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.
"We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” This Aldo Leopold quote represents the two sides of the argument: separation and belonging within nature. Yet humans have built their perception around the former. Technology, education, and culture have impacted this relationship with the ecological community. Technological advancements have dramatically influenced people’s lives by providing humans with the capabilities to control things beyond ourselves. Education has the ability to provide the knowledge to guide our interaction with our ecosystem. This information, or lack of it, can inhibit or enable our relationship with nature. Culture surrounds us from the day we are born and it shapes our view of our environment. Being aware of how we perceive nature through these three influencers can help a person realize their relationship to nature and what may happen as a result.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have utilized the ability to control nature. This sense of control is not a natural right given to mankind, yet we have utilized this power and created a barrier between humans and the environment. There have always been tools, whether it was animal bones, spears, hammers, plows, or other human developments. It is our choice how we use this new technology. In Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce, he claims, “One species—our own—out of 5 million to 30 million species is directly and indirectly claiming 40 percent of the earth’s production for itself.” The entitlement to 40 percent of the Earth’s production can only stem from the separation humans have created between themselves and nature, and used technological advancements as the barrier. Mankind has created an economy that focuses on production and consumption and taking things from nature, but does not account for what needs to be put back into the system. This advanced sense of control is not strengthening human’s relationship with nature. Mankind must perceive the natural world in a different way.
Humans are not separate from the environment—we depend on it. As a college student I feel my peers and I have a short-term mindset. We find it difficult to think about how our actions today will impact other things, like our environment, in the long term. We need to realize that we are dependent on nature and its ecological services, not independent. If mankind uses technology to drill out all of nature’s renewable or nonrenewable resources, how will anyone benefit in the long term? This self-centered sense of control is not healthy, and it tends to spark from too much distance from our environment. If we surround ourselves with man-made technology and infrastructure, it is easy to forget about our true dependency on nature.
Before I began attending an institution that educated me on the topic of the environment, I did not think about how my food was provided by an ecosystem. The ecosystem needs to have just the right conditions to grow and bloom. I had the mindset that the farmer, a fellow human, provided me with the food, but not the natural environment. If we think of the farmer as the vital element in bringing the food to our table, then it is easy to accept the controlling of nature for our use. However, once you become educated on this topic, there is no excuse. The balanced ecosystem is what provides the home for the food to grow and without it, we would not exist nor would our food supply. We need our institutions to break down the anthropogenic stigma that humans are the only vital element in the Earth’s cycle and begin putting us in our place. And this should not just be in environmental courses. This shift may bring us closer to nature and help us perceive the ecology of the world in a more caring light.
Our cultural background is another factor that impacts how we perceive our relationship to nature. Growing up as a Bosnian American, I got to perceive nature through two lenses. The short-term idea of consumption compared to the Balkan mentality of saving and reusing for the long run.
My parents were brought up in Yugoslavia during a time of strong communism. From my parents’ stories, they were a block of six republics who knew what resources each region offered, and thus did not rely on imports from other countries outside the communist block. Each region focused on specializing in certain products and methods. They had pride in their manufacturing, including everything from textiles to applications that would wear well and last a long time. Even until this day, my mother's home in Bosnia still has their first fridge bought in the 1940s and it is still working like brand new. Every time my mom tells the story, there is so much pride in the quality. The appliance may be smaller and look outdated, but it does its main function so everything else should not matter. Whereas in America, I see the mentality of perceived obsolescence, where people are buying newer products even though the ones they have are functional. Since it is not the newest and latest update, the American media and culture tells you that you are not following the American way if you do not buy and consume more goods. Through culture a person's core values are established and is a drive to how a person will perceive and develop their relationship with nature. This displays how the influence of culture can impact a person's perception and relationship toward nature and its resources.
Conversely, if humans view themselves as belonging within nature, as Aldo Leopold calls us to do, we have an ecological perception of the world. This view comes from seeing nature as a community and respecting it for its values and offerings by adjusting mankind’s relationship with their environment. If we stop trying to manipulate and control nature for our benefit, we may realize how generous the Earth can be if we let it run its natural course. Since humans have the capability to think beyond themselves through reason, consciousness, and language, we have the ability to choose how to use this power. In the past we have utilized these abilities to use nature’s resources as a commodity, but we can also use it to reverse this destructive path we are on and choose to be a part of nature. This sense of care will develop within us when humans minimize their proximity and enhance their relationship with the natural world. We need more people to realize that there will be mutual and long-term benefits as a result. Now is the time to join together and be lifelong stewards to Mother Earth.
Hawken, P. (2010). The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. NY: Harper Business.