The dualistic human versus nature perspective promoted in Western society can be traced at least as far back as Descartes’ mechanistic view of natural processes as opposed to the spiritual essence of the human soul/mind. The antagonistic flavor of the relationship between humans and nature probably has its ultimate source in ancient Judeo-Christian cosmology. Don’t worry, I have no intention of tracing the conceptual ins and outs of the historical path of dualistic thought with respect to the natural would. It is enough to say that it is clearly not a tenable perspective.
Unfortunately, attempts to resolve the human-nature relationship by absorbing humanity within the natural world frequently ignore a real and crucial distinction between civilization as a maladaptive artificial mechanical process and natural adaptive human activity. This failure to distinguish the natural results of collective human behavior from the un-nature-al results of the implementation of a specific kind of centralized behavior-control system (i.e., civilization) is particularly apparent in discussions of our global ecological crisis. For example, various organismic metaphors have been used to highlight the role of human activity in the global ecological crisis in a way that makes civilization seem like a natural byproduct of human activity. For instance, the exploding human population is sometimes compared to planetary cancer or a planet-wide parasitic infestation. These metaphors, although apt in terms of capturing the scope of the devastation, nonetheless serve to obscure the true source of the problem: the machine of civilization (no metaphor here—civilization is actually a kind of machine).
It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the extent to which human activity is threatening the integrity of the biosphere. Global climate change, deforestation, overpopulation, a weakening ozone layer, widespread accumulation of environmental toxins, and an accelerating rate of species extinction are all results of human activity. However, the true locus of these problems is almost always misplaced. The source of our environmental woes is rarely pinned directly on civilization itself, but on some feature or features of human nature. Our environmental problems are side effects of our alienation, a crisis of consciousness or a pathology or culture. Our problems are not due to the accelerating influence of a system of power and control that is becoming more and more efficient at precisely what it was designed to do. It’s not civilization itself, but some inherent set of human flaws. Consider the following taken from a book titled Green Psychology:
“It is widely agreed that the global ecological crisis which confronts the world today is one of the most critical turning points that human civilization has ever faced. Furthermore, the realization is spreading that the root causes of environmental destruction lie in human psychology—in certain distorted perceptions, attitudes, and values that modern humans have come to hold.”
Global climate change is caused by distorted perceptions, attitudes, and values? The first sentence in the quote above highlights the true distortion: our global crisis is something that civilization faces. Civilization is the problem, but to hang the blame on civilization itself, squarely where it belongs, means that we would have to openly acknowledge what is really going in. We would have to see civilization for what it is and, most uncomfortably, recognize the true extent to which we are slaves yoked securely to the flywheel of the machine. The global environmental crisis is not the problem. It never has been. Civilization is the problem. There is no way to solve our environmental problems and at the same time allow civilization to continue.