The Environment and People: Changing Our Perception of Nature

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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.
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“The Moon in the Nautilus Shell” by Daniel B. Botkin examines the relationship between the environment and people and how we must change our perception of nature in order to solve our most pressing environmental problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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