The Environment and People: Changing Our Perception of Nature

Discover why we must change our perception of nature in order to effectively confront the range of problems facing the environment and people.

Venice La Salute

It is said that the building of the church Santa Maria della Salute, in Venice, Italy, began with the driving of 1,106,657 trunks of alder, oak, and larch, trees once common in the region, into the muds of the lagoon. Completely submerged, so that they were no longer exposed to the air, the wood was protected from decay and thus remains as the foundation for the church.

Photo By Daniel B. Botkin

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Poised to be a core text of the twenty-first century environmental movement, The Moon in the Nautilus Shell (Oxford University Press, 2012) challenges us to think critically about our role in nature. It expands upon the ideas put forth in Daniel Botkin's Discordant Harmonies (1990), the book considered by many to be the classic text of the environmental movement. Botkin was among the first to challenge the then dominant view that nature ideally exists in a state of perfect balance, remaining constant over time unless disturbed by human influence. He argues that nature has no ideal state of balance, but is instead constantly evolving and fluctuating. It is critical to the success of our future initiatives that we acknowledge that fact. The Moon in the Nautilus Shell brings Botkin's ideas into the twenty-first century. Readers will learn that the belief in a balanced nature is alive and well, though those who hold it are constantly confronted by scientific evidence that stands in opposition. 

In the universe the battle of conflicting elements springs from a single rational principle, so that it would be better for one to compare it to the melody which results from conflicting sounds.

— Plotinus, The Enneads (third century CE)

One of the famous and often photographed sights in Venice is the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, known as La Salute, which decorates the outer Grand Canal, its graceful dome presenting an image of great solidity, of heavy but graceful architecture, set against the constant motion of the coastal waters. It is said that the building of that single church began with the driving of 1,106,657 trunks of alder, oak, and larch, trees once common in the region, into the muds of the lagoon. Completely submerged, so that they were no longer exposed to the air, the wood was protected from decay and thus remains as the foundation for the church. So it is with the rest of the city. That most famous example of human artifact, the architecture of Venice, survives in a changing lagoon because of a foundation built of wood, a biological support structure, surprising in our modern age of steel and concrete. This image of architectural beauty within nature—beginning in the fifth century CE and continuing to today—can be viewed as a metaphor for the overall message of this book, and this first chapter serves as an overview of the primary dilemmas we face and that I discuss throughout.

Venice functions as a city partly because of the natural ecosystems of the lagoon, which, among other things, decomposes the sewage and other organic wastes from the city. Venice also functions because of its connection to the tides and currents of the Adriatic Sea, which continuously remove sewage from the lagoon, transporting it to the open ocean. The human artifice of the city persists because of biological matter and ecological processes, in combination with the external environment beyond the direct reach of the Venetians.  And these ecological processes occur over many different time periods, from the twice daily tides to responses of the Earth’s surface since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

Venice was founded in the fifth and sixth centuries CE as a refuge for people fleeing Germanic tribes, primarily the Lombards, who were destroying the Roman Empire. Inhabitants of towns around the northern Adriatic fled to the marshes, from which they could more easily defend themselves. At first, they returned to their home cities after a raid, but eventually they began to settle in the lagoon. The mud in the marshes was unstable and shifted continually; to create a city, it was necessary to stabilize the ground. The first Venetians did this by driving millions of saplings into the mud.

Venice’s environment is not simply an out-there, and not simply something that Venetians have damaged only to their own disadvantage; the intimate involvement of people and environment made it possible to create this city and for it to persist for fifteen centuries. This tight integration of people and nature is the perception we need, but have not yet made our own. One of the purposes of this book is to help us make this transition—from seeing ourselves as outside of nature and therefore only harming it, to seeing ourselves as within and part of nature, and capable of developing a natural nurturing.  As today’s Venice illustrates, this isn’t an easy transition, either as an idea or in deciding what actions to take.

In the early 1980s, I was in Venice to attend an international conference, "Man's Role in Changing the Global Environment."  That city was an intriguing place to discuss environment and people, because its history provides an image in miniature of our current situation. Standing across the Grand Canal from Santa Maria della Salute, I could not help but compare my view at the end of the twentieth century with the view that must have confronted the first settlers more than one thousand years ago, a view of flat marshland that stretched dishearteningly as far as the eye could see. I imagined what it might be like to begin to build the foundation for a great city by driving saplings into the salt marsh to hold the mud in place. What ideas did that take? What views of nature, the "environment," and the relationship between people and nature?

Although impelled by necessity, the first Venetians did not go to those marshes so long ago empty-handed, without the benefit of some knowledge of technology or of natural history, without the benefit of civilization. They brought with them three things: ideas, technologies, and a perspective of the world—how nature works, how people might change nature, and how the world in the future might be different from the world they had known in the past. Today, our position in relation to the environment of our entire planet is similar to that of the ancient settlers of Venice in relation to the marshes of the Adriatic. We see problems shifting before us whose solutions are unclear. Some of us, fearing disasters, want to simply flee to the marshes, to run away from the human enemy, ourselves, and do no more than stick our heads in the muds of forgetfulness. Some of us want only to wail and complain about that enemy. Others want to forge a new foundation for our lives, the equivalent of sinking millions of trees into the mud, to use our imagination, our inventiveness, and our ability to observe our surroundings carefully, to improve both our lives and the condition of nature around us.

Modern Venice epitomizes many of the dilemmas we continue to face in the twenty-first century—a variety of environmental problems, in which the role of people is sometimes obvious and sometimes undetermined, and even when problems are recognized, solutions that would work and would be politically and societally acceptable elude us. The city is slowly sinking, so that it suffers more and more frequently from fall to spring from high waters, the famous aqua alta, that flood the grand floors of many classic buildings and otherwise beautiful open spaces, like the famous Piazza San Marco. The lagoon’s waters are polluted from sewage, because since its founding Venetian houses simply dumped wastes into the canals, and the city still lacks a centralized sewage treatment center. Thus Venice past and present illustrates the human/nature dilemmas that remain with us. 

Beginning in the nineteenth century with the writings of Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh, and continuing through the 1980s, the nations of Western civilization, and especially Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, grew increasingly concerned about the adverse consequences of our technologies on local and regional environments, at the scale of a city like Venice and its environs, which includes the lagoon and the farmlands and industries nearby. By the 1960s and 1970s, this had grown into a major political and ideological movement, today’s environmentalism. New sciences developed, and earlier ones, such as ecology, blossomed in ways that its pioneers could never have imagined. 

With the beginning of the space age and many new techniques for scientific research, the perspective broadened again, to a view of life as a planetary phenomenon and of people as capable of affecting the environment globally. By the 1980s we became aware that we were witnessing technological effects that might radically change the relationship between people and nature on a global scale and with greater potential power than ever before. But at the same time, some believed more hopefully that we could envisage not only the destructive effects that have received so much widespread publicity, but also the possibility of constructive management that could achieve long-term uses of natural resources and enhance the environment in ways both pleasing to us and necessary for the survival of life on the Earth.

For most of us, some environmental issues have become frightening and frustrating. This concern has reached a level unimagined by the early-twentieth-century writers about nature, going beyond ordinary interest and capturing the world’s imagination. We are told repeatedly that we are witnessing technological effects that are radically changing nature, and the relationship between people and nature, on a global scale. Some environmental problems seem to be discussed in the media again and again, but given the level of disagreement and rancor among experts, we often don’t know what to believe.  Something said to be true in one decade is rejected in the next. Other ideas seem to recur every decade, at first eliciting loud calls of alarm and warnings of disaster from experts, but on further scientific inquiry appearing less dire and then temporarily fading away, only to return in a new form even more alarming than the last. Some examples of environmental problems that were thought not that long ago might lead to widespread disasters, but that may be unfamiliar to today’s reader include nuclear winter and acid rain damage to forests from eastern North America to Germany.

As the scale of these issues continues to increase, from the localized “silent spring” of Rachel Carson more than 40 years ago to concerns about global climate warming today, something is lacking in the way that we deal with these issues. I wrote in 1989 that solving our environmental problems requires a new perspective that goes beyond science and has to do with the way everyone perceives the world. That is still lacking—that new perspective has not taken hold.

But we are not empty-handed; on the contrary, we are the beneficiaries of a rich history in our own century, in the development of science and ideas about conservation. We walk in the footprints of pioneers in biology, geography, and conservation: Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt, George Perkins Marsh, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and a number of others. I wrote in 1989 that just as the first Venetians had a history of technology, knowledge of how to cut and use wood and stone, so we have a rich history in techniques, the great and powerful technologies of computers, of satellite remote sensing, and of modern chemical analysis. Just as the first Venetians were not the first to walk on the Adriatic shore, so we are not the first to understand that the environment is of importance.

It is more than 40 years since the phrase "spaceship Earth" was coined and made popular and more than 40 years since the Apollo astronauts took their famous photographs of the Earth from space—a blue globe enveloped by swirling white clouds against a black background—creating an image of a small island of life in an ocean of empty space. With this view of our planet, we were, in the 1970s, like the first settlers in Venice standing on the Adriatic coast and seeing outward a flat marshland, unsure perhaps whether that vista was friendly or hostile. They began to use their knowledge and their technology to build a great city. So can we take the opportunity to build a new approach to our environment, but we have been repeatedly thwarted in this attempt.

Computer and satellite technologies have greatly changed the material aspects of our lives, including how much we walk, exercise, play video games, navigate; the reliability of automobiles; many kinds of medical diagnostic techniques—in fact, most material aspects of our lives. And since the 1980s, satellite observations have become a major way that we learn about the environment. The idea has become popular, fashionable, that life is connected globally and that people might affect the environment at a global level. But ironically, to our detriment and that of the environment and our fellow creatures, the perception of our place in nature and what that nature is truly like has not changed. As a result, instead of viewing Earth as a life-supporting and life-containing planet, it is portrayed to us mostly as hostile and dangerous, a vast marshland that we can only view from afar and fear, the topic of disaster movies and scary television programs, deepening our gloom, further graying our skies. Nonetheless, it remains my hope that humanity, with its modern technologies, will come to see it as that beautiful blue sphere floating in space, brilliant in the reflected light of its sun, and filled with life, including and benefitting from the presence of our species.

We tend to think that our actions are limited simply by tools and information. But it is not for the lack of a measuring tape or an account sheet of nature that we are unable to deal with the environment. The potential for us to make progress with environmental issues is limited by the basic assumptions that we make about nature, the unspoken, often unrecognized perspective from which we view our environment.  Our perspective, ironically in this scientific age, depends on ancient myths and deeply buried beliefs. To gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and myths about nature and ourselves while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.

This is still the heart of our dilemma, as true today as it was in 1960 and in 1990.  The environmental movement of the past half-century is only the most recent emergence of older concerns about the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. Unfortunately, although we have made great progress in what we know about life on Earth and in our technologies to monitor and change life’s environment, we are still trapped by ancient ideas that prevent us from finding cures for our environmental deficiencies. Our rich experience in conservation, science, and technology presents opportunities to take positive approaches to environmental issues. Environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s was essentially a disapproving and in this sense negative movement, exposing the aspects of our civilization that are bad for our environment. It played an important role by awakening people's consciousness, but it didn’t provide many solutions to our environmental problems, or even viable approaches to solutions. That environmentalism was based on ideas of the industrial age, ideas that developed in the eighteenth century and expanded in the nineteenth, ideas that I will argue in the rest of this book are outmoded. That environmentalism has been perceived as opposing technological progress, but both those arguing for progress and those arguing for protection of the environment have shared a worldview, hidden assumptions, and myths about people and nature that dominated the industrial era. Neither science nor environmentalism has gotten to the roots of the issues, which lie deep in our ideas and assumptions about science and technology, and go even deeper in myths and ancient worldviews. Only by exposing the roots will we be able to achieve a constructive approach to our environmental problems.

How Our Perception of Nature Must Change

The changes that must take place in our perspective are twofold: We must recognize the dynamic rather than static properties of the Earth and its life-support system, and we must accept a global view of life on the Earth. We have tended to view nature as a Kodachrome still life, much like a tourist-guide illustration of La Salute; but nature with and without people is and always has been a moving-picture show, much like the continually changing and complex patterns of the waters in the Venetian lagoon.

These are changes that still need to happen. Today they get lip service at best. For example, our laws, policies, beliefs, and actions are primarily based on nature as a still life. This is all the more ironic in a society immersed in movies, television, and computer games that are dynamic, and cell phones that can take moving pictures. It is as if we watch but do not see; hear but do not listen; see the dance but do not feel the rhythm. Perhaps we need to go back and play once again Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and this time listen.

In the past, nature has meant what was in our background. Today, the Earth is our village, and in the past 40 years it has become popular, even conventional wisdom, to view it as a special place, a planet revealed by modern science to be strangely suited to support life.

The ability of the Earth's environment to support life was written about beautifully and precisely almost a century ago by Lawrence Henderson in his book The Fitness of the Environment. Henderson was struck by the characteristics of Earth as a planet that together make life possible. For example, Earth is large enough to hold an atmosphere, but not so large that its atmosphere is like that of Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus, toxic to life as we know it. It is close enough to the sun to be warm enough for living things, but not so close as to boil water everywhere, as on Mercury and Venus. And it rotates fast enough to make many rotations as it revolves around the sun; therefore, all of Earth’s surface gets sunlight some of the time, unlike Mercury, where one side is continually heated and the other continually cooled.

Henderson was also struck by the chemical and physical characteristics of the simple compounds so important to and within living things and so common on Earth. He wrote at length about the importance of the high latent heat of water—water’s capacity to store a lot of heat energy, a capacity greater than that of any other known small compound in the universe. This modulated the Earth’s temperature and that of individual organisms. Unlike most materials, water expands when it freezes, so solid water floats on liquid water. This, too, has important implications for life. Henderson recounted an old experiment that showed that if a vessel with ice at the bottom was filled with water, the water above the ice could be heated and boiled without melting the ice. If this were the case in nature, ice would gradually build up on the bottom of lakes and oceans until "eventually be turned of water . . . would all or much of the body to ice.”

Since liquid water is necessary to sustain living cells, support the "meteorological" cycle, and stabilize the temperature of Earth, which in turn is important to life, then "no other known substance could be substituted for water as the material out of which oceans, lakes, and rivers are formed" or "as the substance which passes through the meteorological cycle, without radical sacrifice of some of the most vital features of existing conditions."

Water is the "universal solvent," able to maintain many chemicals in solution so that the complex chemical processes of life can take place. Simply analyze human urine, Henderson suggested, within which there may be 80 dissolved compounds, to see that water is a wonderfully perfect liquid to support life. All in all, water seemed a mysteriously perfect chemical for life and fortuitously abundant on Earth.

Water’s odd combination of qualities, each unusual among similar small compounds and each making water peculiarly suitable to support life, perplexed Henderson.

Henderson's insights have become common knowledge, and since the beginning of the space age—the 1960s—something new and important has been added to them: a growing understanding of the extent to which life has influenced the environment at the planetary scale over Earth's history, and a growing recognition that our planetary life-support and life-containing system, now called the biosphere, is deeply complex.  The biosphere is unlike the mechanical devices of our own construction, and its analysis requires the development of new scientific approaches.

Mechanical devices are still our key metaphors, but more than figuratively. They are within the assumptions of most of the computer forecasting tools that dominate our planning for nature and ourselves and are at the heart of the actions we have taken in the past 20 years. Perhaps computers, so compact and still, with few moving parts, merely reinforce the image of nature as a still life, as fixed as the computer box on your table, no matter what flashes by us on the screen. Although much of the power and abilities of modern society arises from those still little boxes, there is nothing about them as moving, as powerful, as the sight and sounds of a steam train, a jet airplane, a Saturn V rocket leaving the Kennedy Space Center launch pad, or a group of race cars at a Formula One track of curves and straightaways. Nor, for that matter, is anything about them as moving as the sight and sounds and sweat of a racehorse passing within a few feet or us rounding the last pole, or of a leaping lion, a marching herd of elephants, a diving pelican. Perhaps this is why the intrinsic dynamism that computers can deal with is not coming through to us as new metaphors. One could hope that by the second decade of the twenty-first century the elaborate and very popular Xbox, Wii, and other computer-based and computer-made-possible games, which are highly dynamic and involve chance and risk, would be shifting the way the younger generation view everything, including environment. But if this is happening, it hasn’t reached the level of policies, laws, or major ecological analyses.

Life is a Planetary Phenomenon

We are accustomed to thinking of life as a characteristic of individual organisms. Individuals are alive, but an individual cannot sustain life. Life is sustained only by a group of organisms of many species—not simply a horde or mob, but a certain kind of system composed of many individuals of different species—and their environment. Together they form a network of living and nonliving parts that can maintain the flow of energy and the cycling of chemical elements that, in turn, support life. A system that can do this is not only rare but also peculiar compared to mechanical systems, peculiar from the perspective that we have become accustomed to in our methods of analyzing and constructing the physical trappings of our modern civilization—automobiles, motorboats, radios, the devices of the industrial age.

What exactly is required to sustain life? We can imagine, and a few scientists have tried to make, very simple, closed systems that sustain life: an aster in a small glass vial with water, air, a little soil harboring a few species of bacteria or fungi. Such simple systems have been made, but have generally persisted for only a short time. In the 1970s, Clair Folsome of the University of Hawaii created the then longest-enduring of such systems from the muds and waters of Honolulu Bay; life in his sealed flasks survived for more than 20 years, undergoing occasional green booms and busts while resting in the quiet of a shelf in the north-facing window of a Honolulu laboratory. Even more impressive is the closed ecosystem made by Professor Bassett Maguire of the University of Texas, Austin. He took samples of water and its life from a small pond on a large bedrock structure called Enchanted Rock in central Texas and sealed these in a glass flask. Within the flask were small crustaceans called ostracods (of the genus Cypris). These are short-lived but have continued to reproduce, and their descendants continue to crawl within the flask, feeding on blue-green photosynthetic bacteria, since 1982. Some of these flasks still contained a living system in 2009.

In striking contrast, life and its planetary support system, the biosphere, have persisted for more than 3 billion years, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the biosphere's immensely greater complexity. In the biosphere, some 1.4 million species have been named, and my colleagues estimate that much greater numbers are as yet unnamed—somewhere between 5 million and 30 million, depending on who makes the estimate, dispersed in tens of thousands of local systems that we call ecological communities and ecosystems.

These ecosystems are of perhaps 30 major kinds, which ecologists call biomes—such as the tropical rain forest, coral reef, grassland. We find that our planetary life-support system is complex at every scale and at every time. In the aggregate, the crowds of species make up a complex patchwork of subsystems at many different stages and states of development spread across the Earth's surface. It is an intriguing and unsolved question how this dense complexity persists and has persisted for so long. In the answer is a key to the survival of our own species. The answer to this question is also an answer to the ancient question about the very character of nature. Our planetary life-support and life-containing system, the biosphere, is, after all, "nature" in its largest sense.

Current knowledge about the biosphere is out of step with current beliefs about nature. This is one of the main impediments to progress on environmental issues; it tends to blind us to the possibilities for constructive action. Our technology places before us a new vista, but our beliefs are forcing us to look backward. This confusion leaves us mired in a barren conceptual mud and tends to lead those concerned with conservation of the environment to emphasize the benefits of doing nothing and assuming that nature will know best.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered, published by Oxford University Press, 2012.