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Mother Nature: Benign or a Cruel Stepmother?

Suffering the ravages and rampages of El Nino and La Nina, we pause and wonder whether Mother Nature is our friend or our enemy. The havoc caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, floods, volcanic eruptions, and disease argue strongly that our chief occupation is to fight nature in order to survive.

Hurricane Mitch nearly decimated Honduras as homes and livelihoods were washed away. The president of that nation declared that it would take another 50 years to recover. The economy is in such shambles that a kind of Marshall Plan is being considered to help the country get back on its feet. Almost equally devastating to Nicaragua and Guatemala, Mitch caused more than 9,000 deaths in those three countries. Nature also dealt a severe blow to Texas in the summer of 1998 as first it was racked by drought and then drenched by rains that flooded the state, even washing away some small towns.

Early humans never looked upon nature kindly. They lived in fear and trembling of it and accordingly observed various rituals to placate the pantheon of gods who seemed to control human destiny. In psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's view, this marked the beginning of religion, as humans sought comfort for feelings of helplessness when confronting nature.

In our time, however, we try to work with nature in order to make it serve our purposes. One need only look to Israel, which, with its high-tech farming and irrigation, has become the Biblical land of milk and honey. Yet, this does not always work.

Several decades back, an experiment in cloud-seeding took place in the Black Hills area near Rapid City, S.D. So much rain was produced that sections of Interstate 90 were washed out, as were houses, livestock, farmland, and people. The death toll was in the hundreds, and helicopters were busy for days trying to locate bodies in the muck.

Perhaps it is rationalizing, but a good deal of how we view the work of nature depends on whether we have a short- or long-range mindset. During the 1980s, Yellowstone National Park was struck with lightning, causing fires that couldn't be contained. Thousands of trees were killed and large sections of the park were denuded. People decried the ugliness of the blackened forests and the damage to the land. By and large, though, animals weren't affected. Shortly after, there was the advent of fireweed, one of the first plants to grow after such events, and lodge pole seedlings growing everywhere. The only way they could germinate was in the intense heat of fire.

Without the fires, we are told, the park's trees inevitably would encroach upon the meadows, eventually eliminating them. Smokey the Bear is giving mixed signals as to whether all fires are bad. Policy now is to permit naturally caused fires to run their course, providing that they do not threaten people or housing.

The 1991 eruption of Mt. St. Helen, while felling trees, damming rivers, ruining roads, and creating a cosmic cloud of dust that circled the Earth several times over, was not without its benefits. The lava is rich in soil nutrients and trees currently 10 feet tall are growing there.

Early people had no long-range view of nature and in no way looked upon it as a benign mother nurturing her children. She was a cruel stepmother, always looking for ways to strengthen dominance over her charges. A romantic view of nature would take millennia to develop.

Our pride is such that we falsely believe that the end of nature is the perfection of the individual. In short, we think the species is for the sake of the individual, when, in fact, as the socio-biologists argue, the exact reverse seems to be the case. The individual is expendable for the sake of the species. When the individual has been used up, it is discarded. Each day, we observe countless cases in which the individual is so sacrificed. The mate of the black widow spider eaten after performing his service and the salmon who swim upstream to spawn and then die are examples. When Mother Nature is on her own, it rids the planet of the Darwinian unfit. It was only with the intervention of humans that this purpose is partially thwarted.

Some would say we are or will be paying the penalty for this interference, if not now, then later. Humans are too smart for their own good, they argue, as they see catastrophe for the human race on the horizon. Animal rights people and "Greenies," or extreme environmentalists, protest advancement in science, saying we are playing God, instead of accepting our underling role as humans. They argue that what nature gives up, it gives up begrudgingly and exacts a heavy price for it. The classic story of Adam and Eve echoes this contention as, by trying to raise themselves to a higher level, they brought upon the human race the pain of childbirth and the necessity of working by the sweat of one's brow.

One even might argue that nature employs irony in accomplishing its goals. For instance, the health and energy of adults generally is at their zenith during the child-rearing years. This is so that, through children, the species will be perpetuated. Once the offspring leave the nest and the years of stress have taken their toll on the parents, the latter must cope with simply surviving. Any honest parent will admit that, objectively, the joys of having children are in no way proportionate to the sorrows and hardships that accompany them. This is why nature has engendered a sense of parental duty (something stronger than love), which defies all quests for personal pleasure.

In this life, we are never "out of the woods." As one philosopher proclaimed, "Existence is continually pressing us, and as we get older, it presses us even more." Those who disagree are only fooling themselves.

Is Mother Nature a benign mother or a cruel stepmother? One's answer to that probably depends on how much life one has lived.

Dr. Kreyche, American Thought Editor of USA Today, is emeritus professor of philosophy, DePaul University, Chicago, Ill.
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Title Annotation:man's conflict and coping with natural disasters
Author:Kreyche, Gerald F.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:1021
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