Yet the story of the human journey has been one of distancing ourselves from our environment, reducing the relationship to use and abuse, rather than living within our natural boundaries. We have tamed the forces that previously held our population in check, that dealt the cards of plenty and famine, of disease and resilience, of catastrophe and opportunity, the forces that shaped us, along with all of the other members of the biosphere, for so long.
Latterly, Nature became a mentor for the green movement, with traits such as self-control, efficiency, optimization, balance and wisdom becoming foundations of modern schools of thought such as biomimicry, the circular economy and industrial symbiosis. Yet in sharp contrast to these traits are the ideas of nature raw in tooth and claw, competition and survival of the fittest in Darwinian theory, and, more recently, the selfish gene in Neo-Darwinism. How can Nature exhibit such contrasting personalities? What is the true nature of Nature? What is this mentor and what, if anything, can it teach us?
The paradox emerges because of a failure to understand the totality of Nature and what makes it tick. Nature is an emergent entity, and cannot be understood in reductionist terms. In other words, one plus one rarely equals two, and you can’t build nature from little bricks. Like any complex system, it works because each level of organization performs in a sub-optimal way, allowing the whole to function.
Nature is almost completely dependent on the Sun, with a huge torrent of energy continually flowing through it. It is not a circular economy. Ask the Flying reptiles. Hold on a moment, you can’t because they were all wiped out some sixty-five million years ago when the sunlight incident upon our planet’s surface was dramatically reduced by clouds of dust. As around sixty five percent of life on earth perished, there was no sign of a circular economy. This is because nature is extremely wasteful, converting free energy to waste continuously, and needing fresh supplies to endure.
Nature is actually designed to create energetic waste, in line with the second law of thermodynamics, because it is an open system. Increasing complexity produces more disorder, and so through time, provided enough sunlight hits our planet, we would expect increasing complexity. We should not confuse complexity with sophistication, cunning or intelligence. It is merely the response of matter and energy to the rules of a thermodynamic universe.
Nature also does not exhibit self-control, another trait we have pinned to it erroneously. When additional nutrients are added to a lake, the results are catastrophic, with algae reproducing in an uncontrolled manner, leading to anoxia as they die, and causing fish death. Ecosystems collapse given the opportunity. It is only thanks to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, where shortages of specific raw materials limit the growth of populations, that Nature remains in balance. It has no inherent self-control. Predator populations are controlled by starvation, not insight, and prey populations are saved by the same process.
So, this profligate, greedy, avaricious, sub-optimal personality with no self-control whatsoever lies at the heart of our mentor. A bit like ourselves really. Indeed, the huge population explosion in the human race is a result of us defying the limits placed on the natural world. We make nutrients by mining and industrial production. We greedily feast on the planet’s fragile resources. We use huge amounts of free energy. Temporarily freed from the constraints of limited resources, we do exactly what nature does in a similar situation: we go crazy. What then can we learn from Nature?
Nature cannot inform us on economics, efficient production, optimization, conservation, zero-waste strategies, efficient energy use nor self-control. None of these traits are found in the natural world. However, Nature is the perfect mentor for sustainable living, the importance of real-time continuous feedback, the role of sub-optimality at any given level, resilience, recovery, emergence, our re-integration into the biosphere and our understanding of our place in the grand scheme.
It is our artificial framing of Nature, filled with human invention and anthropomorphic licence, that has created the paradox that exists, where ecologists and evolutionary biologists create these aberrations to suit their own needs. This is dangerous work. Threatened as we are at present in terms of our own sustainability, the last thing we need is false prophets, proclaiming their imagined fantasies as being somehow rooted in Nature. This will only exacerbate the existential risks facing us. So, let’s listen to nature, and reference the true lessons that are there for the learning. The mentor awaits us, but finds us conversing with the mirror in the corner rather than entering into a meaningful conversation with the tutor.