The relationship between humans and nature has been interactive, chaotic, and complex. From a many human viewpoints, nature can be considered as both a source of everyday needs, and an adversary, a rather indefinite force which we interact with. Many people today consider themselves a separate entity, existing completely outside, if not above nature, especially in western cultures. Yet, nature was not always perceived as such. Over the centuries, people have thought of nature in a number of different ways, depending on their connection to nature at the time.
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To fully understand this relationship, one must first define what is meant by nature. Nature, put simply, is the complete physical world. One might also venture further to say nature is what also occurs beyond of any human feats, with a distinction between nature and the artificial. While this line between the natural and synthetic is not always so clear, one could say nature is the original arrangement and order of components of a substance, without mankind’s tampering and interference. Whereas all humans have an agenda of some sort, nature can be considered perhaps the clearest example of indifference.
Beginning from humanity’s more primal state, nature was most often viewed as more of an omnipotent presence than anything else, where nature’s indifference bore down upon them the strongest. It brought hunger, disease, and disaster, wreaking havoc on all mankind. Of course there were different reactions to cope with nature’s torments, one being the creation of tools to help increase the chances of survival. However, more often a coping method would involve embodying these elemental powers as celestial forces by representing them with animals or through ritual objects. They could also be personified as gods who could direct these forces however they pleased. When disasters struck, it was due to the actions and offences of humans, so hence they let loose their unbridled anger upon the masses of terrified souls. One could say this is especially true for the Judeo-Christian traditions, where humans are thought to sit at the head of the table over all aspects of nature, and to help deal with the intimidating character of nature, it is said humans are destined by God to dominate nature. While on the other hand, many Eastern religions claim nearly the exact opposite: humans are an internal and basic part of nature.
This Eastern way of thinking evolved over the years and became a basis for the Romantic/Transcendentalist movements. These two movements reflected people’s feeling of estrangement from nature as a dreadful loss, and they worked to recover what was seen as a broken concord between humans and nature. As a result, they favored the pastoral simplicity of the outdoors to the extensive commotion of the more modern cities. This opinion was expressed by Henry David Thoreau in his essay when he stated “Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” With this statement he tells us that people are too caught up in their own petty, insignificant problems and a fast-paced lifestyle to see the beauty in nature and how communing with it can release men from “quiet lives of desperation,” enslaving them. Romanticism and Transcendentalism had much more of a sentimental viewpoint of life and unity with nature people, especially of Eastern philosophies, used to have.
Eventually this world view dwindled and was overtaken by the manufacturer’s standpoint. Nature was simply a vast expanse of raw materials only waiting to be taken advantage of, according to the more modern businessman. With the usage of both human labor and a little human ingenuity these natural stores could be converted into products for society’s use, precious goods and services to be dispersed within communities everywhere, particularly for the company’s profit. This point of view is nearly the exact opposite of Romanticism and Transcendentalism. One could also say it seems to be a caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing,” where the entrepreneur’s viewpoint is just that, only taken to a whole new level. Instead of simply being estranged from nature, caught up in their own little lives, they imply that nature is only a collection of decomposing matter and the physical forces controlling it, just waiting to be exploited by humans.
This stance tapered away to be exchanged with its radical opposite:
Environmentalism. Once people realized the rise in industry and the destruction triggered by it and the potential damage that could be done, they began to condemn what they saw as corporate greed running rampant. Environmentalists generally believed that nature was almost sacred in a sense, and inspiring reverence. Any mistreatment of nature by humans was considered invasive and an offense against its inborn inviolability. Should humans not see their mistakes and fix their lifestyles, humanity shall surely be lost.
Finally, the relationship between humans and nature is much more complex and ambiguous than how most perceive it. The notion of nature has other conceptual connotations and meanings to be dealt with and understood. In different time periods this relationship is seen in many different lights, from fear, to mastery, to spiritual connectedness, to near worship. This demonstrates that the differing philosophies show one common theme-the idea that humans share an awkward, disconnected relationship with nature. The reason why is an enigma that with continue to mystify the human race.