Human culture is a constantly shifting, evolving and organic body of ideas and behaviors around which societies organize interactions and exchanges. Language, art, food, recreation and means of production are among the elements of our lives that are in a continuous state of flux.
In many ways, human society could be considered fickle and motive-driven, because we have always demonstrated the ability to adapt the culture and change our value system, shifting our narrative accordingly as the requirements for survival and the power balance also shift. There always have been conservative elements who view this shift as a threat, as well as revolutionaries in the opposite extreme who push the boundaries beyond the point of comfort. Although radical positions on both sides seem excessive to most, generally speaking a balance tends to be worked out to allow advancement of human interests.
This process is not without its tragedies, as said balance does not always come quickly enough or in a way that avoids pain and struggle. History is full of examples of unfortunate victims to the drama of human social evolution, with all out war between factions as the most obvious example.
We now live in interesting times. The very real possibility of ecological catastrophe is forcing us to question our relationship to Nature, and the philosophical frameworks that have brought us to this point. The fact that our storyline cannot exist outside of our natural context is beginning to dawn on us, and Western societies (historically responsible for the majority of the devastation to Nature), have become self-reflexive, embracing holistic thinking and seeking solutions in the “exotic” cultures formerly judged to be primitive and unenlightened.
In this context our cultural resilience represents our best hope. Our self-interest and willingness to abandon ideas that have proven to no longer serve our interests is actually one of our best traits and may be the key to our long term survival.
We are fond of imagining a life of luxury where we have artificially recreated all of the comforts that ecosystems provide us (clean air and water, abundant food, pleasant climate and environment, psychological health, etc.), while controlling all of the wild and dangerous factors that terrify us.
This conquest of Nature has been a theme and driving force behind many of the most destructive elements of our industrial excess, and is still a narrative we adhere to at our peril. We imagine ourselves capable of recreating the natural ecosystems of Earth on a distant planet, for example, or of controlling all the environmental factors that affect human health even at the genetic level.
While advancing the fields of synthetic biology can have exciting and positive outcomes, it is shortsighted and even naive to believe our science can give us ultimate mastery over the endlessly complex and little understood systems of our natural world. If we are to survive and thrive we must instead humbly accept and embrace our place within our much larger and complicated environment, study it with reverence, and include every discovery in our respectful efforts to foster the balance we intuitively seek within it.
I envision a near future where this awe and respect for nature is a basic premise of our evolving human culture. A society where every aspect of our lives, from politics and economics to art and recreation, are carried out in such a way that values and respects our role within the complex ecosystems that surround us.
This is not such a radical vision, because we have actually lived this way for thousands of years and in every culture around the world as hunter gatherer communities and then settler agriculturalists, where our livelihoods were directly linked and dependent on our environment.
My question now is what does our return to Nature look like in a post-natural age? Because even though we have not gained true mastery over Nature in the sense that we aren’t able to control and shape every element to fit our narrative, we have certainly developed the power to destroy the balance that allows us to live on this planet.