Sunday 22 December 2013

The Worship of Nature

“Roszak views the current widespread sense of malaise as a kind of “separation anxiety” from nature. It should be an easy metaphor to connect with. We’re bombarded these days with analyses of failed relationships, of the psychological havoc breakup wreak. The psychological fallout from our breakup with nature is like that. When you cut off arterial blood to an organ, the organ dies. When you cut off the flow of nature into people’s lives, their spirit dies. It’s as simple as that.” – Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam

I trust that our “fallout from nature” can be defined in such a way that it is empirically true. But it’s less obvious to me that there is some non-trivial connection between spiritual wellbeing and closeness to nature. I’m also unsure this fallout has a net negative impact.

Lasn’s book isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this meme, however. Those that oppose the American consumerist culture often conceptually package spiritual fulfillment with the preservation of the natural environment. It’s said that in our raging consumption, constant craving for the newest technology, and slow destruction of the environment, we are steadily transitioning from a spiritual culture to a material culture.

We’re spending so much time chatting online that we’ve forgotten how to talk face to face. We’re so connected that we can barely sit down for a minute without checking our phones. We can navigate Apple TV but wouldn’t be able to survive on our own in the wild. What we need to do, we are told, is return to nature and rediscover ourselves.

Being “in touch with nature,” whatever that means, is not inherently good or useful. If it reduced suffering to do so, I would gladly chop down a forest. Often, there are situations where it makes sense to mess with nature: to engineer animal populations, to provide homes that keep out the cold along with intruders, to develop vaccines that fight “natural” conditions.

One issue with Lasn’s perspective is that its view of the natural world is glorified. Nature is competitive, wasteful, and harsh. Murder, rape, and injury are rampant throughout the natural world. Natural disasters wipe out millions. Diseases overtake our bodies. After a certain amount of years, natural bodies inevitably wear down and die. The planet itself is only inhabitable to us during a certain window of time – and just imagine all the other possible creatures it isn’t habitable to. Nature, when left to take its course, is indifferent to suffering. Human civilizations have done a lot of great things over the millennia to improve the quality of our lives. Many of these have come at the cost of dominating nature. These are good things. In glorifying the natural world, Lasn downplays the good that can be done by using tools to reduce natural suffering.

He also overlooks that many of our cultural changes are pretty much lateral moves. Why is talking in person more valuable than talking online via text? The main reason is that our culture demands that we speak in person a lot of the time. We had better be able to communicate in person because otherwise, we won’t get that job that requires an in-person interview. But as culture change and technology change, so do the skills necessary to thrive. In 2013, social media skills are an important component of what it means to “have social skills.” If you can’t get your point across in a text without it being misinterpreted or work Facebook or know when to call vs send a text, you’re at a social disadvantage. Face-to-face communication skills are still valuable but there’s nothing inherently wrong with this changing. There could be a healthy future society that has no face-to-face communication whatsoever.

We should be aware that in showing caution against dangerous future technologies that we are possibly spreading the “Going Back to Nature” meme or the “Nature = Spiritual” meme. Writers like Lasn might be good allies for those interested in countering cultural problems but some of the spillover effects of his views might get in the way of making the world a better place.

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