settlers of America thought so. Inspired by a Garden of Eden, providential vision for a “New World,” the continent seemed to be precisely what the book of Genesis describes–wilderness and waste–ready for them to cultivate and make flourish. They, of course, were either oblivious to or disregarded the indigenous communities–countless, diverse Native American tribes–that had been living on and with the land for centuries. If America was ordained by God to subdue, it was given to someone other than the Europeans long before.

Perhaps nature is primarily a romantic thing–a more John Muir kind of spirituality rather than a biblical one. There are mundane places and then there are transcendent places. Places like Yosemite, for example, that are a sort of secular cathedral where aesthetics, vastness, and remoteness are praised. In this view, true nature entails remarkable places that we choose to go into and out of to elevate the soul.

Or, maybe nature is only just a vast storehouse of resources–something to think of in utilitarian terms. Everything that is there–water, trees, animals, and the rest–are for our excavation and exploitation. A biological warehouse of sorts, for whatever endeavors we have in mind.

Notice that all three of these conceptions put human beings above everything else. There is us, and then there’s nature, whether it’s to be tilled like Adam and Eve, for spiritual transcendence, or for utilitarian use. Us and nature is another binary–a variant of us and themapplied to the world in which we live. We see ourselves as something more than nature: something higher, something else–a type of being that can use nature (whatever it’s best used for) as we please.

Missing, of course, is the simple realization that human beings are themselves one among many kinds of animals. A rational, self-conscious, complex animal, to be sure. But ultimately a creature that is a part of nature–not something separate from it. This kind of understanding might be called the ecological view of nature. Nature is to be viewed as a dense structure of relationships, of “complex, interpenetrating systems,” to use Jedediah Purdy’s description. His book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, outlines these four common conceptions of our relationship to nature: providential, romantic, utilitarian, and ecological.

Though it’s a relatively recent way of understanding nature, we need to take the ecological view because we live in a time when human activity impacts the natural world more completely and more dramatically than ever before. We are inseparable from the environment in which we live. It’s not us and nature, it’s just this. We need to realize that our attempts to master the natural world have not brought pure progress, and that because everything is related to everything else in complex ways, we need to be thoughtful about how any of our activity may harm or destroy in ways that may not be immediately apparent. Something here can significantly alter another thing over there.

Our supposed mastery has veiled us from the intense Truman C. Everts kinds of experiences of nature that now occur mostly only for hardcore outdoors people and survivalists, humans who’ve wandered off the beaten path and gotten lost, or people who’ve been tossed into a wild place in some kind of a disaster. But we are in nature all of the time. It’s not just awe-inducing vistas like Yellowstone or Yosemite. And it’s not just endless trees in a forest somewhere out there seemingly there to be cut down and transformed into “things that are actually useful.”

Nature always surrounds us. And we are, at all times, nature ourselves–embodying and impacting the whole interconnected thing in profound ways. How we think about ecosystems and animals and natural resources and the climate and ourselves as a relatively new species trying to survive on this planet is important. A proper understanding of nature and our place in the world is vital. There’s just this. Let’s think about how we fit in with the rest of it all.