Survival Ecology

Probably the most important obstacle to moving toward a sustainable relationship with the natural world is how humans think about this relationship. Are we a parasite on the planet? Are we the stewards of nature’s gifts? Are we just another species (albeit, a very successful one) going through its expansionist evolution? Reflect on the dominant culture’s (may be just for the U.S.) relationship to the planet and ponder what lessons or principles from ecology might alter this view.


5 Responses to “Survival Ecology”

  1. Tamar Bouchard says:

    The human impact on the planet is far reaching and historical, not just the 240 odd years of the US, but going back to the dawn of recorded civilization. Humans have glorified and deified our mastery of our particular universe, this place we call Earth. The question of whether or not we are a parasite on the planet is a tough one, we definitely have sucked out every bit of vitality we have been able to from our environment, most especially since the rise of the European civilizations and economies of the last several centuries and this suck has caused a definite decline in the vitality of the planet as a whole. That seems to define parasitic action. The native peoples of every continent had a very good history of being land stewards and respectful and reverent of human environmental interactions, so including them as parasites would be unreasonable. The fact that this ability in us exists gives some hope that our current level of destruction can be transformed into something more equally beneficial to our environment and less parasitic and toxic; even a parasite knows that killing its host is counter to its own well-being. It would seem that we are going through an expansionist evolution very successfully and yet there are glitches in the structure even now.

    If we think about carrying capacity, something I have a hard time with personally due to other associations with population control and politics, we have to understand that there is only so much we can continue to pull out of the Earth before there will not be enough. We see that and have seen that in Africa for a long period of time. We feel heartsick over the little children starving in Africa and most of what has caused that starvation is completely man made. The carrying capacity of that environment was reduced through poor agricultural practices and the accompanying climate impacts and the population has been decimated through a variety of means not limited to starvation, disease, pestilence and war.

    Landscape is something that is completely man made, so adapting landscaping practices that support climate stabilization methods can only help to resolve the current issues we are facing. Using xeriscape landscaping in areas where drought is present, rather than insisting on a patch of artificially planted green lawn, is one way of helping to support the local environment. Recreating the natural wetland filters to handle run-off and clean up our storm water is another vital practice that ecology has contributed to helping the environment to recover.

    The US, as well as the driving force of the multinational corporations, is so motivated by money and the interest of business, making the most money from all resources available for the least cost, that the greater cost to the entire globe has been completely neglected. Ecology has been uncovering the costs to the globe and finding ways to address the harm that has been done by mismanagement of natural resources, as well as aiding business in making better environmental choices going forward in using natural resources.

  2. Monika Derrien says:

    Environmental concerns, on the large scale at least, register on the elitist radar. People who are struggling to feed themselves will not worry about melting polar ice caps or how long their Styrofoam coffee cups will last unless (or until) they are directly affected by them. I can’t think of a way to fault this: a drive to immediately fulfill needs and self-preserve are necessary skills for survival. Long range thinking requires the resources of time, money, and the education time and money usually lead to. The solutions to our environmental problems will also have to come from those prosperous peoples and countries who have the luxury to get beyond the meal-to-meal mentality.

    It’s relatively easy for a third worlder to drive a fuel efficient car, bike to work, buy environmentally-safe cleaning products, buy sustainably grown food, etc. He can take his two-weeks vacation to some “wilderness destination” and come back feeling “connected” to the natural world and responsible and virtuous in his enjoyment of it. But, it would be naïve to think that this could become a dominant mindset, or even to think that this mindset, were it to become more widespread, alone could lead to a sustainable lifestyle for billions.

    How about the relationship between indigenous and agricultural people and the natural world they use for their livelihoods. Does their “closer” relationship lead to a more responsible stewardship? It does in some cases, when the climate is right and immediate economic sense equals immediate ecological sense. But when one’s bottom line of survival and fulfilling basic needs are so closely linked to the land and water, they also have the ability to have deleterious effects on those resources.

    What sort of spectrum or graph could these relationships be plotted on? It couldn’t be a simple spectrum of “disconnected” to “connected” – it would have to incorporate access to the “natural world” (I’m not sure exactly what that means), the extent of resource exploitation, the level of responsibility for sustainable usage, the foresight that is possible, etc.

    Humans are just another species going through their expansionist evolution, but technologies have allowed this expansionist evolution to have longer lasting effects than other species which have expanded. Throughout history, resource depletion has dictated where and how people live. But the world’s increasing population and the effects of climate change are making balances increasingly precarious and potentially irreversible.

    I question whether lessons from ecology could alter the dominant culture’s view. I think that if ecological issues could be reframed as economic motivators, they could be. If the costs of plastics, oil, suburban sprawl, etc., were to incorporate their true environmental costs, then the dominant culture would change their consumption and disposal patterns accordingly. But I find it hard to believe that people, especially those with lower disposable incomes, will be driven by forces other than economics and convenience, regardless of ecological knowledge. Species are wired for survival, but the survival of surrounding ecosystems, unless explicitly and consistently linked to people’s survival, are peripheral and will not considered with enough weight. It takes larger structures to enforce responsibility and sustainability. I don’t think humans, as individuals, can sustain the necessary level of ecological foresight unless it is incentivized, unless environmental conditions become so acutely bad that all actions become reactive.

  3. Ian Raphael says:

    I think there is an argument for each of these views of the human relationship with nature.

    By core feeling however, is that humans are just another species except that for a brief period of time stumbled upon a very cheap and abundant source of energy. Fossil fuels enabled human populations to grow exponentially over the past 150 years. This has created a ripple effect of more resources use, advanced technology, habitat loss, extinctions, etc. Before the industrial revolution, human populations were way smaller. Yes there was expansion, wars, abuse of resources etc, but nothing that makes humans stand out above and beyond other species. Aggression, manipulation, and driving other species or competition out of desirable habitat is pretty normal. I like to think of humans as invasive or non-native species that are introduced to an ecosystem where they cause mass disruption. Many other plants and animals do the same thing. Yes, maybe with an unfortunate nudge from humans, but none the less, newly introduced species have the ability to overtake a community and gain a monopoly on resources. We see examples of this everywhere. So the question becomes, do humans have motivations that transcend what has been set in them biologically? Some may think they do but when push comes to shove I believe we are all driven by our biology. Every human wants basically three things, food, offspring, and security. The problem is that many humans have a warped sense of what constitutes these things and how to get them.

    I would also argue that only a small percentage of humans through history were parasitic or destructive. The majority of humans have lived somewhat harmoniously with nature. Humans were, and still are in certain communities, in touch with the balance of nature and understand how to live sustainably. I just think that the human “machine” has manipulated the masses and afforded conveniences that have disrupted the natural link between humans and the natural world. There will be a time of reckoning when humans will realize that mother earth will win the fight. Humans will realize as a global society that we are better of being in tune with nature rather than at odds with it.

  4. Matt Sayre says:

    In addition to my perspective above that humanity will survive and thrive in balance with nature, I wanted to share some principles I think will come to guide us.

    I don’t know how to state the principles better than the Lisbon Principles for sustainable governance and resource management of common assets which state that natural resource use should: 1) be fair and responsible; 2) have management of appropriate space and time scales; 3) include the precautionary principle, erring on the side of caution in the face of uncertainty; 4) apply adaptive management as conditions change and new information comes to light; 5) account for full environmental and social costs in market prices; 6) be inclusive of all stakeholders by providing opportunities for participation.

    I’ve read simpler principles like, the Cradle to Cradle design principles based upon natural systems, which can inform human design:

    1. Waste Equals Food

    2. Use Current Solar Income

    3. Celebrate Diversity

    I don’t think these are specific enough which is why I prefer the Lisbon Principles for guiding human decision making.

    I’d also add that to “be fair and responsible” and also “inclusive of all stakeholders” as stated in the Lisbon Principles we must consider future generations. And that some of our management/investment/stewardship decisions and plans as humanity must be global in scope and that we should prioritize reversing the loss of ecosystem services as the focus for achieving globally sustainable human wellbeing.

  5. Matt Sayre says:

    In general, life works to live. In other words, living things seek to stay alive and reproduce. Most living things actually try to go beyond just surviving and seek to thrive… to maximize their wellbeing and reproduce ambitiously. As a life-form, human beings at times have acted in parasitic ways but I think that’s because in all our “greatness” we were actually pretty clueless. Through industrialization we became so far removed and disconnected from nature that we lost our relationship to the places that sustained us and our understanding of how the natural systems we rely upon actually work. As living beings, humans want to survive and thrive. Our harmful, parasitic behaviors are compromising our ability to survive and thrive and we are now coming to understand this. Humans have the intelligence and ability to adapt and people have generally always used the information available to us to make the decisions we conclude are in our best interest. Even today’s capitalist system can be seen as a guiding force promoting positive change, because capitalism incentivizes each person to act in his or her best individual self-interest and enlightened capitalists will conclude that to maximize their own wellbeing they should at least minimize their impact on the ecosystem that sustains us and maybe they will even decide that it’s in their best interest to consider the common good. Maybe at one point, I might have scene humans as a parasite but I’d say that my current view of humanity is a profoundly hopeful one. The crisis we’re experiencing today has actually inspired me to write some of these hopeful thoughts as something I would like to say to my baby girls, if they were only old enough to understand. One’s just 5 and the other’s only 1 1/2, so this won’t make much sense to them but it will to you.

    I imagine most people are probably pretty discouraged by what they see and hear all over the news lately. Collapsing financial markets, global warming, war, natural disasters, on and on. This news might make you think of humanity as a parasite killing our healthy planet, but don’t be discouraged. I wholeheartedly believe people worldwide will be even more happy and healthy in the future than they are now. Why? Because we are finally becoming truly aware of our connectedness. It’s now darn clear that we share a pretty small planet and that everything we do has some impact on it and on us, and because we know this we also know that we’re all responsible for helping ensure the future wellbeing for all people. We understand better now than ever before that we truly are all connected to each other and to the Earth. Our global awareness is inspiring. Inspiring a sense of responsibility. Inspiring caring. Inspiring action. Inspiring innovation. Inspiring people to prepare to live a different way – a better way.

    I say “a better way” because we’re now aware that the way we’re living today is not even making us happy and healthy even here in the wealthiest nation in the world. We clearly know it’s not making us healthy with obesity and other preventable diseases on the rise, so many Americans without the healthcare they need, and toxins in our homes, water, and air. And, isn’t it remarkable that so many indicators show that even in the recent past during which we experienced unprecedented economic growth our happiness didn’t just go up and up and up? That’s right, we didn’t seem to be getting happier and happier here in the U.S. even though our GNP kept going up. So, why am I not discouraged? Well, I would be if I didn’t know just how amazing we people can be. First of all, we humans can analyze our actions and learn from our mistakes and that’s exactly what we’re doing. I’m glad we’ve taken the time to do our homework and look critically at how things are going for us today — even if our research has revealed that things could be much, much better. Without doing our homework we would probably have stumbled numbly ahead without improving anything. Now that we know, we will fix it. And, we Americans have a long history of being self-sufficient, pioneers, willing to work hard to make our own lives better and better for our children. Our ancestors wouldn’t tolerate a decreasing quality of life and we won’t either, so now that it is clear that our current way of living isn’t good for us – we’ll change it. Even in a period of economic downturn Americans have more resources than anyone else in the world to get to work and start fixing it. So, I’d say it is a great time to be an American.

    Some people may say we have been aware for a while but haven’t made the changes we need to, so why now? Many people have been waiting for something to shake up the system, because it has been easiest to just follow the path laid out for us even if when this path revealed to us real problems in our communities that were caused by the system we were caught up in. Well, we can now stop waiting on the world to change. It has. A new day has started. You can hear the alarm clocks ringing all over the place. This new day is full of possibilities and if we go forward with our eyes wide open and an ethic of connectedness in mind then this new day will be the start of a new era of cooperation, innovation, and true prosperity.

    Throughout this new era of global connectedness more people will become aware that we won’t find happiness by simply trying to grow the size of our economy and surround ourselves with more stuff, so they will choose to start focusing on relationships with people rather than stuff. They’ll consume less and relax more. Spend time with family and friends. Support each other. Share. And raise their own children and be there for the neighbors’ kids too. They’ll do this because today they are tired and because capitalism is evolving and our leaders will embrace policies guided by a more honest form of economics – ecological economics. This new economic system grounded in reality is already emerging. You can see it in the growing number of “For Benefit” businesses and organizations being started by social entrepreneurs to strengthen communities worldwide. Right here in Vermont, wise legislators wanting to stimulate the development of new social enterprises, recently passed a visionary new law supporting the creation of Low-Profit Limited Liability Companies, or L3C’s, that make perfect ecological economic sense. Vermont and our neighboring states also have taken the lead to create a new ecological economic entity in RGGI, which essentially protects the sky as a common asset. Socially Responsible Business is now becoming mainstream with more and more businesses recognizing that good, prudent business means minimizing environmental impact, contributing positively to the community, and making a reasonable amount of money. People everywhere are beginning to focus on buying local—getting what you need and supporting members of your own community who are accountable for what they sell simply because they are your neighbors, rather than buying things you don’t need shipped from halfway around the world by completely unaccountable mega corporations.

    The financial catastrophe is a crisis of confidence, not of real productive capacity. In many ways, especially in how it redistributes wealth from the many to the few, the financial sector can be a serious drag on the real economy. Economic growth driven by the financial sector didn’t reflect what was really happening in the world around us, but that also means that this economic downturn resulting from failing financial markets doesn’t ruin our community’s ability to thrive. Over the last few years we were aware that things just didn’t seem right even when our economy seemed to be booming as a result of financial exchanges, but the old system didn’t force us to get our priorities figured out as quickly as we should have. We’re starting to now though, and thanks to our rapidly expanding global awareness and ethic of connectedness we’re prepared to make better decisions.

    So, right now my baby girls see a world full of possibilities. And, so do I.

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