“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.