Thursday, September 1, 2005

"Nature is so Cruel"

Someone said it to me today, and I would bet you've been hearing it too the past couple of days, just as we all heard and read it time and again last December: "Nature is so cruel."

It's a vapid statement that is intended more to gloss than to explain, but we have to deal with it nonetheless if we are to learn anything constructive and life-furthering from the tragedies of our lives and times. The one thing we can't afford is to stare at it in a kind of My-Pet-Goat vacancy, like my friend in the picture here.

I've written on this theme before, and in my book as well. Then, it was the tsunami disaster of 2004. The same urgency for action, healing, and reflection applies to this situation as to that other. As for action: if you can give money, then help the ARC do its best to bring relief to those affected. If you have a skill or a resource to offer, then let your heart guide you in that. I happen to be a counselor, so I've volunteered to provide free counseling for those affected.

As I write now, the last vestiges of Katrina are arriving here in the Northeast. The air is pasty with humidity, and there will no doubt be a storm or two—nothing more. So here we have time to reflect a little: this is part of the healing experience that will help us all through this. Because when we don't stop to ask questions of events like these; when we don't pause to learn, such things tend to recur, leaving us just as weakly-prepared as for the last one.

So one good question to ask is of that statement, "Nature is so cruel." Is it true? Well, to judge by appearances, it sure can be: last year in Asia, over a quarter of a million people died from the tsunami. Today, the Governor of Louisiana is estimating that the toll will run into the thousands once the bodies have been found and counted. Texas Two-Iron himself decided to abbreviate his five-week vacation by two days, and contributed the following expert assessment: "We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history." (Meanwhile, unnamed city officials in Biloxi and New Orleans were asking, "um...where's the National Guard when we need it?").*

I'm always amazed by the fact that the "Nature is so cruel" judgment usually comes from folks who are devoutly religious. When you ask them why a benevolent God would create and administer a world of "cruel Nature," you will get blank looks and then maybe something like, "well, God's ways are unknowable, we can't pretend to know His ways..." But He and His nature-agents are cruel nonetheless.

I can't tell you any more than the next fellow what Cosmic meaning there might be to such an event, any more than I can tell you exactly why, in the most prosperous country in the history of civilization, the poverty rate went up last year, to more than 12 per cent.

But I can tell you that Nature is not cruel. Even humans are not, by nature, cruel. Evil is not about something we are, but something we have done—a critical mistake in judgment or perspective about our place within the universe. And frankly, a lot of our trouble with Nature in particular comes down to poor planning and bad management. Take a look at this statement from nearly four years ago, which reviews the Federal Emergency Management Agency's assessment of the likelihood of a disaster like the one we've witnessed in the South:

The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all. In the face of an approaching storm, scientists say, the city's less-than-adequate evacuation routes would strand 250,000 people or more, and probably kill one of 10 left behind as the city drowned under 20 feet of water. Thousands of refugees could land in Houston.

Well, we don't know the exact death toll yet, but we do know that much of the city is under 20 feet of water; that over 200,000 people were stranded; and we also know that many of the refugees are being bused to Houston as we speak. Science, when it is well done, can be more eerily prophetic than any Moses or Muhammed or Nostradamus that you can cite.

So, what did those scientists get for their prescience? The blind eye and deaf ear of a government that didn't give a damn. Oh, and FEMA's budget got cut, too. (I'm not placing all the blame on the Bushies, because state and local governments also ignored the warnings).

This is not a time for assigning blame, anyway: there will be plenty of time and louder voices than mine to do all that later. We can do what we can, each of us, to help; we can also pray for those affected by the hurricane. But if you're going to ask god for its help in healing the human damage done, wouldn't it make sense to begin by trusting that the universe is not "cruel"? Just a thought.

Meanwhile, ask questions of yourself and of your beliefs about the meaning of an event like this. To help you get started, here's a selection from my book, which deals directly with the kind of self-examination that may apply to a situation like this.

How strange and anomalous is our relationship with Nature! We strip and rape our planetary Home, mindlessly subjugating and destroying its creatures, materials, and resources; and we continue our depredations even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the effect that we are relentlessly digging our own graves. How can this be? Is it mere stupidity or selfishness on the part of corporate and governmental leaders? This may be part of it, but I suspect that the source of the problem goes beyond simple ignorance or greed. Again, it is not the fault of individual people, but rather a problem with the beliefs that people often carry, below the level of conscious awareness. This brings us to the really weird aspect of our relationship with Nature-our assumption of Her limitless abundance, Nature's unending capacity to serve our species as the bottomless Well of power and provision-no matter what we do to or take from Her.

The essential assumption underlying this strange relationship we have with Nature involves division or splitting: we are not one with, but instead apart from, Nature. The relationship is, again, hierarchical-one between a Master and an obedient Servant: Nature must bow in servitude to the technologies and demands of humankind, because since we are separate, we assume that one of us has got to be in control. Thus, we are able to allow Nature a mysterious Power, different from our own, even as we continue our subjugation of Her creatures and resources. We persist with this ideology of division even to the definition of our own human nature. Our Power is intelligent, calculated, and masterful; Nature's Power is wild, uncontrolled, and void of intelligence except that which we as humans force Her to adopt through the technologies of progress. Our nature is human; the nature of animals is “bestial.” Though some scientific theories may posit a remote and primordial animal origin of humanity, we presume that we are far beyond that now, if it was ever so-therefore, we are increasingly separated from that animal origin, that animal nature; and we assume that this is a very good thing indeed.

This is the cultural framework, the architecture of belief that informs and supports our relationship with Nature. It is evident in the behavior of corporations, governments, our mass media, and even many of our sciences. The costs of this ideological splitting of Humankind and Nature are becoming more and more painfully apparent to many in our world, even if some of our leaders of business, church, and state choose to remain in denial.


*The National Guard, by the way, is in Baghdad, of course—fighting a useless war at a time when its homeland desperately needs its help and protection.

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