Robust Nature, Fragile Civilization
If we abandoned our towns and cities, they would instantly begin “reverting” to nature. In my neighborhood, this would take on the form of an ash and cottonwood forest during the first summer. It would be a young forest, of course, but only a few years later hundreds of thousands of tree sprouts would be competing for dominance. Both ash and cottonwood have excellent and prolific propagation techniques.
As Alston Chase observed many years ago, it is civilization that is fragile, not nature. Anyone who has maintained a house or tried to rescue one from demolition knows that deterioration is a constant force. In my youth I had many odd jobs restoring houses, and the first thing we learned was: stabilize the foundation and the roof. Once you do that, you can pursue other renovations at comparative leisure. Otherwise, bottom-up and top-down deterioration (and then the two forces working together) is generally how houses fall down.
Left alone, all cities “revert” to nature. In ancient mythology, we would see this as the eternal Cosmos versus Chaos struggle. We have rendered Cosmos out of primeval Chaos by building homes, gardens, orchards, temples, cities, et cetera. Primeval Chaos is not to be confused with the mundane sense of the word; it is simply the original state of the world. But it is also an eternal force against which we render our civilizations. In this light, it is easy to appreciate how Chaos is always trying to return, for it never really goes away.
Archaeologists are still discovering lost cities in South and Central America, completely invisible from the air due to regenerated rain forests that scientists previously mistook for “virgin” growth. Most Central American and Caribbean Island rain forests are second and third-growth following the 19th century abandonment of coffee and sugar plantations. In recent decades, botanists have observed widespread rain forest regeneration in places like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil.
Human notions of rain forest fragility (and fragility in nature generally) overwhelmingly reflect contemporary philosophical values, particularly those derived from an imagined Eden and its violation. These values are quite different from the Cosmos v. Chaos worldview. Edenic notions tend to foster “misanthropic environmentalism,” whose proponents see nature as paradise and humans as despoilers. By contrast, the Cosmos v. Chaos worldview readily fosters “philanthropic environmentalism,” which embraces the human stewardship role in all its uncertainty, ambiguity, and even in the mistakes that result from good intentions. As for bad intentions (often arising from monetary greed); well, stewardship can also help rectify those mistakes.
Human stewardship of the environment is one of the more delightful expressions of our current, always-fragile civilizations. Even if we fail to take care of the environment as we wish (according to current and future philosophical and scientific values), dynamic nature will continue its striving toward life and reproduction of all species in Darwinian competition with various environmental circumstances as well as with other species.
It is entirely likely (and possibly inevitable) that one day the human species will go extinct. Civilizations will disappear along with humanity, of course. But, short of the sun finishing its life or some other astrophysical event of monumental scale, we can be fairly sure that nature will persist on earth long after our particular species is gone. Compared to nature as a whole, it is humanity that is fragile.
Copyright © 2022 Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.
SOURCES (many more listed in my 2019 book, Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism).
Allan Adamson, “More Than 450 Ancient Earthworks Resembling Stonehenge Built In Amazon Rainforest,” techtimes.com (Feb. 7, 2017).
BBC, “Sprawling Maya Network Discovered Under Guatemala Jungle,” BBC News (Feb. 2, 2018).
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008), 34.
Alston Chase, In a Dark Wood: The Fight Over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology (NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 347–48.
Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, Willard R. Trask, trans. (NY: Harper, 1959), 5, 6–11, 18.
N. J. Girardot, Myth and Meaning in Early Daoism: the Theme of Chaos (Hundun), (Magdalena, NM: Three Pines Pr., 2008), 2, 3, 4.
Joanna Klein, “Long Before Making Enigmatic Earthworks, People Reshaped Brazil’s Rain Forest,” New York Times (Feb. 10, 2017).
Elisabeth Rosenthal, “New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests,” New York Times (Jan. 29, 2009).
Thomas K. Rudel, Tropical Forests: Regional Paths of Destruction and Regeneration in the Late Twentieth Century (NY: Columbia University Pr., 2005), 34, 39, 40, 50, 128, 130, 151, 153.