Friday, 14 May 2004

Do We Need Nature?

The Nature - Such Cheap Trash[1]

Contribution to The Economist Essay competition on Man & Nature (from 2004)

Of course we do not need nature. A detached observer must take the Hobbesian view, that undisturbed nature only allows for human lives to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. A human existence in material and intellectual affluence demands, that man fills the earth, subdues it and dominates all living things to secure a continuous increase in living standards and longevity.

Before tools and agriculture were invented, only a few million people could exist on earth living nasty and short lives as hunter/gatherers. Because of mankind's steadily increasing ability to control nature we are now 6 billion going towards a equilibrium state of 10 billion, which pending the right political actions all can obtain livings standards and life expectancies, which our forefathers could not even dream about.

Dualism: Man & Nature

To fix the premise for answering the essay question it is necessary to maintain a dualism between the sentient being: Man and his cultural activities and "Nature" seen as pristine nature undisturbed by any human activities. It could well be argued, that man is part of nature and all his/her activities natural. In this context there is no difference between an anteater breaking down a huge termite hill and a group of Al-Qaeda members flying into the twin towers on Sep. 11. And basically, in my view this dualism is false. What man is doing is natural, and man and his activities is merely an intermediate result of the evolution process making it possible for nature to use creative intelligence for enhancing the chances of long time survival for life in a hostile universe. For the sake of the essay question, I will have to maintain the dualism as a premise for the discussions below.

Three Good Reasons to Get Rid of Nature

Nature has to be managed and controlled to allow human beings to survive and thrive. There are at least 3 good reasons to manage, control or even get rid of nature:

Firstly, nature is a cold-blooded killer. An ordinary citizen living in a modern country does not really appreciate how dangerous nature actually is. He/she would not survive for more than a few days in the wilderness.

Daily we see nature breaking its bonds and killing many people and destroying huge values through natural disasters: Fires, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, tsunamis, earthquake, landslides, floods, hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, storm surges, typhoons and droughts. Between 50 and 100.000 people are killed every year by natural disasters and about 200 millions directly affected. In the rich part of the world we have more or less insulated ourselves to these disasters either by having grabbed the most secure sites for locating our houses and industries or by being able to afford necessary protection measures like dams, dykes, resilient buildings etc. That may be one of the reasons for affluent peoples to fall in love with nature, as it does not feel dangerous to them. In a poor country there is certainly no respect for a point of view allowing nature to have a free reign killing lots of people.

Another huge natural killer is infectious disease. We have conquered many: Typhoid, polio, yellow fever, smallpox, bubonic plague to name a few. Some of them are still lurking in the background looking to jump us if our antibiotic defences wear out. Emergent diseases like AIDS is already taking its significant toll, and very dangerous viruses (ebola, SARS) are biding their time before the go on a global rampage possibly killing millions of people.
In the geological time scale, nature left to its own devices will surely kill most or maybe all human beings, if we don’t allow the development of necessary precautions. Long-term certain massive natural killers are climate change provoking a new Ice age, an earthbound huge meteor/asteroid and maybe even a nearby supernova.

Secondly, nature's bounty is a myth. Contrary to common perceptions major parts of earth are very biologically unproductive, even barren. Mountains, tundra's, arctic areas can not support much life, and large parts of the oceans are desert areas, caused by lack of nutrients. Only after a tremendous investment in creating land fit for food production and enhancing the productivity of this land, it is possible to produce food for all human beings.

Thirdly, nature is on the average very uncomfortable: Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and filled with annoying stinging and burning creatures. A hot summer afternoon a few days ago, I jogged for a cool swim at a nice beach near my house. I happily jumped in the water, and very upset jumped up again after having been burnt heavily on the front of my legs by the invisible threads of a Lion Manes Jellyfish. The day ended ok though, me being pampered by my wife soothing the burns with a salve and my emotions with some excellent claret. Modern people do all they can to live in comfortable surroundings far removed from real nature, and of course, they try as best they can to make endless war on the wasps, ants and mosquitoes near their homes.

Three Bad Reasons to Get Rid of People

On the surface of things, very few people will publicly state, that they too want to get rid of nature. On the contrary many people are adamant that humankind should protect and conserve nature. Some radicals in the deep ecology movement are even carrying this notion to the extent that human beings are parasites on the earth, and that the human population as a consequence must be reduced to the level sustainable as hunter/gatherers. There a 3 sets of reasoning behind these "at any price, limit human beings impact on nature" ideology:

Firstly, from a utilitarian point of view, nature can be seen as a supplier of ecosystem services: food, water, air, and the cleaning and recirculation of these resources. This is in principle true, however the fact is that the global ecosystem is a very poor supplier of these services. Left to its own devices, nature can not produce food for more than a few million people. To be able to produce food for billions of people we are enhancing the primary production capacity of our arable land up to 100 times the natural level. When treating wastewater, we are using nature's own processes in a controlled manner. We are culturing micro-organisms in an environment optimised in relation to waterflow, nutrients and oxygen, and thereby reducing the area needed for this important service to a fraction of area needed in nature.

Secondly, many people including myself are most certainly enchanted with the beauty of some parts of nature. The modern citizen wants to build his home with a view, preferably at the seaside. We surround ourselves with meticulously manicured gardens, and our love of animal life shines through in the expensive and loving care, we are showing our millions of pets. Surely, human beings love landscapes, plants and animals which are controlled, nice to look at, and love us back unconditionally, as any fine pet will do. And we feel romantically inclined to walk in the wilderness and think sentimental thoughts about an undisturbed rainforest ecosystem with its "Noble Savages" living lives in purity and truth. Of course, this picture of nature has nothing to do with reality. So we care not for nature as it is, but for a "nature" constructed to fit our perceptions.

Thirdly, reminiscences from our pantheistic past are showing through even in modern times. Pristine nature is revered, modern technology is seen as unnatural and human beings are accused of "playing God". Plants, animals and ecosystems are sometimes valued as highly as human beings. In extreme cases the love of nature becomes so strong, that it resembles hatred to human beings.

Does Nature Have a Future?

Even more than 30 years after the publication of "Limits to Growth" and after numerous clear falsifications of its statements we still see a strong influence of the doomsayers in their call for "control and regulation" of new technology and their lobbying for draconian measures on the global warming issue.

This influence is actually the biggest threat to human beings wellbeing and survival and to conserving great tracts of pristine nature, which of course most of us would like to see for emotional, aesthetic and scientific reasons.

A major global trend now is the use of advanced technology for decoupling our production activities particularly in food production from land use and environmental impact. Danish agriculture has in the last 15 years increased its volume output with 20% and at the same time reduced its area demand with a few percent and its nitrogen loss with 30%. This decoupling is taking place in all the modern countries of the world and will eventually secure, that we can feed all people on a gradually declining area. The areas released are then available for pristine natural reserves, if we so wish.

An unsentimental view on nature, as something which human beings has as well a duty as a right to manage and control and even get rid of, is the best guarantee for a good future for our planet.

Charlottenlund, 2004
Karl Iver Dahl-Madsen

[1] Poul Henningsen, Danish Intellectual, Architect and Poet