Some questions are not open for the asking. Some questions are so loaded with political, ethical, and philosophical symbolism that to merely – meekly even – broach the subject may leave one branded a heretic. Like many important questions that deserve deep exploration but have been prematurely declared closed by politically violent factions (global warming anyone?), the question of how we, as a species, fit into the natural environment is seldom discussed in polite company.
But I have been thinking about this question, and I am finding that I have questions of my own about what exactly our role is in the natural system.
Before I explain my thoughts, let me be clear about what I don’t mean. Clearly, humans interact with the natural world. We take sustenance from nature, from the water and the soil and the air. We depend upon the bio-chemical processes of nature for life – photosynthesis for example. With our every breath and step, every endeavour, we impact the natural world. We are all stardust and will decompose and return to the earth. I understand that we receive life-sustaining benefits from nature, and that we impact nature. But these facts do not mean that we are a part of nature.
Nature is a system, and every part of the natural system evolved through the eons to fill a specific niche and play a specific role. Every piece, every little cog in nature, is part of this system, is an interdependent, interacting part of the whole.
What role do we fill in this system?
Let me pose this thought: the North American ecosystem, if we can think of it as a single system for simplicity of argument, developed without us, without people. We arrived into this system, as far as we presently know, only about 15,000 years ago, an eyeblink in evolutionary time. What need does this system have of us?
The wolf plays a role in nature: one would think that as a top-line predator in an ecosystem, the disappearance of the wolf, which does nothing but eat, would not harm this system. But as we learned in Yellowstone, when the top-line predator was removed, the other species, its prey species, began to flourish. And in their flourishing they affected the ecosystem in harmful ways, such as over-grazing important vegetation like Aspen and willow. Returning the wolf to Yellowstone restored ecological balance. The wolf is part of this system.
So my question is in what way are humans part of the system? Would nature fall out of balance if we were suddenly absent? Would the biotic community miss our presence? What is our participation in this system? Maybe there is a specific virus or bacteria that evolved in symbiosis with the human species, but do we know for certain that, like the wolf and other parts of the natural community, we play any necessary role whatsoever?
If I may reveal my sci-fi nerd side for a moment, imagine the question posed in this manner: If the Earth had evolved absent humans, and tomorrow a space-faring species arrived and made Earth its home, would they be part of nature? If we answer no, then how is it we consider ourselves part of nature? What is the difference?
I am not asking this question to reach a conclusion of Man’s dominion over the Earth. The dominion argument I neither believe nor accept. Rather, the question fills me with humility; for if we are not part of nature, what justification do we have for our harmful actions?