In the quest to restore a healthy relationship with nature, contemporary civilizations could look to hunter-gatherer societies.
In Fall 2017, I enrolled in the Gallatin course “Bridging Culture and Nature: An Introduction to Conservation Science,” where we explored humanity’s relationship to the natural world and then considered how to manage our own behavior to maintain a healthy relationship with nature. The first topic examined was hunter-gatherer societies and their means of survival on a very wild Earth that was little disturbed by human activities. Throughout the semester, we continuously discussed humanity’s pattern-based manner and were asked by Professor Jim Tolisano to describe some characteristics modern humans still carry from hunter-gatherers. He also emphasized the importance of understanding how these common behaviors affect our current relationship to nature in urban environments. Several sources that inspired this reflection include Conservation Biology for All (2010), edited by Navjot Sodhi and Paul Ehrlich; John Moir’s 2011 New York Times article “An Economist for Nature Calculates the Need for More Protection”; Christopher Solomon’s 2017 New York Times interactive opinion piece “America’s Wildest Place is Open for Business”; and the PBS television series Earth: A New Wild.
Hunting and gathering was quite a successful method of survival. Rather than remolding each level of the environment for their sole benefit, hunters and gatherers were experts at integrating themselves into their biological communities. They understood that the better they treated their environment, the better it treated them. Humans have spent more than 95 percent of their existence living in small populations as hunters and gatherers on a wilder, much less human-manipulated Earth. With the shift from a more nomadic lifestyle to a more sedentary, agricultural, industrial, and technologically-dependent one, humanity has developed in a rather fascinating manner. Although modern routines may appear to be quite distinctive from hunter-gatherer habits, they are more similar than they appear. Humans are pattern-based beings whose ultimate goal is survival, orienting us towards a more resource-rooted and thus socially interdependent existence. Through social relationships, cultures emerge and humans share stories, laughs, love, and music, among other expressions. Ultimately, human beings always have been and always will be creatures who attempt to survive through communal interdependency. However, the modern world takes a different stance on relationships, one geared more toward greed and self-benefit than common interest.
In both hunting-gathering and contemporary populations, humans yearn to survive by attaining basic necessities, such as water, food, and shelter. In an attempt to obtain these essentials, people tend to cluster into community settings, where individuals’ abilities characterize their communal role. For example, in hunting-gathering populations, some individuals created tools to hunt, while others collected particular fruits and vegetables they knew were safe for consumption. This largely parallels the modern concept of jobs, where individuals concentrate on particular professions, such as being a doctor or a farmer, in order to create the most balanced, successful society possible. From these specializations, humans begin to depend on one another for resources, whether they be tools, medicine, food, clothing, etc. We are social beings who work in units. Even in cities, where people appear completely independent, a legal system exists to ensure that individuals survive by performing their proficiencies. This legal system is established by a government that looks to facilitate and enhance people’s abilities to perform individual tasks to promote societal success and stability. This intricate web of human interactions within communities has a broad spectrum of outcomes. People have and continue to protect their populations from the influence of others, often resulting in conflict and war over resources. But social interdependency also takes on other forms, those of pleasure. Through the desire to find protection and balance, humans yearn for comfort, love, and security and seek this through family, faith, political systems, music, and so on. These varying human constructions formed culture within hunting and gathering communities as well as present, settled ones. Rituals, such as dancing, chanting, celebrating, mourning, and mating, have always existed within human populations. However, in many current societies, human relationships have greatly shifted from the mutualistic to become more self oriented. This has led to massive environmental destruction, something that was unimaginable during the time of the hunters and gatherers.
Survival in hunting-gathering communities primarily revolved around obtaining basic necessities, such as food, shelter, and water. Their connection to nature was direct, without the several layers of filtration that modern city living imposes. They picked the vegetation that they ate and killed the animals that they consumed. They had a direct link to their environment and understood that protecting it was protecting themselves. A respect for nature existed. However, as the human population largely shifted toward urban centers, modern city dwellers have all but lost that connection with nature and have replaced it with a complex system of trading with each other better known as an “economy.” With the increase in technology, many humans no longer have to rely directly on nature. Instead, for many, the first contact with natural resources is through markets and stores. In fact, urban dwellers no longer have daily exposure to nature! As a consequence, survival has evolved from its base in obtaining basic necessities to depending to a larger extent on reward. People have become more focused on increasing their own wealth than looking out for the health and well-being of others in their community and the entire planet. This recent greed-based approach has led to boundless environmental devastation, namely through mass production and the considerable waste and pollution generated by humanity. We are thoughtlessly deforesting much of the planet to spread housing, urbanization, and agriculture as well as to extract more of the earth’s natural resources, such as oil. The result has been the destabilization of the balance of life through the destruction of natural habitats, global warming, the spreading of disease, etc. Yet, most of modern society is immune to this. Due to a lack of direct exposure to nature, many do not consider human activity as integrated into nature; rather than the primary mechanism for survival, the natural world seems to many to be an inferior entity to human-built civilization. Within the civilized world, many carelessly leave water running, electricity on, throw food away, dump waste into water sources, etc. In contrast, ancient and current hunting-gathering societies only took what they needed from nature. They understood that wasting resources would endanger their existence in the future.
Although it may seem as if our modern world has no hope of maintaining, or, in many cases, restoring, a healthy relationship with nature, I trust that by educating others on the limitless dependency we have on the planet, our relationship with nature will progress exponentially. Humans would begin to recognize how small and feeble we are in contrast to the almighty, beautiful Earth, who not only provides us with a home, food, and water, but who is also capable of killing us instantly through hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis etc. Once humans begin to simply observe the environment, they will begin to appreciate and respect it. More parks for people to utilize should be established throughout urban environments. In addition, by replacing current methods with environmentally friendly and sustainable techniques for generating food and energy, for purifying water and for recycling waste, we will not only encourage people to recognize the importance of nature and the need to work together for the welfare of humanity and the future of our planet but we will, in our way, be imitating the approach our ancestors took in conserving our world.