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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Is Man’s Ultimate Success His Ultimate Failure?

By OOI KEE BENG, Penang Monthly Editorial, February 2022

THROUGHOUT THE history of life, all life forms have had to adapt to environmental conditions beyond their control as best they can. Where environmental changes have been fast and catastrophic, species go into extinction.

Homo sapiens seem clearly to be a different breed. Through the use of tools, through harnessing energy, organising in large groups and focusing our energies, gaining cumulative knowledge and taking leaps in epistemic constructs, we have changed the environment to suit us.

But even before modern times, before we had fossil fuel, advanced mathematics and science, before we had could move mountains and stop rivers in their tracks, and before we could pollute air, land and water all at once, we were already altering the state of nature. And we did that in very profound ways.

We learned instinctively how to tame the wild, and how to domesticate the exotic. From hunting and gathering, we learned to organise ourselves—to stabilise our economic situation, as it were—and with that we began to alter both fauna and flora to suit us. We put natural selection to work, changing the world to fit our needs.

Where plants were concerned, we learned to pick the most functional ones to favour and in the process, we made them ever more favourable to us. The array of crops we farm today testify to that, altered as they have been from their wild cousins over time to better nourish us.

We did the same with animals. Some could be domesticated over time; some could not. The dog, the cat, the horse, the pig. The list goes on and on. Along the way, these also changed in genetic constitution, sequentially altered by the consistency of our choices.

Fear of the Wild

This slow attainment of the skill to manage the fearfully wild, the unknown and the unpredictable underlies what we have come to call civilization. The more a people is able to live within Nature’s wildness, the less we consider them civilized.

If this is in fact the essence of Homo Sapiens’ relationship to all that exists—to tame what can be tamed, to modify what can be modified, to conquer what can be conquered—then the end game cannot but be the destruction and disruption of natural processes, including biological ones.

It is interesting indeed that in the Abrahamic tradition, humanity came into being in a garden, as if the default condition of Nature is tameness. In the Garden of Eden, only the Snake was wild, and perhaps Eve too, for being fatefully curious. Or one could venture that the Almighty was the really wild card in the deck, prone to anger and to punish.

Once thrown out of the Garden of Eden, humanity was confronted with wildness. And the search began to find the Garden again, to find tameness, to dispel the wild from sight.

Gardens and Pets

The flora we could not transform into farms and gardens, we continue to exploit and eradicate, turning jungles into either desolate lands or plantations. The fauna we have not been able to tame and put to work, we continue to hunt, be these arctic beasts or sea creatures.

The flora we could transform, we are now able to break down into its separate elements, to serve humans as medicines, supplements and drugs. The fauna we could tame became farm animals and means of transport and of sports.

One further step into the bosom of civilisation, into the gentle atmosphere of our civilised communities, we surround ourselves with gardens and parks, trimmed and watered regularly. Flora tamed, placed in the compound and in the house.

These situate well alongside the tamed fauna, evolved over millennia from wild beasts into house pets. Are we on the home stretch in our dash back to the Garden? Will it still our fear of the wild, once the wild is forever gone?

Or will we have to suffer an environment that is wilder than we ever imagined. Will Nature now do to us what we did to it? Will it tame us?

About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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