A little chipping, baking, patching, and washing?

“Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

The striking thing today about these words, at the beginning of Emerson’s “Nature”, is that they are definitely not true anymore. We can no longer say that man’s operations on the world are “insignificant”, merely “a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing”. This may have been something of an illusion in the nineteenth century; it is definitely untrue now. Because we now know that we have had a far, far greater effect than this. Our collective operations have changed nature so deeply that it will never be the same again – at least not in any conceivable human future. We have killed the sharks, cut down the trees, and filled the atmosphere with so much pollution that the temperature of the globe has changed. In Emerson’s terms, we mostly don’t encounter nature at all anymore; we just encounter art.


2 thoughts on “A little chipping, baking, patching, and washing?

  1. Yes! Whether or not people really *get* this at a gut level is one of the key indicators of how seriously they are willing to reflect upon ecologically responsible action today.

    This point was at the centre of Bill McKibben’s first book (the first book about climate change written for a popular audience) The End of Nature.

    I think there are a couple of theological assumptions that can stand in the way of people noticing (or accepting the word of others) as to how profoundly the modern period has left human footprints all over “nature”.

    First, some people think that it is arrogant to think puny humans can have such a large effect. Yet true humility is when you are able to observe soberly what is the case without needing to find your security and identity in what you (choose to) see.

    Second, some people think that an account of human influences on a planet somehow slights the creator by implying that the creation is fragile or easily exhausted. But I think the mistake here is to confuse the attributes of the Creator (inexhaustible in abundance and almighty in power) with those of the creature; the earth, while certainly abundant, is not inexhaustible, and while robust, is not almighty.

    Third, some theological frameworks have little space for history, viewing the span of human existence as being essentially “flat” and unchanging; what was true in Jesus’ day must still be true today. Theologically, they are taking the eschatological definitiveness of cross and resurrection on the one hand and the last judgement and renewal of all things on the other, and using this definitiveness to deny even the possibility of any historical changes of any great theological or ethical significance in the meantime. In other words, we are now living between Christ’s ascension and return in glory, and whatever happens in the meantime cannot make any great difference to the human condition. But this is simplistic and renders us blind to the contours of history. We do not need to deny the significance (theological and ethical) of history in these last days in order to maintain faith in the one who is both alpha and omega.

    Of course, there is another sense in which Emerson was already wrong (and would have been wrong even had he been writing prior to the industrial revolution, or even the agrarian revolution). Humans are part of nature, we belong to the community of creation. Our actions are woven into a narrative that is greater than merely a human story but encompasses an entire planet (and now also – somewhat tangentially – its moon and neighbouring planet). Having said that, I’m not content simply to collapse humanity into nature and declare all our acts “natural”. That makes nonsense of any attempt at a normative use of the term. But a hard dichotomy will not do either. Instead, we are natural beings who have become alienated from our own nature. I am sure others better versed in natural law theory can speak more clearly about such matters.

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