Two important books suggest major new ways we need to think about nature and our connection to it: Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order by Richard Hobbs, R.J., Eric Higgs, and Carol Hall and Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris. Both start with the premise that people have changed the environment in major ways, and even for a long time. This is the nature that we used to believe was constant, perfect, beautiful, and sustainable as long as people did not touch it.
Beginning in the latter part of the 20th century, it became clear that on the contrary people had been changing nature for a long time over large areas. (See my earlier book Discordant Harmonies, A New Ecology for the 21st Century.) Even prehistorical and pre-agricultural peoples made major changes in the land.
To this we can add that evidence shows clearly that nature on its own has always changed and continues to change: species come and go; climate goes through major periods of cold and warm; during ice ages ocean shrink, as I discuss in my new book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.
So how does this change how we think about, plan for, and take actions regarding our environment, especially our living environment? One interpretation might be: If our ancestors did all kinds of things to nature for many centuries and we are still here, and much of nature is here, and nature is always changing, then, what the heck, we can do anything we want and it won’t matter. But that’s the wrong conclusion.
Once we understand that nature has always changed and is always changing, then nature becomes our guide. There are certain ways that natural ecological systems, species, and populations have changed over the 3.5 billion years that life has been on Earth, and more recently, in the past 2 or so million years that our hominid ancestors first began to roam the Earth. Species therefore have had a long time to adjust to, evolve with, and many even to require, those kinds of changes.
Take forest fires as an example. A surprising percentage of forest tree species require fire in order to reproduce and persist. But these fires must be of certain types in any specific ecosystem. Most often, the fires that help sustain species are frequent and light. Elimination of all fires can result in the elimination of the fire-dependent species, including ones that are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Very large fires, which occur when there is a sufficient time between fires for a lot of wood fuel to build up in a forest, can kill the seed-bearing trees, burn up the organic soil, and make forest regeneration difficult, also eliminating some species.
The answer to the question: How should we act toward nature? begins with the rule: Let nature be your guide to processes. If you plan an action that is natural in kind and rate, in the way I have described “natural,” then chances are things will be okay. E.g. promote frequent light fires in those forests whose species depend on those fires. Avoid actions that are not in nature’s usual bag of tricks, like the introduction of completely novel chemicals. CFCs and the ozone layer come to mind as unexpected consequences of an otherwise seemingly innocuous chemical.
Our rule number 1: Let nature be our guide to actions, means that we can focus on natural processes rather than nature structures. Here’s what this means. The old and long-persisting idea of a balance of nature saw that balance in the structure of ecosystems. For example, a forest had to have exactly the same species in the same percentages and small size class forever. Since this never happened and never can happen, unless we expend a lot of effort, energy, and money, as in a home garden, the belief in a structure balance of nature cannot be our goal, and it has misguided people for centuries.
The transition we need to make is much like the transition that took place with Newton’s discovery of the laws of motion. Before Newton, physical nature was believed to have to be perfect in its structure. After Newton, perfection in physics could be seen in the laws of motion. The ancient Greeks and even the Renaissance Europeans hated mountains. They were unsymmetric, dangerous, and ugly and did not fit into the classic idea of a symmetrically beautiful nature. But the English Romantic poets saw nature differently. They could find a “horrible joy” in crossing the Alps, and saw beauty is storms at sea. A similar thing is happening with our ideas about biological nature. Wildness has to do with processes, not structure. More about that later.
What is rule number 2? It’s equally important, and the subject of my next essay.