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SmashTheState's avatar

Can we do better than Mother Nature?

Asked by SmashTheState (9634 points ) December 10th, 2011

Once, the left was the realm of humanism, the inheritor of the ideals of the Renaissance and the French Revolution: a world without religion, where science and rational thought would be used to transform the world into a mechanical and technological wonderland. If you read the books of the old anarchists, they are all die-hard materialists and militant atheists. Increasingly, however, I have found my leftist and anarchist colleagues to be Zerzanian luddites, tribal-pierced neo-pagans, or wide-eyed chemtrail/HAARP/reptilian crackpots. The idea that we can do better than the stochastically-assembled mix-and-match hodge-podge of Mother Nature has become an increasingly right-wing phenomenon, with our industrial civilization being championed by the same flock of Bible-thumpers and authoritarian autocrats who were howling for the factories to be burned down two centuries ago.

My question, then, is two-fold. First, do you believe that we can, through conscious acts of Will and rational planning, design a nicer, safer, more fulfilling, and less savage world than “nature red in tooth and claw” has been capable of slapping together through the random collision of organic chemicals? And secondly, why do you suppose the left and right have switched sides on the struggle to control our environment?

(For those who are interested, ”Men Like Gods” by H.G. Wells is a good example of the Utopian, ultra-materialist future envisioned by socialists a century ago. You can read the full text of it online.)

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29 Answers

marinelife's avatar

I am not interested in a man-designed world. I love the Earth just as it is.

gorillapaws's avatar

I think it’s possible that mankind will reach the point where our technology may actually be able to improve upon nature. I’m fairly certain that we are a VERY long ways off from that time though. I think we’re in the infancy stages where we have the resources to make impacts, but lack the scientific knowledge to fully appreciate the consequences that those might bring. It’s a dangerous time for our species.

If you look into the amount of energy needed to produce weather, or counteract an earthquake, etc, you’re looking a numbers that are many orders of magnitude beyond reach of current technology or anything on the horizon.

digitalimpression's avatar

No. Mother nature isn’t driven by the love of money, the possession of power, or the fallibility of mankind. It will always be better than something artificial.

ucme's avatar

Mother knows best, as my, err….mother used to tell me, hang on a minu…...

submariner's avatar

Even weirder than the Right’s embrace of industrial rationality is the Right’s embrace of postmodern notions of truth and interpretation. The same faction that depends on biblical literalists for much of its clout doesn’t hesitate to deconstruct scientific findings about climate change, treating such texts as purely political moves to which the appropriate response is textual/hermeneutic countermoves.

To return to the original question, part one: a materialist has to answer “no” to this question if she wishes to be consistent. For a materialist, all observable phenomena are natural—the development of finance capitalism from industrial capitalism is just as natural as the evolution of vertebrates from invertebrates. I personally am not a materialist, so I am free to answer that, yes, we can do better than survival of the fittest, winner take all, and devil take the hindmost.

Part two: I’m not sure the left and right have switched sides. I would say that, for the Right, it is the usual process of yesterday’s radical politics becoming tomorrow’s reactionary politics. For the Left, the ideals of the Enlightenment, when taken to their logical extreme, have revealed themselves to be empty dead ends, but the Left has failed to come up with anything better, so those who have turned their backs on Christianity and patriotism are left flailing around for something—anything—to fill the void and answer their need for something larger than themselves to believe in. (Oh, and in case you haven’t noticed, the Right has no monopoly on credulity and dogmatism, though it may have a slight edge in willful ignorance.)

Hobbes's avatar

We ARE Mother Nature.

HungryGuy's avatar

Absolutely correct answer ^

dabbler's avatar

I’ll agree we are part of mother nature’s big system of interdependent species.
It’s a useful thing to consider how far we can affect the world around us without causing unnecessary detriment to other species, and without causing widespread harm to the ecosystem that supports humans.

Answering the second question first: I’d say there does Not seem to be any political force advocating de-industrialization, so while there may be some policy disagreements left&right about how we should interact with the planet, most of us are still driving around and flying around and watching tv and have central heating and sewerage and running water.

However, I do think humanity can improve conditions for humans through conscious thought, planning and collective action. Public water systems and sewerage are examples that are easy to take for granted but make an important difference in our daily lives.

Relieving ourselves from the distraction of day-to-day struggles for survival opens the opportunity for enlightenment. At the same time it enables incredible sloth, dissipation and indulgence. There seem to be only few guiding lights that can help individuals develop philosophy that supports their happy existence and is at least harmless to others. Even fewer support happy existence and support others to also be happy. And there is a lot of flashy distractions between us and those guiding lights.

ragingloli's avatar

raping the planet and mass murder

YARNLADY's avatar

All we can do is re-arrange things, there is no such thing as better or worse, nature is nature, and nothing every truly disappears, it just changes into something else.

Hobbes's avatar

@YARNLADY

I agree. Just to elaborate on my earlier point, though, I think that for the last ten thousand years or so, people have begun to behave as though we are separate from Nature, and this has informed the ways we have tried to change and rearrange the world, leading us to treat it as an enemy to be conquered and controlled. If we continue enacting this story, soon our Mother will lie bleeding to death at our feet.

saint's avatar

Of course not. Mother Nature made us. We follow Her rules. If you do not accept that, you are dreaming. And begging for a reckoning with Mother. You will not like it.

incendiary_dan's avatar

Your conceptions of nature remain idiotic. Flawed premises lead to flawed arguments and conclusions. Standards of living are higher when there isn’t a separation between human ingenuity and natural systems.

SmashTheState's avatar

“Mother Nature” murders most of her children every 200 million years or so, whether by supervolcano, asteroid, or chemical imbalance. And as a humanist, I happen to take the side of humans in the age old struggle of humanity against mosquitoes, and believe exterminating them (and many other parasites like liver flukes and ringworms) can have only a positive effect on the lives of most other life forms.

We have the power to make rational decisions about what is worth keeping and what must be eliminated, rather than allowing random happenstance to roll the dice. We can choose to keep bees and eliminate flies; we can force trees and grass to cohabitate rather than allow grass to eventually exterminate every tree on Earth, as will eventually occur in a few million years if they are left to battle it out for territory. I think the unwillingness to take the world into our hands and pronounce conscious decisions about it is a kind of moral cowardice. People want to shrink from the existential pain of being responsible for decisions like removing some species forever for the good of all life. Whether a river flows here or there is simply happenstance, and each time the river bursts its bank, millions of lifeforms are drowned; when we choose to change the course of a mighty river, it is no different than when Mother Nature does so — save that it is then we who must bear the moral burden of the cost.

It is time for humanity to grow up and accept that burden.

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SmashTheState's avatar

@saint The concept of ”hubris” is religious in nature. I am not afraid of imaginary sky-fairies, whether male or female. Nor do I believe I will be struck down for the “crime” of taking unto myself the role of the gods. What we refer to as Mother Nature is really a stochastic system determined by the pseudo-random motion of quintillions of particles interacting without purpose or meaning. We create purpose and meaning by consciously deciding to reach out and make choices. Left to itself, the random motions of Mother Nature will continue for a few billion years, squandering energy at each step, until everything is reduced to background heat. Humanity has the potential to change this through our actions. We do not need to accept futility. We can use our imaginations to create new things, things which could not occur in this Universe without a conscious Will behind them, things which have the potential to save us from Heat Death. We fight on the side of Eros, of life, therefore, against Thanatos. We do not need to accept the harsh sentence passed on us by your savage and unthinking Mother.

LostInParadise's avatar

I love the people of the Enlightenment (apart from their racism). They were such optimists. They envisioned a world where things would get continually bigger, better and faster.

Nobody has labeled it as such, but I think of the 20th century as the age of limits. Relativity tells us that nothing can go faster than light. The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics tells us that the position and velocity of particles cannot both be determined to arbitrary precision. Godel’s Theorem tells us that there are propositions in mathematics that are impossible to prove or disprove within a particular mathematical system. Chaos theory tells us that even a deterministic system can become unpredictable, apart from general overall statistical characteristics.

The optimistic view of the Enlightenment has run into technological limits as well. We face limits due to pollution, resource depletion and global warming. The old focus on individuals is giving way to a more collective view. Religion, with its emphasis on individual morality, is inadequate to handle collective responsibility.

I will read the Wells essay, but remember that he also wrote The Time Machine, which is a rather dystopian view of the future. In that story, society is divided between crass technocrats and passive consumers.

Progressives still favor science, but they, as opposed to conservatives, are willing to see the limitations that it demonstrates. I have two opposing views of the future. One is full of doom and gloom. The other is more optimistic. It sees a world where we live within our limits and is much more egalitarian.

saint's avatar

@SmashTheState
We do not need to accept the harsh sentence passed on us by your savage and unthinking Mother.
Fair enough.
Good luck.

lynfromnm's avatar

Man IS nature.

saint's avatar

@lynfromnm Man IS a product of nature.

dannyc's avatar

We will be destroyed or revered by ourselves. Mother nature will just be an observer, and then administer the verdict.

Hobbes's avatar

”“Mother Nature” murders most of her children every 200 million years or so, whether by supervolcano, asteroid, or chemical imbalance.”

And then she makes new ones. Or rather, she transforms herself into new beings. Death is happening all the time, at every time-scale, but it is necessary for growth. Do you think that humans as we exist today are the end of the whole process of evolution?

“we can force trees and grass to cohabitate rather than allow grass to eventually exterminate every tree on Earth”

Who are we to say that grass or trees should continue? Who are we to say whether a river should flood? If it does, some will drown, if it doesn’t, some will die from lack of water. We do not have the knowledge of the Gods. We cannot say what is good and what is evil, what should and should not happen. We only think we know.

SmashTheState's avatar

@Hobbes You keep making these assertions, like: “We do not have the knowledge of the Gods,” and “Death [...] is necessary for growth,” and “We cannot say what is good and what is evil.” I happen to think you’re wrong. Furthermore, the same arguments you give for tremulously biting our collective lower lips and turning away every time we’re confronted with an existential choice are the same ones that have been used for centuries to explain why we shouldn’t treat diseases, or sail off the edge of the map, or fly to the Moon.

Do you know why we shouldn’t accept “what is”? Wisdom teeth. Once, we lived in conditions which meant we’d start losing our teeth by the time we were in our teens, and 20 was middle age. Wisdom teeth evolved to push our teeth forward and fill in the gaps. Today, we often need to get our wisdom teeth pulled because modern medicine and hygeine has resulted in us keeping our teeth for far longer than they were evolved to last. If you’d like to smash out a few random teeth, roll around in lice, and off yourself of old age or a broken bone before 40, be my guest. But don’t think you’re taking the moral high ground by doing so.

Hobbes's avatar

I’ve noticed that medical technology is the example used to defend Industrial Civilization almost every time I get into this sort of argument. I cannot argue for not giving medical care to people who need it without sounding like a monster, but I think this is a straw man. Medical technology and scientific understanding do not need to go hand in hand with massive fossil fuel consumption and McDonalds and sweat-shops and factory farms and all the rest of it. It’s not an either-or proposition where we must plunder every last resource as we grow without restraint or abandon technology completely.

What I am saying is that the mind-set behind our Civilization and thus the creation and implementation of our technology has been, for the most part, one of war and conquest. We have cast ourselves as the enemies of Nature and are playing that part all too well. Of course we must make choices as human beings as we change and create and learn. I am not advocating biting our collective lower lip and turning away. I am not trying to limit human potential. But we should remember that we do not have all the answers, and we cannot predict with certainty what the outcomes of our actions will be. We should remember that the stories we tell ourselves about our relationship to the world have incredible power to shape our destiny. It seems to me that the story we have been telling for a long time now has brought us to the brink of self-destruction, and the time has come to find a new one.

LostInParadise's avatar

Suppose we could somehow solve our resource and energy problems. Where will we be headed? The new frontier is in biology. With genetic engineering we might build whole new species and take control of our own evolution. We might replace parts of ourselves with prosthetics and computer chips and maybe figure out a way to live forever. The question then is, what will we have become? It is an uncharted brave new world. The danger is that in all this technology we may end up losing our souls.

bkcunningham's avatar

I did like I was told and bought into getting my wisdom teeth cut out and extracted because I didn’t need them and they were so difficult to keep clean so far back in my mouth. Now, at 50, I wish I’d kept my wisdom teeth. I have all of my teeth and the extra space where I am unnaturally missing my wisdom teeth is causing my beautiful teeth to gap and get crooked in places. Oh, well.

HungryGuy's avatar

@lynfromnm – Hey! Haven’t heard from you in a lo-o-o-o-ng time. Good to see you participating again :-D

lynfromnm's avatar

@HungryGuy glad to see you too, and happy holidays!

@Saint – I respectfully disagree. Man is nature just as rocks and fireflies and earthquakes are nature. We are subject to natural law. That which man creates out of nature is also subject to natural law (physics). It is not correct that man’s creations are somehow unnatural – that is impossible. Man uses the available resources in combination with ideas to create and develop. That is the nature of man. Where will it lead? I don’t pretend to know, but I do know it will be “natural” and will obey the laws of physics. It is pretentious and arrogant to think we can act outside the laws that apply to all other parts of nature. We are part of it, even with our ability to ideate and our will to think and act, which evolved “naturally”.
Just as with any tool, we can use our technologies for good or for evil. The problem is often that we cannot see far enough into the future to know which is which. That’s when motivation becomes key – don’t attach yourself to a particular answer, but to the mission, which is to preserve life and improve its quality, now and in the future. If an answer loses its viability in the mission, dump it like so much petroleum and seek another solution.

LostInParadise's avatar

Nature, taken in its totality, is a system. It works rather well. Aside from man, it works with renewable energy and everything, except for some fossil fuel remains, gets recycled. Still, there is noting inherently sacred about nature. It can be manipulated and in fact some geologists say that the effect of man has created a new era, the antrhropocene.

One thing about the natural system, is that it changes fairly slowly. Evolution occurs on a scale of tens of thousands of years. That gives a lot of time to discard errors. Our changes have occurred much more quickly. There is a good chance that we can mess things up for ourselves and the planet, causing changes that will not be able to work themselves out for a considerable amount of time.

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