Humanity is the product of its evolved relationship to nature, countless yesterdays of ongoing interaction and experience of the natural world. Our senses, our emotions, our intellect, and even our culture developed in close association with, and in adaptive response to, the nonhuman world. Moreover, our physical and mental health, productivity, and well-being continue to rely on our connections to nature, even as our world becomes increasingly fabricated and constructed.
This contention defies what many have come to believe is the foundation of human progress and the hallmark of contemporary civilization: the conquest and transformation of nature and our seeming triumph over our biology as just another animal species. Many people today view society, far from depending on nature, as having overcome reliance on the natural world through the wonders of science, engineering, and mass production. They marvel at our ability to communicate in seconds, gather vast amounts of information, defeat diseases that once ravaged millions, and obtain goods and services that even the most privileged could not have imagined a few centuries ago. They wonder, do we< really need nature for anything but raw materials that can be adapted to better uses, and perhaps for an occasional outdoor experience, which might be nice but certainly is not necessary?
Contemporary society is justifiably proud of its standard of living, physical health, and all the material comforts it has achieved. Still, to be successful and sustainable, not just materially but also psychologically and spiritually, these achievements must rest on a bedrock of positive and nurturing relationship to the natural world. This dependence is not just a matter of raw materials, clean water, productive soils, and an array of ecosystem services. More fundamentally, it is related to our capacity to feel, to think, to communicate, to create, to solve problems, to mature, to form a secure and meaningful identity, and to find meaning and purpose in our lives. As in the past and for the conceivable future, the core of our humanity will reflect the quality of our connections to the natural world. We will never be truly healthy, satisfied, or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment from which we evolved. Much of what we value and cherish as distinctively human — our capacity to care, reason, love, create, find beauty, and know happiness — continues to be contingent on our diverse ties to nature.
This reliance on nature reflects our biological origins as a species. We evolved in a natural world, not an artificial or human-created one. For more than ninety-nine percent of our history, our fitness and survival depended on adaptively responding to the ongoing demands of the natural environment, which drove the development of our senses, emotions, intellect, and spirit. For a tiny fraction of our history as a species, we have lived seemingly apart from nature, assuming these relatively recent practices to be normal: the domestication of plants and animals, which goes back just ten thousand years; the harnessing of energy beyond the human body, beginning five thousand years in the past; the invention of the city, some four thousand years old; the mass production of goods and services during the past five hundred years; the defeat of major diseases, only a few centuries old; or the currently evolving products of modern electronics and engineering.
Rather than being vestigial or irrelevant, our inherent inclination to affiliate with nature remains crucial to our physical and mental health and well-being. This dependence on nature has shaped and continues to shape our capacities to feel, reason, think, master complexity, discover, create, heal, and be healthy. Whether we choose to be farmers or financiers, foresters or professors, to labor with our minds or toil with our bodies, our safety, security, and survival remain contingent on the quality of our connections to the natural world.
From Birthright by Stephen Kellert. Copyright 2012 by Stephen Kellert. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.