On nature

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Nature – the idea and the word – has, thanks to many environmental advocates, assumed a moral quality. It is deemed, more often than not, to be a force for good, a virtuous thing that works in benevolent fashion to everyone’s benefit. But in truth nature is entirely unmoved by humankind’s concerns and as random and capricious as it is brutal and deadly. In turn, we try as much to control nature as we do appreciate it and that is something worth bearing in mind when we consider our relationship with it.

On nature

By: Gareth van Onselen

14 May 2013

‘Nature’ is big business in the modern world. There is no end to the number of lobby groups that advocate for its protection or appreciation, and which speak out against man’s encroachment on it. However, in doing so, they have appropriated the word to serve a very particular moral agenda, their narrative being: nature is a glorious thing, and we must do what we can to respect, conserve and nurture it.

That is disingenuous, if not misleading.

The truth is that nature is not a benevolent force for good; it is capricious, often brutal and entirely unmoved by humankind’s various concerns. It is just as capable of eradicating life as it is of torturing it to death, whether by some dread disease or a random act of massive destruction. In short, it is responsible as much for pain as it is pleasure.

Yet, for many environmentalists, the word ‘nature’ has come to represent some universal good. Thanks to so much moralising, ‘nature’ – this ostensibly virtuous wonder – has been detached in the public mind from its true, amoral and arbitrary meaning.

Such people are perfectly happy for scientists to work day and night to eliminate those natural things that pose a threat or risk to our collective well being but, where something is deemed beautiful or unique, to savage any assault on them.

Ironically, nature itself cares not a bit. The world could be reduced to a pile of concrete rubble, and nature would carry on its business regardless.

That is not to say there is no value in conservation, or the appreciation of wonderful things, indeed there is, only that one must understand that both good and bad, the majestic and malevolent, are part of parcel of nature’s offering. To pretend the one exists at the expense of the other is to misunderstand man’s relationship with nature and those forces that define it.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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