From humility to arrogance: A fight with nature is a fight with ourselves

Zoonotic viruses will continue to plague humankind if man continues recklessly destroying the environment and natural habitats in the name of development. If there is any lesson to be learnt from the Covid-19 outbreak, Zheng Yongnian says, it is that humans, both in the East and West, need to learn how to be at one with nature, rather than seek to subdue or triumph over nature for their own ends.
The Statue of Liberty in Paris, during a winter flood. Humans have always struggled to master nature. (iStock)
The Statue of Liberty in Paris, during a winter flood. Humans have always struggled to master nature. (iStock)

The evolution and spread of Covid-19 illustrate critical issues in the human–nature relationship. While there is no conclusion on the virus’ country of origin, the scientific community thinks it is the result of inappropriate human–nature interaction. This necessitates a rethink of the human–nature relationship. If we are unable to appropriately coexist with nature, different types of viruses will continue to emerge and affect or punish us.

The emergence of viruses, their transmission and our confrontation with epidemics are a part of human history and culture. One can expect with full confidence that this history will never end; it is only a question of whether humans or viruses will ultimately triumph.

To this day, we have not been able to develop vaccines against the SARS virus in 2002-2003, AIDS, Zika or other newly-emerged pathogens.

The existence of viruses is an objective fact that is indifferent to human will. However, the relationship between viruses and humans is a result of human and cultural activities. Early agricultural activities have extended human impact to all parts of our planet. Modern industrialisation and urbanisation have eliminated human–nature boundaries. Unprecedented road construction, deforestation, and land clearing have destroyed the natural habitats of wildlife. Ebola, SARS, MERS and Covid-19 are caused by viruses related to wildlife. Large-scale epidemics usually begin with virus transmission from animals with which humans come into contact with.

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A medical personnel stores medical samples of patients at a "drive-thru" coronavirus testing lab in West Palm Beach, Miami, March 16, 2020. (Chandan Khanna/AFP)

Commercial benefits and profit have brought wildlife trade to urban centres and introduced wildlife as food for consumption. The rapidly developing pet industry has resulted in more wild animals becoming core members of many families. In the case of commonly-domesticated animals, in Hong Kong, pet dogs have been found to be infected with Covid-19. It is not unusual to find animals with viral infections, as similar cases have previously occurred during SARS and MERS. However, pets have become an additional avenue for virus transmission to humans (even though the current possibility of Covid-19 pet-to-human transmission is considered low). This threat is further exacerbated by the selfishness of humans in instances of pet abandonment.

In the age of globalisation and its attendant activities of travel and trade, the virus naturally became globalised too. In addition to dealing the slowing global economy a severe blow, the Covid-19 pandemic has prompted in-depth philosophical reflections regarding the concept of globalisation. Covid-19 could prove to be decisive in the heated debate on greater global integration or local autonomy. Some even consider Covid-19 to be the straw that will break the camel’s back for globalisation.

Liberalism theory charts human arrogance

Blind faith in science directly leads to human arrogance towards viruses. Scientific progress, which has fuelled global development in modern times, has convinced people that science is omnipotent and will always be capable of subduing any virus. Politicians and the masses treat viruses like natural disasters, passively waiting for an outbreak and naively believing that vaccines or drugs can be quickly developed for any new virus.

This cannot be further from reality. To this day, we have not been able to develop vaccines against the SARS virus in 2002-2003, AIDS, Zika or other newly-emerged pathogens. In fact, our self-serving nature often provides room and opportunities for viruses and their mutations. Experience has shown that regardless of political systems, short-sighted governments seek profit with available capital, and are reluctant to invest in epidemic prevention or vaccine and drug R&D during the time between two outbreaks.

In other words, we are helpless against viruses. We need to rethink and re-position the human–nature relationship. The overall cognitive process of this relationship in both the East and the West, however, has been a progression from humility to arrogance.

The liberals believed in economic order, and that an economic system based on a free market can be effectively utilised for human conquest and dominance of nature.

In the West, this progression is demonstrated in the evolution of liberalism. Although liberalism is understood more as a political and economic philosophy in the East, Western liberalism shows an understanding of the human–nature relationship. In Aristotelian philosophy, humans are an intrinsic part of the natural order and are the ultimate beings in existence, which is an immutable belief.

Since human nature is consistent with the natural world order, humans must maintain consistency with human nature and the natural world. Although individuals may freely go against their human nature and the natural order, such actions can harm themselves by damaging the good of humanity and the natural order. In the Middle Ages, the theologies of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas sought to articulate the limits that nature imposes on humans.

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Humans need to be in tune with nature. (iStock)

The modern philosophy of liberalism rejects these limits imposed on humans. Liberalism has undergone two revolutions pertaining to the human-nature relationship. The first revolution occurred during the Renaissance, and advocated that humans should use the power of natural sciences and economics to realise their dominance over nature and to become its master. The ideological origin of this revolution is derived from English philosopher Francis Bacon.

Bacon questioned the Aristotelian and Thomist views of nature. He believed and advocated human dominance and control of nature, which were the foundations of early Western liberalism. The liberals believed in economic order, and that an economic system based on a free market can be effectively utilised for human conquest and dominance of nature.

Today, they believe that humans can use technology to transcend the physical and mental limitations in human evolution.

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Portrait of Francis Bacon, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, 1617. (Wikipedia)

However, early liberalism still believed that human nature is immutable, and that human nature is intrinsically evil. While this evil can be curbed by various factors, its nature will not change. Therefore, while the early liberals believed that human evil could augment economic and scientific systems to enhance liberty and the ability to conquer nature, they also believed that humans could design various systems (such as the separation of powers) to curb evil and maintain it at an acceptable level.

The second revolution that took place in the 19th century completely changed the liberals’ views of humanity. They believed that human nature is not immutable and can be changed to make unlimited moral progress. They called it progressive liberalism, as opposed to conservative liberalism in the first revolution.

The ancient Chinese philosophers had put forward the idea of “humans as an integral part of nature” (天人合一) over 2,000 years ago.

The progressive liberals were critical of the conservative liberals’ views of humans and nature. From Rousseau to Marx, from Mill to Dewey, and to the contemporary transhumanists, the notion that human nature is immutable is rejected. The transhumanists want to apply the conservative liberals’ intention to dominate nature to the conquest of human nature itself. Today, they believe that humans can use technology to transcend the physical and mental limitations in human evolution. Developments in genetic engineering have strengthened the belief that the “death gene” will eventually be discovered and removed, for humans to overcome natural life expectancy and gain eternal life.

Chinese thinking shows move from humility to arrogance

Similar to that of the West, the Chinese views of humanity and nature have also basically evolved from humility to arrogance. The ancient Chinese philosophers had put forward the idea of “humans as an integral part of nature” (天人合一) over 2,000 years ago. It refers to a human–nature relationship in which humans are a harmonious component of nature. The idea is the foundation of many philosophies, and has influenced ancient Chinese views on various social relationships. Historian Qian Mu believed that it is at the core of the entire ancient Chinese ideological system. Indeed, this idea is not dissimilar to those of Aristotle and Aquinas.

The Lost Books Of Zhou – Wen Biography (《逸周书·文传》) states that “the might of humans overcomes nature”.

In the concept of humans as an integral part of nature, there exists a distinction between the subject and the object. Although the lack of subject-object distinction is found in the ancient Chinese text Zhuangzi, it exists only at the philosophical level but does not work in reality. This is because humans and nature are distinct in reality even though they coexist.

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A retired Cormorant fisherman on the river Li, who now earns a living from demonstrating his skills to the many tourists visiting Guilin and the surrounding areas. Humans are both a part of nature, and separate from it. (iStock)

As in the West, the ancient Chinese had also put forward the progressive idea that “humans will triumph over nature” (人定胜天). The Lost Books Of Zhou – Wen Biography (《逸周书·文传》) states that “the might of humans overcomes nature”; Song Dynasty poet Liu Guo wrote in The Song Of Xiangyang (《襄阳歌》) that “the human effort will triumph over nature, and this part of the country has been free from Mongol invasion for many years”; and Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling wrote in Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio – Xiaoqi (《聊斋志异·萧七》)that “(e)ven though she does not come, she does not forbid me to visit her. I will visit her and perhaps my will can change the circumstance?”

Although these expressions are somewhat different, the consistent general idea is that humans have their own will and are able to discover the laws of nature and interact with nature accordingly. Examples are the legend of Da Yu’s mitigation of the Great Flood, as well as the Dujiangyan Irrigation System project during the Warring States Period in ancient China.

The various Western ideologies and philosophies that find their way into China often emerge in the most radical forms.

The idea is also used in military strategies, such as in the saying “Timely prospects are inferior to geographical advantages, which are in turn inferior to the people’s solidarity and popular support” (天时不如地利,地利不如人和). Timely prospects refer to opportunities or climatic conditions, while geographical advantages are gained from favourable terrain conditions. They are both critical factors in winning a military contest, as exemplified in the Battle of the Red Cliffs in which Zhuge Liang “borrowed” the south-eastern winds and Zhou Yu burnt the enemy barracks where food provisions were stored, culminating in a resounding defeat of Cao Cao's army of a million soldiers.

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A reconstruction of the battleground of the Battle of the Red Cliffs. The battle shows the importance of geographical advantages. (Internet)

In recent times, the essence of the thinking that humans will triumph over nature has changed. The various Western ideologies and philosophies that find their way into China often emerge in the most radical forms. The more moderate ideologies and philosophies are also eliminated in the process of competition, leaving behind the radical ones. This is predetermined by recent Chinese history in which the old traditions of China were defeated by Western powers. To ensure the survival of the Chinese people and China, more radical and extreme methods are necessary.

In the fight against nature, while the West has discovered the market’s natural order, many developing countries including China have discovered a political natural order based on power.

Through this process, the emphasis on human agency and force of will is pushed to the extreme, evolving into human conquest, domination and control of nature. The so-called “endless pleasures in fighting with heaven, earth and people” reflects this thinking. Evidently, people (implying other people) have become a part of nature, an object (as opposed to subject) to fight against and to conquer.

In the fight against nature, while the West has discovered the market’s natural order, many developing countries including China have discovered a political natural order based on power. There are historical reasons for these discoveries. Developing countries cannot rely on the market’s natural order alone to compete with or surpass the West. Instead, they turn to politics to shape a strong national order. As a result, defeating nature through the power of political organisations has become the belief and experience of many countries. Over time, political order based on power is regarded as a natural order, in a system not artificially created but one that transcends humanity.

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The Three Gorges Dam, China. Humans believe that they can conquer nature. (iStock)

In China, the concept that the human will triumph over nature seems more extreme. There are examples of failure, such as the Great Leap Forward (fighting with nature) and the Cultural Revolution (fighting against people), as well as examples of success, such as the Three Gorges Dam and the “whole-nation system” for sports management. However, people seem to forget past failures and care only about the glory of success.

In reality, however, this is not just a fight against nature but a battle with ourselves because the viruses emerge due to inappropriate human–nature interaction.

In 2005, an official Chinese media interviewed an eminent scientist and published an article entitled “Humans Need Not Respect or Fear Nature” (人类无须敬畏大自然), which very directly and candidly expressed human disdain for nature. Although this arrogance has been tempered by the need for environmental management in recent years, the adoration of the success of the whole-nation system has intensified.

The world often faces great uncertainty brought about by events like the Covid-19 outbreak and natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and drastic climate changes. Scientists estimate that there are 1.67 million unknown viruses in the world, which suggests that humans will continue to fight against epidemics, and sequence the virus genomes to develop vaccines and drugs. In reality, however, this is not just a fight against nature but a battle with ourselves because the viruses emerge due to inappropriate human–nature interaction.

If the concept that the human will triumph over nature means that humans rationally understand the laws of nature in order to coexist with nature, we will be one step closer to humans as an integral part of nature. However, if it means arrogantly conquering and being the master of nature and other people, we will lose control of nature and humanity. The outcome will be a horrific future for all of humanity.

Related: Taiwan author Chiang Hsun: One humanity, one world | Wuhan coronavirus: China needs less politics, more science