Friday, September 27, 2013

Man and Habitat

Shanghai, China: man's new habitat
Photograph by the author

Generally speaking, we think of habitat as an environment in which animals and plants live. For the majority of urban and suburban populations worldwide, earth is a place to be adjusted and manipulated and exists only to support economic opportunities and, when appropriate, to be exploited for entertainment value. Our habitat, in other words, is no longer the place we live; it’s a thing. So in a certain sense we have succeeded in turning habitat into a consumer item. The majority of modern peoples feel that if habitat value stands in the way of any economic activity whatsoever, the economic activity wins. I encounter this attitude all the time among an arrogant and growing class of people who assert that the interests of human beings must come before any other interests.

In the short term, this is a viable attitude. But it sells the sustainable aspects of our activities very short indeed. We’re an integral part of the landscape, and thinking that places us outside of it runs the risk of assuming that we aren’t dependent on it. Periodically, nature has a way of bringing us back to the brink of an understanding with cataclysmic events; but these are generally natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, not biological collapses.

Yet biological collapses have plagued and even destroyed earlier civilizations; we forget this at our peril. And the idea that we can avoid biological collapses is a dangerous one. 

The distance between understanding and not understanding in these matters is a cultural one. And thereby hangs a tale.

Technology has increasingly distanced man from any connection with his natural surroundings. Human beings evolved to take in impressions of the natural world; Edward O. Wilson’s hypothesis is that mental, as well as physical, health may well be determined not only by the foods we eat but by the visual, auditory, and other sensory material we absorb in day to day living. The increasing alienation of human beings from natural impressions of the environment, in other words, may be making us, quite literally, unhealthy. We need to see birds, plants, flowers; to hear the sound of wind in leaves, to feel the touch of bare earth on the soles of our feet. And when we don’t, we gradually, slowly, ever-so-subtly begin to go insane: depressed, anxiety-ridden, even psychotic. Man’s psyche, in other words, is just as much a product of habitat as physiology.

This disease is progressive; every generation is exposed to a greater degree of alienation. The advent of digital devices that we carry with us everywhere has accelerated a process that began with movie theaters and television sets; and now the majority of impressions we focus our attention on are unnatural ones.

This isn’t to say that man’s natural habitat can’t eventually change over time; and if the natural habitat of man’s psyche is morphing into a digital one, we can presume that over time, man’s psych may adapt accordingly. This is a difficult proposition, however; we’ve been evolving in conjunction with overwhelmingly natural impressions for millions of years, and the transition to technological impressions is taking place over a compressed period, a few short centuries which have produced entirely novel psychic environments which mimic natural ones, but actually provide a drastically reduced fraction of the sensory input that nature provides for us. Adaptation to this new environment may take hundreds of thousands of years, but the deterioration of man’s psyche is unfolding in real time, with entirely unpredictable results.

So what habitat do we choose? It would appear that man’s movement into the virtual habitat of digital realms is already a fait accompli. At the same time, our view of the natural habitat as a consumer product to be manipulated for our own benefit, a commodity to be exploited, drastically devalues it, to the point where we’re willing to do a nearly unlimited amount of damage in order to extract perceived value. 

The degradation of the natural habitat, unless it’s reversed, will eventually lead to a seriously impoverished life for mankind. There needs to be a retraining of attention and consciousness back towards natural impressions, and a re-valuation of them, in order to stop this trend. We're not, in other words, just destroying our natural habitat: we are destroying our spiritual habitat.

Whether human beings will be able to preserve the natural surroundings that are so vital to our psyche and navigate this massive transition of habitat without destroying ourselves remains to be seen. 

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