• Nathan Riley, MD

The Self-Destructive Nature of Being Human

Updated: Mar 31

Long ago, humans lived in harmony with Mother Nature. She has long gifted us with a bounty, never asking anything in return for Her generosity. For millions of years, the many biological organisms on the planet coexisted harmoniously, recycling Her gifts not out of beneficence but rather necessity, as this form of cooperation has facilitated the creation of the planet that we call home.

At present, however, our species is on the brink of catastrophe, and the general consensus of the scientific community seems to be that Mother Nature can no longer meet our needs, and that we must in turn find a new planet to inhabit.

Around 10,000 years or so ago, humans stepped away from cooperative co-creativity with the millions of other species of Earth's biosphere. Prior to this turning point, humans lived in what author Daniel Quinn termed a "leaver society", but then we began to take more than our share of Nature's resources, and this is how our contemporary economies of scale began: one person withholds the stuff others need in order to ensure their own comfort and "safety".

This was out of line with Mother Nature's intention: Her bounty has always been a gift. Nevertheless, humans had come to the momentous rationalization that if they revised their worldview from being a part of a balanced ecosystem to that of a beneficiary of the ecosystem, their population could grow unchecked, and their "progress" accelerated logarithmically as a result. The Abrahamic religions cemented this narrative by transmutating the relationship of humans to stewards of the Earth, and, as a result, we have considered ourselves for thousand of years as its superior caste. This was an important changing of the tides in human cognition that extends even beyond human lifespans. The vast majority of people who die in the United States are buried in lead-lined caskets or cremated, forbidding the return of our corporal remains to be recycled as a part of Mother Nature's bounty. To hell with becoming worm food...

Several glaring examples of the pitfalls of this story we tell ourselves about the individual, uniquely privileged role that we play on Earth have emerged, the least of which is the pending ecological catastrophe. In withholding Nature's bounty for the sole benefit of our species, we have inadvertently thrown out of balance a system apart of which we are a disproportionately small fraction and thus entirely dependent upon. In the words of Paul Ehrlich, "In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches."

I won't bore you with commentary on climate change, but I do think it's illustrative to point out that finding alternative energy sources to fossil fuels is not a solution to climate change in that it fails to recognize that without decreasing our consumption of raw materials - or curbing our population growth - the source of energy production matters not. The conversation around windmills versus biomass plants is comparable to rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic. The requisite change lies in our relationship to Mother Nature.

Another two examples that exemplify the delusion that a human being can exist outside of his or her role in the global ecosystem are found in our rationalization of monocultural industrial farming as well as germ theory.

The evidence that we are destroying ourselves by destroying the planet is no more apparent than our use of glyphosates and other pesticides to maximize monocultural crop yields. The brilliant biologist Rachel Carson was an early critic of these chemicals. She described them as a "chemical barrage [that] has been hurled against the fabric of life." As if forcing corn to grow in isolation from its ecological brethren weren't enough, humans have tried to force the land to produce more corn on less soil without undesirable interruptions by pests. In other words, Mother Nature offered an unconditional gift, and we have held Her hostage to provide us with every last drop of Her gift...pests and weeds be damned.

Similarly, in the medical community we have only recently begun to recognize that each individual human being is a separate ecosystem attempting to remain interfaced with Mother Nature. In the mid-19th century, it was discovered that microscopic organisms can be isolated from infected wounds. This led to the germ theory of disease, and it was revolutionary, as it soon allowed for surgery to be practiced more safely through handwashing and sterile fields. Naturally, scientists who worked with microscopic organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi presumed that if microorganisms could be isolated from infected tissues, then sterilizing biological tissues would lead to the end of infections and pose less a threat to human survival.

Of course this theory hasn't panned out for the better. In birth, passage through the vagina provides valuable flora to the newborn's skin and gastrointestinal tract, and many very qualified scientists are finding links between gut microbiome biodiversity and diseases for which we have no other potential cures on the horizon. And yet, we physicians continue to prescribe antibiotics to every young woman with bladder irritation or gut inflammation. Unfortunately for germ theorists, Humans do not exist in a vacuum. We are surrounded by micro- and macro-organisms, all of which are integral parts of the biosphere.

So how can we reimagine our relationship with Mother Nature?

This seems like a privileged luxury of the few, but it's far more important than a philosophical suggestion. Based on the preceding examples found through the challenges of monocultural farming and efforts to sterilize the human body, it should be obvious that we are a part of a variety of ecosystems that rely on us reciprocally. As such, in allowing the Earth to deteriorate, we are inadvertently corrupting any possibility for the survival of our own species.

This is not to say that we must abandon all of the technologies that have permitted our species' advancement, but perhaps it would be beneficial if we reframed progress. For example, if a good Samaritan billionaire were to propose of plan to provide access to high-speed internet and a smartphone to every man, woman, and child, this might be considered "progressive" in the sense that more humans with more information might level the playing field and allow for human co-creation in order to make our world even more fantastic. But the resources in the form of fossil fuels and rare minerals required to pull this off would be cataclysmically detrimental to the biosphere. This type of behavior exemplifies our value system with regards to "progress", and this is an important facet of human behavior that we must reconsider.

Mother Nature and Her millions of non-human biological species must become our allies once again. We are not enemies any more than our vital organs are enemies. She has gifted us with Her bounty, and we must begin to give back more than we take. The solution requires us to slow down and to reconnect with the ground beneath our feet. We need to switch to biodynamic, regenerative farming practices. We must consume less. We must begin to empathize with the plight of our cohabiters, both human and otherwise.

Charles Eisenstein has framed the solution in the form of a question: "Is it too much to ask, to live in a world where our human gifts go toward the benefit of all? Where our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people?" We may already be beyond the point of no return, in which case we probably don't get a vote as to whether Mother Nature will thrive in the coming decades or centuries. What is clear from the exponential growth of the human population is that our species in the very least is going to hit a dead end in the not-so-distant future.

Are we willing to take responsibility for the human experience with which we have been entrusted? Will we continue to deny the self-destructive implications of our refusal to accept the nature of humanity? Mother Nature has elegantly modeled for us the value of facilitating co-creation and regeneration with priority over individualist consumption, and we must follow suit.

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