Koyaanisqatsi: Is Technology Really So Separate From Nature?

My first exposure to Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 time-lapse masterpiece was at an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum on the ‘Post Moderns’. It featured the now universally recognisable accelerated footage of taillights pumping through the city to the rhythm of alternating traffic flows, creating an eerily arterial display. What was interesting about the use of this footage in this particular exhibition was that it was shown under the pretext of the death of futurism and the birth of dystopia, sandwiched as it was between clips of the bleak futuristic skyline of Blade Runner (which I must admit has a beguiling beauty all of its own) and chaotic images of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. While footage from Koyaanisqatsi, complete with the stark minimalist composition of Phillip Glass, did not feel out of place in this exhibition, I couldn’t shake the notion that there was more to it than merely a bleak vision of man’s conquest over the Earth. This became more apparent when I watched the film in its entirety.

I figured out that the basis of my reservation was the separation between ‘man’ and ‘nature.’ Many reviewers see Koyaanisqatsi as a clash between the two as distinct forces, a sort of time-lapse Fern Gully, if you will. Perhaps this was Reggio’s intention and perhaps not (I suspect it was more ambiguous than that; however, it is not my place to guess).

I couldn’t shake the notion that there was more to it than merely a bleak vision of man’s conquest over the Earth.

But to regard humanity as an external (or even opposing) force to nature is to diminish the complexity of our relationship with the world, something Koyaanisqatsi, despite some interpretations, showcases rather magnificently. We are a part of the global ecosystem, which we do impact, sometimes positively, often negatively, and it can greatly impact us too.

Our relationship with the Earth has in many ways become lopsided of course and this is conveyed in the film’s title (Koyaanisqatsi, in the Hopi language, means ‘Life out of Balance), but the fact that we have a disproportionate effect on our planet compared to most species does not change the fact that we are just as much a part of it.

The main societal factor that facilitates this divorce of man from nature is our effect on the environment, specifically that which is harmful or destructive, and will even, according to some, ultimately affect our ability to sustain our own civilisation. Whatever the solutions to these problems may be, it is worth noting that this is not the first time this has happened. The first life to emerge on the primordial Earth was carbon dioxide-absorbing microbial life, whose proliferation changed the composition of the atmosphere into the oxygen-rich air we breathe today.

This seems to me to be the essential flaw in James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis (aside from its slightly odd Pagan connotations). ‘Mother Nature’ does not exist in any real or cohesive sense. However we can learn to utilise naturally occurring forces and materials in the world around us for our own benefit. When we build a city we are performing essentially the same action as a colony of termites or a flock of birds when they create nests for themselves, merely on a much larger scale.

What the pulsating time-lapse cityscapes of Koyaanisqatsi conveyed to me is an ecosystem within an ecosystem.

We may consider urban environments to be an unnatural imposition upon a natural world but this is really just the bias of a species that sculpted its environment and possesses the self-awareness to question its actions. An alien visitor to our planet may regard our cities as no more unnatural than an ant colony or a beehive; the only differences are in scale, complexity, and the aforementioned ability to question it.

It is when we accept this that a paradox emerges. Those who decry the horrors of our technological civilisation in isolation from our membership of the animal kingdom claim to stand in a position of apologetic humility before Mother Nature, when, in fact, this is a rather arrogant position to hold. It perpetuates the idea that we are something other than advanced primates. If we are to nurture a less destructive relationship with our ecosystem we would do well to remember our kinship with it, not insist that it is some kind of purer realm that our technological civilisation has separated itself from through our own efforts.