Seeing Ourselves
A Position of Influence
Involving Democracy
A Wealth of Options: Eden Ecology
Intelligent Problem Solving: Ecological Humanism

Seeing Ourselves

Human life is inherently ecological. The human body is a masterpiece of systems ecology, on the microcosmic scale. The body itself is an integrated, extensive and complex community of smaller organisms, cooperating to allow optimal function for conscious life. Its systems are in turn integrated into the environment, the web of surrounding systems. We can choose to excel or to fail in our attention to this aspect of our reality. Of prime importance in attending to ecological sustainability is real and resilient diversity. Science does not yet know how to create ex-nihilo. All materials are derived from natural resources, however microscopic the beginnings. Our power to create and to innovate is only enhanced by biological diversity.

"[W]e have from… geographical models a theoretical justification for diversity, for the Rousseau richness of a humid tropical forest, for Darwin's tangled bank. These new ecological models demonstrate that as diversity increases so does stability and resilience." (Lovelock 14) Diversity is both necessary and beneficial for the long-term survival of the human species, because diversity provides a far broader pool of resources which may treat and solve biomedical problems not yet imagined, not yet imaginable.

Beyond the uses of diversity, there is the more instructive risk of its absence having a grave human cost. Having chosen to live as close to nature as he could, Henry David Thoreau wrote about evaluating such costs. "[T]he cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run." (Thoreau 73) Each human act has such a cost. For individuals, time is always at a premium. For societies, in varying degrees, supply and demand determine market cost. For a species, habitat is everything, and all actions are to some degree either harmonious or corrosive. It is important to note that though we struggle to separate ourselves from the dangers and drawbacks of a natural habitat, our habitat is the Earth entire, its hospitable atmosphere and generally temperate climate invaluable to us all.

If Thoreau's words can be interpreted as an individualist's call, they also hint at a continuum that is life. There is a larger system within which we function and of which we must be mindful, if we are to know the true costs of human endeavors. Life in human terms relies on the existence and sustainability of life at all levels.

A Position of Influence

It is widely proclaimed that human beings are the 'top of the food chain', a metaphor for dominance. The 'food chain' is imagined as a pyramidal hierarchy, and much pride is claimed by those who note our position of influence atop the pyramid. Yet rarely is the proper association made between that enviable position and our necessary reliance on the resilience of the ecological foundation whose collapse, by the simplest stroke of logic, would spell our own demise. The term 'food chain' is considered by many to be obsolete, born of a less complete understanding of natural systems. The suggested update would be 'food web', which better explains the habitat into which any living species fits.

We did not emerge in a vacuum, and there is no evidence to suggest that humanity's best habitat would be an urban-desertified sphere peppered with wholly artificial agribusiness systems ('dumb' systems, or rather systems so monolithic in design as to serve no larger purpose [a deep economic flaw]). There is no evidence that anything other than the atmosphere whose existence gave rise to ours would support the human species over an extended period of time.

If we evaluate the pervasive value of different parts of the global ecosystem (the 'food web'), our position can be shown to be something other than one of pure privilege and good fortune. The structure that supports the 'top' is more valuable to the majority of species, because it offers more sustenance. The system as a whole supports millions of species, while our position atop the pyramid means we are external to the optimal function of many parts of the system. The system sustains us, though we hover over it and have the power to damage it in virtually all of its parts. With our position of influence comes great responsibility, and we cannot afford to view our position in the natural world as one of leisure and limitless consumption.

The story has been told many times: a butterfly flaps its wings, and the shifting of air currents shifts more air, becoming compounded and snowballing into vast storm systems elsewhere downwind. If this 'butterfly effect' is demonstrable, if it can accurately be said that a pebble dropped in a lake causes water to rise, however imperceptibly, imagine the weight of the human effect on the global ecosystem. "[A]ll we have to bequeath future generations is options, choices, and each option, each choice, represents the future's limitations." (Maser 48) It is incumbent upon each of us to leave at least as many choices to future generations as we ourselves were granted.

Involving Democracy

Individualism and modern liberal democracy emerged within the historical context of humanism, the philosophical trend that took hold during the Renaissance and proposed that the highest value in the human world was humanity itself. Thus began an exploration of human potential, of new horizons in education and excellence in the arts and in experimental science. The goals of humanism were to cultivate and to liberate the spirit and potential of the human species. Historically, humanism has been associated with an aggressively anthrocentric neglect of both nature and religion, though neither association is necessarily valid or broadly applicable. The central concern of the movement was to use the natural gifts of the human species to achieve great advances in learning, civilization, justice, and invention.

This is why democratic government is "of the People, by the People and for the People", and ideally favors the People over their chosen leaders. Without the People, the bliss of representative democracy, its corresponding personal dignity, and the wealth of possibilities it invites, cannot occur. The success of such a free social system depends on the access of the population to resources which contribute to the economic productivity of the society. If the population is separated from the resources necessary to generate wealth, there is a breakdown in the potential of the domestic market:

When the supply of ecosystem goods and services is diminished, human societies suffer from effects such as soil erosion, floods and crop failure. These effects can have grave implications for human health, wealth, livelihood, food scarcity, social cohesion, and even democracy. (Albaeco 3)

In other words, the depletion of non-renewable natural resources can stall a nation's progress by depriving its own inhabitants of the benefits of capitalism based on indigenous natural function, and by providing incentives for elaborating oppressive industrial regimes. Designed for exploitation, these regimes tend to prevent the true, long-term implementation of democratically viable market systems.

Without a healthy global ecosystem, the luxury of human life as we know it cannot thrive. So, there may actually be a direct link between attention to ecological concerns and the success of democracy. Western-style liberal democracies are designed to depend, and depend in principle, on a certain degree of market capitalism. The principle is that if wealth flows freely among the People, so does influence, power, and the right to govern one's own fate. Ideally, even when an individual is not the direct beneficiary of this exchange of wealth, basic rights are protected by the openness of the system. The actual function of this ideal is somewhat more clumsy and can be debated, but such is the ideal, and ideals are starting points and compass-roses for thoughtful governance of human civilization.

A Wealth of Options - Eden Ecology

Human economic wealth has value because it affords a wealth of options, a diverse palette of choices for making the best possible life. This same fundamental, if unwritten, rule of economics applies to human societies and to natural systems. A diverse field of resources leads to a more prosperous propagation of the system (the individual, the society, the ecosystem), better adaptability and long-term resilience.

Ecosystems provide vital 'services' for maintaining life. In this light, the natural world can be, and has been, described as a sort of Eden. Imitating or replacing ecosystem services with human solutions may cost far more real cash than is required to protect and maintain the natural systems that already provide them. What's more, the human replacement systems tend to focus on single services, or a very narrow team of related services, whereas natural systems in their unconscious function execute a broad array of complex biological and chemical services simultaneously. In this light, the human world is a complex but incomplete web of half-measures. The problem we must deal with here, at this meditative juncture, is our own ability to gather information and to know. We are temporal beings, and have only our own experience to work with. There will always be more than we know occurring, and this reality has to factor into our choices as a species, as we craft a cooperative effort of civilizations to ensure a sound human future.

If nature provides, on a broad scale, and our task is to stave off hunger, disease and danger, we cannot limit ourselves to seeking refuge in the convenient assertion that nature will govern itself perfectly, because the convenience of that rhetorical answer will only lead us to replace nature's self-governance with an elaborate but unsustainable imitation. We are not advanced enough to provide sustenance and medicines as various as those provided by the natural world. There is a serious organizational lag in human systems, as compared with natural. We just don't know enough to improve upon nature; we can only improve our own position, and that can't happen if we erode the foundation on which we stand. Instead, we must seek to learn the intricacies of natural systems and to serve our own interests while causing the least possible disruption to the system that supports life. This is the truest service of broad human interests, the best route to excellence and survival in civilization, the fullest humanism.

Each of us, at every instant, is the first human being, the precedent, the representative of all the rest, deciding between arrogance and reason. The true sin committed in the Garden of Eden was a sin of arrogance. It's not, however, the disobedience that spells arrogance; the real violation is the refusal to use reason to discover the truth of the world, in favor of a sort of existential short-cut.

It is not necessary to know the details and idiosyncracies of the religions that draw on the Eden tradition to extract its meaning, so complete is the story in its metaphoric reach. The first man and woman are exiled from Eden as punishment for eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, forbidden to human beings. They had been seduced by a promise of omniscience which would make them equal to their divine Creator. The promise of omnipotence through universal knowledge was a lie, a delusion, and by abrogating a responsibility inherent in living with the gifts of intellect and free choice, Adam and Eve violated the fabric of cosmic order.

One of the easier readings of the story says that disobedience is the violation, but there is no logical basis for this claim. A more careful examination reveals a commentary on knowledge and life and their intersection in the gift of intellect. One cannot be blamed for doing wrong, if there is no free choice. So, there is no rationale for a Prime Mover demanding absolute obedience; there is another, more subtle, more dangerous offense. Adam and Eve reject the potential of human intellect, its prowess for making good choices, and abandon the explorative life which the limits of that intellect imply.

The implication is that all human suffering springs from that decisive act. So the question is posed: are we living in exile, somewhere east of Eden, or is Eden within our reach, waiting for us to uncover the full potential of human intellect and cooperation? What else, after all, is the purpose of human civilization? What else is human individuality more attuned to attempting? The solution is not a utopian solution. The solution is a careful and sincere examination of the facts (and of their tendency to evolve) and a decision to be open to the limits which make the human intellect an important tool.

Is individual liberty the beginning or the end of cooperation with the natural world? "Natural philosophy and science have brought into clear relief what might be the essential paradox of human existence. The drive toward perpetual expansion --or personal freedom-- is basic to the human spirit. But to sustain it we need the most delicate, knowing stewardship of the living world that can be devised." (Wilson 36) Sustaining the wealth of options engendered by the ecosystems of the natural world is the only way to protect the human world from its own failings. Human individual liberty is best served by being used to enhance the resilience of the natural systems that make it possible.

Intelligent Problem Solving - Ecological Humanism

Ecosystem resilience describes the capacity of an ecosystem to cope with disturbances, such as storms, fire and pollution, without shifting into a qualitatively different state. A resilient ecosystem has the capacity to withstand shocks and surprises and, if damaged, to rebuild itself. In a resilient ecosystem, the process of rebuilding after disturbance promotes renewal and innovation. Without resilience, ecosystems become vulnerable to the effects of disturbance that previously could be absorbed. (Albaeco 2)
The problems we face in the natural environment are directly tied to the systemic limitations of our own practices. For the sake of convenience, we engage in brutally destructive activities, eliminating allies (species), resources, and the possibility of breathing clean air. Nevermind the degree to which we are trapped and victimized by the dim instransigence of our own worst habits.
Economists know that success in achieving financial return from fast dynamics leads to slowly emergent, nearly hidden, changes in deeper and slower structures, changes that ultimately trigger sudden crisis and surprise. (Gunderson 4)

A one-track mind is not adept at problem-solving, whereas a well-informed, well-rounded one is, being able to draw on a wide range of knowledge and information. And a one-track mind is not economically sound… to respond only to the immediate, self-evident profit motive is to trudge obtusely through a garden of resources and possible prosperous directions, ignoring the sustainability and inherent value that make an activity worthwhile and (truly) gainful. Industrial and agricultural strategies going forward cannot justify such a limited perspective; an integrated vision of how to further the sustainability of the pool of resources used in providing a given industrial or agricultural service is essential.

An 'integral' humanism requires the long-view. A 'human-centered' exploitative view of the environment does not serve humanity well, let alone optimally. It is not an authentically humanistic point of view, but instead the perspective best designed to serve a crew of unimaginative specialist managers, who are not well-suited to broad policy management and who benefit personally by cheating the rest of humanity of a more intelligent, more democratic human system.

We are entering a phase in human evolution when more than ever knowledge will have intrinsic value, even a discernible market value, and where the knowledge of individuals can be tested against the spectrum of information freely flowing through our information systems.

The problem we face in knowing fully and intimately the function of any natural system, especially those of which we are only inhabitants, is that there is no perfect way to map any physical reality without creating an exact replica. As the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard puts it: "a complete definition of the initial state of a system (or all the independent variables) would require an expenditure of energy at least equivalent to that consumed by the system to be defined." (Lyotard 55) The obvious deficiency is our own size as compared to the system. Again, we are only a part of the system, so there will never be enough human energy to categorize and chart every part of any natural system. We can only go so far, before we have to resort to inference. And then the system evolves, and we must begin again.

Human life, liberty and prosperity require the full and unfailing function of natural systems we do not have the power to govern. We have to be prepared to imagine solutions that involve the vibrant power of these natural systems, and to confess, in law, that exploitative invasion of these systems and their resources does not work in a way that serves the better interests of the human species.

© 2002 Joseph Robertson

Works Cited

  1. Albaeco. Resilience and Sustainable Development. Stockholm. 2002.
  2. Gunderson, L.H. & Holling, C.S.: editors. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human & Natural Systems. Island Press. Washington, D.C. 2001.
  3. Lovelock, James E. "The Earth as a Living Organism". Learning to Listen to the Land. Bill Willers: editor. Island Press. Washington, D.C. 1991. (11-16)
  4. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: a Report on Knowledge. Bennington & Massumi: translators. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 1993.
  5. Maser, Chris. "The Future is Today: For Ecologically Sustainable Forestry". Learning to Listen to the Land. Bill Willers: editor. Island Press. Washington, D.C. 1991. (46-57)
  6. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Walden & Civil Disobedience. Penguin Books. New York. 1986.
  7. Wilson, E.O. "The Current State of Biological Diversity". Learning to Listen to the Land. Bill Willers: editor. Island Press. Washington, D.C. 1991. (17-40)

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