Can the two get along?
By Elliot Owen
Gone are the days when our feet graced more grass than concrete, when our lungs inhaled more fresh air than climate controlled oxygen, when our bodies synthesized adequate amounts of vitamin D from healthy doses of sun, not supplement tablets. Millennials are the last generation to know childhood as skinned knees, climbed trees, neighborhood pranks, and family vacations without smartphones, tablets, and social media. For us, electronics were a treat, a privilege, not the norm.
As we grew up, modern forms of technology integrated into our daily lives. Today, our every move is framed by the use of digital mechanization. We are high tech beings, advanced and developed, constantly reimagining what efficiency and connection can look like.
But here’s food for thought: when was the last time you smelled a flower that didn’t come from a store-bought bouquet? Do you know what the Earth feels like between your toes? Have you ever watched an entire sunset or woke to the sounds of songbirds? Is seeing a natural wonder on your bucket list?
To push further, have you done any of the above of your own primal volition backed by an inherent connectedness to nature, not the need to showcase a post-worthy moment online?
It’s a fair question, one grounded in a larger discussion about whether or not technology compromises the ability of humans to not only live in balance with nature, but to simply know what nature is.
Technology trumps nature
There are experts like scientific philosopher Christopher Potter, author of How To Make A Human Being, who claim people stand apart from the inner workings of the natural world.
“Humans never were part of nature,” Potter states in his book.
We were always part of technology.
In his September 2013 New York Times op-ed, geography professor and biologist Erle C. Ellis echoes a similar point.
“The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been,” he wrote.
Since prehistory, human populations have used technology and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.
That’s to say, basically, that human beings are wired for innovation, which lifts us from the fate of other creatures and permits us to shape our own future, as well as that of the Earth.
We’re good at giving ourselves that license. After all, we’ve turned raw materials like coal, oil, and natural gas into fuels. Wood, rock, and metals are buildings. Water is electricity. We’ve created modern medicine, the internet, large-scale agriculture, and art. We understand the laws of physics. We domesticated (and cloned) animals. We invented plastic. We know what DNA looks like.
All that deserves points, right?
Anthropocentrism — the belief that everything Earth-related revolves around humans — says yes. The world, nature, is something to be used, manipulated, and managed for the betterment of the human condition. Through various forms of science and technology, we’ve established ourselves as our solar system’s demigods.
Imbalance is costly
The implied superiority of this belief (and the permission it gives to innovate at all costs) is what other experts believe has ruptured our balance with the Earth and will ultimately end in our demise.
According to a recent study, the impact humans have had on the planet through intense and comprehensive environmental degradation is unquestionable. To support the ever-growing human population (7 billion and counting) as well as our technological advances, Earth is maxing out.
“The Earth is in serious energetic imbalance due to human energy use,” the study states.
This imbalance defines our most dominant conflict with nature. It really is a conflict in the sense that the current energy imbalance, a crisis unprecedented in Earth history, is a direct consequence of technological innovation.
World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking is of likemind.
“We face a number of threats to our survival from nuclear war, catastrophic global warming, and genetically engineered viruses,” Hawking said during the BBC Reith Lectures at London’s Royal Institution in January. “The number is likely to increase in the future, with the development of new technologies, and new ways things can go wrong.”
Greenhouse gases, melting ice caps, pandemics, droughts, wildfires, floods, mass extinctions, biological war, the zombie apocalypse — as they say, pick your poison.
The notion of human imbalance with Earth as being deadly at worst, faulty at best, is not new. Indigenous cultures throughout the world have long centered the belief that everything is connected, that the offset of one element can reverberate throughout an entire system in destructive ways.
In North America, the overarching opinion held by native people is that a human-caused imbalance has already been struck.
“We know that in all creation,” an Ojibway prayer says, “only the human family has strayed from the Sacred Way.”
Recent scientific findings underline this sentiment — the highly creative human consciousness does not separate us from the natural world. Nature, not humanity, is the real MVP, and we too regularly undermine its importance to our wellbeing.
A study published in August suggests Amish children, who are regularly exposed to dirt, have a lower incidence of allergies and asthma than children living in more sterile environments.
Numerous reports have found that pet ownership can help people live longer and happier. Higher self-esteem, lower heart rates and blood pressure, and reduced stroke risk, cholesterol, and stress levels are connected to fostering relationships with our animal counterparts.
A recent nationwide study concluded that women live longer when their surrounding environments include lots of greenery.
And according to Stanford University research, a 90-minute walk through nature has identifiable mental health benefits.
“More than 50% of people now live in urban areas,” the study states.
By 2050 this proportion will be 70%. Urbanization is associated with increased levels of mental illness … Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment showed … reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.
The cat’s out of the bag, nature is integral to human life. So what does that mean as we dive deeper into the expansive waters of science and tech?
A new trajectory
It’s not hard to see the human imagination as limitless. Even with all our flaws, reveling in each other’s infinite potential is second-nature. To know fellow human beings are responsible for giving a young boy a double hand transplant, photographing stars and Earth-like planets beyond our solar system, and creating disease resistant and drought tolerant foods, makes us proud to be what we are — intelligent and brave.
And so, in the face of our undeniable mistreatment of the natural environment — an act magnified by technology — the conversation becomes not about speeding up or scaling back innovation, but about switching lanes entirely.
In a Yes Magazine article, environmental journalist Richard Schiffman writes, “We need a powerful new story that we are part of nature and not separate from it. We need a story that properly situates humans in the world—neither above it by virtue of our superior intellect, nor dwarfed by the universe into cosmic insignificance. We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.”
That much-needed story may very well include reversing our irresponsible use of technology with our aptitude for creating new forms of it more in-line with visions of the healthy, balanced, and sustainable future we want.
And people are already doing that.
In an effort to curb rising carbon dioxide levels, researchers in Iceland have discovered how to inject CO2 into a certain kind of underground rock where it will turn to harmless stone.
And also, from Flint, Michigan’s water crisis to Standing Rock Reservation’s #NoDAPL protest, we continue to see how social media and hashtag activism expose ugly environmental malfeasance, and galvanize support for worthy causes within hours.
The responsibility to shift our trajectory sits on more than just the shoulders of scientists, developers, innovators, and activists, though. Every user of tech has leveraging power; every breather of air and drinker of water, a vested interest. That’s pretty much all of us.
Start here. For every selfie you post, boost an environmental cause. For every electronic device in your home, have a plant, too. Recycle. Turn off lights. Rideshare. Avoid wasting water. Dedicate one day a week to an outdoor activity. Get some fresh air, catch some sun rays, learn more about a rare wild animal you’ve always liked, then donate to it’s protection.
Be open to the ways nature can move you. Shamelessly share those revelations via digital media. Use technology to honor the wild within. Inspire someone else to care.
Valuing ‘the little things’ is ardently ingrained in us from an early age. Think of those little things now. We are, some scientists say, on the brink of the largest mass extinction in 65 million years, a die-off caused by us. Caring about those little things can make the biggest difference of all.