Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course ENVS 390: Integrative Environmental Seminar.
In 2014 the United Nations reported that for the first time in human history more than half of the world’s population is located in urban areas. That number, 54 percent, is only expected to grow. As civilization has progressed and humans have been witnesses to revolutions in industry, health, agriculture, and more, the way that our ancestors lived has shifted drastically. Bullet trains now pierce through the landscapes that were traditionally farmland. We are accustomed to planes filling the skies, ripping apart the wind as they carry hundreds of people thousands of miles in mere hours. People spend their time in malls, the pinnacles of consumerism, buying goods that would have been of unknown wealth to those long ago. Life has objectively changed in a drastic manner. This begs the question of whether or not we are losing something deep within ourselves as we step further into the urban jungle. How do our perceptions change in this new world and what has been lost?
Humans’ perception of their association with nature involves an acceptance of the intertwined and coexisting reality that involves the interaction with elements of the natural world. This natural world consists of all life, plants and animals included, the landscape and climates of the region, oceans and other aquatic environments, and the air that fills the world we inhabit. The methods in which we interact with this world are essential in defining our ability to perceive any such connection with nature.
The world today continues to step away from nature. Large urban areas create cities of concrete and metal that place individuals into worlds where many individuals never even visit a forest or grassland. Nature is often limited to the parks and gardens around them, which are really just selected forms of life that only exist to bring pleasure to humans. So our disconnect with nature is not just about human progression into our revolutions of technological discovery; it is about the mindset of how we choose to respect and interact with nature in our pursuits of the future. The reality is that we created a living world based on our ability to harness and control the natural world.
This harnessing of the natural world works to create a culture of unsustainability and destruction. Permanent environmentally damaging extractions like fracking were unheard of in the past. Historically, we essentially grew a system of barter for personal gain. Humans used work in order to gain currency that allowed for one to arguably obtain the work of others or to gain more capital. Perhaps this worked in the past, in a world in which most people worked for necessities and the land was bountiful. People could harvest and land would return. Now, humans seek gains in capital and labor more than what is necessary to provide for oneself and a family.
However, the world grew away from a world of attaining necessities. Suddenly, people worked and could get more output with less input. Human population grew and our abilities to harvest and demands for production increased exponentially. People pushed to elevate themselves, to attain more things in our world. Society grew without a regard for nature and this gave the rise to consumerism. As consumerism continues today, we fall further from nature as we harvest more, destroying landscapes and pumping pollutants into the environment. It is the toxic practice that calls for pulling infinite goods out of a finite world.
On the other hand, humans can deviate from the consumer world and perceive themselves as parts of nature. The natural world is a very different world from the cities humans built, with open living spaces rather than confined, dense, and unnatural human centers. Filled with life rather than lifeless stone. Air without toxins and pollution. Animals being unnaturally harvested rather than roaming free. Exposure to the natural world allows human beings to interact with the green space and its components. Without the interaction, there is a disconnect, and with more than half the human population living in urban areas, we are seeing the dangers of that disconnect.
However, when we perceive ourselves as part of nature rather than above nature, the human experience and world becomes a radically different place. It does not call for unrealistic goals and scenarios, such as calling for seven billion people to flee cities and become sustenance farmers, but it does call for a reconnect of some level with nature as well as a shift in the human mindset.
The biggest changes one would have in a perceptual shift of nature would arise from humans gaining a true respect for nature. When one recognizes themselves as part of a system rather than an entity built to exploit that system, there exists a responsibility to take care of that system and wanting to see it thrive. Nature’s status becomes elevated when humans have this mindset.
We would all witness societal norms and activities become environmentally friendly. Technology would become especially centered on ideals such as wind and renewable energy rather than oil drills and the coal industry. More people would find the ways in which our food is genetically modified and industrialized deplorable, and we would see land management taken more seriously as well as the meat industry reorganized. Externalities like pollution would be issues of the heart and the conscience, as it would be seen as a wound to the system they are a part of.
On the individual scale, human activity and pursuits would create a radically different lifestyle. Consumerism would be recognized as the unsustainable practice that it is, and people would find a new sources of sustainable fulfillment within closed-loop systems. Whether this be working jobs they enjoy, interacting with nature and other human beings, or some other activity is uncertain, but at a glance, many would argue that this seems to be a healthier way of life. People would find themselves in a greener world, one that is healthy and stable. The reintroduction of a sustained global ecosystem may make people feel as if they’re an organ within a healthy creature.
United Nations. (July 2014). "World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas." Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-urbanization-prospects-2014.html
Green Facts. (n.d.) "Ecosystem Services." Retrieved May 29, 2017 from http://www.greenfacts.org/glossary/def/ecosystem-services.htm