Is Our Respect for Nature Gone, or has it Just Evolved like Everything Else?

Lascaux cave painting. Credit- Bradshaw Foundation

The human appreciation for nature has a complicated history filled with many heroes and villains. The story presumably shares its beginning with that of the human race, and hopefully will not end in the way many have predicted: destruction or total abandonment of the earth. The relationship between nature and us is one that seemingly has a downward trajectory, with every era being less involved with nature than the last, as technology continues to advance. Generally, “technology”, however broad the term, is identified as the antithesis of “nature”, but is that really the case?

Although the Palaeolithic era may not be the beginning of the human race, it holds the earliest known art and artefacts and can thus act as a starting point to explore our respect for nature. The Lascaux caves are the most well known example of prehistoric art and are arguably the first example of man’s respect for nature since the images in the caves are predominantly either animals or plants. Unfortunately, some of the only tangible evidence of these prehistoric people is their depictions of nature, leaving us to assume that nature played an integral role in their societies.

Fast forward a few thousand years and we have everyone from Stephen Hawking claiming the final solution will be to leave earth (a total abandonment of nature as we have always known it), to – almost – every science fiction writer predicting earth’s future as a toxic wasteland, uninhabitable for the very humans who destroyed it. In either situation it is not hard to imagine that something must have went terribly wrong with our relationship to nature. Indeed, I would argue that this turning point in the narrative has already occurred and we called it the Industrial Revolution.

Soon after the Industrial Revolution got underway, the people of the British Empire began to feel nostalgic about their beautiful natural world which was vanishing rapidly. This can be seen in many examples but is notably reflected by the sudden obsession with Japanese art and culture. As their own pastoral landscapes turned to smoke stacks and railway tracks, the British were struck in awe with the respect for nature the Japanese maintained. The British assimilated Japanese art as reminders of the nature they had recently rejected.

Now let’s fast forward a few hundred years and western culture is still utterly obsessed with the feeling of nostalgia for nature. From the widespread love for “cottage country” to wooden phone cases it feels as though we are always trying to reconnect with something we have yet to lose. As technology advances we seem more convinced we have moved further from nature, but is that really true?

Many great technological advances are made in the image of the natural world, a concept formally known as biomimicry. Researchers at Rockefeller University have proposed a new circular way of organizing distribution systems for water or electricity based off of the water distribution system within a leaf. The veins in the leaves have a set of loops that are interconnected to best supply water throughout the leaf while being the most resilient to sudden changes. This dynamic distribution system can better handle loads that will fluctuate based on circumstance, which are exactly the loads a water and electricity supply chain undergo. Biomimicry is apparent in other forms of technology such as carbon nanotubes designed like human muscles or night vision based on moth eyes. For each example you find, it would be hard to imagine the inventor lacking respect for the nature on which they based their designs.

When comparing the earliest known artwork to the biomimicry of leaves there are obvious differences in the mechanics of the inventions, however to say they don’t both demonstrate their creators’ understanding of nature would be wrong. Although the respect for nature has changed appearance over the thousands of years, nature itself has not disappeared. How could technology be the antithesis of nature when it is nature that so often inspires technology?

If you enjoy pondering the connections between art and technology, follow my column, Art × Science, this year in The Cannon!

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