On the nature of nature  — From Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

Another question that highlights the power of Patterning in Time perspective asks how we best understand and relate to nature. We could think of it too as an eternal quandary—it is a question that has always fascinated us, and also often presented answers that contradict. Certainly, how we answer it today has critical implications as we move into the future. Our times challenge us to an essential growing up in our relationship to nature.

Previous reflections on limits introduced the challenge. We’ve seen how we must relate to nature differently for the sake of human survival and the health of the planet. We also need a shift in our relationship with nature for a further equally important reason. We need it for the sake of our souls. John Muir once said, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay till sundown. For going out, I found I was really going in.” We too are nature. In forgetting nature we, in a very important sense, forget ourselves as well. The task is not only to better protect nature, but to develop a new and deeper kind of relationship with and understanding of nature.

Developmental/evolutionary perspective helps us in multiple ways with this essential task. At the least, it makes clear that our understandings of our biological and physical and worlds have never been as objective and final as we have thought them to be. Our beliefs have always been as much about polar projection as actuality, or at least as much about the lenses through which we have been able to see as what we have endeavored to see. Is the creature world a “peaceable kingdom” (and thus to be emulated), or “red in tooth and claw” (something to fear and, if possible, to tame)? Is the physical world animate and spiritful (and thus best treated as an expression of the divine), or is it dead and inert (and thus regarded at best as a resource for fulfilling human needs)?

Developmental/evolutionary perspective also helps us more clearly grasp what we need to leave behind—and, just a bit, where we need to go. The common conclusion in modern times that nature is in effect a machine would have seemed ludicrous within any other cultural period. But it makes perfect sense in the context of the kind of cognitive perspective that has given us Modern Age reality. With the recognition that the way we see nature is time-specific, it also makes perfect sense that further ways of understanding and relating to nature, in potential, lie ahead. Integrative Meta-perspective’s larger picture at least helps us begin to understand what we need to get in touch with in ourselves if we are to think about nature and our relationship to it in the needed new ways.

What is nature—at least to us?  And how does our answer to that question now need to change?  Creative Systems Theory maps how our perceptions of nature differ as a function of any Patterning in Time (or Patterning in Space) variable. The way it does provides valuable insight for going forward.

In sketching this progression, I will give particular emphasis to an aspect of change’s creative mechanism that before I’ve only implied. In addition to amnesia between creative stages, we also encounter a more vigorous kind of dynamic—the newly created content (the archetyapally masculine pole) actively pushes away its creative context (the archetypally feminine pole). We encounter this active pushing away with any formative process, but it is particularly easy to recognize in our historical relationship with nature.

The reason for this pushing away is related to what I described for developmental amnesias. The attraction of creation’s origin can be so powerful that it threatens to undermine needed separation. This pushing away manifests most strongly with later parts of Middle-Axis dynamics and the early parts of Late-Axis dynamics. Then it can translate into active denigration. With Early-Axis, the creative context’s role is primarily nurturing. With Late-Axis, increasingly separation is sufficiently established that there is little need to fear falling back.

The basic contours of the evolving sequence of relationships with nature that Creative System Theory describes should now feel familiar:

The view of nature in early tribal (Pre-Axial) times was far from that of today. Rather than an inert resource to be utilized, nature—as mountain, river, forest, and soil—was cherished as the divine source of all life. Mortals stood small in relationship to her mysterious immensity.

With the rise of early civilizations (Early-Axis times in culture), we saw the first real separation from nature. Animism gave way to ascendant pantheons of gods, and man came to inhabit a realm that seemed fully distinct from the creaturely. Nature and humanity were no longer seen as one. And at the same time their perceived relationship remained strong. The early Greek gods were viewed a ascendant above nature, but it was never forgotten that they were born from Gaia, the earth. The Eleusinian Mysteries, while beyond animism, embodied a deep awe of nature and expressed a message of shared consciousness between matter and humanity.

Humanity’s relationship with nature first grew overtly contentious in the period we identify with the rise of monotheism. That rise took expression in, at once, a more forceful ascendancy of the divine, and a new ascendancy of man. The divine now stood as a singular lord on high. And mortals, while still respectful of nature’s power, saw themselves now as sovereign over her. From the book of Genesis come these words: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

This voice of dominion would continue to rise in volume, calling out with ever-greater force for the taming of nature. Nature’s wildness became increasingly something to control and conquer. By the early Renaissance, we heard statements such as this from French poet Bossuet: “May the earth be cursed, may the earth be cursed, a thousand times be cursed because from it that heavy fog and those black vapors continually rise that ascend from the dark passions and hide heaven and its light from us and draw down the lightning of God’s justice against the corruption of the human race.”

Later centuries brought a significant further distancing from nature. Much of the moral condemnation subsided, but this occurred less because humanity had come to terms with nature’s power than because we had put nature’s power sufficiently at arm’s length that it no longer threatened. We had risen far enough above our creaturely origins that nature could be seen, for all intents and purposes, as inert. With the scientific revolution and the Industrial Age, our bodies increasingly became things we had rather than were; animal behavior became the product of instinct and reflex; and the earth became an assortment of material resources to be exploited for the practical tasks of human achievement. This mechanistic picture of nature was tempered by the Romantic Age’s idealization of nature, and in important ways still is. But what we saw with the Romantic Age was more reactive and compensatory than anything that really helped us understand nature more deeply.

The task ahead?  Certaintly, we need a next step in how we think about our relationship with nature. The question today becomes less whether we will achieve a more culturally mature relationship with nature than how much we will make ourselves and the other inhabitants of our planet suffer on the road to achieving it. As the Roman poet Horace wrote, “You may chase Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will ever hurry back to triumph in stealth over your foolish contempt.”

With barely our toes over Cultural Maturity’s threshold, we can only begin to grasp what a needed “growing up” in our relationship with nature ask of us. We can know that in some way we must remember our connection with nature. We can also know that we must do so in a way that fills out rather than diminishes our appreciation of the uniqueness of our human natures.

The recognition that the reality of each previous cultural stage at least points toward something we need to keep in mind helps us take our thinking a bit further. As was clear in Pre-Axial and Early-Axis times, in the future we must more deeply grasp how, in the end, we are part of nature, indeed how there is an important sense in which that we are ultimately responsible for nature’s well-being. To effectively assume that responsibility and make good choices, we also need to step back from nature as with Middle-Axis sensibility, though now not in a moral posture fueled by fears of chaos and regression, but in a way than can help us better see with perspective and make hard choices. We also need the more Late-Axis kind of stepping back that can address nature “objectively” as a resource, though now not simply in the sense of something to exploit. A sustainable use of resources requires sophisticated scientific understanding of resource relationships along with a keen appreciation of the ways in which economic factors influence how resource sustainability can best be achieved. All of these ingredients are essential to the maturity of systemic perspective we will need if we are to be effective planetary stewards going forward.