How do you relate to nature? Do you love it or are you indifferent to it? As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us? While seemingly simple questions, they have troubled philosophers and practitioners for millennia. And, the perspective you take directly affects how you engage with nature. The six recommended books in this post all explore this relationship and the deep implications for our resilience as humanity of that relationship.
We depend on nature. In The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki reminds us that, “It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity, and produces food, but in cities, these ‘ecosystem services’ are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy” (p12). Through our reductive approach to science today, we have reduced the whole of nature into pieces, “and as the world around us is examined in pieces, the rhythms, patterns, and cycles within which those pieces are integrated are lost” (p13). “Looked at as biological beings, despite our veneer of civilization, we are no more removed from nature than any other creature, even in the midst of a large city. Our animal nature dictates our essential needs: clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy” (p18). David Suzuki then frames and explores our current understanding of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans), lithosphere (mineral), where they all mix (soil), the biosphere (fire), and what makes us human in our relationships (kin, love). We need to be aware of the interweaving of these spheres we depend on: “With consciousness, we are able to perceive that there is a relationship between our environment and ourselves” (p267). “Each of us has the ability to act powerfully for change; together we can regain that ancient and sustaining harmony, in which human needs and the needs of all our companions on the planet are held in balance with the sacred, self-renewing processes of Earth” (p330).
In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, author Thom Hartman reminds us of our intimate relationship with nature. “Sunlight radiating heat, visible light, and ultraviolet light is the source of almost all life on Earth…Every life form on the surface of this planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something else was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body” (p7) In the final analysis, “survival and prosperity both hinge on how much sunlight energy is under your control” (p35). Thom Hartman then explores our relationship with current and stored sunlight.
Nature is dynamic and resilient, whether humans are in the mix or not. In Inheritors of the Earth, biologist Chris Thomas explores the ecological and evolutionary dynamics and resilience of the biological realm of earth. “Ecological and evolutionary changes are both of great importance. Ecological success will determine the species that will live among us in the short term, and evolutionary success will alter the future direction of life on Earth” (p29). While species come and go, the number of species is growing (p62), and human environments are influencing which ones spread and grow, with species finding new niches where they survive, often different from where they originally evolved (pp79,118). Nature is resilient, with new species adapting to ecological and evolutionary changes.
We are nature. In The Orders of Nature, philosopher Lawrence Cahoone provides the context and a current state of understanding for five orders of nature that constitute the reality we humans perceive: the physical; material; biological; mental; and cultural. We exist as an integration of all five orders, partially in relationship with the minerals, plants, and animals that share some of these orders. Students of each order have a different way of making sense of what is real, rarely understanding the logic of another. This leads to difficulties in defining what is real, across orders, which influences the ways in which we interact with the order of our reality.
We better take care of the nature that we are. In Down to Earth, philosopher Bruno Latour suggests that to deal with the level of ecological challenges facing humanity, it is time to shift our underlying understanding. “Saying, ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying, ‘We are humans in nature.’ The two are not made of the same cloth–or rather of the same mud” (p86). “The Terrestrial reorganizes politics. Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with the others. CO2 is not spatialized in the same way as urban transport systems; aquifers are not local in the same sense as bird flu” (p93). In this reorientation towards the terrestrial, our home of which we are an integral part and which is an integral part of us, Bruno Latour suggests a shift in political focus from the dichotomy of either local-based or global-based to earth-based, which is both local and global.
In Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth frames an “ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity…point(ing) towards a future that can provide for every person’s needs while safeguarding the living world on which we all depend” (p39). To develop this balance between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling, we need to move from an economics of “endless growth to thriving in balance” (p45). Kate Raworth works through the basic tools of endless-growth economics, replacing them with tools of thriving-in-balance economics: from GDP to social and ecological limits; from self-contained markets to embedded economies; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from “growth will even it up” to distributive by design; and from growth addicted to growth agnostic.
Returning to the starting questions, how do you relate to nature? Do you love it or are you indifferent to it? As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us? These six authors provide updated, easy-to-approach explorations of these questions. They each show that the perspective you take from these explorations directly affects how you engage with nature, and your life depends on it. It is your choice. I recommend the journey.