Human beings are a part of nature but with special power and responsibility. But we need to feel our connection with nature so we can feel our responsibility for it
I’ve recently taken faltering steps as a novice gardener. My little plot is hardly the Chelsea Flower Show, but I’m learning the pleasure of creating an environment and watching seeds become shoots become flowers.
While most of us enjoy the natural world in this simple way, the recent attack on an experimental GM wheat field suggests how problematic our relationship with nature has become. We need more efficient crops to feed a growing population, but is genetic modification unwarranted meddling? Probe beneath the surface of this polarised discussion and you discover deep-seated and strongly-held views.
For some, the natural world is a resource to exploit and manipulate for utilitarian ends. Behind that lies the Cartesian dualism which holds that human consciousness is a special faculty, like the soul, that’s separate from the physical world. Science itself is undermining that. We heard on yesterday’s programme of the growing understanding that plants are aware in the sense that they perceive and respond to their environment. Consciousness, therefore, is a function of how we interact with and make sense of our surroundings.
Then there’s the view that nature is sacred and should be revered rather than manipulated. But science shows us that everything in nature is constantly changing; so it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t modify plants, either through breeding or genetics. It’s just another kind of interaction.
The conclusion, that human beings are a part of nature but with special power and responsibility thanks to our reason, chimes with the Buddhist way of looking at things. But there’s more. We need not just to understand but also to feel our connection with nature so we can feel our responsibility for it.
One Buddhist meditation practice involves reflecting on the elements: earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness. You feel them in the body and reflect that they come from the world outside and will return to it. That challenges our tendency to identify our body or our thoughts as a fixed ‘I’ or ‘me’ that’s separate from the flux of experience. Letting go of that encourages a sense that the world around us is alive, just as we are, and that we’re part of it. That sensitivity fosters the wise, ethical responsibility that we need to guide us as we interact with nature, altering and modifying it as we go.
I think the environmental crisis shows that this sense of connection isn’t sentiment and engaging with nature isn’t just a hobby. It’s essential for the planet that, one way or another, we all cultivate our gardens.