Humans and Nature

‘The Environment’ is an expression which can cover many things – from food chains in a forest to damp and condensation in a council flat. Across the whole of the planet, it is a very complex system of relations between physical geography (mountains, air, rivers etc.), plant, animal and human life.

Constant Change

The environment is not fixed for all time. It is constantly changing. Earthquakes, volcanoes, the movement of the tectonic plates (the base of the land continents) and other natural processes all have a huge effect both on each other and on different life forms. The climate is always changing. Even within the last 20,000 years much of the Northern hemisphere was covered in ice, which had a major effect on life.

The forms of life that have evolved on the planet don’t just react to rocks and water they find around them. They also alter their physical environment by their very presence. The present oxygen-rich atmosphere, necessary for animal life, is the product of the action of bacteria billions of years ago. This new atmosphere spurred the evolution of a host of new species and life-forms.

The environment of each species includes other life-forms as well as the physical world. It is the interaction between organisms and their environment, living and non-living, that drives evolution. As well as evolving in response to their environment, individuals of some species dramatically alter their life form in different circumstances. The environment can even effect the sex and reproductive form of species, for example as a result of temperature changes.

Life forms are constantly changing and evolving, with or without the existence of humans. There cannot be any kind of static harmony, a frozen Constable-type painting, where humans, animals and physical geography exist together in a state of never-changing bliss.

Humans have been on the planet for a comparatively short time. We only evolved from apes a few million years ago. People have always lived with natural forces, not outside nature, but as part and parcel of it. Our ancestors couldn’t eat more than they found nearby. They could only grow crops if the right nutrients were in the local soil or in suitable climates.

The activity of people has always involved shaping the natural forces that they found around them. They altered the environment for example, by cutting clearings in forests to grow crops, domesticating wild animals for foods, and by building shelters. Areas of the world often regarded as wild, natural landscapes are actually the product of human activity over centuries.

It is highly debatable whether there are any areas of the planet which are ‘natural’, that is, unaffected by human activity. The so-called ‘wild’ moorlands of the National Parks in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and elsewhere, may seem completely natural and original, but they weren’t always like that. They were created by humans in the Bronze Age as woods were felled for agriculture. They were further changed by sheep grazing and in some areas by industrial pollution, e.g. from textile industry in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The geography of much of north America is now believed to have been created by the actions of native American plain-dwellers before colonization, who used fire to encourage grassland species to grow.

What’s So Special About People?

Humans, like all life, both alter their environment and are altered by it. But the evolution of humans also marked a departure from all other forms of life to date. Labor, the ability to use tools, to think abstractly and therefore to envisage more wide-scale changes and plans, paved the way for humans to have much greater impact on the environment than other forms of animal life. In particular, the development of culture, (knowledge, technology, tradition and ideas that are socially held and passed from generation to generation) has meant a speeding up of development of human society, compared with the slower pace of change in biological evolution.

Of course, animals such as chimpanzees use twigs like tools to extract termites from the nests. But the stick is usually discarded when is has served its purpose. They don’t go on to refine this ‘tool or to develop tools which produce other objects. Spiders create webs to trap food and bees construct cells and have quite a complex social system. But what distinguishes the worst architects from the best of bees is that they are able to raise the building in their imagination before they construct it. They will use the skill, tools and materials developed by previous generations of humans, conveyed through language, learning and culture.

Animals only react to their surroundings and live within strict boundaries but humans start to understand it, then use that understanding to make it more amenable to humans. We produce: they collect or use what is available.

Humans inhabited a specific ecological niche which encouraged them to develop techniques to survive. They also had the biological potential to develop this way. As humans spread across the continents, some environments accelerated this process. For example, areas with climates that had short growing seasons for food, forced early humans to develop methods off preserving and storing food. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. The need to show when was the best time to plant crops forced early humans to study the seasons, weather and soil types. Necessity was the creator of science.

Foresight and imagination – the ability to anticipate and plan for the consequences of actions and processes – combined with language to communicate, and the use of tools to labor differentiates us from animals.

Harmony and Competition

Humanity’s labor has created society and culture. But the relationship of humans to nature, and the connection between the natural world and human society is an area of great controversy. The great socialist thinkers of the 19th century, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, developed many of their ideas and theories from a study of the natural world and its relationship with human society.

They were alive at the time of the debates and controversies around the theories of Charles Darwin on evolution and the important arguments about what the ‘natural world’ could tell us about human society. Many of these debates are just as fierce today, with hundreds of books written about ‘human nature’ and its relationship with the natural world.

On one side, stand the ‘Romantics’ – those who see nature as a kind of unchanging and harmonious system. Romantic ideas usually represent a reaction against the horrors of modern capitalist industry and particularly what is seen as the disastrous intervention of humankind. They often argue for a return to a ‘simpler’ and ‘more harmonious’ life (see Chapter 4). Perhaps the best-known expression of this is in Hollywood’s interpretation of Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, which often argues against ‘mad scientists’ ‘interfering in nature’ for fear of creating monsters – technology, science, etc. – that get out of control.

Often, such ideas argue that humans themselves are the problem – as though we are inherently morally evil, while the rest of nature is inherently good. But humans are not the only animals who alter or destroy nature. Anyone who has ever sat down with young children to watch a nature documentary on the TV and then had to explain why ‘the nasty fox is ripping the poor bunny to shreds’ or the lion is killing the zebras, will know that the romantic idea of Paradise or natural harmony is a myth.

On the other side, and in response to these Romantic myths, many modern philosophers and scientists have argued instead that nature represents “the war of all against all”, i.e. that there is a natural kind of war taking place between all species and their environments. They say that nature is “red in tooth and claw”. This argument ignores the many areas of inter-dependence in nature. Many flowers depend on insects to reproduce and the insects live on the flowers’ nectar. Each needs the other. Many roots have close relationships with fungus, the fungus breaks down materials to provide the plants with nutrients and the plant in turn provides nutrients and energy to the fungus. Without the hidden fungus many types of trees would not exist. There are many more examples of such close intertwined relations. Often because they are less visible than lions and foxes, they are ignored. Life on earth depends on the interrelationship of species. Neither the ideas of natural harmony, nor those of natural competition fully tell the truth about the natural world. Karl Marx, in particular, argued against both over-simplifications. The natural world combines elements of both competition and co-operation: one could not exist without the other.

Human Nature?

It is, though, no accident that ideas that emphasize conflict have arisen in a society based on competition, disharmony and war between nations and classes. Many of the people who claim that nature is competitive and aggressive use that to argue for right-wing political ideas. If humans, like all other animals, are naturally aggressive, then the way society is now is natural. Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape and other books, and other biological determinists and social Darwinists are some of the most reactionary people around today. They justify war and inequalities based on race, sex and class, as natural differences. In the most modern example of biological determinism, the relatively new science of genetics is being used by many right-wing ideologists to attempt to explain that differences between people are “inherited through their genes” and there is very little they can do about it. Instead of examining the relationship between genetics and environmental factors which influence people’s character and behavior, they argue that to attempt to change things would be un-natural, and socialism would be against ‘human nature’.

What they see as nature tells us more about their outlook than about nature. They look at nature through the spectacles of today’s society. As well as being reactionary, it is bad science. There is nothing in common between an animal killing its prey and dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. To call them both aggression is false and misleading.

Competition is only one part of nature, co-operation is at least as important. Darwin’s ‘theory of evolution’ was a brilliant scientific innovation. He talked of the fitness of species to their environment. This describes how a species is best fitted – or suited – to its specific environment. It does not, as is often said, mean the fittest, in the sense of the strongest or most aggressive. Neither does it mean, in a common distortion of Darwin’s ideas applied to human society, that ‘fit’ bullies killing everyone is justified as ‘natural’.

Neither is ‘human nature’ fixed. The way humans react with their environment and with other humans is dependent on, and changes with, different cultures and circumstances. There are of course basic ideological necessities or limits, such as food, oxygen, reproduction, and death. But the most important feature of human nature is its variability, adaptability and enormous potential.

Bodies and Store-Cupboards

Marx and Engels saw humans and nature as inextricably linked. Engels wrote:

“… we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but … we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst … all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly. And, in fact, with every day that passes we are acquiring a better understanding of these laws and getting to perceive both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature.”

(Frederick Engels – from The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man)

Engels saw nature as the starting point of human activity. Karl Marx called nature: “man’s inorganic body”, humans’ “original larder” and “original tool house”. These socialist pioneers rejected the idea that humans were somehow separated or aloof from the natural world – humanity is part and parcel of the natural world. Engels also showed how, while we might understand the “first results” of human actions, we had to go on to examine the “second” and “third” consequences. In other words, it’s not enough just to see the immediate area that the forest fire has burnt down, but also to look at the effects on the food chain in the wider area of the forest and the effects of fires on the atmosphere.

Recently (the term ‘ecology’ wasn’t used until 1869), science gave some of these basic thoughts of Engels a name – the study of ecosystems. This is the understanding that all living and non-living matter, including humans, exist together in a complex and constantly changing web of interaction with each other. Scientists’ talk of food chains in a commonly used example of how these complex relationships work. All life relies upon what can seem to be the tiniest and most insignificant leaves, mosses or bacteria. Therefore, intervention at one level has repercussions for the entire chain.

Human intervention has both accelerated natural processes and added extra complications. For example, it is estimates that 99.9% of all species that have existed on the planet are now extinct. Nearly all of this is due to natural processes of selection and evolution. There have been five ‘mass extinctions’ in the history of the Earth, when between 65% and 95% of all species were wiped out. Some scientists now argue that we are heading for a ‘sixth extinction’, caused by the actions of humans. Human intervention over the past few centuries has rapidly increased the pace of natural extinction, with unknown and potentially very damaging effects on ecosystems. The United Nations estimate that 11% of all known mammal species, 18% of birds, and 5% of fish are currently under threat of extinction. A 1995 UN report predicts that, on current trends of over-exploitation and clearing of habitats, half of all bird and mammal species will be extinct in 300 years. The consequences of this are felt both by non-human nature, through loss of habitat and food, and by humans, as many of these species, if scientifically investigated, could potentially contain sources of food and medicine. Obviously today, if we were to say that nature was “man’s inorganic body”, most people would comment that, in that case, we must be going in for some pretty heavy self-mutilation! We have made the points above to show what is essential about the relationship of human society to the rest of the environment. Humans, from the time when they first started to walk on the planet, have has the ability to increasingly transform the planet and are busily doing that. They also, though, have the ability to foresee the consequences of much of their action and to decide to avoid what could be destructive or threatening.