Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Man's Separation from Nature

As explained by Thom Hartmann in the documentary entitled ‘The 11th Hour,’ for centuries, man has relied on the sun as their only source of energy. The sun is a limited resource, which meant that energy reaching the earth never exceeded a certain amount, which created a delicate balance. However, after the discovery of fossil fuel (ancient sunlight) during the Industrial Revolution, man begun to believe that they now had unlimited access to an energy resource.

Today, we can look back in hindsight, and be aware that it is the burning of those fossil fuels, which have created the most potentially catastrophic disaster ever to face mankind – Global Warming. But since the conception of the global warming theory 50 years ago, conditions have only worsened by a large amount, and it seems as if civilization is turning a blind eye to this critical situation.

Kenny Ausubel explains that the reason for this is because the majority of society believes that we are separate to nature. There appears to be a misconception that we are superior to nature, and technologically advanced enough to be able to survive without it. Jaryd Diamond’s statement that ‘we are the third chimpanzee’ is a concept that religious society is largely unable to accept, and even politicians deny that global warming is a concern, even though plenty of solid proof can be found anywhere you look.

Through an analysis of human popular culture beginning with early civilization, one can determine what caused man to believe that he was separate to nature, and how the relationship has changed and evolved over the centuries leading up to today.

As Janine Benyus states in ‘The 11th Hour’ documentary, homosapians are one of the youngest species on earth. In comparison to the animals already existing, we were “unimpressive.” We were smaller, weaker and had none of the natural instincts that other animals possessed in order to survive. Our only advantage was our large brains. “We were different to animals,” Benyus explains, “in that we had the ability to understand that our actions today, could have an effect on our future.” Slowly, we begun to create tools that enabled us to hunt and also begun to plant our own crops. We realized that we were able to take from nature in order to survive. Nature became something we could control and those who showed the ability to overcome nature were rewarded. In early tribes young boys were only pronounced as men once they had overcome nature in some way. An example of this would be killing an animal, where man would have to use his cunning to overcome the beast’s strength.

However, it is evident from this rock painting entitled The Linton Panel, that as tribal beings, we understood that balance needed to be maintained between man and nature. The Linton Panel is one of the most famous South African rock paintings and is said to depict the trancelike experiences of the Khoisan shamans. Animals have always played an integral role in the Khoisans’ shamanistic beliefs. It is interesting to note that the animals are painted with more depth, more accuracy and more detail than the human figures are. Also, the scale of the humans and the animals is balanced. Larger animals accompany larger human figures, and the same applies to the smaller human figures. The painting also suggests that animals may be more powerful than people. In the top left corner, we see a human figure lying horizontally as if he has fainted in the presence of the big Eiland, which seems to stand on top of him, dominating him. The importance of upholding the delicate balance between man and nature was a concept passed from generation to generation in Africa, however, when the colonization of Africa began in the 17th century, much of these beliefs were stamped out.

In the 15th century, European culture and nature had a very different relationship in comparison to African cultures. Unlike the Khoisan, Europeans did not look to nature as a guide, but rather to more human forms. For instance, God was embodied into the figure of a man, Jesus Christ, who influences all social behaviour and is the giver of all knowledge. The Bible became the source of all reason and nature became a gift from God for man to enjoy. European culture of the time was divided into a strict social hierarchy, and each class had a very different relationship with nature. Lower classes depended on agriculture and livestock as their means of survival, and therefore showed a deep respect for nature. The upper classes saw nature as something that existed purely for their enjoyment. And customized their interaction with it by creating their own personal gardens on their properties. In this way, nature became a mirror for human success. David Grubin supports this claim in this description of a royal Elizabethan garden:

“The large parterres or beds were laid out along strictly geometrical lines. The regularity imposed on the disorder of nature demonstrated the King's power to impose his will on his vast domain.”


Nature also became a reflection of holy figures. In the above painting entitled The Madonna of the Rocks, we see how the Virgin Mary is reflected in the environment painted around her. The rocks may symbolize eternity, perhaps stating that Madonna is infinite herself. The rock’s rigid structure may also refer to her strength and maybe also to her authenticity – much like the rock is a dense and real object, so too is the existence of the Madonna. The fact that da Vinci chose to place the figures in wild terrain as opposed to a structured garden may also state that she decends directly as a creation of God, and not of man. The water at the bottom of the image could represent the purity of the holy figures. But the dark shadow over the rocks behind the figures seems to present Mary as being more full of light, or holier than the nature surrounding her.

It is evident that in this High Renaissance era of European culture, nature is regarded as a tool to reflect the glory of man. Man separated himself from nature as a source of knowledge and instead replaced it with religion and the bible.

But in the 16th century man separated himself from nature even further. The Baroque genre focuses solely on celebrating the catholic religion, as stated in this caption from

“They felt that art of the period should have only one aim: to glorify the Catholic religion and make Catholic beliefs more popular. Paintings and other art created during this time were full of high drama and emotional appeal, portraying vivid images of the Bible, saints, miracles and the crucifixion.”

Such attitudes are portrayed in the work of Baroque artist, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The image above entitled ‘The Martyrdom of St. Peter’ is an example of a typical Baroque painting. The background is completely overshadowed and the light focuses directly onto the chest of Saint Peter. The expressive faces and poses are a dramatic representation of the sacrifice that St. Peter made for all Catholics, enforcing the idea that only man is holy and only man can rule the world.

Evidently, in the 16th century man saw nature as a completely separate and unnecessary element on earth. However, it is ironic that the figure of Saint Peter is actually being supported by a plank of wood, a material taken directly from nature itself. This is evidence of the misconception that man does not need nature to survive, however, it actually supports our survival.

The Rococo genre began in Europe in the early 18th century as an offshoot of the Baroque genre. It turned away from religion as subject matter, and instead chose to celebrate the gratification of the senses. Rococo artworks were playful, showy and luxurious, and often used symbols found in nature such as rocks, shells and flowers.

Jean Honore Fragonard captures the Rococo ideal in his painting entitled ‘The Swing.’ The scene is set in a lavish garden, as a young upper-class woman swings from a tree to the amusement of a gentleman suitor who appears to be gazing right up her dress. As they play, nature becomes a mere toy to better amuse them. Staring at each other, the figures seem to pay little attention to the nature around them, as does Fragonard in the way that he draws the viewer’s attention to the woman’s elaborate dress, and darkens the trees in the background.

The Rococo genre saw nature as a toy, serving only as a means of sensual gratification. Once again, man has separated nature from himself as an object whose purpose is to amuse. They did not see nature as a living, breathing entity, essential for their own survival.

The genre of Romanticism began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. It was a significant turning point in the history of Europe as it saw the birth of long distance travel, allowing for more and more people to explore the environment, as explained on Wikipedia (

“The movement validated strong emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and terror and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities, both new aesthetic categories.”

Romanticism began to see God through nature, as opposed to religious figures as seen in previous genres. People begun to be fascinated by wild terrain, and saw it as a representation of God’s awesome ability to create.

One can find evidence of this in Casper David Friedrichs’ painting, entitled ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. The first striking characteristic that one notices is that the painter has placed the human figure in shadow, and the environment around him in bright light. This completely contradicts the lighting style of Caravaggio, and is a physical representation of how man’s attitude to nature has evolved over time. The horizon of the sea is high in comparison to the figure in the foreground, and slants down to him on each side, as if it is about to consume him. The triangular shapes created by the sloping horizon refer to the triangular symbol of the Challis, which is seen as a symbol of the Virgin Many. The sea’s misty and frothy surface is full of movement, while the figure looks completely still. This could symbolize the power that nature has over man.

Man now saw nature as something to be admired. It was believed to be a physical representation of God himself. It celebrated nature in it’s most untouched and wild form, contradicting the industrial revolution going on at the time, that sought to dig up, cut up and take away from the natural environment.

Impressionism began in the early 19th century. Impressionist artists broke away from the classical painting techniques by treating the artwork as a snapshot into world. They placed an emphasis on light and colour as opposed to detail and form, and were able to do so by painting outdoors, in contrast to previous art genres where artists always painted in a studio.

Artist Claude Monet believed that nature was experience that could not be captured by classical painting styles, so instead created an ambiance through thick brush-stroke and simple shapes.

“I am following Nature without being able to grasp her, I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers.” (Claude Monet)

Impressionists began to realize that nature was not something to be owned by man, and that it could not be fully understood or controlled by man. A respect for nature was developed.

Cubism branched off from the Impressionist genre and was influenced by it’s technique of breaking subject matter down into simpler forms and colours in order o show expression. Cubist painters believed that in order to fully portray an object or person, one had to show it from all angles. At one time, a cubist painting captures it’s subject matter from many different angles. The painters of the Cubist genre asked: "Is reality in the eye of the spectator, or is it whatever appears on the canvas?" and conceived the concept that one image could mean different things to each different viewer.

One of the earlist Cubist paintings was done by Pablo Picasso entitled ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in 1907. He broke up the nude figures of females and presented them at different angles and sizes. The female nude has always been a symbol of beauty, but by breaking the figure up and showing it from different angles, Picasso states that beauty is subjective - each viewer sees it from a different angle. The painting also draws heavily from African art and sculpture in it’s shapes and colours. At the time, European powers had colonized Africa, and were transfixed by the art that they found there. Much of what they discovered was shipped back to Europe to be viewed by the public.

Perhaps the exposure to African culture along with the Cubist idea that beauty is subjective, created an understanding in European society that the meaning of nature is subjective as well. As they saw in Africa, man and nature are very mach entwined and connected, because man relies on nature alone as a means to survive. But in Europe, man had technology as well as nature to rely on, and therefore saw themselves as distant from nature.

The mid-twentieth century saw the birth of consumer culture. After the Second World War (1945), America saw an economic boom, which encouraged a mass-consumption trend. Artists, writers, musicians and poets began to take from mass cultural icons and attitudes as concepts for their work. This genre became known as Pop Art.

Pop Art began to explore posters and flyers and other mass-produced formats as media for their artwork, which generated the conception of graphic design. They aimed to bring art closer to life by constantly drawing from symbols of popular culture. They wove popular culture into their work, much the same way that popular culture became woven into the minds of society.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup’ is an example of how artists of the time used popular culture in their work. This surge of spending money resulted in a complete removal from the organic; our food became tinned instead of fresh, our bodies subject to an onslaught of modification through the dieting and exercise crazes and our only source of knowledge became mass media.

Society had become completely self-indulgent. We wanted to spend spend spend without paying attention to the consiquences, which have resulted in being catastrophic on the environment. Mass consumer culture was the final step into completely separating mankind and nature.

It is only until very recently, that mankind has seen the consequences of our misconduct with nature. The threat of global warming has become a popular media topic, and as a result many individuals have chosen to live a “greener lifestyle.” However, despite the large amount of scientific proof that global warming exists, many powerful politicians openly deny it (see on We live in an age where mass-media has become our sole source of knowledge, a source that has been filtered down by those in power as a form of mass control. As a result, since the realization that we are destroying our environment, the “green” trend has only made a small dent in the massive tragedy that is global warming.

We have fully separated ourselves from nature. Many of us can go for weeks without setting foot on a patch of grass. Our interaction with nature is so minimal that we have become completely unaware of it. I believe that the only way that we can re-establish our connection to nature is to completely remove ourselves from our man-made world, and learn to live a more organic lifestyle. As Thom Hartman states in The 11th Hour: “Man needs to acknowledge that nature will survive, and we won’t.”


documentary film: The 11th Hour

documentary film: The Cove

documentary film: An Inconvenient Truth

Critical Studies 3A Reader: Humans in Nature

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