Terms of debate: Destroying vs altering nature, the fragile vs the resilient Earth – Kurt Cobb

Last week’s piece drew responses that throw into relief how much the language we use depends on our most basic assumptions about how the world works. If left unexamined, that language leads to further conclusions that go unchallenged because the underlying assumptions are never scrutinized.

I challenged the Breakthrough Institute’s notion that humans are in one category and nature in another. If one views humans as merely a part of nature or the universe or the web of existence–however one chooses to name that which includes everything–then our role becomes distinctly different.

Under my assumption humans are embedded in the natural world. They are not the sole actors or agents in it, only one of countless actors, most of which we probably know nothing about. We cannot get one up on nature. We can only cooperate with its workings.

When we put nature in one category and humans in another, we make humans an outside and preeminent force over nature. We (falsely) imbue ourselves with god-like power to “control” nature. In this case, “control” means we get what we want without self-annihilating effects. For who could say that they are in “control” of a plummeting airliner headed for a crash just because they still have the ability to move the throttle.

Now, if humans are one with nature, then the only thing they can do to it is alter it. They cannot “destroy” nature. Only if we conceive of ourselves as living on a different plane from nature can we “destroy” it. And, only if we conceive of nature as immutable can we “destroy” it. But nature is always in flux including any flux that results from human action. There is no immutable nature to “destroy” or to “restore.” We cannot run entropy in reverse and reassemble the universe into exactly a state that existed in the past, not anywhere.

I was characterized by one of the Breakthrough Institute’s analysts as someone who believes that nature is “fragile.” I’ll forgive him for not having time in his busy schedule to read my writings more thoroughly. If he had had time, he would have realized that I think nothing of the sort. Instead, I regard humans as fragile and nature as resilient. Nature, the universe, the everything, will be here long after humans have disappeared.

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