The word ‘nature’ has multiple meanings. For example, it can mean as the entire natural world; earth’s ecosystem. Alternatively, it can refer to a person’s fundamental way of behaving, their nature. As a result, when someone thinks of ‘nature’, they could be thinking of our planet’s environment or human behaviour in general. What’s more, they might even be thinking of something quite mundane, something that possesses the magical property of life, like a humble tomato, a physical manifestation of the wondrous process known as ‘nature’. This article is about all three of those things in that order; our planet’s ecosystem, fundamental human behaviour and a small, red fruit that masquerades as a vegetable. Before I continue, a note of warning; this article will be depressing early on but, by its end, will become very positive and hopeful, a bit like a Disney movie.

The depressing bit

The future of our Earth’s environment is looking awful. According to the scientific evidence, the human race is in for a serious battering in the next century as our planet’s climate turns apocalyptic. Global warming is accelerating, powered by an enormous annual CO2 output from a fossil-fuel-obsessed world, combined with multiple, natural feedback mechanisms such as ice loss, methane releases and runaway forest fires. This ongoing, seismic change in our climate will stress a global population still ballooning in size. In addition, the huge shift in ice and water on our continental landmasses created by climate change is very likely to trigger at least one major earthquake / volcanic eruption. The devastation inflicted by these events will tip a global, stressed situation into an all-out violent fight for resources and useful land. Yup, it sounds horrible. But strangely enough, such an outcome may not be an entirely bad thing. The answer to why a future climate catastrophe could have a positive effect on our species leads us into the second meaning of the word ‘nature’; our human race’s basic attitudes and behaviour.

For a very long time in our history as a species, we have lived as hunter-gatherers, a life that consisted of gathering what the natural world around us produced, naturally. There was no need to ‘work’, as such; we simply used our accumulated knowledge to find and take food and materials beneficial to us. We did not impact upon the natural world. Instead, we just existed as as recipient of its bounty. Such an existence was balanced and could have effectively lasted forever.

But more recently, our species switched to a mode of existence known as civilisation. In this mode of operating, we’ve been exploiting the natural world for our own gain. All aspects of civilisation; agriculture, nuclear power, fossil fuels, disposable goods, plastics, landfills, pollution, all of these are negative to the natural world. They are also part of a psychological issue. We have psychologically separated from the natural world and shifted into a mentality in which we see the natural world as both an obstacle to our progress and a danger to us. Such a way of thinking has given us the heady delights of technology and material excess but, not surprisingly, it is an approach that is entirely unsustainable; it can only result, eventually, in an environmental collapse which will take nearly all of us down with it. The Maya chose a civilisation-exploitation system and suffered the inevitable outcome; a massive collapse followed by a prolonged period of bare subsistence. The Western World will soon do the same.

Perceptive readers will have noticed that this article is still doing a darned good impression of being very depressing, but bear with me. When the climate change disaster does finally knock us for six, we’ll enter a new age. In this future age, we will be much reduced in our numbers but we will still have enough numbers to continue as a species. We could end up with only ten-thousand members but this is okay; any species can be genetically healthy with only that number. We will also be living on a planet that is no longer a hospitable, bounteous place. Instead, it will be a harsh, violent planet where, if you don’t stay on your toes, you’ll be dead. There won’t be any time for alcohol, drugs, standing armies, banks, overseas holidays, money or other facets of civilisation in such a future. Those elements are only possible when a civilisation is feeding off the accumulated resources present in its environment (rich soils, fossil fuels etc) and ballooning in population-size as it goes along. Our long-term future on Earth, for those of us that are still alive, will be ‘all hands to the pumps’, all the time.

The rewards of a harsh existence

We can get an idea of what life will be like, on a climate-changed Earth, by drawing upon the experiences of people who have been testing what it would be like to colonise Mars. Mars is an extremely harsh habitat for people and anyone living there would need to stay in sealed domes all the time. Our future Earth may not be quite that harsh but it won’t be far off such a situation, and so experiments to live on Mars can give us insights into what life will be like on Earth in the next century, onwards.

In a past issue of New Scientist magazine (7th Jan 2017), the doctor Sheyna Gifford was interviewed about her year-long stint in a NASA simulated Mars colony on a dormant volcano in Hawaii. Her report is filled with thought-provoking experiences. Here is one particularly interesting answer from her in the interview:

Q: Based on your experiences, what sort of outlook would the first Mars colonists develop?

A: If you took someone and born and raised on Mars and dropped them in Times Square, they would freak out at the amount of electricity being used for no good reason. Probably all the electricity we produced in a day would be burned in seconds. Earthly trash cans are full of things we Martians would never throw away. We’d either reuse it or melt it down and 3D-print it into something else. We don’t value stuff on Mars except in terms of its utility. Money is useless and the only thing that matters is how smart, sane and capable you are.

Sheyna’s reply is illuminating; it describes how the life of a Martian colonist is very different to an average person’s today. In some ways, the Martian colony existence is more meaningful to the lives led by many of us at the moment. Dr Gifford makes it clear that a future life of existence in a protected dome, surrounded by a dangerous, lethal environment ,will be harsh but that it will focus the minds of the people concerned and create a purer life. Those dome-dwellers might be facing challenges and dangers every day but they will have purpose. They won’t couch potatoes, fearful of the latest television news, doing jobs that seem pointless to them, having their spare income sucked from them to pay for weapons. They won’t be spending their lives hypnotised by advertising, addicted to consumerism. All that will be gone. Instead, their minds will be sharp as humans have ever been because they will be thinking very hard of how to live another day. In the same way that past science experiments have shown that a person short on food has a far more focussed and alert mind, those future dome-dwellers will be acutely aware and focussed on items we barely glance at now. To illustrate this point, here is Sheyna’s report on the team eating their first dome-grown tomatoes:

“Our first Martian holiday was in honour of our first tomato harvest. Our astrobiologist spent months raising those tomatoes. They grew out of bottles, hydroponically, because we had very little soil, just like on Mars. We each got one. We set out plates, sprinkled over dried parsley, lit candles and showed up nicely dressed for our one tomato. That was the first tomato we’d had in at least four months. I took my tomato and smelled it like a maniac for ten minutes – it smelled like a whole hothouse of tomatoes.”

For Sheyna, at that moment, that single tomato was an intensely meaningful object in her hands. She treasured it, knowing what had been required for it to come into existence. Her nature as a person had become one fundamentally different to that of a twentieth-century, suburban professional. For her, a simple tomato was fundamentally different and viscerally more important; in the few months she’d been in the dome, her attitude to what nature produces had been completely transformed.

The good bit

I think our future, though seemingly bleak, may become the greatest of godsends. By being forced to exist in protected domes on our inhospitable planet for the next centuries or millennia, we as a species will learn a traumatic yet valuable lesson. The old adage that ‘everyone learns the hard way’ will become deeply true for us as a sentient race. We will become a species who no longer take Nature for granted but earnestly strive to help it exist at all. Our technological ability will no longer be used for nature-destruction but instead, for nature-renewal. In this way we, as a species, will move through all the meanings of ‘nature’ in the next centuries. Nature will collapse, causing a forced change in our nature that will make us treasure Nature in its every manifestation. We can then rescue Nature, in turn. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

“Nature always wears the colours of the spirit.”

Fingers crossed, it will.