Since today is Bastille Day, I’ve been thinking about the nature of revolutions. Here’s my question for today: what makes a revolution succeed or fail? Why did the American Revolution result in relative political stability, while the French Revolution ran amok and eventually resulted in the rise of another dictator?

This question is also becoming increasingly relevant as we watch the transitions and revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Why did Egypt’s democratic revolution bring Mohamed Morsi to power?Perhaps the answer is prudence. Russell Kirk notes that the American Revolution was “not a revolution started, but a revolution prevented.” I mostly agree with that. The American system retained many parts of the old British system, including the bicameral structure and English common law. The nature of the executive they created was somewhat new, but for the most part, the new American government mirrored many aspects of the English government. While the French found themselves caught up in attempting a radical social transformation, the Americans were slightly more cautious. For example, French revolutionaries were the intellectual heirs of Rousseau’s Social Contract and demands for instant social change, whereas American revolutionaries were influenced by the more cautious ideals of Burke and Montesquieu.

There is something dangerous about being so furious with old system that the revolutionaries seek to do away with all parts of it. Many populist revolutions, like the French Revolution and later the Bolshevik Revolution, have the potential to pander so much to the public outcry for change that they do not stop to consider what they are changing. The French Revolution may well be the definition of the “tyranny of the majority,” and the tides of emotion and righteous indignation are difficult to quell.

Once a revolution begins, it is difficult to tell where it is going. There must be a mechanism in place to stem the passions of social transformation, or else the whole process can go horribly awry. For example, the Chinese Communist Revolution was so brutal in part because of Chairman Mao’s demand for “constant revolution” so that the people would never become “complacent.”

Social change is a worthy goal, but the lessons of history suggest that prudence is necessary to make sure it succeeds. Revolutions cannot be solely emotional if they are to work – logic and caution must play a prominent role as well.

On a lighter note, here is a great comic by one of my favorite comic artists, Kate Beaton:

I was glancing through my Facebook News Feed the other day, when I saw a meme that my friend posted that said, “When we destroy something created by man, we call it vandalism. When we destroy something created by nature, we call it progress” (by Ed Begley, Jr.).

Why are humans considered separate from nature? Human beings are, at the end of the day, still “animals” in the strictest sense – we are mammals. It is as though many people consider humans “apart from nature,” some kind of rogue element, a parasite, that destroys nature by way of its mere existence. Yet, we don’t treat other animals this way. When humans use wood to build homes and make paper products, they are accused of “cutting down the trees and destroying nature.” Yet, when birds use wood to build nests, that is considered “natural.” Why? The things that bears and beavers build are considered natural, but the things humans build are considered unnatural. That is illogical.

The line between what is “natural” and what is “unnatural” has become somewhat arbitrary. Many people routinely consider chemicals unnatural, but nearly every natural occurrence is the result of a chemical reaction. So, then, why are some chemicals privileged over others? What makes certain chemicals more “natural” than others? In the late 20th century, Greenpeace attempted to ban the element chlorine entirely – but chlorine is part of table salt, it filters our water, it cleans our swimming pools, and it performs a number of other functions that are crucial to society. Banning the existence of a naturally-occurring element on the periodic table seems unnatural.

The idea of “harmony with nature” has both upsides and downsides. Because we exist in a modern industrialized society where we have the privilege of taking for granted our hot water, our instant light-switches, and our internet, we have begun to idealize a pastoral Eden that has never existed. Many people have become seduced by the vision of “humans in harmony with nature,” a picture in which we dance in the woods, live in small homes, and drink water straight from the streams. Yet, that is a utopia – it has never existed.

The reality of nature is more harsh than romantic. Before the late 19th century, when humans actually lived in a more “natural” state, that “natural” state included such horrors as burning wood and dung to make fuel, malaria, tuberculosis, drinking water from streams that contained animal waste, and floods and storms from which we had little shelter or protection. Americans used to boast proudly in the 19th century about taming nature, because it meant that they had overcome such hardships and could live comfortably. When we say that we want to “live in harmony with nature,” what we actually mean is that we want to go camping for about a week (perhaps stay in a log cabin while we are out in the woods), bring modern conveniences with us, and then go back to our heated, weather-resistant homes once that week is over. What we do not mean is that we want to abandon modern civilization entirely and put ourselves at the mercy of natural forces.

We should be willing to consider our industrial achievements part of nature. Since we are part of nature and they are our creations (created from elements found from nature as well), there is no reason they should not be considered part of the environment. Being in “harmony with nature” does not mean recklessly attempting to turn back time – it means charting a more prudent future. So let us build and be proud of what we build – they are as much a part of nature as we are.