narayan devanathan

Jul 18, 2021

7 min read

Of natural acts and unnatural outlooks

(Originally written on 18 July, 2015)

Between Acts of God and being ravaged by nature, as a species we have created a convenient spectrum when it comes to “natural” causes of our passing. Extraordinary forces of wind, rain and atmospheric pressure. Beyond-normal heating up of the core of the planet. Unforeseen but not improbable ebbs and flows of the tides. Faults in the earth’s crust. Literally,everything is the fault of the earth. Or of the heaven’s above, like when meteors come visiting, comets come crashing, and asteroids whiz by too close for comfort.

All other modern day causes we label as unnatural. War, vehicular accidents on land, water or air, intra-species killings for reasons other than war, inter-species demises in the course of sport, collateral damage of a million kinds, lifestyle-and health “care”-created diseases, suicide, deaths resulting from the intersection of human creation (such as technology, infrastructure) and nature.

We believe that, ceteris paribus, that is, if nature were to have her way, we wouldn’t be subject to these “unnatural” causes of death.

Why do we cling to the notion that these are unnatural? What makes us preclude ourselves from nature? We’re part of it, after all. And our creations — constructive and destructive alike — are now a part of that same nature too. Why then do we hold on to a foundation-less notion that anything created with the help of human intervention is not natural?

There are two aspects of, well, nature, I guess, that don’t resemble the physical forces we are used to describing nature by: Time, and Space. We are well versed with the characteristics of the physical elements of wind, water and air. We have harnessed their power to some extent, and have been brought to our knees by them quite frequently too.

But what of Time and Space? Where do they feature in our reckoning of what will be the cause of our reckoning? What thought have given these two? We have, at best, managed to measure them. We manage them. We use them. But of all of the natural elements, these are perhaps the most relentless, the most constraining, the least amenable to being tamed by human beings. And yet, we continue to live with the notion that both of them are limitless, and at our disposal to do what we want with them.

And all this while, we multiply.

We multiply not just our own numbers within the species, but we multiply the numbers of other species: dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rats and mice, budgerigars, parrots, fish, poultry, livestock, horses, camels, and anything else we can lay our hands on and subjugate. We multiply their numbers beyond the order of intervention-less progression. But we are not satisfied with filling up our biosphere — on land, water and air — with just living species. We create and pile up inanimate but time- and space-occupying objects and strew and squeeze them into and around our habitats.

Pull back for a minute and imagine a scenario in the Serengeti involving the “natural” order of things.

Every year, 1.7 million wildebeest, the ecosystem’s most populous species, embark on their annual migration. It is the most magnificent not just for the magnitude of a large mammalian migration of this kind. Its magic also lies in the precision with which things are ordered in this phenomenon. From birthing and calving on time in the early part of the year in Tanzania to the northern migration towards Kenya towards the later parts of the year, the circular migration is the most telling and visible demonstration of the circle of life.

And every year, about 2,50,000 wildebeest die from hunger, thirst, exhaustion or predation. Crocodiles lie in wait for the weak and slow during the river crossings. Lionesses patiently eye the moving hordes from atop kopjes for the tardy. Other predators and scavengers await their turn. And at some instinctive level, the wildebeest also know that they are at the mercy of the elements even for their food and water; a bad monsoon could make them the source of food and drink for their predators.

But beyond their own circular lives, the wildebeest intensely affect the lives of those around them. They are a key reason that “European encroachment” of the nature that other parts of Africa saw was prevented. They have kept the short grass growing, caused the acacia to flourish, and enabled an ecosystem where the tsetse fly populations swelled. Of all the natural soldiers that have kept invading armies and colonisers at bay, the tsetse flies have probably been one of the most solid defenders of the land here.

Thankfully, the “miraculous advancement” of science (ostensibly the understanding, but more like the breaking down, of nature) that microbiologists have engineered with tsetse today (a) was not available during the peak of the colonising years, and (b) has not brought back an onset of the colonising mindset in contemporary times.

Now imagine there were five times the number of wildebeest there currently are, in the same space, at the same time. Something would have to give. Predators and scavengers would perhaps die of gluttony. Grass would become scarce. Rivers would dry up faster. Crocodiles would have plenty of food but no water to live in. And the wildebeest themselves would perhaps start going a little mental. They might find ways to nudge a few of their own kind, the unsuspecting ones off the edge of a kopje here and there. The sharper ones might not worry about warning the duller ones about crocodile crossings. Given their vastly superior numbers, they might even work out strategies that would deplete the other grazers of the plains, like the zebra and the gazelle, “crowd-sourcing” them as more palatable options to predators. The survival instinct might create that one missing human trait that currently makes wildebeest superior because they lack it: cunning. The ones with more of this trait will make time and space work in their favor, crowding the not-so-cunning ones off the face of the planet.

And so, they would start killing and dying in ways they hadn’t before. But does that make these ways any less natural than hunger, thirst, exhaustion or predation?

That’s what we’ve been doing, as a species.

Humans have multiplied so much that we are at least five times the numbers we ought to be, if ecological balances were to be maintained. Resources continue to be finite, yes. But we’ve grown so much and so fast that the elements we grapple with, the resources we fight over, are not land, water and air so much as time and space.

We’ve created machines that take us faster and faster across time and space. But we’ve also created more and more machines to traverse this finite time and space. And so it is only natural that MH17 kinds of disasters would happen. It is only natural that motor vehicle crashes account for more deaths than disease. It is only natural that that we see more accounts of planes crashing onto bridges and roads and cars and boats, of ships and steamers sinking more regularly.

We’ve created more measures of wealth and achievement than we ever had before. But we’ve also created an unquenchable desire for these markers that more of us want to chase and acquire in this limited time and space. And so it is only natural that we kill and die in their pursuit. Megaslums in Mumbai, rush-hour shootings in Gurgaon, church killings in Charleston, death and destruction in Palmyra, mass killings in Boko Haram-overrun Africa, stampedes at religious gatherings, landslides during pilgrimages are natural consequences of how, well, nature is constituted today.

And yet, everyday, we shake our heads at all these “unnatural” phenomena around us. How can this be happening to us? What happened to the natural order of things? We’re supposed to be the most intelligent of species, adapting and evolving our way to the top of the food chain.

We’ve become the out-of-control wildebeests of the planet. My guess is that if wildebeest proliferated similarly on the Serengeti, they would too have to start devouring each other, and in new ways, since they would have slowly started to wipe out other populations in getting to the top of that food chain.

There are two traits we possess, however, that make me believe that this march towards destruction is not quite as relentless and inexorable as my rant until now may be painting it to be. One is a trait we share with most other species, and one is unique to our species.

The first is prescience. It’s what we sometimes also call instinct. It’s appropriate that prescience pre-dates science (or, simply, “to know”). It is the act of knowing before needing to pursue and recognize it as knowledge. It is prescience that nurtures our survival instinct, as it does in other species. It is prescience that innately grasps the realities of the circle of life, and adapts to them as best as possible. It is, indeed, prescience that keeps our friends, the wildebeest from discontinuing their great annual circular migrations. And it is prescience that keeps tugging at us at some level to return to an older, simpler, but no more, natural order of things. At some point, we will heed it, hopefully.

The second trait is conscience. This is the more evolved, unique-to-humans trait that is an aptitude for knowing right from wrong. It is still about knowing, but its double-edged sword lies in creating moral judgments of right and wrong, and is thus separate from prescience or science. Momentous change in the history of the human species have occurred because of how conscience has shaped those moments.

In other species, prescience dictates the course of events in life. As we see annually, 1.7 million wildebeest allow prescience to takeover the entire herd, knowing at some level that their survival depends on it, and move as one. Birds flying in pattern show prescience, instinctively twisting and turning with the movements of the leader to take advantage of or minimise the adverse impact of the wind’s movements, again moving as one.

In the human species, in modern times, we have perhaps allowed conscience to take charge of the steering, leaving prescience to attend to precious little.

Conscience may well steer us safely through our own circular migrations. Or it may push us to push the planet’s buttons in ways that hasten the planet’s circular migrations between creation and destruction.

Either way, it won’t be unnatural. It will merely be nature’s way. As it always has been.