Chapter 9: The Uses of Nature

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 9: The Uses of Nature

From the values of intelligence and creativity we turn to a consideration of conscience. This classification of values is somewhat arbitrary, to be sure. Our discussions of intelligence and creativity have repeatedly had reference to matters of conscience. Intellectual responsibility is a moral obligation. So also are the right use of the mass media of communication, the elevation of taste and manners, and the right choice of work and play. The several realms of value are interconnected and overlapping. The division into kinds merely emphasizes dominant features. Intelligence centers around the ideal of truth, creativity around qualitative excellence, and conscience around right conduct. In chapters 9 to 16 our attention will be focused on problems of ethical responsibility -- that is, on decisions concerning human relationships to the nonhuman world, to self, and to other persons. Consideration is now directed to the problem of the right uses of nature. What is man’s responsibility with respect to the natural world? What are the standards by which his relation to his physical and biological environment should be measured?

In no other respect have the changes in the human situation been more striking than in this matter of man’s relationship to the natural world. Until recent times human beings were forced to live a precarious existence in the face of the largely unpredictable and uncontrollable forces of nature. Wind, water, fire, wild beasts, insects, and disease kept man constantly on the defensive. Although he could to some degree carve out islands of security, he was always surrounded by the threat of destruction and faced with the certainty of frustration by the unruly elements. Through his understanding of natural processes, man has now learned how to use the forces of nature for his own purposes and how to protect himself against their destructive effects. Nature is regarded no longer as something merely to be accepted but as a world of resources to be discovered, understood, transformed, and put to use.

While this reversal in power position has had profound effects on the outward conditions of life, even more important for mankind is the revolution that has occurred in the human outlook. Man has risen from the position of nature’s slave to that of potential master. This change has appeared to be a most striking confirmation of man’s essential autonomy. No longer need mankind cower before its ancient enemies in the natural world. No more must men supplicate and propitiate the gods, the supposed custodians of the forces of nature. The new powers of prediction and control prove that man can determine his own destiny.

In one respect this growth in the power available to man has supported the democratic movement. The feeling of helplessness in the face of superior powers has been dispelled. Men do not now make a virtue of resignation to the circumstances of life. This sense of power is widely shared, for everyone in the new industrial society participates in the domination of nature. Even some who stand relatively low in the prestige ladder now lord it over nature, as they drive great machines which coerce the earth to do their bidding, or shape and twist tough metal as if it were putty, or with explosives obliterate any obstacle in the wink of an eye. Today "miracles" are performed by ordinary people, not just by a special class of men on special occasions.

At the same time the growth in human power has introduced some grave perils for democracy. The danger is that the new powers over nature will also be used to put men into subjection. The control of the natural environment carries with it the control of the human beings who depend upon that environment for their health and sustenance. The ability of men to order nature has increased the violence of tyranny and made the winning and preserving of democracy both more necessary and more difficult. Accordingly, the major problems of contemporary man are not how to understand and control physical nature, but how to maintain a just and stable social order and how to achieve self-understanding and personal integrity.

With respect to the latter problems, modern civilization has lost ground. People now seem, on the whole, less sure of the meaning of their lives and less skillful in their relationships to one another than people of many earlier times. Classical literature is rich and illuminating in its treatment of the inner life but is generally of little value for the understanding of the external world. The situation is just the opposite at the present day. By comparison with our brilliant knowledge of the world about us, our insight into ourselves seems paltry. We have become confident of our ability to deal effectively with nature and are impatient and discouraged at the meagerness of our success with ourselves. Today natural sciences and engineering ride high, attracting the largest funds and the most able personnel.

Not only has the successful management of nature diverted attention and effort from human problems and diminished man’s confidence in his ability to come to terms with himself and his neighbor. It has also exerted a profound influence on the way in which human affairs are approached. Before the modern age, self-mastery and social maturity were regarded as goals for free men struggling individually to win their souls. Now that the secrets of effectively dealing with the physical world have been discovered, it is widely assumed that man must be dealt with in the same manner as the world of nature. If invariant natural law, classification, and regulation have proved so successful in mastering nature, why not use the same tools on man? But to treat human beings as natural objects is to deny their essential characteristic of freedom. Under the technical approach to human problems people are regarded as things to be pushed and molded into conformity with the blueprint of the social planners. The current concept of "social engineering" reflects this mechanistic attitude toward human beings. Such an outlook is clearly antidemocratic.

The scientific study of man is neither futile nor immoral. We cannot hope to cure the ills of mankind without persistent and devoted scientific study of human beings. Such inquiry is not in itself undemocratic. On the contrary, it is one of the best hopes for democracy. What is undemocratic is the direct transfer of concepts and methods from the nonhuman world to the human world -- the reduction of the sciences of man to the sciences of nature. The success of the natural sciences in comparison with the study of man makes this transfer tempting. It is nonetheless mistaken. Men can be analyzed and managed as natural objects, but only at the cost of their essential humanity. The true sciences of man are based upon concepts and methods appropriate to their human subject matter. The crucial categories include ideas of freedom, intelligence, meaning, commitment, and obligation which have no parallel in the natural sciences. Appropriate to the human realm are the methods of democratic education, grounded in the ideal of persuasion of free persons in the light of an assumed commitment to truth and right. Man can gain more and more reliable knowledge about himself and his kind. This understanding ought not, however, to be applied mainly to control other persons, but to develop powers of self-control for the sake of the good. This is the goal of education in a moral democracy.

The growth of modern scientific civilization has brought both opportunities and perils for democracy: opportunities in the vast new resources made available to mankind, and perils in the increased power men can use against and over one another. These developments are all a consequence of education. The technical marvels of the modern age are dependent upon scientific knowledge, which has been gained by educated people. It is educated men and women who have unlocked the secrets of nature and enabled mankind to master its environment. The success of these efforts has in turn led to a transformation in education. In classical education the chief aim was the transmission of a valued cultural heritage. In the contemporary world this aim has been subordinated to that of managing, exploiting, and transforming the environment. The spirit of the old education was receptive, respectful, backward-looking; the spirit of the new is active, dominating, progressive.

Accordingly, the educational system makes far greater provision than ever before for scientific and technical studies. Given the complexity of our machine civilization, broad and thorough preparation is necessary in these fields. The control of natural forces is a continuing -- even a growing -- challenge; to meet it an increasing company of trained natural scientists and engineers will be required. Furthermore, the technical revolution has stimulated the growth of universal education. The new artificial environment belongs to everybody, and everybody needs to be taught to understand it and to use it well. The vast complex of man-made things among which and by which we live do not take care of themselves. They require maintenance, repair, and skillful management. Since all or nearly all members of society share in these responsibilities, universal education to a high level is essential for the security and progress of modern industrial civilization.

There is a correspondingly urgent need for more education in the social studies and in the humanistic disciplines. The social studies can provide the understanding requisite for creating a social system in which the abuse of the power released by machine technology may be minimized and in which these forces may be constructively employed for the general welfare. The special office of the humane studies in the present day is to sustain the sense of meaning in a dehumanized machine world. The humane studies are also of crucial importance for suggesting guiding ideals in a time of rapid cultural transformation resulting from new inventions. Scientific knowledge and technique are neutral with respect to values. Only disciplines in which attention is directed to the intrinsic goods of existence, rather than to facts and instrumentalities alone, can re-create the sense of direction lost in the dissolution of traditional culture.

In these times of need for both technical and humanistic education, the effectiveness of each is impaired by the divorce of the two from one another. In the atmosphere of competitiveness and defensiveness which accompanies a success-oriented philosophy of life, the several components of education have become separated into specialized disciplines. The result is a fragmentation of culture which is mirrored in the self-alienation and dis-integration of persons.

The office of modern education is to nurture humaneness within the new world generated by the progress of invention. It is not to produce two hostile camps -- of engineers and of men of letters -- who neither understand one another nor care to. The required unification of learning can be effected in four principal ways. First, the arts, literature, philosophy, and religious studies should address themselves to the world that now is, in all its technical complexity, and not only to the simpler world of the past. Machine culture is the context in which human beings now think and act. Painting and architecture, novels and plays, epistemological and theological systems, should take full account of the new things and ideas that scientific theory and engineering skill have brought into being. Humanists should acknowledge their membership in the contemporary world, seek to understand it in its own terms (which means making a serious effort to gain authentic scientific insight), assimilate its ideas into their world of composing, building, and analyzing, and assume responsibility for guiding the course of its further development.

Second, scientific specialists should recognize, celebrate, and try to communicate the humane values implicit in their own disciplines. Scientific investigation is motivated by ethical principles of a high order. The universal ideals of scientific truth manifest an advanced level of spiritual development. The history of science is a drama of faith, patience, devotion, and heroism comparable to what are usually accounted the great religious and moral movements of mankind. Technology and pure science are humanly significant, in themselves and not just in their tangible products.

Third, scientific research and education should be conducted with full consciousness of the broad consequences of discovery and invention -- for good and for ill. In view of the grave dangers that accompany the irresponsible use of power, the people who best understand the sources and uses of the forces they help to unlock have an obligation to work for the right employment and social control of natural energies. Science and engineering should never be taught as isolated specialties, wholly neutral to human welfare, but always with deep concern for their potential effect on the well-being of mankind.

The fourth means of effecting a union of scientific and humanistic learning is through the development of the social sciences. By definition the sciences of man combine the human with the scientific. Until recently those sciences have been marred by a slavish imitation of the methods and concepts of the physical sciences (as, for example, in behavioristic psychology). It is now being recognized that such reductive procedures yield a superficial understanding of man, and that new approaches are required, which take account of what is uniquely human. There is evidence of increasing dialogue between social scientists and workers in literature, the arts, philosophy, theology, and history. In due course mature social sciences will emerge as perhaps our most powerful link between the natural sciences and the humane disciplines.

The modern mastery of nature brings into high relief the central ethical problem of democracy, which is the theme of this book -- namely, the contrast between the democracy of desire and the democracy of worth. Control of natural forces as a result of scientific knowledge has greatly enhanced modern man’s sense of power. Since men now possess powers formerly ascribed to the gods, men have come to regard themselves as lords of creation. The drive for power -- individual or collective -- emerges as the basic human tendency. Anyone -- or almost anyone -- can have what he wants if he has enough "know-how." Contemporary man has great faith in technical progress; there are no human interests that he does not feel can eventually be satisfactorily provided for. In short, an assumption of many moderns is the potential omnipotence of mankind.

Implicit in this faith is confidence in education as a means to the desired consummation. For modern man, as Bacon said, knowledge is power -- not virtue or illumination. The more knowledge one acquires, the larger is his share in the command of natural forces to fulfill human wants. Hence, the striving for autonomy in this age of control is accompanied by pressures for more and more education, to supply the knowledge that enables man to subdue the earth.

Nor is human ambition satiated by the subjection of the earth. The new horizon, which first opened fully to view in 1957 with the launching of a man-made space satellite, is the mastery of the whole universe! Man now knows that he is not limited by the confines of this planet. He has not only inherited the earth; he has possessed it and is fast consuming it. Now his grasp reaches out toward the heavens. Quite literally he seeks new worlds to conquer. To be sure, the problems are enormous, and the progress to date is slight -- no man has yet traveled beyond the earth’s effective gravitational field. Still, plans are under way for creating the necessary vehicles and artificial environments for space travel and residence, vast resources of intelligence and materials are being expended on research and development in the field of space technology, and increasing numbers of able young people are being educated for future work in this field.

The magnificence of scientific achievements is beyond question, and the prospects for the future are no less brilliant. Nevertheless, the assumption of human autonomy and of man’s absolute sovereignty over earthly and cosmic nature is not warranted. Nature has not surrendered to man. The basis for modern technical progress is the knowledge built on the patient watching and listening for nature’s ways. Modern science came into being when men renounced their preconceptions, preferences, and prejudices and adopted the practice of painstaking and systematic observation and experiment.

Contemporary man’s power is thus a consequence of his willingness to follow and obey. The disciplines of science are rigorous. No person is fit for scientific work if he is interested only in commanding. The good scientist or engineer has a first loyalty to fact, and to that loyalty all considerations of power and interest are subordinate. The so-called mastery of nature in reality is nature’s victory over human ignorance and self-will. Man’s power is nature’s power released to him in consequence of his obedience to truth. Under these circumstances the fitting attitude is not arrogance, but a profound sense of humility and gratitude for the knowledge revealed and the powers entrusted to mankind.

Another aspect of nature’s check on unrestrained human demands is the fact of limitation in natural resources. For our brilliant exploitation of the earth the price exacted is present or eventual exhaustion and devastation of the natural estate. Human acquisitiveness invites nature’s eloquent rebuke.

In the democracy of worth, therefore, human dependence upon nature is duly acknowledged. Technical progress is not regarded as proof of human autonomy, but it is a reward for attending to the truth. Furthermore, care is taken to understand not only the sources of power but also the conditions for its continuing availability. Since earth is gratefully recognized as mankind’s home, it is important to give serious consideration to the natural conditions for human well-being and survival.

One requirement is the maintenance of a healthful physical environment. Industrial processes and motor vehicles have filled the atmosphere with noxious fumes. There is some evidence connecting the steep rise in lung cancer with this pollution of the air. Recently radioactive fallout from nuclear testing has introduced another and far more dangerous type of air poisoning. Ways must be found for ending this contamination of the atmosphere, even at the cost, if need be, of curtailing technical progress. Similar observations hold for water and soil. Industrial wastes, which are now dumped into rivers and seas or buried in the earth, make water and earth unfit for human use. Air, water, and soil are essential to human well-being and must not be used as receptacles for the excrescences of the industrial organism.

In addition to the healthfulness of the environment, attention should be given to its esthetic qualities. In our heedless lust for power we have disgracefully disfigured the earth. The landscape has been defaced by ugly buildings, both industrial and residential. The pleasant land has been overlaid with great swaths of concrete to accommodate vehicular traffic. Forests have been chopped down or burned, and wild animals hunted to extinction. To halt and reverse this destruction of natural beauty, not only must standards of individual taste be raised, but much stricter social controls must be exercised. Architectural planning should have regard for the preservation of natural beauty and not only for utility and economy in the structures themselves. Tight regulation of roadside signs and establishments should be instituted to remove the offenses to good taste and the barriers to the enjoyment of nature which present policies permit, with the happy exception of some of the newer expressways. The expansion of the highway system should be checked by the restoration (under government support) of efficient rapid transit systems. City planning should make ample provision for parks and trees, and federal and state parks and forests should be steadfastly maintained against all encroachments by commercial and utilitarian interests.

A considerable part of the esthetic interest of nature comes from the various forms of wild life. To save the birds, beasts, and fish from complete destruction, hunting and fishing have to be controlled by a system of limits and licenses. Aside from this requirement, there remains a question of conscience with regard to the killing of animals for sport. These activities feed the impulses toward autonomy and dominance which undermine true humanity. The death of the animals is loss enough, but it is not half so serious as the injury to personality that occurs in one who kills his own sense of reverence for life and his sense of kinship with living things below him in the order of creation.

A third requirement for the conscientious use of nature is to take due account of the limitations of natural resources. Up to now the people of the industrial nations of the world have lived as though the material bounty of the earth were inexhaustible. We have been profligate with our natural capital, squandering it with no concern for its limits. In this respect we have been guilty of a "plutocracy of the present," through grasping material privileges without taking account of the needs of future generations. Such a way of life is just as undemocratic as the forcible subjugation of the poor by the wealthy at any given epoch. Democratic justice as between generations requires the employment of the earth’s resources in such a way that they shall be conserved, restored, and replenished for continued use by our children and our children’s children.

To this end, the soil -- from which our nourishment comes -- must be carefully husbanded by the use of the many techniques now well understood by scientific farmers, such as proper drainage and irrigation, contour plowing, crop rotation, fertilization, and preservation of forests and grassland. The alarming drop in the water table must be arrested, by restricting the amounts of water available for industrial processes and pressing forward on the development of processes for removing salt from sea water and for the control of rainfall. Particular care must be given to the problem of mineral resources, which are rapidly being depleted, with no possibility of replenishment. Our present and expected rate of consumption of these materials spells the doom, in the not distant future, of industrial civilization as we know it. The only hope for continued existence is in the development of new processes that require little metal or in the discovery of means for artificially transmuting abundant elements into the scarcer ones. Finally, major consideration will have to be given to the limitations of the energy supply. Wood, water power, coal, oil, and gas are insufficient to provide for the world’s energy needs over any extended period. Uranium and other substances used in atomic fission processes are not in great abundance and are irreplaceable. The major hopes for continued energy abundance are in the invention of controlled atomic fusion processes and in the harnessing of solar power

This brief review of what must be done to establish right relationships between man and nature suggests something of the educational task. Young people must be acquainted with the facts about the earth, its resources, and the consequences of using them in various ways. This is primarily the function of the study of geography -- not mainly as a learning of place names, populations, and products and a drawing and reading of maps and charts, but as a responsible consideration of the earth as mankind’s home. The all-important problem of geography, properly taught, is how human beings can build and maintain just and enduring relationships with their natural environment. This is an ethical problem -- a question of conscience -- as well as a problem of fact and technique. Up to now the moral considerations have been absent or subordinate. Education in modern industrial society has been organized for maximum material production and consumption, on the premises that labor is scarce and that natural resources are boundless. Education for a just and enduring future civilization needs to be radically reconceived. Training for the heedless and profligate exploitation of materials, without regard to problems of waste, depletion, and contamination, must give way to teaching the responsible and circumspect use of man’s estate. In such education scientific knowledge and engineering skill will be taught not as means of making good the claims of the autonomous human will against nature, but as resources for the informed pursuit of the good.

The most crucial of all the problems connected with the uses of nature still remains -- namely, the question of population. The development of modern machine civilization is in part a consequence of the growth of population. Large-scale industry and the accumulation of wealth presuppose an abundant supply of labor and ample markets. The notable advances in invention in recent decades have been stimulated by the presence of a large and apparently insatiable mass of consumers. At the same time as the growing population, by creating demands for more of nature’s products, gives impetus to industry and commerce, it creates the problem of shortages and throws into clear relief the limitations of the earth.

The spectacular increase in population in modern times is itself a result of scientific and technical discovery. Through medical research the death rate has been dramatically reduced, and the average duration of life in industrialized nations has been greatly extended. Advances in machine power, applied to agriculture, manufacture, and transportation, have raised the general standard of living and made possible the support of a much larger total population than in earlier epochs.

Thus population and material progress have been mutually supportive. But now the swarming multitudes which cover the face of the earth and eagerly strive and compete for its bounty threaten to destroy man’s estate. They already tax it to near exhaustion, and yet the pressures and the demands increase without any sign of reversal.

With respect to this problem the issues of democracy are squarely joined. The individual will to procreate ought not to be the ruling factor. If it is, and population continues to mount, universal anguish and strife will result. War and starvation will reduce or altogether eliminate the human species. As the competition for a share of the world’s limited goods becomes more bitter, justice will vanish in the desperate struggle for survival, and tyrants and bureaucracies will arise to establish some order among the needy and fearful people.

The solution to the population problem lies in the assumption of ethical responsibility for the voluntary limitation of family size, for the sake of the welfare of all persons now living and yet to be born. Because the resources of the earth are finite, there will necessarily be population control of some kind. The human species cannot make demands on the world that are beyond its capacity to supply. Earth’s material limits stand as the final negation of all demands for total human sovereignty. The question is whether the control will be by the force of physical circumstance, by the violence of human strife, by the power of absolute rulers, or by the persuasions of dedicated intelligence.

The question of the use of contraceptive measures for birth control is relevant here, but comments on it will be reserved for Chapter 11. Suffice it to say at this point only that the ideal mode of population control in a democracy of worth is determined not by the maximizing of pleasure and the minimizing of burdensome consequences, but by positive consideration and concern for the well-being of other persons within and beyond the immediate family and even beyond the present generation.

The central role in the development of ethical democratic controls for population rests with education. The young must learn enough about man’s natural home and about his utilization of its resources to understand the conditions for permanent, secure, and healthful residence in it. They must also be taught the lesson of conscience that with respect to the uses of nature each person is his brother’s -- and his children’s and his children’s children’s -- keeper.