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.

| March 2013

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.