The Human Element
Origins (And Their Revelations)
By David Johnston
I have grown up the child of an age shaped by a definitive respect for the natural world and an indubitable recognition of the importance of its continued preservation. As a child, I was enrolled in an elementary school in Boise, Idaho that had as much pride in its education as it did in its stance of ‘environmentally friendly’. From the beginning, I have maintained a desire to explore and, ultimately, protect and respect the natural world.
From this position I am able to observe just what great strides our world has taken in fighting for sustainability and preservation. But there is no need to take my word on this matter. Fifteen minutes spent surfing Wikipedia—or any comparably brief historical research—will demonstrate that such missions of sustainability have become a movement, a movement which has truly solidified its position within the global agenda over the most recent two to three decades.
The past year, as an Environmental Studies major at Davidson College, what has struck me the most is the truly human element of our natural world, of the wilderness in which we as a species have established our ever-expanding niche. This notion of our species as one within the frame of the natural world comes through most clearly, perhaps, in an examination of the countless origin stories so many civilizations and peoples have come to craft over the millennia. Whereas the Christian creation story relates a story of carving out an Edenic paradise out of the foreboding wilderness and setting aside a more comfortable place for humanity’s birth, other stories depict a life in balance with the wilderness and its offerings. Oftentimes, this balanced existence is depicted as a direct dependence of early humans on the earth and its bounty to shape their path, depicted by such emergence stories as the Pawnee’s story of Mother Corn or in many of the various earth-diver myths. What is evidently the most striking insight provided by these cosmogonies is that practically all stories of the beginning emphasize our coming to exist within nature.
But even beyond the context of our origins, the human species’ relationship with the natural world can be observed in an incredibly wide range of contexts. Our collective cultural heritage (art, music, even dance) is permeated with inspiration drawn from nature and wilderness. And, most importantly in our modern age of technology, the natural world is at our mercy every day, our forces of pollution, massive mining projects, large-scale forestry, and more, threatening what remains of our wilderness. Considering all these ways in which human existence is linked to that of the natural world, it is practically impossible to think of the human race without considering the many elements that come together and create a picture of humanity that clearly shows our natural origins.
Many arguments have been made in defense of sustainability efforts from the perspective of the natural world itself, including countless scientific studies and examinations of the negative effects, the stress, that human actions have placed on the organisms and species that call our ‘wilderness’ home. But just as pertinent, is the importance of addressing sustainability from the perspective of humanity. Human beings are undoubtedly a part of the natural world, or at the very least exist in context with nature. Therefore the many stressors that threaten the natural world don’t just threaten the natural world as an entity separate from humanity, they also threaten the human experience. They threaten what it means to be human. They threaten humanity directly.
***Over the course of this series of articles, my fellow writers and I hope to paint a unique picture of our environment, of the natural world that we as humanity reside along. We hope to explore the connection between our world and the world from where we, as a species, originated—a world that, through the entire struggle we have endured, stands strong and, through our collective effort, may continue to thrive. We hope to examine how this connection has changed over time, and to investigate differing understandings of our place as the domineering species of this planet Earth. And in attempting to depict the natural world and elaborate upon the importance of sustainability, we trust that the picture we paint will, ultimately, reveal something wholly human.