Taking control of our environment

For almost all of our existence as a species, we lived in an adaptive relationship with nature

If we think of our relationship with nature as being divided into two basic phases — adapting and then controlling — this may provide a perspective that could guide us toward some practical solutions to our present environmental problems.

For almost all of our existence as a species, we lived in an adaptive relationship with nature, in an essentially wild environment where we reacted creatively and resourcefully to the conditions provided by nature.

Eventually we took a modest control of our circumstances by making rudimentary tools, constructing crude shelters and using fire. But mostly we lived by adapting to the conditions that nature presented to us.

This relationship began to change radically with the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago. We slowly replaced hunting and gathering with crops.

Animal and plant husbandry helped us to avoid some of nature’s unpredictable qualities. Exerting more control over our surroundings seemed to be a smart strategy. And it certainly gave us the illusion of control.

However, we still live on a natural planet where we are subject to certain immutable natural laws. We also live within complex biological interrelationships that we don’t fully understand, and we still confront immense forces that dwarf our feeble powers.

Most of the credit we give to ourselves for ingenuity is based on our adaptive acumen. Even though our control of circumstances has expanded immensely, the direct control we actually have over the operating conditions of our planet is still very small.

We have, of course, influenced many things and processes — some of them at a global scale. But influence is different than control. And our environmental problems arise from influences with inadvertent consequences that are not necessarily to our advantage.

This raises an interesting question. Are we smart enough to be in control of the circumstances we must subsequently manage. Do we even know what we are attempting to manage? Is this challenge beyond our capabilities? Controlling requires managerial sophistications and comprehensive perspectives that are orders of magnitude greater than adaptation. Adaptations are reactive. Initiatives require much deeper understandings.

Are we competent enough to be taking control? Our environmental predicaments suggest we are ineptly blundering from one mistake to another, discovering — usually belatedly — that we are upsetting the systemic balances in nature that have heretofore provided us with a comfortable and beneficent biosphere.

So far, the more influence we have, the worse our environmental situation becomes. Yes, we are experiencing some benefits from our influence. But they are mostly short term, exclusively for us, at the expense of everything else. This seems to be a fundamentally unwise strategy given that we need everything else in order to live comfortably and fully on Earth.

As we diminish our surroundings, we diminish ourselves. In other words, we are busily engineering our own crisis.  This suggests that the focus of all our endeavours has been in the wrong place — on our selfish interests rather than on the needs of the whole to which we belong. Our thinking has been too narrow and too small. We haven’t been thinking broadly enough or deeply enough. As self-declared Sapiens — wise beings — our insights have yet to match this lofty definition of ourselves.

And the inadvertent responsibility we are earning is overwhelming.