“Her mother had chosen the Welsh valley of Pant y Gyrdl as the ideal site to Return to Nature. (Six months later, sick of the rain, the mosquitoes, the men, the tent trampling sheep who ate first the whole commune’s marijuana crop and then its antique minibus, and by now beginning to glimpse why almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible, Pepper’s mother returned to Pepper’s surprised grandparents in Tadfield, bought a bra, and enrolled in a sociology course with a deep sigh of relief.)”
— Terry Pratchett, “Good Omens”
I have bad news for pagans, hippies, and others who anthropomorphize nature as a mother, as nurturing Gaia, as a sentient being who cares for all of her children.
Nature hates you.
Perhaps to be more strictly accurate, nature doesn’t care about you at all. Nature isn’t a person, but a state of being – the natural, unaltered way of things. The Great Circle of Life includes an enormous amount of pain and death, yours included.
It isn’t personal. Your happiness isn’t required. Your long life isn’t required. Justice isn’t required. Karma doesn’t exist.
Darwin and others have stated it well, although they have been often misunderstood or had their works twisted – the natural state of life is that the strong prosper and the weak falter. The fittest rise to the top while the weakest die out or scavenge for scraps to survive. Those who fail at even this, die.
Evolution doesn’t require that you be particularly healthy, beautiful, or strong – only that you survive long enough to breed. You can die as soon as reproduction is done, so far as nature and evolution are concerned. You have no other purpose in order to carry on your DNA, your species.
Everything else that we imagine in life – justice, karma, rights, law, compassion, kindness – is a product of human civilization.
There is a disturbing recent trend in Western society that glorifies a primitive utopia that never existed. Ironically enough, this is frequently this is found in combination with a strongly anti-Western sentiment and among those who benefit the most from the fruits of Western civilization. While movements that express this urge to return to the Mythical Garden of Eden or some such corollary pre-date the 1960s, it was the hippies and other associated back-to-nature types of this era that popularized it widely. Civilization, we were told, has failed. The evidence is all around us. After the revolution, or the apocalypse, we shall be restored to a state of harmonious natural balance as intended by evolution.
This error in thought has evolved well past the demise of the hippie movement. People of many political stripes now decry modern inventions and civilization as some great and monolithic error: too big, too aggressive, too far-reaching, too invasive, toxic and tainted, irredeemably nature-destroying. Those who promote these views always enjoin us to see Nature as feminized; either the passive and gentle victim of evil civilization or a patient but stern mother who will punish us for our crimes against the environment if we don’t shape up soon.
To truly believe in these ideas, as do many people I encounter, one must employ a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. One must ignore natural disasters and the way they unfailingly impact the world’s poor – who have the least ability to negatively impact the environment – to a greater degree than rich industrialists who have both the resources to escape harm and financial support to recover afterward. One must, as in the case of the paleo and other health movements, employ nonsensical claims like primitive humans were healthier than modern humans because of their superior diets and lived as long or longer – of course discounting the inconvenient deaths from child mortality, childbirth, infections for which there were no antibiotics, accidents for which there were no doctors and hospitals to help one recover, preventable diseases for which there were no vaccines, frequent death from violence and war by club and arrow, and famine-induced starvation with no international task force to come to the rescue. Cherry picking, anyone?
This, then is unvarnished nature – the weak perish while the strong survive, live long and prosper. But several thousand years ago, human beings began to decide there was something wrong with this. Why? No one really knows. You, dear reader, may decide it was a flash of gestalten logic, a slow form of social evolution, or truly a message from some higher power – be that aliens, fairies, or God.
The creators of ancient civilizations were clear on this point, however – it was only divine power that gave humanity the means to overcome nature. These means were, almost universally, the ability to use fire, the invention of writing, and the invention of agriculture. The Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Jews, the early Indians and the ancient Chinese all invented a social system, cities, writing, and a code of laws. Due to the vast distances and geographical barriers involved, the history of the Indus valley and China formed a culture separate to that which we now refer to as “the West”, while the first three formed the foundation of Western civilization, history, and law.
The tales of the ancient Hebrews became the modern Bible, and in these books we have one of the most extensive histories of the ancient world. During the last 150 years have archaeologists found evidence for these Biblical cities in the land of modern Iraq. More evidence is readily available from the land of Egypt, which is frequently referenced in the Bible as well. There is a striking similarity between the Sumerian Code of Hammurabi and the Law of Moses. These, along with the Egyptian law codes, are the earliest law codes known to mankind. Those who study ancient language and documents have found the covenant between the Jews and God is written in the style of a legal contract of the day.
The other major contributor to our modern Western civilization, when law and government are concerned, is Graeco-Roman. Greece and Rome came after these ancient civilizations; they consumed them and absorbed their cultures. The heretical branch of Judaism known as Christianity eventually became the law of Rome. Thus was mixed with Roman culture, it was spread to the extent of its conquered territories. Since then, it has been installed with varying degrees of success wherever emissaries and descendants of the co-mingled traditions have gone.
To wrap up these last few paragraphs more succinctly: in the West we live in a culture largely stemming from roots based in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt (as transferred to us through Judaism and Christianity), with a “trunk” of Graeco-Roman political law, which then branched out into modern Europe and westward into the Americas.
Those in the modern counter-culture wish to whitewash the past and imagine pre-civilization societies to have some or all of the following elements: gender equality, no homophobia, a peaceful friendly existence with nature, and better mental and physical health due to a more “natural” lifestyle. That there is no evidence for any of these things does not stop the constant complaining about the wondrous bounty with which we now live. The most frequent and obvious target in Western culture for these dissatisfied, anti-authoritarian types to single out is the ancient law code of the Torah (the Old Testament of the Bible). “Look, they talk about stoning people to death in here! That means all the rest of the code is are invalid!” they argue, ignoring the fact that no Jews today stone their children to death and never asking why that is so.
The reality is that Jews have adapted their own law codes over time, in a process of slow social evolution. The more Orthodox will not admit to doing it in exactly this way, but the reality is that even the most Orthodox Jewish person living the most “unchanging” lifestyle is only following a form of Judaism that evolved during the middle ages; certainly their life is little like the life of Jew 3,000 years ago.
Nor is your life like the life of a Roman citizen of the Republic, or a citizen of Athens, or a citizen of Britain 3,000 years ago. These pagan civilizations were violent, brutal, practiced human sacrifice, were prone to outbreaks of war and serious disease, and almost completely male-dominated. Wives were locked in their houses for life. Adultery (by wives only) was punishable by death or dismemberment. Roman fathers had the right to decide whether or not to throw their newborn children out to die of exposure. And no one has ever found hard evidence of a kinder, gentler culture in prehistoric times – only myths.
There is no sense picking out troublesome points of ancient Jewish law unless you realize that all ancient cultures look appalling when compared to our own. The reason they look appalling to you, modern reader, is because you are civilized. Your views as a modern human being have been shaped by the slow but inexorable shift of civilization to a kinder, gentler society. Remember: mobs used to show up to watch public executions for entertainment not very long ago. Societies can shift fairly quickly; and they shift because the people within them decide to push for change. At this point in history, we now understand that one of the fundamental functions of civilization is to protect the vulnerable. We measure our failings by our inability to do so. How does this compare with primitivism, paganism, and anarchy?
I’ve watched far too many anti-authoritarian, pagan, nature-based utopian groups preach a pro-nature, back-to-earth, community justice mantra; yet over and over slowly devolve into petty infighting and even violence, becoming systems where the biggest bullies get their say and the vulnerable members of the “community” are neglected, attacked or abused. They try to reinvent a wheel that does not need to be reinvented. Western societies already have a justice system meant to deal with law-breakers and troublemakers. We already have a system of law, one that allows people to openly follow whatever religion they wish. That system of law is constantly evolving along with us.
Destroying the entire system and reverting to a primal mean is not going to fix anything. Declaring one’s intention to commit to such a plan is violence: violence toward every vulnerable person who would suffer under such a primitive, lawless, anarchic society. The result of total anarchy would be a horror unlike anything you can possibly imagine. Most of you would be dead within a week – the rest would be injured, traumatized, and spend the rest of your brief lives struggling to survive.
Luckily for us all, the inherently lazy, disorganized, anti-authoritarian contingent is unlikely to ever coordinate anything long enough to cause more than the smallest local ruckus.