From Conquest to Balance
The power people have developed as a result of the Industrial Revolution has changed our relationship to nature. We’ve freed ourselves from the limitations that nature imposes, or so it seems. We can be warm when it’s cold, dry when it’s wet, and well fed even in times of drought. We can fly above the atmosphere and descend beneath the ocean, level mountains and make islands. We can eradicate ecosystems and impose our own crops in their place. Vaccinations, medicines, and surgeries make death seem optional, something we can sue the medical profession for, rather than a natural process. Writers even talk about techno-humans as a new evolutionary step away from natural limitations and toward total global hegemony.
The Industrial Revolution wasn’t the only breaking point in our relationship with nature, of course. Human cultures over time moved from bands to tribes to towns to city states, all of which was made possible through our increasing ability to conquer nature. But the Industrial Revolution ushered in a change not just in degree but in kind. Think of the Mongols, raiding and herding on the steppes until suddenly Genghis Khan emerged and drove them to conquer much of the known world; the Industrial Revolution was our Genghis Khan, leading us to power we never thought possible. Now human beings are imperialists flattening everything in our path, and nature looks like the blasted villages of Turkestan and the rubble of Kiev.
But the days of human empire are drawing to a close. Fossil fuels are harder to extract, easily available phosphorus for industry and agriculture is running out, and climate uncertainty will require us to focus on repairing, maintaining, and retrenching rather than the kind of explosive innovation that we’ve gotten used to over the last two centuries. This change in our circumstances will force a change in our thinking, from conquest to balance.
This may be hard. Citizens of modern industrial states tend to measure success in terms of total conquest. For example, when glyphosate was first introduced as an herbicide, it seemed to kill everything. Fields were smooth and uniform. Very rapidly, though, weeds adapted and reinvaded crops. This is seen as a failure on the part of the chemical industry and the farmers; to them the only marker of success, of a chemical or a technique, is one hundred percent annihilation of the threat. Researchers are currently working on creating – and marketing – a new solution that will address those pesky ragweeds and thistles that refuse to bend to our will.
Medicines are judged the same way, and in the early days of penicillin and vaccinations, they seemed likely to fulfill that promise. Medicines have been hugely effective, as evidenced by the more than doubling of the world’s population in my lifetime. But, as anyone who reads medical news knows, we’ve created problems in the process of solving them, and total conquest of disease is slipping further out of reach. The most striking example of this is the rise in auto-immune diseases. You’ve seen the research, I’m sure, about asthma being more common in children exposed to fewer diseases. Now scientists are looking into the relationship between parasites and auto-immune diseases. They’ve infected participants in an experiment with worms and have noticed, at least on a small scale, an improvement in auto-immune diseases such as multiple sclerosis or lupus. The speculation is that the immune system evolved to live in balance with the threats that attack it, whether germs or parasites; when that balance is disturbed by total eradication of the threats, the person suffers.
People raised with plentiful food, who never had measles or mumps and who were only sick for a few days with most infectious diseases, are very uncomfortable with less than total conquest of nature. I remember the persistent questions during my Peace Corps training about what to do in the case of most medical emergencies. Volunteers asked, What if we’re in a car accident far away from any hospital? What if we get bitten by a snake? What if both malaria and typhoid hit at the same time? The nurse who was doing the training, remarkable more for her realism than her tact, kept giving the same answer: “Then you die.” The volunteers in training couldn’t or wouldn’t hear it. What do you mean, we die? What are we supposed to do? Tell us the procedure that will enable us to conquer any threat that faces us. But she wouldn’t. She just kept pointing out that here in the unindustrialized world, death was always hovering nearby.
Human beings aren’t unique in wanting to survive, as individuals and as a species. Every living thing wants to survive and conquer its competition, to outbreed and expand. But plants and animals other than humans have not invented the means to do so as thoroughly as we have. We have annihilated many species and are in the process of annihilating more, sometimes deliberately because they threaten us, like wolves, more commonly because we want what they have and they can no longer live in the environments we’ve taken control of. For a time, to many people, this ongoing annihilation was seen as success; we were remaking the world into a place perfect for humans, where we would no longer have to compete with nature.
We are beginning to learn how desperately wrong we’ve been. Human beings can destroy a lot, but we are not more powerful than nature. Ultimately nature will achieve the balance that it is always aiming for – with us or without us. The hurricanes, wildfires, and rising seas are mechanisms of balance, although they seem in the short term the opposite of it.
So is this new disease. Evidently humans have been partly responsible for covid-19's creation and spread, through the imbalance of population and resources that has arisen from post-industrial conditions. Corona virus will be one means, and not the last, nature will use to try to limit our power on earth.
My point is not to depress you with feelings of inchoate guilt or scare you with impending doom. Nor do I want to convince you that, if we’d all just live earthy lives in balance with nature, we’d be happy and healthy; that simply isn’t true. My point is that we, the descendants of the Industrial Revolution, need a change of mindset.
We need to accept our limitations. Before the Industrial Revolution, and in places where it never took complete hold, people and nature lived more like neighboring tribes, sometimes allied and sometimes at odds. Humans took some lands and people from nature’s grasp, then nature evened the score, taking our lands and people through drought, flood, storm, earthquake, or disease. We need to acknowledge that the same laws of balance that applied to us then apply to us now and that we are not above nature or separate from it. Not because, if we do, then we’ll “succeed” or “conquer” and never get sick or injured; of course we will. We should accept the limits nature imposes on us because it’s right to do so. Because life is hard, and it’s meant to be.
In removing difficulties, we’ve just created more difficulties. We can and should continue to work to make people happy and comfortable, but we will not have complete success. And there is a great danger in aiming for complete success: if we set annihilation of difficulties as the only measure of success, then we will justify ever more unethical actions against nature and people – such as eugenics, DDT, and totalitarian governments, all of which were and are offered as steps toward Utopia.
The more we struggle for complete hegemony of the earth, the more the spiral of pollution, climate change, displaced people, and environmental collapse will continue towards its disastrous conclusion. Let us instead measure success not by conquering nature but by living in balance with it. This may mean, on the practical level, fewer people, fewer inequities in wealth and power, and more encouragement by means of natural selection to eat moderately and use resources with care. It may mean, on the moral level, that simplicity, sharing, and cooperation are accepted as more adaptive than hoarding and war. It will certainly mean remembering that blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.