Your key word is meaningless. Everything is natural. Everything in the universe is a part of nature. Polyester, pesticides, oil slicks, and whoopee cushions. Nature is not just trees and flowers. It’s everything. Human beings are part of nature. And if a human being invents something, that’s part of nature, too. Like the whoopee cushion.
— George Carlin
But for most of us the idea of back to nature might be a myth. In our past we might have been closer to nature, but we probably were never truly happy living in it as a group. And for the planet this may be a good thing. Towns and cities, artificial as they are, might have saved the rest of the planet from our kind. If human beings didn’t concentrate in highly populated areas, they would be more uniformly spread out across the continents and human beings are harder on the environment than a herd of elephants is. So cities it is!
I doubt humans have ever been “truly happy”, though I also have to wonder if previous generations grappled with the sort of existential meaning of happiness that we do, where comfortable, reasonably meaningful lives aren’t enough, thus leading people to imagine that some sort of magical transformation will blissfully envelop them if they leave it all behind and go live in a cabin in the forest while growing and hunting their own food.
I can see where the shift in perspective can seem beneficial to harried, overworked people who just want days to go by at a slower pace, but that’s only because you’re contrasting it with your modern, frenzied lifestyle. Your kids, lacking that contrast, will grow up bored out of their skulls, and go off to the cities in search of adventures. T’was ever thus.
Deep ecologists pride themselves on finding a supposedly intrinsic worth to nature, independent of whatever practical use humans can derive from it. Granted, there are numerous solid reasons to not simply treat the rest of the world and all the other species as tools or raw clay for humans to mold to their liking. But the idea of intrinsic worth and value is an old Platonic/Christian inheritance. There’s no moral redemption for the ideological children of Rousseau, any more than there is moral damnation for those who live modern lives in big cities. Humans invented the latter because they wanted to escape the drudgery of rural, rustic living. Now we think we cast ourselves out of the Garden and want to find our way back. But if it’s Biblical metaphors you want, it might be more useful to think of us as descendants of Cain, doomed to wander, never feeling at home anywhere.