“Protecting nature must become protecting mankind”

by Moritz Nestor

The famous Swiss zoologist and anthropologist Adolf Portmann (1897–1982) wrote his essay “Naturschutz wird Menschenschutz” (“Protecting nature becomes protecting mankind”) in 1971. A pleasingly balanced and profound statement on nature conservation. Especially in today’s public debate about climate change and species protection, it would be a scientific voice that could bring a little more prudence and calm into the power and opinion struggle heated up by ideologues with media power.
  For the most striking thing about the prevailing talks on climate and nature protection in the mass media is a tendency that is directed more and more against human beings: Biodiversity in nature is claimed, but only for bear, lynx, wolf & Co. As if the human species were not part of nature as well. Man, the “greatest richness of the globe”, where is he protected? The unspirit [Un-Geist] is becoming more and more widespread that man as the alleged enemy of nature (“cancer” of the earth, according to a deep ecologist) must be fought: There are too many of us, therefore the earth is suffering and is “striking back” with severe weather and natural catastrophes. For the animals “each day is Treblinka”, a cynic once wrote. Away with “anthropocentrism”, Peter Singer keeps preaching to us! Since the 1980s, radical deep ecologists1 and green philosophers have been demanding a “dying back” (in the words of the U.S. deep ecologist William D. Aiken) of mankind, and they have been developing totalitarian solutions to protect “democracy in nature”, whatever they mean by that. It is worth taking Jean-Christophe Rufin’s book “100 Stunden” (“Le parfum d’Adam”) from the shelf once again. In its scientific appendix, the worldwide acting radical to militant Eco scene is described.
  But where is a conservation of nature hand in hand with the protection of man? Hand in hand with the protection of man against war, nuclear threat and contamination, against millionfold of deaths by starvation and against the most blatant economic exploitation by neoliberal totalitarianism, the kind of which we have never experienced before? And hand in hand with the protection against depriving man from his protective communities, which occurred around that time as radically as never before, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1981: “Who is society? There is no such thing!”2 Man, whose nature is culture (Portmann) and who cannot survive without communities and societies, is robbed of his nature that way and is denatured to a Robinson.
  Some say the world has turned into a village due to digitalisation. There may be some truth about that in a certain sense. But this poses the question even more urgently: What shall we do with the people who are now no longer living “far back in Turkey”? Right in front of the huts of our village one shameless war of aggression is waged after the other by Western capital and power alliances, one culture after the other is extinguished. We know about the millions of people starving and dying of hunger worldwide, we know about the politically intended drug epidemics, we know about the death house Africa, we know about the genocides and, and, and – and in our “neighbourhood” of the “global village” life goes on as if nothing had happened at all. Today’s horror story about the Anglo-American empire withdrawing from all nuclear non-proliferation treaties and establishing a new Anglo-American nuclear alliance: The worst nuclear high-technology – which by its very existence is threatening the life of all humans, of all animals, and in general of all life on earth even more than ever before – is being spread by the USA even more purposefully and even further. This is hardly perceived as terrifying news and will be forgotten tomorrow when better protection of aquarium fish will be demanded in all the newspapers and broadcasting stations. Not one of the nature conservation groups and parties that are dominating the discourse by capital and media power is including the protection of human beings from war and exploitation in their program. For which one of the competitors for power, who seek to elicit our votes, is nature protection also protection of man? Who else should protect at all!?
  So, what did Adolf Portmann say in 1971? “Our problem has arisen in the Occident – today’s devastation of the original world and its transformation into a world of man has proceeded from the technology of the Occident.” The rise and global spread of this historically unprecedented new technology is the fruit of the Christian age. “Nobody can reflect and face the tragic situation of our times without tackling this fundamental fact.” But considering the enormous extent of the global devastation caused by modern technology one “not ready without further ado to describe the liberation struggle of the occidental spirit from the dogmatic chains of the church only in the picture of the ascent from night to light […]. From the perspective of our time and despite the new threats posed by technology, nobody will approve of the Church now in retrospect. […] But the knowledge that a great spiritual power for centuries was able to effectively wage the battle against scientific curiosity in life praxis, draws the attention of today's perplexed and threatened people to a central problem of our time. Today, where is the force or the forces, that could lead a widely recognized need to fight actively against the threat from technology? […] Significant for the confusion of the minds when researching the causes of the emergence of technology is the attempt on behalf of American sociologists, seconded by theologians, to explain the Judeo-Christian worldview as responsible for it. According to this view, guilty of the rise of technology is the conception of man as the supreme creature of the whole Creation, the creature called to rule and created for it, which is widespread in the old biblical and Christian teachings! This claim completely ignores the much more important fact that despite this attitude towards Man, the Judeo-Christian dogmatics has prevented every explosive development of research and technology for 2,000 years to the best of its ability out of the clear stance against curiosity. […] The Gestaltungen [Portmann’s expression for life forms, mn] around us, emerging without us and before us in millions of years, are elements of a living world, which we cannot produce ourselves, and whose complexity and mysteriousness of which stands all the more clearly before us the more we learn through research about the microcosm of the substance of life. This deeper insight must awaken in us a sense of reverence for that which has become without our contribution, a new reverence fostered by knowledge, a knowledge not just about new discoveries in research, but of the responsibility to our posterity, which has the right to exist in the fullness of life that still surrounds us today. For the future, only the building up of such reverence [...] can provide the legitimation of a new attitude towards nature [...] out of which will and power can become effective to contain today’s boundless egoism of profit or technical ambition. […] The protection of non-human life is the protection of our own existence from horrible mental devastation. Thus, today the word protection of nature receives a new broader meaning: as environmental protection for the preservation of the prerequisites of man's existence - as preservation of the living, which we cannot create ourselves. […] It won’t be long until the protection of nature as a way of protecting man will also become a guiding principle of the utmost importance for the orientation of research. – It is a great task of education at all levels of human activities […] to find new standards of moderation.” (translated by Current Concerns)
  This is how the anthropologist Adolf Portmann, looking back on his more than half a century of rich experience in teaching, research and life, he draws the conclusion for a truly humane protection of nature. This conclusion neither leads to the confrontation of the deep ecologists and Malthusians against man: protection of nature from man by “massive die backs” – nor to the affectation of dictatorship by green populists. •

1 A mystical philosophy of nature that does not fight the real destroyers of nature (toxic waste producers, fertiliser industry, nuclear industry, etc.), but the human species itself, which it wants to reduce to one billion in order to save the Earth (Gaia). Has nothing to do with ecology as a scientific discipline, but borrows its terminology.
2 Thatcher, Margaret. “Interview for ‘Woman’s Own’ (‘No Such Thing as Society’).” In: Margaret Thatcher Foundation: Speeches, Interviews and Other Statements. London 1987 (retrieved 17 August 2021)


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