Ecology: How Should We Live Here on Earth?


In the previous post I drew on the work of Thomas Berry and Osprey Orielle Lake to help answer the question: Which way do we go from here?  Their answer was to revitalize our industrial lives so that we see ourselves in nature rather than as an outside force seeking to control it.  If this is so, a new question follows: How then shall we live?

Here on Earth

Australian environmentalist, Tim Flannery, sought to answer this question in his 2011 book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet.  In his own words, he tried to avoid a myopic vision of a few short generations by taking “a wider view, one that encompasses humanity over the millennia and the world over the aeons.”  Though only too well aware of the serious predicament facing current generations, Flannery is encouraged at the end of his enquiry to say: “I feel optimistic—for ourselves, our children and our planet.  If we are to prosper, we must have hope, goodwill and understanding.”

Flannery begins his enquiry with Charles Darwin whose theory of evolution forever changed forever the way humanity would see itself in relation to the natural world.  Even today the theory remains controversial, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, not just because many people for religious and other reasons resist the idea that human beings could have evolved out of “lesser” species, but also because Darwin’s theory has been twisted into a belief called Social Darwinism that justifies the elimination of the “less fit” among us in order to strengthen the larger society.

More recently a science called Neo-Darwinism has emerged with the discovery of the mechanism of inheritance through genes, the structure of DNA and genomes.  One of the most outspoken proponents of Neo-Darwinism is Richard Dawkins, who, in essence, has argued that “we and other animals are mere ‘survival mechanisms’ whose sole purpose is to ensure the perpetuation of the genes we carry.”  In 1976 Dawkins published The Selfish Gene whose central thesis received wide acclaim during the 1980s—“the era when greed was seen as good, and when the free market was worshipped.”

What Flannery is cautioning us about is relying on the reductionist kind of thinking of scientists like Richard Dawkins who have a mechanistic view of the world that does not capture the full complexity of who we are as human beings.  Dawkins coined the term “memes” for transmitted ideas and beliefs and argued that memes of self-interest are living structures within ourselves and society.  From that it is a short step to the proposal of paleontologist Peter Ward of the “Medea Hypothesis,” named after the terrifying Medea of Greek mythology, who murdered her own children as an act of revenge against her husband, Jason. “Ward thinks that life is equally bloody and self-destructive,” says Flannery, “arguing that species will, if left unchecked, destroy themselves by exploiting their resources to the point of ecosystem collapse.”  It is a deeply dismaying hypothesis, for it implies that “we must either thrive by destroying others, or be destroyed ourselves in turn.”

However, there is another worldview that replaces ideas of survival of the fittest, Medean catastrophism, and winner-take-all with a view that sees “the evolutionary process as a series of win-win outcomes that has created a productive, stable and co-operative Earth.”  It is to that more hopeful worldview that we now turn.

With some sense of irony, Tim Flannery points out that it was another 19th century scientist, Alfred Russell Wallace—who simultaneous with Darwin hit on the theory of evolution—whose worldview was more hopeful and, therefore, for us today more important as a way of looking to the future.  Wallace recognized that “while evolution by natural selection is a fearsome mechanism, it has nevertheless created a living working planet, which includes us, with our love for each other, and our society.”  Alfred Russell Wallace, Flannery believes, “was the first modern scientist to comprehend how essential cooperation is to our survival.”

The Gaia Hypothesis

However Wallace’s “deepest ideas could not prosper in the brutal, imperial age in which he lived.”  It was not until the 1970s that a new “more powerfully explicatory theory of the type Wallace was groping at emerged” at a time when the world was a little more willing to listen.

The person who developed that theory was James Lovelock, a British scientist of working class origins with Quaker pacifist beliefs.  In September 1965 when Lovelock was visiting the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California he was shown evidence that Venus and Mars were dead planets with atmospheres composed mostly of carbon dioxide.  He had the insight that Earth was different because living things had reduced its atmospheric carbon dioxide and replaced it with oxygen.  Lovelock’s own words summarize the essence of his insight: “The image of the Earth as a living organism able to regulate its temperature and chemistry at a comfortable steady state emerged in my mind.”

The Gaia Hypothesis, as it came to be known (named for Gaia, the Greek goddess of the Earth), received a less than enthusiastic reception from most other contemporary scientists.  Lovelock published his book Gaia in 1979 and Richard Dawkins described it as part of “the pop-ecology literature” of the time. 

In part, this vilification of Lovelock’s theory comes from misconstruing what he meant by saying the Earth is a living organism.  In essence, the Gaia Hypothesis, as summarized by Flannery, “describes cooperation at the highest level . . . It’s not that living things chose to cooperate, but that evolution has shaped them to do so.”

“Lovelock’s hypothesis is at least as controversial today as Darwin’s theory of evolution was 150 years ago,” says Flannery.  This is partly because it smacks of paganism, which is offensive to many religious beliefs, and the deep interconnectedness central to its thesis “presents a profound challenge to our current economic model, for it explains that there are both limits to growth, and no ‘away’ to throw anything to.”

However, ecological science is gradually gaining more influence in the 21st century as we struggle with issues of climate change and toxic contamination of the environment, and the concept of “Gaia’s housekeeping” over eons of time that has put everything in its place to sustain life, is gaining more credibility among people everywhere.  But what we still don’t fully appreciate is the extent to which human activity is disrupting what the Earth has done over billions of years in drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering elements like iron, mercury, lead, zinc and uranium deep below in its rocks.  “But now the human burrowers in the Earth have arrived, and, as we tunnel into the buried troves, we undo the work of aeons.”

Discounting the Future

The remainder of Flannery’s book is a sorry account of how we have despoiled our planet in an ongoing war against nature, because the concept of Gaia as a precious living organism has come late in the history of industrial exploitation, and is still heavily resisted by those who stand to benefit most in the short term from ravaging the planet.

The tendency to discount the future is one of our most serious failures.  Most worrisome is that the tendency increases as people lose their prospects.  “And people without prospects are created in a number of ways—through grinding poverty, through greatly unequal societies, and through war, famine or other misfortunes.  If you’re concerned about our future,” says Flannery, “it’s not just desirable that we eradicate poverty in the developing world, create more equal societies and never let ourselves fight another war; it’s imperative, for the discount factor tells us that failure to do so may cost us the Earth.”

Clearly, what this implies for grandparents and all who care about children, is that we encourage in them a sense of purpose to create a sustainable future, even though this means downsizing material aspirations from our own generations’ levels and spreading economic development more equally around the world without contributing to larger overall growth on a planet whose finite resources and ability to sustain life are already highly compromised.  Moreover, if we hope to see that ethic in our descendants, we must begin to live it ourselves, now.

Flannery sees the climate crisis as the first test of humanity’s ability to work cooperatively to save the planet.  “We stand just a few steps away from the global cooperation required. . .How will we know if we’ve turned the corner in our battle for a sustainable future?  When profiteering at Gaia’s expense is regarded and punished as the gravest of crimes . . . Such a moment, if it ever comes, will close a chapter in human history—that of the frontier—which has characterized our species for fifty thousand years.”

This, then, is Flannery’s answer to the question of how we are to live here on Earth.  If we are to avoid the Medean hypothesis of destroying ourselves through greed and self-interest, we must embrace the memes of cooperation and interconnectedness contained in the Gaia hypothesis.  From our present vantage point, says Flannery, we cannot know the outcome, “but I am certain of one thing—if we do not strive to love one another, and to love our planet as much as we love ourselves, then no further human progress is possible here on Earth.”

Nature-Deficit Disorder

Loving the planet begins with feeling connected to nature.  You can’t love what you don’t know.  Alienation from nature of countless millions of people in current generations throughout the industrialized world is perhaps the chief reason for us to be concerned that Flannery’s fears for the curtailment of human progress may be realized in the course of the 21st century.  No one has written more emphatically about this than American environmentalist Richard Louv.

In his widely acclaimed book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), Louv focuses on the issue of how the education given to young children today deprives them of experiencing the natural world.  He coined a new term for the problem our children face, calling it “nature-deficit disorder.”  He cites research linking alienation from nature to a multitude of human costs including “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”  The research, he says, “focuses not so much on what is lost when nature fades, but on what is gained in the presence of the natural world . . . just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature . . . There’s a great need to educate parents about this research . . . Such knowledge may inspire us to choose a different path, one that leads to a nature-child reunion . . . The health of the earth is at stake as well.  How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configuration and conditions of our cities and homes—our daily lives.”  People living in congested, polluted cities working in de-natured office towers and factories, and pursuing long hours of stressful work with little or no thought for the natural world that supports them are certainly not going to know how to love their planet.

In support of the intrinsic value of contact with the natural world for positive human development, Louv cites the research of Harvard University scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edward O. Wilson, who developed the biophilia hypothesis.  “Wilson defines biophilia as ‘the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.’  He and his colleagues argue that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world, probably a biologically based need integral to our development as individuals.”  A related concept is “eco-psychology” presented by historian and social critic, Theodore Rozak, who argues “that we have repressed our ‘ecological unconscious’ that provides ‘our connection to our evolution on earth.’”  There is little doubt that humanity’s existential problems in the 21st century, though manifested through excessive energy use and flawed economics, stems at a deeper level from our denial of our biological and psychological connection to the Earth.

So, what to do about it?  Louv cites Professor David Orr’s conviction that “a sane civilization ‘would have more parks and fewer shopping malls; more small towns and smaller cities; more solar collectors and fewer strip mines; more bicycle trails and fewer freeways; more trains and fewer cars; more celebration and less hurry.’ . . He [Orr] calls for a movement of ‘hundreds of thousands of young people equipped with the vision, moral stamina, and intellectual depth necessary to rebuild neighbourhoods, towns, and communities around the planet.’”

But such a vision can be realized only if the kind of education presently available to children is radically shifted towards ecological values at least as comparable as values for the humanities and sciences.  In fact, the school curriculum needs to be re-oriented so that the human presence on Earth with all of our wonderful achievements (as well as our failures) is understood  in terms of our required role to be stewards of the natural world.

Such a shift of focus in education would, in Richard Louv’s words, encourage “those children and young people who now hunger to find a cause worth a lifetime commitment [to] become the architects and designers and political force of the fourth frontier, connecting their own children and future generations to nature—and delight.”  This is a long way from the current reality of what Louv calls “the first de-natured generation” coming out of our schools and colleges.  But it’s a great vision, and surely that is what is needed to inspire both educators and students to break away from the conditions of nature-deficit disorder.

The Nature Principle

In Last Child in the Woods Richard Louv sent out a clarion call for educational reform that would reconnect the youth of the world to nature.  But we can’t wait for next generations to bring about transformational change.  The stresses of climate change and a degraded environment are already upon us.  Civilization needs a new ethic to live by.  In his latest book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age (2011) Louv sets out the new ethic and describes in great detail what it will mean for the world to live that way.

Recognizing that humanity is not going to turn away from a technological future, Louv argues that for our own salvation we must find an accommodation in nature for our technological way of life.  Two fundamental questions guide the arguments in The Nature Principle: “What would our lives be like if our days and nights were as immersed in nature as they are in technology?  How can each of us help create that life-enhancing world, not only in a hypothetical future, but right now, for our families and ourselves?”

The Nature Principle “holds that a reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival.”  Louv acknowledges that the world is currently on the opposite course—the destruction of nature, which is all the more reason for pressing his argument as forcefully as he can.  Destruction of nature is assured without a human reconnection to our origins.  “This is why the Nature Principle is about conservation, but also about restoring nature while we restore ourselves, about creating new natural habitats where they once were or never were, in our homes, workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, cities, suburbs, and farms.  It’s about the power of living in nature—not with it, but in it.  The twenty-first century will be the century of human restoration in the natural world.”

The last statement is a bold claim far different from the forecast for the 21st century made by Jorgen Randers in his book, 2052, and previously described in this blog in post #26.  Randers sees the century steadily running out of hope for humanity as intransigent populations and governments follow the same industrial practices that brought us to our present place.  He begs us in the end to make his forecast wrong.  In The Nature Principle Louv is making a valiant effort to do just that.

He begins his book with some philosophical underpinnings before turning to practical applications.  In order to live in nature in a digital age he says that we will need to develop a “hybrid mind” so that we “combine the ‘primitive’ powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers . . . a balance of high-tech and natural knowledge.”

Louv introduces the concept of an “ecological unconscious,” which he says “hovers above the crossroads of science, philosophy and theology—the notion that all of nature is connected in ways that we do not fully understand,” similar to the concept of the “Over-Soul” described by Ralph Waldo Emmerson “within which everyman’s particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart.”  Though this concept may be a bit of a stretch for science and even offensive to some religious faiths, as Louv acknowledges,  there is no doubt that most of us experience a sense of pain when we come upon a forest ripped apart by clearcuts or see a pristine marine environment contaminated by oil.  There is a clear sense of connection felt by all but the most insensitive among us.

With that sense of an ecological unconscious Louv argues that many urban dwellers feel “a desire to be part of a community that extends beyond human neighbours to the fellow creatures among us.”  He refers to the concept of “social capital” developed by Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam in his 1995 book, Bowling Alone, in which Putnam argues that people need to be part of a community to lead fulfilled lives.  Louv extends the concept to “human/nature social capital, whereby we are made stronger, richer, through our experiences not only with humans, but with our other neighbours—animals and plants, and the wilder and more native, the better.”

Creating Everyday Eden

Having established the importance of the human-nature connection, Louv turns to examples of how it is being put into practice in a kind of “Everyday Eden.”  He describes Karen Harwell’s home and garden in the San Francisco Bay area: The yard “is only six hundred square feet, yet it harbors ducks, a beehive, eighteen semi-dwarf fruit trees, an organic vegetable garden, calming places to sit and read and think, and neighborhood teenagers.”  It is a model for what Louv calls “restorative homes and gardens.”  “For individuals and a few developers an emerging high-tech/high-nature housing design philosophy includes conserving energy, using earth-friendly materials, and also applying biophilic design principles to promote health, human energy, and beauty.”

Another leader in the movement to restore the urban environment is Professor Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware, who states: “My central thesis is that unless we restore native plants to our suburban ecosystems, the future of biodiversity in the United States is dim . . . our native insect fauna cannot, or will not, use urban plants for food . . . insect populations in areas with many alien plants will be smaller than insect populations in areas with all natives. . . a land without insects is a land without most forms of higher life.”  Richard Louv cites Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens as among the best resources on this topic.  This surely is an enterprise in which grandparents and grandchildren could work together in fostering the human-nature connection.

Biomimicry is another important practice in the restoration of nature.  It ‘encompasses the view that nature is not an enemy to be vanquished, but our design partner; not the problem, but the solution.”  Louv cites design examples from traffic flow based on the way fish move in schools, to office tower design based on termite mounds.  Most significantly, research shows the use of trees and plants in urban settings influences the behaviour and perceptions of shoppers and others.  Even big-box stores could be made more attractive with green roofs. “All things being equal, when the public is given a choice between a generic, marginal strip mall and a pleasant tree-lined shopping area, the smart money would be on the trees.”

Louv refers to New York City as the ultimate example where restorative homes and gardens could work wonders.  “In New York City, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of green places, even green roofs, that could be stitched together politically and protected. . . New Yorkers could make urban history by creating a park comprised of thousands of small play areas landscaped with native plants, a galaxy of urban emeralds on the ground and on the roofs.  Perhaps call it by one name: New York City’s De-Central Park.”

Rediscovering Gaia

In the concluding section of his book Louv brings back the work and wisdom of people we have met before in this and previous posts.  There is James Lovelock with his Gaia Hypothesis that the Earth is a complex self-correcting superorganism and we humans are ill-advised to interrupt the mechanism.  We meet again Thomas Berry calling for a new story for the 21st century—“a reunion between humans and nature” and reminding us that “a degraded habitat will produce degraded humans.”  Paul Hawken warns us that “the world and its minutiae are diverse beyond our comprehension and highly organized for their own ends, and that all facets connect in ways which are sometimes obvious and at other times mysterious and complex.”  Humanity in the 21st century could have no greater objective than seeking to understand how we are part of that great connected whole and designing our lives and work to fit within its embrace.

I will give Richard Louv the last word: “We can truly care for nature and ourselves only if we see ourselves and nature as inseparable, only if we believe that human beings have a right to the gift of nature, undestroyed.” (Italics in the original).












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