When it comes to nature, people seem to fit into three basic groups. In the first group are those for whom the natural world is inherently precious and deserving of protection. They don’t need a reason to care about the environment.
The second group consists of people who have a more utilitarian attitude. They say, “Yes, I’ll take care of nature, if it gives me something in return.” The original wilderness movement rested on this way of thinking. And now so does one of the major pillars of the sustainability movement: ecosystem services.
According to the ecosystem services philosophy, not only does the natural world provide many goods that have economic value (game, forage, timber, fuel, medicines, etc.), it also supplies many services that are undervalued or perhaps not even recognized as essential to society (water purification, waste decomposition, carbon storage, biodiversity maintenance, etc.). This school of thought gives everyone in the first two groups a handy way to appeal to the third group: those who don’t seem to care too much at all about protecting nature.
All well and good. But if I needed a reason to care about nature, there’s another one that I find even more meaningful: that the natural world teaches us about what we are as humans. And I’m not talking about a bunch of airy spiritual stuff.
Alligators All Around
Before we humans were Homo sapiens, we were some other sort of primate, probably hairier and smaller in stature, and definitely with posture that would make our present-day mothers shudder. In the millennia before we figured out spears, living in the wild as we did – with no claws and no particular strength or speed – we were often food for carnivorous mammals and reptiles.
Have you ever thought about actually living daily in fear of being eaten? Although plenty of people in the non-western world still do confront this situation, most of us can’t quite imagine it. Yet we are the evolutionary product of that reality.
In The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Parasites, Predators and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, biologist Rob Dunn points out this rather obvious but little-considered fact: our visceral “fight or flight” reaction is so deep and automatic, so omni-present in every human, that it had to have developed as a species-wide adaptive response to real danger. Do you hate scary movies? This could be why. Do you love scary movies? Maybe your ancient brain is seeking something that’s missing from our modern lives.
Dunn says: “We make sense, you and I, only in the light of our understanding of general rules and tendencies of ecology and evolution.” (p. 259) I say: we get the opportunity to understand those tendencies by closely observing natural patterns and processes, in places that aren’t dominated by human influence.
The Bottom Line
We live according to various laws of nature. One of the most important of these is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that although energy can’t be created or destroyed (that’s the First Law of Thermodynamics), it can be transformed. Further, all transformations release some amount of energy, from smaller systems out to the larger systems in which they are embedded.
In The Myth of Progress, ecologist Tom Wessels explains how this works in the natural world. When systems are growing, they’re taking in more energy than they’re releasing – as in a young forest. When they absorb and release roughly equal amounts of energy, they’re in a state of “dynamic equilibrium” – like a mature forest. When systems release more energy than they absorb – as in a clear-cut or dying forest – they’re at the beginning of the end, unless new energy is added.
The planet’s biosphere, according to Wessels, was in dynamic equilibrium from about 250,000 years ago until the nineteenth century. Then we humans got all industrial. Since the mid-1800’s we’ve been burning (transforming) fossil fuels like fiends, releasing vast amounts of energy out to the atmosphere. And now, for the first time in the Earth’s 3.5-billion-year history, Wessels writes, “a single species is responsible for the degradation of the biosphere by releasing more energy through transformations than is being replaced by global photosynthesis.” (p.49)
In scientific terms, this is entropy on the rise. In lay terms, it is loss of complexity, increasing simplification of every ecosystem, our living world in decline. We can see the Second Law of Thermodynamics in action all around us: reduced forest cover, desertification, soil erosion, dying coral reefs, loss of biodiversity, global climate change. The Second Law explains what is happening, and tells us that it can’t go on forever.
Compete or Co-exist?
There are lots of ways to get along with other creatures. The one we humans identify with best, seemingly our cherished default mode, is competition. Within our own species, we do whatever it takes…out-running, out-throwing, out-eating, out-singing…out-doing in every way, when we feel our survival is at stake or we need to prove our worth. When it comes to interacting with other species, our competitiveness generally takes the form of impairing, maiming, or otherwise obliterating them.
Of course, nature is full of competitive interactions, and competition itself is neither good nor bad. But there are other ways that nature works, different methods of association that might be beneficial to us, diverse survival strategies we might consider emulating a bit more. Take, for example, symbiosis.
Loosely defined as two or more species living in intimate association, symbiosis occurs in three ways:
Parasitism, in which the “symbiont” depends on some sort of host, and in the process harms but doesn’t kill that host (unless something goes wrong).
Commensalism, in which the symbiont neither harms nor helps the host.
Mutualism, in which intimate co-existence benefits both organisms.
Renowned entomologist, E. O. Wilson, claims that most life on land actually depends on this last kind of symbiosis, “the intimate and mutually dependent coexistence of fungi and the root systems of plants.” In his book, The Diversity of Life, he writes: “Without the plant-fungus partnership, the very colonization of the land by higher plants and animals, 450 to 400 million years ago, probably could not have been accomplished. Today the tropical rain forests, which may contain more than half of the species of plants and animals on earth, grow on a mat of mycorrhizal fungi.” (p. 179)
Rob Dunn makes a related point in The Wild Life of Our Bodies. About the microbes in our intestines, he explains that they keep us alive by helping us extract more calories from food, synthesizing vitamins for us and, when all is normal, preventing the intrusion of harmful pathogens. In exchange, we give them a place to live. We (usually) hardly know they’re there, and they, well they’re just living in their comfy home, doing what they do.
Mutualism in nature is often hidden or invisible to us. Microbes, fungi, bacteria… we hardly know ‘em. But many of these tiny beings demonstrate an incredibly effective, even advanced, method of getting along with other species. Competition may seem like our best choice, but mutualist symbiosis is a model we could learn a lot from, especially now as we move into a time of increased demand for precious supplies of food, water and energy.
Here I have presented just three examples of how we benefit by having access to nature’s huge storehouse of information. You can probably think of many more. Ecosystem services are good; there’s no doubt about that. They give us a useful tool for helping people see the value of caring about the environment.
However, protecting nature’s trove of knowledge about where we’ve come from, what we are now, and how we can deal with the challenges ahead – this, I believe, is the best reason to take care of the natural world (if you need a reason).
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