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Taking ‘Harm’ Out of ‘Harmony with Nature’

My post suggesting that we citizens of modern, industrial society live more in harmony with nature than did pre-industrial folk (for example, the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas) has ignited some objections – for example, here and here.  These objections fall into three overlapping camps:

First, pre-industrial Europeans didn’t live so harmoniously with nature; in fact, these Europeans might have lived even less harmoniously with nature than did America’s pre-Columbian inhabitants;

Second, not all that we moderns do is harmonious with nature – for example, we emit greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Third, modern humans’ footprint on nature is extensive – therefore, I must be wrong that we moderns live more harmoniously with nature than did pre-modern folk whose footprint was smaller.

These objections miss my point.  First, I used pre-Columbian Americans only as an example of people who, in my view, didn’t live as harmoniously with nature as we moderns do.  My claim is not that Europeans live more harmoniously with nature than do Indians; rather, it is that those of us in modern society live more harmoniously with nature than did pre-modern people.

In other words, knowledge of science is knowledge of nature, and those who best understand natural laws are best able to achieve their goals more readily and more fully than those who don’t understand these laws as well.

I didn’t mean to suggest that we moderns understand nature fully; of course we don’t.  To the extent that we remain ignorant of natural laws – and this extent is absolutely vast, I believe – our ability to live more harmoniously with nature is hampered.  But because (mostly through science) we understand natural laws more than did our ancestors, we live more harmoniously with nature than they lived.

Now, ability to live more harmoniously with nature isn’t identical with actually living more harmoniously with nature.  But I believe that we moderns in fact do live more harmoniously with nature than did pre-industrial folk.

Our modern world isn’t perfect, of course.  But it’s a world in which people live with nature pretty darn harmoniously in comparison to lives of generations ago.  For example, by understanding bacteria as well as thermodynamics, we today use refrigeration to keep ourselves free of the natural pollution of bacteria.  Nature doesn’t kill us off with unseen bugs as frequently as it did in the past.  Likewise, our greatly advanced knowledge of physiology, biology, and chemistry enables us to cure diseases more reliably.  No more bleeding patients with leeches – a practice that, we now know, is most inharmonious with the laws of nature (given the goal of extending the patient’s life).

Without here questioning the reality of global warming, its existence – along with the existence of other modern problems (such as over-fishing of the oceans) – means only that we don’t live in perfect harmony with nature.  It does not mean that we live less harmoniously with nature than did pre-industrial folk.

Finally, I dispute the claim that the extent to which humans live harmoniously with nature is measured by the smallness of the footprint that humans leave on nature.

Manhattan is hugely harmonious with nature.  To build towering skyscrapers requires an impressive understanding and acceptance of nature’s laws.  Attempts to build structures that are inharmonious with the laws of physics will fail.  Yes, there’s less flora and fauna on Manhattan than there was 500 years ago – but there are a helluva lot more humans there, all living pretty well by historical standards.

It’s time we stop defining living harmoniously as having no effect on nature.  Nothing intrinsic to the concept ‘living harmoniously with nature’ requires that humans live in such a way as to leave the environment as close as possible to what it would be like if we didn’t exist.