Outside the Walls
Updated: Jan 31
John Michael Greer, a blogger and prolific author of books, writes about a type of stupidity induced by civilization. He is not against civilization, but he outlines the inevitable trajectory all civilizations follow: humans live at the mercy of nature until they learn to control their environment to some extent; cities and infrastructure grow until their inhabitants never see raw nature unaltered by human skill; ultimately complacency afflicts the civilization, nature challenges it, and it falls. Civilized people may be good at dealing with civilization, but, Greer points out, if human intelligence evolved in response to the pressures of nature, we will fail to reach our full human capacity if we never have to survive outside of human structures.
Jared Diamond, in a similar way, posits that the New Guinean highlanders he knows are probably more intelligent than Americans who live in a manmade world. He mentions the encyclopedic information the highlanders carry in their minds, of plant and animal species, details of terrain, and tribal history, as well as their willingness and capacity to learn new things the moment they’re put in a new environment.
I don’t want to take these claims too far. New Yorkers’ ability to navigate the public transport system is an admirable kind of intelligence, too. So is the skill to use other technologies of civilization to good effect – computers, the internet, microwave ovens, cars, and so on. We are an intelligent species, and we learn what we need to in order to survive in the environment where we find ourselves.
It may be, though, that because our technology is complex, people in advanced cultures overestimate their individual intelligence. Some people these days display an arrogant “era-ism,” if I may coin a term. People who lived in the past were stupider than we are, they feel, because we can use computers and other technology. They are reluctant to believe that earlier people had any skills worth remembering today. An example of this came from a high school boy in a class I was teaching some years ago. He was scornful of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” He didn’t have any opinion about the poetry; his problem was, “What’s he talking about? That was the 1800s. There were no learned astronomers!” Because Victorians didn’t have zippers and electron microscopes, they were dumber than a seventeen-year-old boy in an ugly industrial town in modern Connecticut.
I have had the humiliating and salutary experience of discovering how little I have gained cognitively from being surrounded by advanced technology. I have briefly felt superior to third-world denizens who cooked whole meals over a fire built between three stones – until I tried to do the same. I have been asked by people unfamiliar with a particular device how it works and discovered that I really couldn’t tell them, much less reconstruct it with materials at hand. I would be hard-pressed to find food in the wilderness, although I’m great at budgets and shopping lists and negotiating the aisles of the supermarket. So it may be fair to say that my civilization, with its vast archives of human achievement and sophisticated tools, is “smarter” than a more primitive way of life in New Guinea or Liberia, but I don’t think I can claim that I am smarter as a result of living in it.
In any case, while the abstract discussion of civilization and individual intelligence can be fun to hash out, the issue that concerns me most is modern Westerners' disconnect from nature and its effects. There do seem to be effects: “nature deficit disorder” is a recognized term in the psychological community, though not yet an official diagnosis. A lack of exposure to nature seems to stunt us intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I’m defining “nature” here as anything in the outside world that doesn’t derive its power or existence from humans. It can be the unchecked primal power of a storm at sea, a volcano, or a glacier; it can also be the spider web hanging between two plants in my garden; albatrosses and chickadees, komodo dragons and garter snakes – they all count as nature. The sun rising and setting, the turning of the seasons, and the weather are all nature. Nature is what appears, grows, exists, and changes without our efforts, although of course we have an impact – often a dangerous one – on the natural world.
Gardening, for example, though somewhat under our control, still counts as contact with nature. We may sow seed, but we do not cause the seed to germinate or to form into the plant; we may irrigate, but we still rely on natural sources of water. We may fertilize, but we have only touched the surface of the complexity that is healthy soil. I can ignore the power and mysteries of nature when I’m at the computer (until a thunderstorm shuts it down), but I can’t when I’m out in the weather, hoping my plants will grow and produce food.
It is sad but true that many civilized people nowadays don’t know about gardening or farming and are disgusted by dirt, insects, and other natural and inevitable elements of food production. A few years ago I was driving the eighth-grade suburban friend of my daughter past a farm field in October. She shrieked in distress, “Oh my gosh, why are they tearing up the plants?” I explained that the combine was harvesting the plants for our use. “I thought harvest time was in the spring,” she said. She was otherwise a smart and capable girl but had never been exposed to natural cycles.
Some people might say that she never needs to be. She’s competent within her own world; why would she need to know about things that will probably never affect her? I recently read an article written by a mother of small children, begging that kids’ books would stop with the farm animals already. Her kids had never seen a farm animal and probably never would, she claimed. What’s the point educating children about things they’ll never need to use?
Well, one minor reason might be to avoid humiliation. Army colonels, like city kids, don’t need to know about farms and growing things; plants are no part of their officer training; but one colonel has achieved immortal humiliation in our family. When my sister was working with the Army Corps of Engineers, she was responsible for environmental reclamation around an American army base in Bavaria. She explained to the colonel that the grass needed a certain period of time to re-establish itself before being once again overrun by tanks. The colonel didn’t want to accept that. “If I gave you twice as much money,” he growled, “could you get the grass to grow twice as fast?”
It’s true that there didn’t seem to be any reason for him to know about growth cycles of plants. He, like all of us, enjoys one of the great blessings of civilization, which is specialization: we don’t all need to grow our own food, make our own clothes, or build our own shelters. Not everyone needs to be a homesteader – but, I contend, everyone does need to be measured against the power of nature and learn both humility and a sense of belonging on the planet that formed us.
There are many findings these days that point to our need for nature. For example, cities that have more parks are happier than those that have fewer, and residents who live near a park are both happier and healthier than those who live farther away. People living within sight of water report a stronger sense of well-being than those who don’t. Children who don’t play outside seem more likely to have anxiety, depression, and attention deficit as well as physical ailments such as obesity and myopia. Children who live in sterile indoor environments are more at risk for autoimmune disorders such as asthma. And the reverse is also true. According to research collected in an unpublished paper (“Contact with Nature and Executive Function in Children: Implications for Occupational Therapy" by Rebecca J. Kadowaki, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis), “Results indicate that contact with nature in multiple forms and durations promotes executive function in attention, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Actual exposure to contact with nature was determined to be more effective overall than virtual exposure to nature.”
So in many ways, obviously, people in highly developed environments are at risk of decreased mental and physical health. I would like everyone to choose today to get outside more, garden more, hike, bike, hunt, birdwatch, forage, camp, and study the natural world. But if people instead choose to stay in climate-controlled buildings, eating processed food and interacting with the outside world through screens, the result is likely to be the same. History suggests that the trajectory of civilization is self-correcting: in our case, as fossil fuels run out and climate change alters economies and environments, we citizens of modern developed nations, whether we choose to or not, will find ourselves living more "natural" lives.
I can’t claim that life in a state of nature is “better” in every way than the civilized life, although I wouldn’t go as far as that neurotic philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that it is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” I rely daily on the blessings of civilization and will miss many of them when they're gone. But there are two things to bear in mind. First, those blessings become curses when they are not balanced with healthy interaction with the world as it exists outside of human control. And second, of course, there is no guarantee that Western civilization will go on insulating us, that it will last unchanged. Our civilization will eventually fail – through resource exhaustion, overreach, and hubris. The fact that many people counter that claim with the Panglossian insistence that we’ll think of something, that our technology will enable us to go on isolating ourselves from the laws of nature, is just proof of what I’m saying: a lack of exposure to the natural world makes humans stu– well, not as smart as we could be. And I predict that in the near future we will need to get smarter in a hurry.