“Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world.” Edward O. Wilson, professor at Harvard and author of Consilience, a “book of immense importance.”
No one who thinks can live under such a delusion; for if he thinks, he comes to realize that since all life had a common origin, since all life is thus related and interdependent and since life evolved in accordance with the laws of nature and received its nurture from nature, then life cannot flourish outside nature nor can exist outside nature without paying a physical and psychological and a social and spiritual price of incalculable consequences, the validation of which are manifested in all the neurotic, psychotic, drug obsessed, obese citizens of this urbanized nation.
The peoples of the world have nearly all migrated to urban centers and those who haven’t yearn to do so, even if it means living in squalor, slums, and abject poverty; for the lure of the city is as to youth and aged as the candle is to the moth. Those that remain on the land are so exploited in their economic and social relations with the cities that they live near bankruptcy regardless of how hard they work and how prudent and frugally they live. There is then not much choice for the peasants and yeomen of the world but to pack up and head for the city, where they hope to live someday the life of the beautiful people they see on TV. Mexico City now has 30 million inhabitants and is growing every day with such hopefuls.
But many that go have but one dream: To earn enough before they die to be able to return to the land and have a few years of living in unspoiled nature, a dream that most of them will never know and a dream most of their children will never have, owing to their divorcement from nature from birth and their incarceration in concrete ghettos. Thus, they live in a man-made environment, an environment that is at odds with nature’s, an environment that is designed and constructed and operated with a view to the elimination or reduction of every one of nature’s mandates that bring pain, impatience, sweat or any other adverse condition and to the enhancement and concentration of every one of nature’s gifts that bring pleasure, comfort, cheer, and every other pleasing condition, all of which efforts to thwart her or aid her are more or less neutralized by one of nature’s laws, a law that man cannot get around however he may try: The law that all pains and pleasures are relative. Man simply cannot get something for nothing from nature or from God. He is deluded if he thinks he can, just as he is deluded to think he can “flourish apart from the rest of the living world.”
Man’s environment differs from nature’s in that urban man has arranged matters so that he can exploit and sponge off those who produce and expropriate the labor of those who work unto himself, and can make such thievery lawful. In nature man received what he earned and produced by the sweat of his brow, having no opportunity to take unto himself any surplus profit produced by others, unless he had serfs or slaves. Then, at least, the thievery was open and notorious to the world.
In recognition of those who tend the land and who endure the whims and indifference of nature for the benefit of all those who eat from shelves of super markets, Wendell Berry reminds others: “Nature is not easy to live with. It is hard to have rain on your cut hay, or floodwater over your cropland, or coyotes in your sheep; it is hard when nature does not respect your intentions, and she never does exactly respect them. Moreover, such problems belong to all of us, to the human lot. Humans who do not experience them are exempt only because they are paying (or underpaying) other humans such as farmers to deal with nature on their behalf.”
Those who underpay are those who know not sweat, nor know labor from dawn to darkness, nor know a ruling entity that is impervious to prayer and indifferent to catastrophe. They go to a market and fill a shopping cart without any notion of what was needed to bring to the shelves the abundance from which they pick. And they do so ignorant of how dependent is their welfare on those who are face to face with nature and how much they are at the mercy of those who confront nature, and of nature itself. A big city cut off from the farms for a week would be in a panic for fear it would starve in a short time; and so it would be, were not someone toiling in the soil.
Edward O. Wilson in his book delineates man’s Faustian dilemma and argues that man’s evolutionary nature leaves him with only one sane choice between two opposing human self-images, the naturalist and the exemptionalist: “The human body and mind are precisely adapted to this world, notwithstanding its trials and dangers, and that is why we think it is beautiful. In this respect Homo sapiens conforms to a basic principle of organic evolution, that all species prefer and gravitate to the environment in which their genes were assembled. It is called ‘habitat selection.’ There lies survival for humanity and there lies mental peace, as prescribed by our genes. We are consequently unlikely ever to find any other place or conceive of any other home as beautiful as this blue planet was before we began to change it.”
That is the naturalist view and now the exemptionalist view: “In this conception our species exist apart from the natural world and hold dominion over it. We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that binds other species. Few limits on human expansion exist that our special status and ingenuity cannot overcome. We have been set free to modify the Earth’s surface to create a world better than the one our ancestors knew.”
Wilson’s conclusion in brief: “Earth remains the only known home that can sustain life.” My conclusion: Man sells his soul and dooms himself to perdition if he listens to the madness of the exemptionalists. To believe that he is different in kind from all other species and can build a world more suitable and secure than this one is arrogance run amok, many hints of which the half blind can even now see. The Earth cannot be sucked dry to build a launching pad for man to inhabit other planets. Man would be well-advised to contain his Babylons, make his peace with nature, try to restore his lost Eden and work toward a world in which social justice abides.