Voice

How Not to Be a Civilization

How Not to Be a Civilization

Who has not stood before a vista — snow-capped peaks, a coral seascape teeming with reef fish, a desert stretching parched and golden to the horizon, the canopy of stars in the night sky — and not professed humility? Nature should be humbling. It is, after all, infinite beyond our comprehension.

All we do as human beings — whether as government officials or artists, engineers or schoolteachers — we do within the parameters set by nature: to grapple with problems imposed or shaped by it or, in our best moments, to aspire to reflect or complement the natural world within our own creative work.

Yet, despite our declarations of awe and respect, we could hardly show less respect for the inspired and inspiring environment against which our tiny lives are set. I do not simply mean the myriad ways we have despoiled the Earth, exploiting its riches but ignoring the consequences of our actions. Nor do I mean the perverse rationales we have created to justify our actions or to deny that the consequences we face are really our responsibility. Think about the position of climate change deniers: Not only do they seek to prolong activities that are damaging — beyond repair — the Earth’s ecosystems, but they are also seeking to deny scientific evidence so they can place the blame back on Mother Nature.

Think about that. The argument is that the planet may or may not be dying but if it is, it’s its own fault. (This is perhaps not so surprising as many of the political ilk who deny climate change also are among the hunters who regularly comment on the beauty of wildlife before gunning it down with high-powered rifles.)

These indignities certainly belie our regular protestations of love for creation and the Creator. Yet, many of those most likely to invoke the Creator for political reasons show the most contempt for creation in their political actions. Although a double irony, these people also regularly show contempt for the stated laws of their Creator. What is more, they are just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that most people seem to think nature is full of shit.

Seriously, though, how many floods or hurricanes are necessary in disaster-prone areas before people either move or build homes that are designed to withstand what nature has clearly stated it intends to do? It just stands to reason, right? If nature puts cougars or bears or alligators in your backyard, it is sending a clear message not to let your little Chihuahua play out there unsupervised. Yet, every week, some small pet turns into a snack, despite the big, toothy, growling warning label that nature has placed in plain sight.

Everywhere we look, nature is sending us messages — rising seas, disappearing lakes and rivers, and dying species are just a few of them. If we actually paid attention to nature’s clues, we probably would avoid driving our cars into flooded streets (because that never ends well) or lying on the beach without sunscreen (because the fact that your body turns red and starts to hurt can’t really be a sign of good health, can it?). We would probably not keep chimpanzees or other wild animals as house pets (because what clearer message do you need than animals that tear off people’s faces?). And we probably would, I don’t know, avoid setting off fireworks or creating bonfires in the midst of fields that are dry as kindling.

Nature sends signals. For many people, in fact, one of the most neglected aspects of the natural world is not that nature stands before us in silent majesty as many poets have incorrectly asserted. No, it is that nature never shuts up. Nature is constantly sending us messages about how to behave. It lets us know what will kill us, what will hurt us, and what will make our lives miserable. It also gives plenty of warning with the messages. It wasn’t like we drilled our first oil well, flipped the ignition switch on our first internal combustion engine, and — bingo! Global warming!

No, it took a century. The clouds filled with black smoke. Gradually, the weather changed. Storms washed away communities. Science was given mountains of data.

I can just imagine Mother Nature off wherever she resides (near the hollow tree in which the Keebler Elves live, I am pretty sure, not too far from Bilbo Baggins), watching this and saying, “How many once-in-a-millennium storms does it take to get these bozos’ attention?”

But knowledge of gravity has been around for centuries, and people still try to hang Christmas lights from places that neither they nor their ladders can reach. In fact, each and every one of us knows countless people — relatives or even smart friends or teachers — who have wantonly disregarded the unmistakable messages nature sends: For once and for all, steer into the skid for Chrissakes, and chew your food 32 times! Jeez.

Cynics might suggest that the explanation for this is not hubris but rather natural selection. It is one thing to bump off the idiots who make the Darwin Awards such hilarious reading each year; climate change, on the other hand, could do in life on the planet as we know it. Could natural selection actually be conceived by the ineffable intelligence that imbues the universe to be capable of eliminating an entire higher life form and the planet on which it was briefly privileged to reside? If so, would that be viewed as nature cleaning up its own messes, as it is wont to do with its errors, including the dodo birds and, well, anything it left lying around near a black hole? Or is there something different at work here?

If one of the most fundamental roles the universe seems to be playing is that of being the ultimate Great Communicator, then perhaps destroying a society that ignores its messages is not simply penalizing those who have transgressed. Maybe we have been intended all along to be a message to someone somewhere else. Perhaps we are just nature constructing one of those “How Not to Be a Civilization” case studies for some other society out there that seems more inclined toward and capable of recognizing that somewhere within the infinite glory that created us — and within which we have lived — there must be messages worth heeding and bounties worth preserving.

A version of this article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of  FP magazine.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister