In his poem “Marginalia,” Billy Collins says, “If you have managed to graduate from college / Without ever having written ‘Man vs. Nature’ / In a margin, perhaps now / Is the time to take one step forward.”
Heaven knows it is difficult enough to graduate from high school without having at least heard the term “man vs. nature” thrown about in a discussion of “The Old Man and the Sea” or “Lord of the Flies” or “Heart of Darkness” or, shoot, “Anne of Green Gables” … in fact, it might be more difficult to find a book taught in a high school English class WITHOUT the theme.
This dichotomy between nature (or wilderness) and humanity — usually equated with civilization and technology — is an understandably pervasive thought: much of history has been a story of humanity’s struggle for survival against the many forces of nature (admittedly with brief interludes of struggle between humans).
Like any good rivalry, there are passionate fans on both sides. In the humanity corner, proponents of technology point to the massive advances in quality of life, civil rights and human culture experienced as the bloody teeth and claws of nature recede.
Those who side against the species argue that the destruction of wilderness alienates humanity from the spirituality of nature, or else that nature has its own intrinsic value that requires that humans not tread on it, or else that environmentally unsustainable practices will doom humanity (or all three).
On balance, humanity has been winning the battle. Life expectancy has been going up, deaths due to animal attacks have been going down. Humans have clear-cut nearly all the forests of North America and are now graciously allowing them to grow back where we want them. We have built cities in swamps and deserts and entire nations functionally underwater, holding the ocean back with concrete.
But as those of us with laughably wrong March Madness brackets know, the best team doesn’t always win — so which one is actually better? The correct answer, as in the case of Kentucky vs. Wisconsin, is neither.
The obvious problem with the very idea of man vs. nature is that humans are literally part of nature. This may seem trite to the point of uselessness; however, many of the problems of both sides are caused not by overemphasizing either humanity or nature, but by separating the two in the first place.
It might be easy to think that the problems of climate change, mass extinctions, water crises and fracking are caused by simple human selfishness (and there may be plenty of that, although it’s easy to protest fracking when you don’t have to worry about being able to pay your heating bill), but it’s difficult to argue that the costs of, say, coal energy or the internal combustion engine have outweighed the historical benefits.
The true problem is that lack of foresight and ecological awareness has led to many of these problems rapidly spiraling out of control to the point that in the foreseeable future, the costs of high-input monoculture agriculture (for example) will outweigh the benefits for both nature and humanity.
But these approaching catastrophes have not received the attention they deserve from all purely selfish humans, in large part because the cultural face of environmentalism tends to side with nature, at least rhetorically, rather than reject the concept of man vs. nature. This complementary lack of ecological awareness means that environmentalism is often conflated with disappointingly ill-informed opposition to things like vaccines or institutionalized medicine.
The ability and resources to analyze and understand the world without divorcing economics and ecology is not lacking, but the influence of man vs. nature has left many people choosing sides in the same way that they pick NCAA basketball teams: based on who has the best mascot.
The best thing for all of nature, including and perhaps especially Homo sapiens, is to cultivate an ecological literacy. As polar vortexes and droughts become more common at the same time as wolves roam the Upper Peninsula again, we will only be able to wisely navigate our choices as individuals and as a species by moving from thinking in terms of rivalries to, as Aldo Leopold says, thinking like a mountain.