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Nature Matters - It Makes Us Human

At the time of the 1992 Rio Summit that established the Framework Convention on Climate Change, a group of concerned scientists issued a 'Warning to Humanity'. This told us that human actions were triggering an ecological disaster that threatened our ability to maintain the welfare of the majority of people on Earth. They expressed concern about current, impending, or potential damage involving ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth.

25 years later, all indicators have moved further into the red zone with the single exception of ozone depletion; it now looks like we are on the threshold of the 6th mass extinction of species, this one triggered by ourselves. Does this matter? Won't evolution respond to a changing world? Isn't our attachment to nature just sentimental, and won't technology and human ingenuity find ways of adapting?

There is evidence that the rate of evolution is increasing as would be expected. But it is the speed of change that will overwhelm nature's ability to adapt. Large and slow maturing species will be lost, it will be the small and quick breeding species that will be able to take advantage of the changing conditions. These include bacteria and viruses, insects and small rodents and plants we generally refer to as 'weeds'. The problems that these opportunists can present us are obvious, from disease to plagues of rats and inedible weeds choking our crops.

So nature will change, it always has therefore isn't our regret at the loss of the polar bears and big cats just sentiment?

Post Enlightenment, we like to think of ourselves as primarily rational beings, able to make correct, 'rational' decisions free of emotion. This is why some think that we can create an artificial intelligence to mimic and challenge human intelligence, an intelligence free of emotion. But emotion isn't just soppy outbursts, our emotions have evolved like all other aspects of us to give us a survival advantage. Emotion is part of intelligence. It is true that emotions can short out rational thought but this enables us to react more quickly. Emotions give us information from all the senses and trigger actions geared to our survival.

It is reasonable to propose that our emotions are trying to tell us something important that we need to act on or at least think about.

It is not wise to shut emotions out, they are a source of important information.

Emotionally we are drawn to nature, many people 'feel' that the wanton destruction of nature is wrong, that the looming extinction of the polar bears and big cats should be prevented somehow. Yet it can be difficult to rationalise this in the face of hard headed economics and politics. It is true that much 'green' thinking and action is driven by emotion and often dismissed as such. But on closer investigation, that emotional response often does have a sound basis. Emotional responses are trying to tell our rational self something about our personal or general welfare. Pollution, climate change, loss of species 'feels' wrong; many years of rational research is showing that these things are wrong, are damaging to human welfare. Contact with nature helps to relieve stress and promote a sense of well-being, it helps to boost our immune system.

Nature represents our life support system, we damage it at our peril.

Enlightenment thinking separated mind from body and placed our mind on a higher plane, cutting off the higher mental faculty from an earthy lower nature – so, ironically for the Enlightenment, this thinking reinforced what religion had been doing for over 2000 years, separating 'man' from nature, placing 'his' god and 'his' soul up in the sky, well away from the humble beasts of the ground where the pagans located their, often female deities. The enlightenment did a great service in freeing the human mind from dogma, laying the foundations of science and a richer understanding of our place in the universe. But in seeking to sever us from nature and, through the promotion of individuality from each other, it did a disservice that needs to be reversed

It is our over confidence in the power of our rational minds that make some believe that science and technology can always solve any problem that comes its way. This is not to knock science, its achievements are remarkable and enriching, and technology gives many – but not all, much more comfortable and fulfilling lives.

But can technology replace nature? Could human beings live in a purely artificial environment? Could we live fully human lives on Asimov's Trantor or Star War's Coruscant? Biologically a species does not exist in isolation, it is in part defined by the habitat that moulded it and nurtures it. Humans have evolved in nature, we are a part of nature not just some outside observer. Nature supports us materially and psychologically, it is an integral part of what makes us human. If people do some day adapt to live in a purely artificial environment, it is questionable whether they would remain the same species as Home sapiens.

We Earthlings are the product of nature; nature does matter to us, it is fully part of who we are. Seeking to limit and reverse the damage that we are causing to nature is not some soft hearted emotional response. It is a response to a real threat to our survival, to our 'humanness' The Union of Concerned Scientists were correct to issue their warning 25 years ago, they are right to reissue that warning now. In another 25 years it may well be too late for warnings.

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