EDITORIAL: Ditch romantic, naive ideas of mother nature

Editorial Board

Thursday is Earth Day, and people around the world are raising awareness for environmental issues.

At the same time, clouds of ash are settling over many parts of Europe from Iceland’s recent volcanic eruption.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition — we stop to celebrate nature, just as nature gets uppity and demonstrates its awesome power to impact and, ultimately, destroy us.

Too often we romanticize mother earth. “If only,” we say, after our fifth time seeing James Cameron’s “Avatar,” “if only we could live in perfect harmony with Gaia, and get back to nature, then everything would be OK.”

We forget, though, how difficult things used to be.

Disease is a great example. For hundreds of years, child mortality rates were high, and for families, losing one or more children wasn’t the exception — but the rule.

Today, most parents will never have to go through that heartache, and most children are spared the trauma of measles, mumps, rubella and other maladies.

Simply put, there has never been a better time to be a human being. People who disagree generally do so from a safe distance, within easy reach of penicillin, central air and Hy-Vee’s lunch buffet.

In fact, average Americans today are so isolated from the harsh realities of the natural world, perhaps it is understandable that they think nature is fluffy bunnies and sad puppies staring up at us from Sarah McLachlan’s Humane Society commercials.

If the coincidental timing of the Icelandic volcano and Earth Day can teach us anything, it’s that such a view is mistaken.

Nature is full of bunnies, but also earthquakes and tornadoes and tidal waves.

Nature is a hungry pack of wolves, running down a baby doe.

Nature is polio and smallpox.

In essence, it’s violent and brutal, unforgiving and unsympathetic. Approximately 99.9 percent of animal species that have ever lived are now extinct. With one rogue asteroid, we could join them.

When we begin to fantasize otherwise, we lose sight of reality.

Consider Timothy Treadwell, the self-described eco-warrior depicted in the documentary movie “Grizzly Man.” For 13 seasons, Treadwell lived among bears in Alaska’s Katmai National Park, naming them and finding companionship in them, until, finally, he and his girlfriend were killed and eaten by them.

Sure, industrial civilization has it’s issues. But as society progresses, our most serious problems become smaller and more trivial. Survival — staying alive until tomorrow — is generally the furthest thing from American’s minds.

Yes, we need to take care of our environment and protect it from undue exploitation. Recycle. Turn off the water while you brush. Go for LED or CFL light bulbs.

Yes, appreciate mother nature for its awesome power and beauty. Visit a national park. Camp, hike and kayak.

But also understand that, at its most fundamental, nature is something to respect, fight, and ultimately keep our distance from. For the majority of human history, we spent our time trying to find safe shelter or scavenge enough food to survive.

Society and industry represent progress.

So accept the responsibility of maintaining a habitable environment for our children and grandchildren, but ditch the romantic naivety about mother nature.

That’s our Earth Day 2010 pledge.