A Summary of Human Interactions with the Environment

An excerpt from the Passionate Earth: The Evolution of Our Relationship with the Natural World by John Del Signore. I will be posting new articles to this site on a regular basis.

Many of us have come to perceive that we are separate and independent from the biosphere. We often fail to see the natural world as the place and context from which society has evolved. Furthermore, we also feel entitled to the resources of our habitat without maintaining a balanced relationship with it. Living sustainably has not been adopted overall as a viable way of living in harmony with the Earth. A large number of people have also exercised an exploitive relationship with their environment without regard for its intrinsic worth. These perceptions are at the roots of our ecological crisis.

With regard to lifestyle, societies have increasingly utilized the environment for human benefit without regard for the effects rendered on the biomes and ecosystems of the planet. They have polluted the air, water and soil with the chemicals of industry, defoliated great expanses of land for agriculture, destroyed animal habitats and driven many species to extinction, destroyed plant habitats around the globe, caused soil erosion via poor farming practices, introduced animal and plant species to habitats unsuitable for their survival or which destroyed ecosystems and have experimented with genetic mutations on plant and animal species with some very unfavorable results. Societies have become addicted to the use of fossil fuels as energy sources and global temperatures have soared to record highs. Consumption of the bounties of the planet have happened much faster than they have been replenished. Our population has recently increased to well over seven billion people. This phenomenon is predicted to be unsustainable in the closed system we live in.

The scale of our current ecological crisis is severe and we have not fully recognized the urgency of our dilemma. If we fail to act in a timely manner, the likelihood of reversing the negative effects we have rendered will be immeasurably diminished. We must learn to recognize what degradation is tolerable and that which is not and act responsibly to maintain a balance between preservation and consumption. The survival of our species depends on that wisdom. Many past civilizations failed to endure, as they were unable to anticipate ecological problems until it was too late. With the extensive array of problems confronting us from past unecological thinking and behavior in addition to our current unsustainable lifestyles, it is difficult to ascertain whether modern societies will succeed or perish.

Chronology of the History of Human Discordance with Nature with Significant Contributing Events and Developments Illuminated

Humans began to see themselves as separate from the natural world as abstract thinking developed via evolutionary processes thousands of years ago. The continued development of the brain allowed abstract thinking to develop which included symbolism and the development of linguistics.

Humans began to read meaning into the natural disasters in nature. Insecurity and fear became more intense as humanity didn’t have the capacity to understand the workings of nature at that time. These emotional responses to nature’s catastrophes resulted in the first PTSD symptoms and reactions and a psychology of winning the battle of survival with nature began.

Human reaction to PTSD also led to the notion that taking care of oneself was of primary importance and egocentrism began to appear in human thinking and behavior.

The transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculturalist as a primary source of procuring nutrition from the environment enabled large numbers of people to live communally and collectively prosper with less negative impact from the natural world. Permanent living situations allowed for greater safety, security and the development of increasingly sophisticated societies that promoted specialization, leadership, learning and collaboration. Along with these positive developments came many social political, economic and philosophical problems that still define modern society.

As communal living became more prolific and dwellings became the prominent place in which babies were born and raised, this disposition of being more removed from nature caused a feeling of disconnection coined as Ontogenetic Crippling by Paul Shepard. He proposed that the end result of being born indoors away from the sensuality of nature caused emotional delay in development that persisted into adulthood and impacted the maturation process significantly.

Agriculture and raising livestock gave the impression that the work put into these endeavors was worth something and the notion of possessing things and ownership began.

Those who did not have enough commodities of living, either motivated through greed or because resources became scarce, began to pilfer to gain subsistence needs. This development started the practice of colonialism; procuring subsistence needs through war and intimidation. Armies became a component of many cultures and fear and insecurity increased exponentially and has continued to this day.

Patriarchy developed which included several attitude shifts. Men began to perceive themselves as superior beings and more important than women due to their physical strength and their notion that women were overly emotional and less rational. Men felt that the environment was theirs to exploit with impunity and tied this notion to either religious beliefs that sanctioned men to be the rulers of the Earth and/or that man was a superior being entitled to manage the biosphere due to his intelligence and diverse attributes. These ideas translated into dominator behavior towards women and the exploitation of the environment. Anger and aggression also became a characteristic behavior of many men that resulted in conflict, competition and hostility toward other people regardless of sex. The propensity to resolve problems and ideological differences through violence and warfare also became prominent.

Societies continued to develop and prosper and more specialization and sophistication of roles developed among the populous, thus separating people into specific roles and creating more social and psychological distance between them.

A penal system developed to keep behavior normative and punishment became a primary motivator to change or modify behavior.

Trades developed to address lifestyle needs, subsistence and commodities and consumerism increased significantly.

Social institutions began to develop such as religion and philosophy and social mores developed to help humans understand their world and promote normative behavior.

The two polarized views of an objective or subjective reality were born and created a philosophical upheaval over which view was correct or more advantageous to employ.

Science, technology and economic systems began to develop. Their reductionistic orientations created a larger split between man and nature, having defined nature as a machine, something that could be studied and reduced to simpler parts or relationships. This notion fostered the diminishment of the intrinsic value of nature and redefined the Earth’s bounty as a collection of resources that could be exploited with impunity.

Religions of the day felt that belief in multi-deities was an unworkable concept, would create chaos, and thus become an obstacle to creating normative behavior in society. Thus, pantheistic and other unorthodox religions were discouraged and untold numbers of their followers were annihilated by virtue of religious institutions, the most hideous event being the Inquisition of 1484 initiated by the Catholic Church.

Many religions denigrated nature metaphorically to the unruly facets of human behavior, especially sexual desires and sensuality as these facets of human nature were difficult to understand and due to their powerful manifestations, caused people to fear them. Religion also bestowed the female metaphor to nature and denigrated the female sex to an inferior status compared to her male counterpart that forever changed the male-female relationship dynamics. This has manifested itself in much of the discordance found between men and women today and the violence towards women by men in the hideous act of rape and psychological and physical dominance.

Some early religious leaders saw the advantages of promoting science and technology to procure wealth and power and so they expediently reinterpreted the scriptures to allow and encourage humans to do whatever they pleased with nature and in good conscience and consider themselves the crowning glory of creation. Note that religious theology never intended this reinterpretation of its dogma and in fact saw nature as one with God in its early manifestations. St Francis of Assisi was considered the first deep ecologist who purported this eco-theology.

Ignorance of the natural world and its processes and the desire to be comfortable in their habitat fostered a technology and economics of destruction and exploitation of the Earth that increased with intensity and rapidity over time.

Gradually, most other social institutions became anthropocentric and humanity continued to progress towards a disposition of alienation and disconnection with its environment.

As social structures became more sophisticated and took people away from their instinctual and biological roots and covenant with nature, human behavior became more dysfunctional and addictive and patterns of behavior developed that were destructive to the human psyche. Humanity started to perceive that the accumulation of material goods, wealth and power were an important part of human development and the primary means of achieving happiness. This new concept competed with other priorities such as forming meaningful relationships, engaging in purposeful careers and spending time enjoying hobbies, creative interests and other personal endeavors.

A plethora of psychological disorders developed from humanities discordance with nature. Some of these include PTSD, seasonal affective disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, anger, denial, suppression, autism, guilt, addictions, dissociation, narcissism, etc. These behavioral manifestations and their implications have impacted on humanities’ ability to understand their universe and live in harmony with it and with each other.

Our denial of our covenant with nature is our chief problem of misperception today. What is needed now is the creation of a new story and context from which to understand our relationship with the natural world and with each other.


A Green History of the World by Clive Ponting, 1991, St Martin’s Press, NY. The Shadows of the Past, pp. 406-407.

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