Why Should We Care for Nature?

unique nature

Alan Lightman wrote a short piece in the NYTimes, titled, our “Lonely Home in Nature,” in which he argues that “Nature” cares not a whit for us, so why should we care for it. Its actions are the result of natural phenomena, lacking any sense of intention unlike those of human beings. Our feelings toward and musings have absolutely no impact on what Mother Nature has in store for us. In our modern secular, disenchanted world, I think we take this pretty much for granted. Weber noted our coldness towards nature in his famous quote, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world (Science as a Vocation, 1918).

Lightman is warning us not to be either sentimental nor romantic in our concerns for the state of nature. His concluded his short piece with, “Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us.” That this should the primary motivation for doing something about our growing impact on nature and its forces sounds unassailable, but is it?

I just wrote a piece about caring that included caring for nature as one of the several categories of care that springs from our humanness. Human actions, unlike those of nature, are mostly intentional; we act out an intent to produce conditions in the world we envision as positive. The actions of nature are driven by a mindless set of complex relationships. Nature has rules about its action, but they are undecipherable by the usual means of normal science. We know what tends to cause weather events, but cannot predict them with precision in the way we can describe the arc of a space vehicle.

As Lightman notes, we are a part of the planetary system of Earth. A visitor from Mars would see humans merely as about 6 billion nodes in the overall set of earthly beings. I have not used the phrase “a part of nature” here purposefully. The globe’s system exists no matter what we choose to call it, but that’s not so with “nature.” Nature is socially constructed, that is, it has its meanings given by our interpretations of the global system. All the metaphors we use to describe it, like Mother Earth, are of human origin. In our unreflected actions, we forget this; we begin to interact with it out of the metaphors. We worship it. We write poems about its beauty. We feel inspired when we feel its presence untouched by human hands.

I think it really matters why we justify taking care of nature. Flourishing is a state of being beyond mere survival. Of course we cannot flourish if we do not survive biologically. One of the key domains of care is aesthetics; to be human is to care for beauty, integrity, wholeness. Nature, the human-free world, is a critical source for our aesthetic experience, and if we allow its richness to decay we are all the worse for it. Nature is a place to enrich our idleness/leisure—another key domain. For this reason alone we need to care for it. My point is that Lightman is writing out of a very narrow view of what it means to be human. To speak only of survival overlooks the set of relationships that sets humans apart from all other living species. Human existence requires meaning: meaning we create from the world, natural and human because it is not there to be found in our absence. I am dipping into philosophy here but if we do not learn to distinguish humans from all other beings, we become little more than other living creatures, a lot smarter, but with only a single motivation for living, survival. The philosopher, Walter Kaufmann, was about as clear about this as any other thinker.

The being that exists is man. Man alone exists. Rocks are, but they do not exist. Trees are, but they do not exist. Horses are, but they do not exist. Angels are, but they do not exist. God is, but does not exist.

Mull this over for a while and you will perhaps begin to understand why we need to take care of nature for the many gifts it provides us, not just life itself.

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