Earth as we know it is an incredibly complex and fragile network of interconnected systems that have developed slowly over the last 4.5 billion years or so. From the ashes of the Big Bang this planet emerged as a mass of energy and elements. From that newly born mass of energy and elements evolved structured, dynamic systems of solids, liquids, and gases. The evolution of this planet continued to unfold over billions of years in such a unique way that eventually conditions arose with the ability to foster life.
From the smallest microorganisms to the largest animals, all life on Earth has a common ancestor. Everything is connected to everything. So how is it that our species has come to dominate the landscape in such a short period of time? Furthermore, what gives us the right to do so? In 3.5 billion years of life on Earth everything has followed a natural course of evolution. However, our rapid success as a species has begun to affect this natural order. With our population at seven billion and climbing, we have played a tremendous role in the disruption of the Earth’s natural systems. As we continue to grow and have a greater impact on the Earth’s systems, it is imperative that we address our role and relationship with nature.
The ability of humans to manipulate the landscape and recognize the consequences of doing so puts us in a peculiar position. As a species we are assigned the duty to provide and proliferate. Our goal is to achieve stability for ourselves and our kin. However we also have an obligation to maintain the environment, as we depend on the resources and services it provides. The question then becomes: what is our role in nature? Do we have the right to manipulate the land, factory farm animals, and pollute waterways? Or do we have an obligation to reduce our numbers and merely subsist? In order to answer these questions we must rely on our knowledge of Earth, evolution, and our influence on the environment.
Our relationship with nature has historically been one of imbalance and overuse. Nearly every step in human history has unfortunately been accompanied with a leap in environmental degradation. At first, humans were incredibly in-tune with their surroundings. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes used to roam the lands, following the ebb and flow of the seasons. These tribes had a measurable impact on the environment, but their influence was relatively manageable due to their population size. With advancements in technology and agriculture though, humans began to find more efficient ways of sustaining themselves. These advancements allowed for more permanent settlements, which led to rapid population growth and a distancing from nature.
As society evolved, populations grew and more and more resources were required to fuel the expansion. With breakthroughs in agriculture, settlements became more permanent and cities began to take shape. This shift to city life inadvertently led to a distancing from nature. While many people were still in-tune with nature on a subsistent level, the need for more and more resources began to change our regard for nature.
Although our distancing from nature began several thousand years ago with advancements in agriculture and social order, it is the age of industry to which we owe our modern regard for nature. The growth of cities allowed for a separation between people and nature and our obsession with convenience and efficiency beckoned a new perspective on the environment. With technological advancements, nature became something we were no longer apart of and entirely subject to, but something that we could control and profit off of. The growth of industry enabled humans to truly dominate the landscape and disrupt the natural systems that have been in place for billions of years.
As we have removed ourselves further and further from nature, we have developed a willing ignorance of our role and relationship within it. With the growth of cities and trade we have moved from a subsistent, sustainable economy to one of greed and exploitation. Humans have always had an impact on the environment, but with the age of industry that impact has been ultra-magnified. Population growth has been exponentiated, cities have become the primary place of residence, and the majority of the world is now out of touch with the workings of nature.
Although every species plays a unique role in the biosphere and inherently has its own impact, not every species has the cognitive ability to measure their influence or the capacity to change it. Humans are unique in that respect, which is the root of the problem. We are capable of understanding our influence over nature, but we tend to ignore the Earth’s reaction to our presence. I am not arguing that we purposefully degrade nature, but that environmental degradation is an inherent trait of our population’s perpetual progression. We know we are crippling the environment. We have the ability to do something about it. Therefore, we should make change where change is necessary.
The size of our population and its incessant desire to expand has an obvious impact on the environment. However, that impact is magnified with the demands of industry and capitalism. In his book, Regarding Nature, Andrew McLaughlin identifies industrialism and the capitalist mindset as being especially influential on our regard for nature: “The economic systems that we construct and live within are, I suggest, the primary immediate causes of our relations between society and the rest of nature” (Regarding Nature, P. 12). Further causing a perceived division from nature is the economic structure we have allowed to infect most of the world.
Capitalism is an especially destructive force in our regard for nature as it encourages a monetary-driven social hierarchy based on the encroaching exploitation of our world’s resources. Our relationship with nature has now become purely economic. We do not associate ourselves as a part of nature because we use it for profit. Forests are cut down for the profits of the lumber industry and to make room for livestock. Animals that we are undoubtedly related to, that have senses and the ability to socialize are slaughtered by the billions to feed an increasingly carnivorous population. Resources such as oil and food are all unevenly distributed throughout the world and therefore used as a platform for profit. All the while the environment bears the grunt of our greed.
We not only encourage a division amongst ourselves through the commoditization of the world’s resources, we encourage a division between man and nature. In order to reconstruct our views of nature and understand our place within it, it is important to reconsider our relationship with each other and our surroundings. As Aldo Leopold puts it, man “…has not learned to think like a mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, P. 11). We have to consider ourselves as part of a bigger picture. Industry and capitalism rely heavily on ignorance and individualism. However, the reality is that we are all dependent upon each other in one way or another.
IV. Time for Change
Humans play a vital role in nature just like everything else. What separates us from nature though, is the ability to understand our place within it. This cognitive capacity of ours has historically been the cause of a perceived division between man and nature. However, in order to achieve a sustainable future in which humans assume a more natural role and have less of an impact it is imperative that we reconsider our role and relationship with nature. A change in the way we regard nature has obvious political, economic, and social repercussions, but our cognitive ability obliges us to reevaluate our position in the world rather than continue to degrade it.
There are a number of ways in which we can begin to reconsider our relationship with nature, but all of which require an enormous effort. Through a universal education curriculum, it is possible to encourage people everywhere to consider themselves as part of a larger picture. By teaching people about the environment, evolution, and ecology, we can provide them with the tools for change. Lewis Mumford imagined a social revolution brought about by a change in values through educational reform: “The humanizing of technology and the protection of diversity were both contingent on a fundamental change in values” (Minding Nature, P.219). In order to bring about necessary change it is critical that people take action. Through a universal environmental education program it is possible to galvanize people into forming new ideas and opinions of the world and to understand their place within it.
A universal education program would go a long way in encouraging change in how we view each other and our environment. Changing attitudes are a primary component in achieving a sustainable future – one in which nature is allowed to run its course without human intervention. Gregg Easterbrook discusses a similar future in his The Ecorealist Manifesto: “…the long-term purview of nature might be combined with the short-term insights of the genus Homo in ways that allow people, machines, and nature to work together for each other’s mutual benefit” (The Ecorealist Manifesto, P. 1). In order for the Earth to retain its balance, it is important that we not overstep our bounds as a species. This requires a universal effort to reevaluate our relationship with nature and make adjustments as needed.
After thousands of years of societal evolution, we find ourselves at the peak of technology and pollution. We are already seeing the effects of our industrial ways through the extinction of species, the melting of glaciers, and the destruction of the landscape. As we continue to disturb the world’s natural systems we are recognizing a rippling of consequences. Our recognition of these effects suggests that our role in nature is far more influential than it should be. Therefore it is necessary that we make major changes and that we make them soon.
Our role within nature should be one of subsistence rather than commercialization. We have exploited the world for too long and the consequences of doing so are everywhere. As everything is related to everything, we have no right to infringe on the livelihood of any other species. In fact, our cognitive ability and understanding of nature obliges us to maintain the integrity of the environment. So we must change how we influence the land. We must respect the natural order of things and find a way to live accordingly.
Although a change in attitudes would require a complete overhaul of our current economic and political structures, it is something that must be done. As history shows, if we continue to encourage expansion and development it is very likely that we will see major effects in climate and ecology. We have seen the destructive nature of industrialism and capitalism. We can predict and measure the effects of our actions on the environment. We know we are headed in the wrong direction and we are expecting major consequences. So why don’t we do something about it?
- McLaughlin, Andrew. Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. Print.
- Leopold, Aldo, Charles Walsh Schwartz, and Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
- Macauley, David. Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology. New York: Guilford, 1996. Print.
- Easterbrook, Gregg. “The Ecorealist Manifesto.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 1995. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
The Man Vs. Nature conflict is not just about surviving in the wilderness like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, James Franco in 127 Hours or one of my personal favorites: Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson.
“Nature,” for the purposes of designing conflict and plot, can mean the natural AND the supernatural. In fact, “Nature” is any kind of unstoppable force that is both primal and pervasive.
The Zombies in The Walking Dead, the Xenomorph swarms in in Aliens, the spooks & specters in Ghostbusters, the sinking Titanic and the miles of freezing ocean surrounding it, that sneaky shark in Jaws, the ‘Captain Trips’ super-flu in The Stand, the world outside of Andy’s room in the Toy Story movies, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, Sauron in The Lord Of The Rings …all primal, pervasive, unstoppable forces.
Frame your Man Vs. Self story in a Man Vs. Nature plot and you’ve got yourself an epic.
…until you have to end it.
Internal Conflict Vs. External Conflict:
Last week, we talked about how EVERY good story contains some kind of Man Vs. Self conflict. We established that the Man Vs. Self conflict compels the most interesting heroes.
But if Man Vs. Self is the core of every good story, then what about the other forms of conflict?
- Man Vs. Nature
- Man Vs. Machine
- Man Vs. Society
- Man Vs. Man
Here’s why we will never run out of stories to tell. (Let me re-phrase that: Here is why we should never run out of stories to tell…)
Just like with food, there are only a few categories to choose from but there are an infinite number of potential recipes & combinations.
The other conflict types can be a side dish, a topping, a garnish, an appetizer or a dessert. …but something from the Man Vs. Self food group should always be the main course.
In Brad Bird’s live action debut, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (which I loved), Tom Cruise and his team of butt-kickers go to Dubai so Tom can climb the world’s tallest building with his bare hands.
And whaddaya know? There’s a sandstorm.
The suspense and visual impact of the sandstorm sequence is so epic, you hardly notice how “conveniently inconvenient” this Man Vs. Nature conflict is.
The Ghost Protocol story isn’t about Man Vs. Nature at all. But the part that is pushes this otherwise-unstoppable hero to his limit and beyond.
Another way to say it is that “Man Vs. Self” is your story and any other conflict is your plot.
“Man Vs. Self” is the internal conflict and the others are external.
The external conflicts are always there to incite, agitate and resolve the Man Vs. Self conflict.
[ Just beneath this image is a SPOILER for The Avengers. If you don’t want to read it, just skip to the next heading “Storyteller Vs. Nature.” ]
This is why one of the only criticisms I have of The Avengers is the all-too-convenient alien invasion and it’s somewhat-convenient resolution, the consequences of which are preserved only by Tony Stark’s suit-failure and the worse-than-death fate of being sealed inside another dimension.
I think a toe-to-toe showdown with Loki Vs. The Avengers would have been much more satisfying. And it would have been awesome if Loki had been a powerful match for the team.
(Of course, I still loved the verbal showdown with Tony Stark and the physical showdown with Hulk.)
Storyteller Vs. Nature:
The Man Vs. Nature conflict is hard to resolve in a satisfactory way.
Sometimes, storytellers just end the Man Vs. Nature conflict with a cheat.
In Cast Away, Tom Hanks builds a raft out of parts that conveniently washed up on the shore, sets sail and conveniently gets picked up by a passing cargo ship. (I’m not trying to trash Cast Away. I actually like the movie. I’m just making a point.)
In War Of The Worlds, the aliens all just die suddenly because they’re like, allergic to air or something…
In Contagion, abunch of people die and some people don’t. The end. Good story!
When We Face Nature, We Face Death:
We can’t allow our heroes to conveniently escape a Man Vs. Nature conflict.
Man Vs. Nature is an inescapable conflict. It’s pervasive and primal. It’s the wrath of God.
The storm can’t just suddenly subside and the story ends. The story ends when the hero has faced death and decided what to do with the rest of his life.
Well, he has to if you’re going to serve the Man Vs. Self story. The Man Vs. Self story, the internal story is what makes the Man Vs. Nature plot worth our time and attention.
When we don’t establish solid Man Vs. Self conflicts for all of our important characters, we risk creating pointless, mind-numbing, unintentionally-comedic action. This is why so many Man Vs. Nature stories suck…
Nature Doesn’t Let Man Off The Hook:
Most of us wouldn’t stand a chance against Nature if she really had her way with us. Nature reminds the real world of this harsh truth all too often.
If we represent a force of Nature as a respecter of persons, we are lying to the audience. And the audience knows that it’s a lie. And we’ll never gain their trust this way. They’ll just laugh all the way through our story. …if they make it that far.
When we create a force of Nature with a secret escape route, we waste an opportunity to have our characters and audience face their own demise. We cheat everyone including ourselves and waste an opportunity to actually say something important.
Don’t draw the gun unless you’re prepared to fire it.
Say what you will about the cheesy dialogue in Titanic, that movie does not pull punches. Nature has her way with the Titanic and everyone on it. That natural disaster costs everyone and every character’s Man Vs. Self story is agitated and resolved (served) by the Man Vs. Nature plot.
If you want to write a good story, you can’t pull punches. …especially when Nature is involved. There has to be a high cost.
The audience has to feel this cost too. We can’t just watch nondescript “red shirts” suffer. An immeasurably high cost must be paid by the characters we actually care about or else the power of Man Vs. Nature is wasted.
When It Comes To Nature, The Only Way Out Is Through.
The only way you can resolve the Man Vs. Nature conflict in a satisfying way is to kill your hero.
The hero has to completely lose hope. …and then, whether literally or spiritually, he has to die.
Your characters CAN be re-born. Physically and/ or spiritually. (More on this later…)
Nature must leave your hero and supporting characters with no other choice but to face death and thus, the life they’ve lived and the decision about what they’ll do if they survive.
They have to stand before the judge, Nature, in this case, and account for their sins.
Even if it’s a comedy…
In Ghostbusters, the aloof wise-cracker Peter Venkman gets emotionally invested and risks his life to save New York city. He faces literal death and decides to keep going…
The haunting threat of the zombie herds in The Walking Dead force everyone to face death on a daily basis. That Man Vs. Nature conflict makes the Man Vs. Self conflict inevitable. There’s even a character whose Man Vs. Self conflict is his TRYING to AVOID his Man Vs. Self conflict! And it costs him.
The purpose of Man Vs. Nature is to engage Man in a ceaseless battle he cannot win. Nature must test Man’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual qualities until he reaches the absolute end of himself.
And to come full-circle, this is why we LOVE survival stories. Because its inspiring to see characters pass the test.
Just make sure that, as with all Man Vs. Nature resolutions, it doesn’t feel like a cheat.
The victory of passing Nature’s merciless tests will never feel satisfyingly huge if we never see any one fail the same tests. …or pass the tests in a sacrificial way which costs them everything.