It's safe to say that humans are a powerful force on the Earth. We've stretched our influence far and wide, both in our own social structures and the physical ones we've built atop the natural world. It can be difficult to remember that we're a part of this massive planetary balancing act of systems since we seemingly bend them to our will, but it would be ill-conceived to think of that influence as control.
Beyond that influence, I was reminded this month of a bias humanity has. We tend to like the concept of an "untouched" nature. Not untouched by anything though, but humans in particular. Going even further, we're biased toward an appreciation of nature not touched by the people who brought modern civilization. It's easiest to think of these people as the European colonizers. If they or their descendants haven't touched it, it's considered untouched by humans.
Along with this bias comes another more dangerous one however. When we categorize nature by its proximity to humans, deciding that nature adjacent to humanity is lesser nature, we have a tendency to take less care of it. We opt to care more about "true nature" far from home. We can think that's the nature worth saving, worth protecting. Yet, by ignoring our neighboring ecosystems, we have a slow but steady impact on nature far away.
Let's explore this together.
I was reminded of this topic thanks to a Flickr photo group this month. I want to preface that this group did nothing wrong here. The experience is just worth sharing as it stoked these thoughts over the course of the month. Groups on social media platforms are welcome to make and enforce rules for their communities as they see fit, and that's all they did here.
If you're here, you're likely aware that I write a weekly haiku based on photos from my travels near and far. Aside from being a short-form writing exercise, it's an opportunity to share photos from my experiences and hopefully encourage others to see nature from their own perspective as well. This is one of the photos I decided to write with this month.
I didn't give the photo much thought outside of the mindset I wanted to convey in the poem. I'd posted it to my normal set of groups to share with others. When I came back a week later to publish my next Haikusday post, I saw some of my groups were missing. I went through my old photos just in case I was seeing things, but sure enough, all my photos on some of my groups were removed. I decided to try searching for the groups in case they were disbanded for some reason.
I found them pretty easily, and decided to check the group home page. Seeing they had a section for off-topic photos, I decided to see if I broke any rules:
This group prefers "all Natural", without, man - man made - manufactured, or evidence of the presence of man, in images posted. The more man...or evidence of man, the less it belongs in this group.
Okay, so I broke one of the rules of the group and my photos were removed from said group. Mystery solved! I was definitely a little bitter about the decision, but it's not my group, so I've got nothing to complain about here. However, the notion that nature next to evidence of humanity was not "all natural" made me think...
The Myth of Nature Untouched by Humanity
I've brought up this topic in another post before named Un-Pristine Nature, but it's worth mentioning again that humans have never not been adjacent to nature. Our historic concept of a pristine nature is simply a definition of nature untouched by European colonizers or their descendants as "true nature." This ignores how the ancestors of these people also had to integrate with nature to get to where they are today. It ignores the perspective of any other group of humans that integrated with nature to form civilizations and travel the world.
Something else this concept subtly ignores is that humans don't have to directly interact with nature to impact it anymore. We've found plastic that beat us to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Microplastics have meshed with our air and are blown across the world regardless of origin. Our influence on the climate impacts the grandest of the Earth's systems including the Gulf Stream System which carries warm surface water to from the equator to western Europe. Not to mention our emissions leading to global temperature rise melting our arctic ice shelves.
These places are generally remote to humans. The deepest oceans, the air above our seas, the ice of our coldest regions, and the underwater currents that sustain lifestyles and habitats across the planet. We didn't have to touch these to change them. This is the Anthropocene era, the time of humanity's dominance on the Earth. The actions we take do not end at our doorstep.
Which brings us to the nature right outside our doors. When we ask ourselves what we think of when we think of nature, how many of us consider our parks among it? How about our rivers passing through our cities carrying our ships and ferries? Or the prairies and grasslands that thrive alongside our railroads? While I'm sure there are people who think of these areas as natural and in need of protection, I'm also willing to bet that a remarkable amount of us don't. Or at the very least think of it as lesser. Something tainted by humanity.
My reasoning there being that I am guilty of the same thoughts. Especially when I was younger, "nature" wasn't something in a neighborhood. That was a human thing, an artificial nature. I'm by no means special, so I'm sure there are others like me out there. Recognizing this bias is a first step to thinking in a different way.
That different way can start by seeing that the nature around us is actually quite a resilient force. Humans are a fantastically fast-paced species. Not only do we change how we operate quickly, we also change how we interface with the world at an alarming rate. To that degree, any plant or animal that keeps up with us is an adaptability powerhouse. Even if they aren't necessarily thriving, any species that can live alongside a disturbance like humanity is effectively taking on a artificial desert. Resources can change at a moment's notice in geologic and evolutionary time, and the fact we have nature around us at all shows us how strong it can be.
In a world dominated by humans, the nature that can deal with us before we decide to care will be the nature waiting for us when we begin to care.
Learning to Love our Neighboring Nature
In short, we won't have nature physically removed from humanity to appreciate if we don't start realizing our neighboring nature is just as natural as the nature far from us. We know that the actions of humanity define the era that we find ourselves in and that those actions have far-reaching effects on more than just humans.
Our concept of a pristine nature is a myth at best. Even if there is no physical evidence of humans in a given environment, how we choose to live and respect the planet influences our home in intangible ways. The nature we find beside us may be building a resilience to our actions, but to the nature far removed, our effect will hit fast and hard. We can't afford to consider any natural area as lesser if it thrives. We should do our best to ensure our surrounding ecosystems don't degrade further and that our relationship is one of care and respect. After all, knowing our impact, starting with our local environments has the potential to reach beyond them with time.
Back to that story earlier, it's fine that I got removed from a couple photo groups because of their rules. They're allowed to do that just fine. What concerns me is the mentality behind those rules. So long as the stigma of humanity-adjacent nature ends at those photo rules, it's harmless. But as soon as we treat human-touched nature as artificial, it's only a matter of time before we can't see anything worth saving. Before we stop seeing anything as beautiful. We're a part of this amazing planet. Let's not forget that as we pass the tree by the roadside. Let's appreciate the nature that lives amidst us. That lives despite us. Let's start caring about our whole home, so our nature near and far can instead live with us.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.