Monday, September 7, 2015

Living in Harmony with Nature

During most of my lifetime living in harmony with nature has been an important idea to me, and it has become popular generally in Western culture. As mentioned, when I was growing up I had an unrecognized sense of separation from the natural environment, and life in the suburbs wasn't satisfying in ways that I couldn't fully understand until later. In the 1960's the hippie movement seemed to change everything. Looking back, the conceptual basis for natural living then doesn't seem particularly coherent. Part of it was a rejection of the corporate lifestyle represented by the military-industrial complex, part of it was the rise of an idealized conception of the lives of Native Americans and other indigenous cultures, part of it was the popular interpretation of Eastern religions and part of it was an increased awareness of the health risks associated with chemicals in the environment. Many of the same ideas can be seen today in environmental activism, particularly in regard to global warming, but also in sustainability thinking, recycling, resistance to GMO's and the growing popularity of organic foods. Ultimately, preferring to live in harmony with nature probably has a strong instinctive basis, which nevertheless becomes obscured by capitalism, fads and religion.

For practical purposes I still advocate living in and preserving the natural environment, and that was a factor in deciding to move to Vermont, which is not only one of the most environmentally-friendly but also one of the least damaged states in which to live. It is obvious to me that people who live in an uncrowded region with natural features intact are likely to be happier than people who live in urban areas, as long as they have sufficient means to support themselves and don't hate their jobs. In my opinion, those who say that overpopulation isn't problematic are in denial, because we are already witnessing multiple problems that would not exist if the world population were still at 1800's levels. There would, for example, be no global warming, no energy crisis, no mega-cities and perhaps even less war and terrorism than there is now if population had been better controlled.

Living naturally involves the recognition that our planet is a giant ecosystem of which we are but a small part, and that as organisms we live on a continuum with all other life forms, though some species evolved via different paths. Although this is all fairly obvious, it still flies in the face of the anthropocentrism that seems to dominate the thinking of many people today. Anthropocentrism, to me, entails the false concept that we, as humans, occupy a higher plane of existence than other organisms and in a sense live outside the realm of ordinary causality and evolution, which is a notion that is becoming increasingly at odds with scientific data. False thinking like this is perpetuated by our antiquated ways of organizing ourselves and society and the illusory impression we have that, as the dominant species, we truly control the planet.

You may be surprised to hear this kind of talk coming from me because it sounds a little New Agey, but it really isn't, and it ties in with other things I've said related to the diminishing centrality of mankind as we come to understand the universe better. So, even if there is a little overlap with, say, the Gaia hypothesis, my view isn't really warm and fuzzy, picturing us living cozy lives alongside our plant, animal and fungal friends here on earth. Rather, like E.O. Wilson, I see us as living in a rare and fragile pocket of the universe that is the only place to which we are adapted, and we are lucky to be alive at all in such a dangerous and unforgiving universe.

Anyone who studies astronomy will come to see how dissimilar our world is to most of the universe. For this reason, I prefer to restrict my thinking on harmony with nature to harmony on our planet. We are merely part of a local phenomenon that is cut off by vast distances from most of the universe. Manned space exploration is a waste of resources in my opinion. We have to think about a future on earth that is likely to include enormous changes due to technological advances, and it is more important to focus on that than to fantasize about human space travel. The short-term picture on AI seems to indicate an acceleration in human obsolescence as employees, and the long-term picture, though murky, could include anything from higher-performing genetically modified humans to human-AI co-evolution to the complete digitization of humans, or some other process that would effectively make us immortal. New technologies make it harder to reconcile our instincts, which provide our sense of what is real and natural, with choices that have never existed in this world.

Utopian thinkers seem to favor fanciful scenarios such as Heaven without considering that we are not physically or psychologically adapted to immortality. As I said in an earlier post, I think super-intelligent beings might prefer to die if they became immortal, because the meaning of life springs from the toil of survival, and I don't think a life without challenges could have much meaning to any creature. In effect, immortality would be a transcendence of nature, and that isn't something that I could relate to. This is an area that could be explored in the arts and the humanities, but it seems to me that they are generally retreating to simplistic escapism. I wonder, for example, what our great writers will do when AI begins to produce better writing than they can - it wouldn't be that hard.


  1. The new editorial assistant seems to have opted for a much smaller font...

    1. The new assistant probably does have better eyesight than I do, but the change in font size seems to be randomly caused by Blogger. I get that sometimes and it goes away when I refresh the page. The settings are the same as always.