Why is it wrong to destroy nature? The natural world might, after all, not be necessary to our survival. We have the technology to create artificial environments, as we do in space, and we are inventive enough to keep ourselves entertained, maybe even happy, without anything like the natural world. So why not replace it with something more congenial to our tastes?
There are, of course, many answers to this question. For now I’d like to examine just one: that the destruction of nature is an invitation to nihilism—that is, to the obliteration of higher purpose or meaning. To see the point, consider that nature is by definition what is not created by the artifice of civilized beings. If we could destroy nature (or, more realistically, those aspects of nature that we experience in daily life), then everything we encountered would be artificial, and the only meanings we would ever know would be meanings that we or other human beings create.
There is a paradox, familiar from the literature of existentialism, about the artificial creation of meanings. We all crave ultimate meaning. For many people, this meaning is supplied ready-made by some form of religion. But for others religion is not an option. The paradox arises when those who reject the ready-made answers self-consciously aim to satisfy their need for meaning by creating meanings for themselves. In the end this attempt fails, for the artifice is too transparent. How can we find any ultimate context for our lives in devices of our own creation? It’s like trying to believe what we know we are pretending.
But the paradox arises only when we ourselves attempt to create meaning self-consciously. If we let others create our life’s meanings for us, or if we don’t question too deeply what we ourselves are doing, we can avoid this trouble. Maybe we can even live contentedly in a world of shopping malls, restaurants, and phantasmagorical electronic entertainments. But ultimately such a world is hollow—a passing show of empty appearance. It might amuse or satisfy some of us for a moment, or a lifetime, but there will always be others who, longing for truth, will see through the appearances to the cold, terrifying emptiness beneath.
It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that all human creations are false or meaningless. Some are both meaningful and true. A song that expresses the longings of the heart is both, though it is a product of civilization. But many, perhaps most, of our creations are perversions of the identities of things and hence false. A reservoir is a falsified lake or river. A pine plantation is a mockery of a forest. A chihuahua is a wolf perverted to its core. A genetically engineered organism is no less a lie than a plastic flower.
But even those of our creations that are true are ephemeral. Our loves are negated by death or divorce; our songs are sooner or later silenced. If we attend to the silence, undistracted by the noise and flash of global capitalism, we sense the emptiness. All human creations are like this, either false or ephemeral. And so to destroy nature—the only creation that is not human—is to reduce all meaning to the false or ephemeral. That reduction is nihilism.
But nihilism is not inevitable. In nature there is endless depth of meaning, a depth that we glimpse, for example, in the ancient patterns of the seasons—or in the purity of the sky in early June when the air flows down from Canada and the outlines of the brilliant cumulus clouds are hard and sharp against the infinite blue.
We have been taught to overlook these natural meanings. Most of us believe only in a nature that is dead and significant only as raw material for profitable enterprises—a nature reduced to natural resources. But this dead and intrinsically meaningless nature is as much a lie as a commercial or a shopping mall, and it serves much the same purpose: to arrogate to ourselves exclusive right of ownership—for what is dead, without intrinsic purpose, is there for the taking; we can rightfully claim it for our own. Nature, we infer, exists for our use.
We know the upshot (the evidence is in any case all around us): in making nature our own, as we constantly so, we destroy it. So the question “Why not destroy nature?” is apt and not merely academic. The answer I’ve been trying to suggest here is simply this: we should preserve nature so that those honest souls who demand both meaning and truth will have some alternative to nihilism.