Western Civilization is currently coming to terms with some very important and unsettling realities. Capitalism, and modern economics thinkers, have idolized economic growth without limit. In most economic textbooks and theories, economic growth is considered an end good, and a lack of economic growth a problem.
Though we can argue about whether economic growth is a good in all situations, it is indisputable that economic growth has natural limits. These natural limits are created by our own natural environment. For this reason, the culture of "more" which dominates Western Civilization and drives all of our reasoning, is not sustainable.
The effect of Western industrial capitalist civilization on the environment has been huge. The culture of Western civilization, currently driven by an ethic of individualism and materialism, empowered by science and technology, has done irreversible damage to the natural environment and continues to do so. The environmental challenges that now face the world are tremendous, serious, and a threat to human existence
Thesis: Our view of ourselves as being separate from our environment is what promotes our sense of self-centeredness and alienation. Furthermore, it prevents us from peacefully existing in our environment because we see it as a threat and resource to our own survival, causing us to strip our natural environment to forestall natural processes which we find unpleasant.
The Root of Mankind's Alienation from Nature
Philosophy: Mind over Matter -- The Trust of Ideas Over Reality
Greco-Roman philosophy elevated the use of reason over the use of the senses. This has cultivated an adversarial relationship with the environment. This distrust and contempt of sensory experience, through which our natural environment is engaged, has led to a distance to and neglect of the environment. This attitude was compounded two millennia later during the Enlightenment, where Rene Descartes separated mind and matter, a distinction which has shaped scientific inquiry ever since.
The Judeo-Christian Tradition and Anthropocentrism
The Judeo-Christian worldview which dominated the West after the Greco-Roman period has cultivated a similarly adversarial relationship with the Environment. The Judeo-Christian worldview tells man to populate the earth and gain dominion over it and all the creatures in it. This has instilled a sense of superiority and self-centeredness in humans as the species made in the image of the Creator. (Sessions, 3).
Christianity's promise of peace in the afterlife has intensified the neglect of this world by placing man's destiny in another world. The secularization of Western civilization has discredited this promise, but has not replaced it with a more compelling promise of fulfillment. Its most compelling promise is fulfillment through the possession and enjoyment of more material things, consumerism. Neither has secularization diminished the self-centeredness of humans, sometimes known as "Anthropocentrism." (Sessions, 3). The environment and most of the creatures in it are still seen as threatening, things to be controlled and tamed instead of acquiesced in. (Sessions, 3).
A culture's use of language has a tremendous influence on its worldview. Abrams believes that in modern Western Civilization, individuals are profoundly distanced from their natural environment. The sources of this alienation, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greco-Romans tradition, very far apart in many respects, converge on one key aspect, their common roots in alphabetic writing. (Abram, 94).
Abram believes that the development of the alphabet opened a new distance "…between human culture and the rest of nature." (Abram, 100). He theorizes that, in an alphabet system, "…the written character no longer refers us to any sensible phenomenon out in the world…but solely to a gesture made by the human mouth." (Abram, 100). This new focus causes a "…shift away from the sensible phenomenon which previously called for the spoken utterance, to the shape of the utterance itself, now invoked directly by the written character." (Abram, 100).
The shift in focus creates a new channel between human utterances and human-made signs. Abram observes that "A direct association is established between the pictorial sign and the vocal gesture, for the first time completely bypassing the thing pictured." (Abram, 100-101). He points out that the natural objects are no longer a necessary part of the equation in this new channel of communication, leading to a neglect of the "…larger, more-than-human life world." (Abram, 101).
Abram contrasts the alphabet with the more primordial method of the pictograph. He compares the reading of Chinese pictograms with a hunter's reading of traces left in nature by his prey, observing that "We read those traces with organs honed over millennia by our tribal ancestors…" (Abram, 96). Abram notes that a pictographs displaces "…our sensory participation from the depths of the animate environment to the flat surface of our walls, of clay tablets, of the sheet of papyrus." (Abram, 100). However, "…the written images themselves often related us back to the other animals and the environing earth…" because our representation of animals and nature in pictograms expressed a desire to connect with those objects. (Abram, 96). Subsequent readings of these pictographs reinforced this connection with the things of nature, which the Chinese refer to as the "ten-thousand things."
The Process of Alienation from Nature
The significance of the alphabet has been demonstrated by the trajectories of different cultures throughout world history. In Western culture, the consequences of the alphabet have been dramatic. The new vision of life lived exclusively between humans, and bypassing the natural world, has caused Westerners to neglect the very environment which sustains them.
The bypassing of the natural world described by Abram has caused man to lose his grounding in reality. It has cultivated a dependence on empty abstractions as the means to understand reality. Such abstractions turn discourse into sophisticated, but ultimately fruitless word games. Pragmatism, actually, is a reaction to the Western tendency towards abstraction and the reification of those abstractions. It instead advocates a pursuit of what works instead of what makes sense when talked about. (Hobson, 284).
Man as no longer a Part of Nature
In the essay, "Walking," by Henry David Thoreau describes man's original role in nature "as an inhabitant, or a part or parcel of Nature." (Thoreau 1). He criticizes his society for their lack of such a relationship with nature. Throughout the essay, Thoreau emphasizes the sacred divinity of nature, describing the Mississippi river as a kind of enchanted Holy Land for America, the same way the Ganges River is for India. (Thoreau 55). His notion of "Walking" walking in order to fully experience nature as it is, which he found easier to do away from industrialized urban society. This type of "Walking" is effective because it allows humans to become grounded in nature once again.
Nature as Thing to be Studied
The objectification and misrepresentation of nature is discussed by Charles Siebert in his 1983 essay, "The Artifice of the Natural." In it, Siebert argues that nature documentaries are more telling as objects of human creation than studies of the natural world. The nature documentary, he says, is like a city: "fast-paced, multi-storied, and artificially lit." (Siebert, 676, 10). Nature is the antithesis: slow, earthly, camera-shy. But one thing is certain: Nature, or our version of it, sells. The nature documentary project Planet Earth, commended for its gorgeous photographing of the Earth's environs, were hugely successful.
Documentaries show that we have a curious relationship with our environment and its inhabitants. It is important to understand our environment and enjoy it in ways we have forgotten. However, this understanding is often achieved through a disruptive examination of those environments, with massive cameracrews setting up in within an animal's habitat. Once established, the fillmakers attempt to record film of the animals in their natural state.
Although the animals largely go about their business with the cameracrew there, they are by no means happy that the cameracrew has set itself up in their habitat. It probably does not make any sense to them and some may even consider it a threat. Many of the animals indicate that they do no want the cameracrew there and are waiting for them to leave so they can get on with their normal lives. (Siebert, 676, 10). The point is that these humans are not interacting with animals in a natural manner, an interaction that should be based on their relationship as co-inhabitants of the world. The humans, instead, separate themselves from animals as much as possible in their normal lives, clearing their towns and cities of wild animals by eating them, shutting them away in zoos, or sending them to designated habitats. Thus human interaction with animals is never interactive, but of observation. It is telling that human beings are the only creatures who interact with other creatures in this way.
The Consequences of Alienation
In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben points out grave problems arising from mankind's current relationship with nature. He describes nature as a force previously independent of human beings, but which is now directly affected by the actions of people. McKibben predicts that human influence has…