Humanity versus nature: Implications of a power struggle

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In June of this year scientists in Queensland confirmed the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy. A small rodent native to Bramble Cay in the Torres Strait, its extinction is the first recent one of a mammal anywhere in the world due to human causes.

Ian Gynther, Natalie Waller and Luke Leung conducted a two-month survey of Bramble Cay in late 2014 and reported no signs of the rodent. While the scientists remain uncertain about the existence of related species elsewhere in the world, they conclude that the Bramble Cay melomy species is no longer present in the Torres Strait or Great Barrier Reef region. Most significant is the cause of the mammal’s extinction: rising sea levels, rooted in human-induced climate change.

Compared to the Bramble Cay melomy, the spoon-billed sandpiper is at the opposite end of the spectrum of human-induced extinction. The bird, native to north-eastern Russia, is severely endangered. As a result, conservationists have begun removing eggs from spoon-billed sandpiper nests. Removing eggs from birds’ nests is generally discouraged; in this instance, however, conservationists argue chicks are more likely to survive if raised away from the harsh conditions of nature.

Extinction is a natural function of evolution and nature. Notions of Darwin and natural selection may come to mind; over time, species best-suited to the environment adapt and thrive, while others dwindle into extinction. According to Darwin’s theory, conditions within the environment and forces of nature dictate the dynamic of life and extinction.

So at what point is this supremacy – nature’s supremacy – challenged by human actions?

The comparison between the Bramble Cay melomy and the spoon-billed sandpiper raises this question, along with many others. In the first case, humanity has directly stimulated extinction; in the second, humanity is intervening to stop extinction. Why do we fight for one species, yet let the other fall? How involved are the forces of nature and natural selection in these developments? Is humanity challenging nature? If so, does the degree of human intervention in these cases indicate humanity is winning in this struggle?

In a way, human society is premised on controlling nature. During the Enlightenment, philosophy began to consider human rationality as the path from primitive to civilized, a method for overcoming instinct and nature. Technologically, we have been controlling nature for centuries; farming, irrigation and domestication are a few examples of humanity bending nature to fit their needs. Construction and urbanisation are others – with human society’s removing aspects of the natural environment to suit their lifestyles.

These developments are not negative, but they tell the story of a growing rivalry. In the relationship between humanity and nature, symbiosis has been replaced with competition, and humans may have the upper hand. What are the implications of this dynamic?

First, the shift to a competitive rivalry jeopardises the relationship between humanity and nature. For most of history, this relationship has been – by necessity – a coexistence. Both parties must harmonize, at least for a peaceful and prosperous existence. Yet while this relationship is critical, the degree of exchange is uneven; humans depend more strongly on nature than nature is affected by humanity.

Humans must coexist with the natural environment (and, to a degree, with other life forms on Earth) in order to survive, as we are dependent on the world around us, for food, water, air, and many other life necessities. In turn, the environment is dependent on humanity in many ways; however, the environment’s dependency is on negative action. While humanity may require nature ‘for’ something or ‘to’ something else, nature and the environment require humanity ‘to not’: to not pollute, to not consume, to not expand in a way harmful to the Earth, or to at least control such damaging behaviours.

A second implication for humanity’s power struggle with nature is that controlling damaging behaviours is proving to be difficult to master; if humanity usurps nature and these behaviours don’t change, then the environment will suffer. For some, this conclusion, while undesirable, is not fatal for humanity. Technology and exploration may provide alternatives to life on Earth. But will these alternatives be enough?

Ultimately, nature will continue, even if Earth does not, but humans, as members of the natural environment, are inherently dependent on nature. Moreover, humanity is endangered by the pattern of disposability. The desire to have the new, the readiness to replace the ‘not-quite-old’ are not merely the tenets of materialism and consumerism. They have become part of a culture of disposability in which everything can be replaced, even the planet. It is a self-destructive and unsustainable pattern, in which we have lost sight of the harmony between humanity and nature.

In this way, there is an inherent evil in envisioning humanity and nature as two separate entities. Rather than a competitive rivalry between two independent entities, humanity and nature should be seen as symbiotic. It is, after all, the way nature intended.