We Are Within The Natural World, Not Above It
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, 1965
Although Dr. King spoke of the interdependence of the races, his words also provide an eloquent description of humanity’s place in nature: The inescapable laws of chemistry, physics and biology have woven all species into a “single garment of destiny”.
If we could fully embrace the simple idea that among living things, “what affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” we might be able to make the changes we need to restore the biodiversity of our degraded planet.
Over Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, the process of evolution has integrated an astonishing diversity of lifeforms into an “inescapable network of mutuality.” Humans joined this network only a few hundred thousand years ago. We occupy just a tiny twig on a single branch of the big tree of life.
But not everyone sees humans as just that tiny twig. In Western cultures, humans generally regard themselves as above other species, not as part of the natural world. Some feel called to use their superior position in a benevolent way as stewards over other living things. But too often, Western cultures regard other life forms not as unique parts of an interrelated whole, but as commodities placed on Earth for humans to use.
This attitude has justified an extractive economy in which animals, plants and natural resources are bought and sold with little understanding of “the interrelated structure of reality” in the natural world. When people feel above and outside the world inhabited by all other species, it’s easy to believe that we can just take and take from nature with little impact on the long-term health of our own species.
Now we see that willfully ignoring the interdependence of all living things in native ecosystems has gotten us into deep trouble.
The Earth’s 6th great mass extinction is now in progress. It wasn’t caused by the movement of tectonic plates or by an asteroid collision like two of the previous mass extinctions. We humans caused it ourselves by exploiting the world’s living and mineral resources for our own gain.
The Earth is a small place, and it is becoming all too clear that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
For example, when humans clearcut the Amazonian rainforest to grow soybeans or raise cattle, people in the US might understand that the destruction of habitat can lead to the extinction of some far away plants and animals. But how many also understand that loss of tropical rainforest can reduce local rainfall and cause droughts with effects that extend far from the tropics? What happens in the Amazon doesn’t stay in the Amazon. We are all connected.
Similarly, when humans take animals from the wild to sell at market for meat or human settlements encroach on the habitats of wild animals, viral strains can jump from wild animals to domesticated animals and humans. Viruses are experts at mixing DNA subunits from different host species to create novel forms. That’s how we’ve gotten some of the most virulent flu strains—bits of flu viruses that infect birds, swine and humans meet in one of the hosts and reassort into a new more virulent virus. What happens in birds and swine doesn’t stay in birds and swine. We are all connected.
How do we halt and reverse biodiversity loss? Recognizing the problem is the first step. It’s becoming clear that humans aren’t as smart as we thought. It’s time to accept that we are irreversibly connected to all other living things and start to act accordingly. Useful actions we can take include:
- Advocating for local, state and federal legislation that protects forests, other natural lands, freshwater resources, and the ocean.
- Eating less meat (especially beef) is a particularly impactful personal action. Amazonian deforestation is largely driven by clearing land for grazing beef or growing soybeans to feed animals. Moving toward a plant-based diet reduces the economic benefit of deforestation and the motivation to clear more land of forest or other native plants. It may also help to free up agricultural land used for animals that could be potentially restored to a native state. A shocking 80% of agricultural land is used for grazing or to grow feed for animals, yet meat provides only 20% of the calories humans consume. It’s much more efficient (and healthier) to just grow plants and eat them directly!
- Reducing food waste in your household is also one of the most impactful actions for the climate and biodiversity. In addition to limiting methane emitted from decomposing food tossed into landfills, reducing food waste can also help to free up agricultural land for biodiversity restoration. Nearly 40% of all food grown is wasted, meaning that nearly half of our agricultural land is used to grow food that nobody eats. We need that land for biodiversity restoration! Slashing food waste by half would have the same benefit as moving half of all Americans to a sustainable diet. But why not do both?
- Buying less stuff reduces the amount of trash that pollutes natural lands and waters, choking and poisoning other species. Work to buy less and learn to repair what you already have!
I invite you to visualize a world where 30-40% of all land area is natural habitat, where streams and rivers are clear, where native meadows buzz with pollinators, where the tropics teem with life, where you hear birds whenever you’re outside, and where we breathe clean air instead of choking on smog and wildfire smoke.
We can build this world IF we can cultivate the attitudes that will let us see it.