When life was new on Earth, it invented photosynthesis. Photosynthesis takes light from the Sun and captures it as useful energy. It also produces waste oxygen.
We like oxygen, because we breathe it, but we forget that chemically, it’s pretty nasty. Oxygen gas is implicated in lots of bad things, from rust to explosions. It’s not stable, and it’s highly chemically reactive. It sits on the periodic table next to fluorine, and if you know anything about fluorine, you know you should stay away from it. And when photosynthesis first evolved, oxygen was deadly to most life on Earth.
And in fact, once it started reaching high concentrations in the atmosphere, it wiped a lot of that life out, in what we now call the Great Oxygenation Event. But then other organisms evolved to make use of that oxygen. They produced waste CO2, which the photosynthetic organisms used. So a cycle emerged, and an ecological balance came into existence. And here we are.
We talk about nature’s harmony and balance as though it’s eternal, but that’s wrong. These sorts of balances and cycles are older than humanity, but they are born in time, in the process of evolution. They are dynamic, and they shift with changes in the Sun and solar system, and with the things evolution invents as it progresses.
We are one of the things evolution invented. There is an idea that humans exist somehow outside nature, and that we create things and environments that are ‘artificial.’ I think that’s misguided. The problem is time: if you make enough of the very most toxic things humans produce, and then give nature enough time, it will invent processes that will make use of them, or render them harmless somehow.
It’s less a matter of ‘damaging nature’ than incurring a debt to Darwin: creating ‘waste,’ or unlooped materials, substances that nature doesn’t yet know what to do with. And time really is the problem: we don’t have the millions of years to wait around while evolution figures out what to do with our garbage.
Personally, I don’t think it’s within our power to threaten all life on Earth. Life has endured worse things than us. It might be in our power to extinguish all human life, though humans are pretty hardy: we have existed in a lot of environments, from the Arctic to the Sahara to the Amazon, for many generations. It would be possible to render our current civilization untenable. I think that’s the track we’re on now.
To get off that track, we need to think about humanity in the context of broader nature. We often talk about other species as occupying an ‘ecological niche,’ a role in nature. Wolves are hunters, at the top of the food chain; wildebeests are ruminants, eating grass, pooping fertilizer, and feeding alligators. But we don’t talk much about the human niche.
We do talk about our ‘footprint,’ but that’s still non-ecological thinking: everything in our ‘footprint’ is assumed to be artificial, damaging, an interruption in nature; everything outside is assumed to be harmonious, balanced, and ecological. When we seek to ‘reduce our footprint,’ we seek to reduce the damage we do. But we don’t seem to focus much on legitimate ways for humans to participate in nature.
Notice we never ask: what is a wolf’s ‘ecological footprint?’ It’s hard to apply the logic of ‘footprint’ when we assume an organism is already operating in a way we see as ‘natural.’
the human niche
So what would a human niche be? Being humans, we have some choice in the matter. We probably can’t become ruminants, because we can’t digest grass (unless we modify our own biology, or the biology of the grass), but there are so many things we can do. The only question is, how long can we do them? If we don’t consciously choose to participate in ecological cycles, we can only persist doing what we’re doing so long. Our current role is probably short-lived, one way or the other. So for a longer-term role, we need to be inventive. Here are a couple ideas that come to mind:
So what can humans do that other species can’t? The closer we look at that question, the shorter that list is, but we do seem to be pretty good at designing things, and we do seem to have some ability to be reflective. So if we combine those and look at our role in nature, it’s logical that we could find a long term role as ecological designers, creating and participating in new natural cycles.
And clearly, to create a natural cycle is to participate in it. You might not execute all the steps yourself, but you can cooordinate with others, humans and other species, to close your loops and eliminate your debt. Bill McDonough talks about it in detail in Cradle to Cradle.
OK, then: what does it mean to do good ecological design?
A lot of what comes to mind should be familiar: closed loop recycling, balanced capacities for generating and using waste products, complete recycling of the entire waste stream. Some might seem pie-in-the-sky, but we’ll have to get there at some point. I’m reminded of this Ted talk by Michael Pollan. A couple new things (to me) do come to mind:
managing debt: parsing waste as debt brings to mind all the financial tools related to debt, as well as all their risks and rewards. You can build up debt in planned and unplanned ways. You can pay down debt. You can work with it in a strategic way. Which I think would be useful in moving towards a more sustainable society.
But debt can also mess up your life, and on a large scale, your society. Ask a Greek how they feel about debt right now. Poison in the groundwater, waste CO2 in the air, can cause us and a lot of other organisms problems. Like I said above, maybe if we had a few million years, we could wait around for nature to adapt our debt to its use. But in the time scales humans care about, we need to take some kind of action.
beauty: the dimension of time is central to the idea of sustainability. For humans to continue to make choices that benefit an ecology over long periods, they must develop a heritage of an appreciation of that ecology. So beauty is more than a good thing we should all want, it’s also a material priority.
It’s part of what persuades others to join us, and part of what binds the next generation’s way of life to ours. We don’t expect them to live the same way we do, but we do need to persuade them that what we create for them is worth sustaining and building upon. And if what we create is beautiful, and we can show them how to appreciate that beauty, that will be easier.
Terraformation is a staple of science fiction. But from the viewpoint of Earth’s ecology, it’s infection: spreading Earth’s life to other worlds. Mixed with the ‘ecological designer’ role, it means we could be a vector for life in general, inventing new ecologies that could persist in diverse environments. Freeman Dyson speculates that we could even make species ‘native’ to space itself. It’s an interesting idea. One open question: how do we get off Earth in a harmonious way? Launching payloads into space requires enormous concentration of energy in one place, far more than nature generally does. And the scale of terraforming would require truly massive launch capability, or very long timeframes.
Another staple of science fiction is the comet strike. Protecting the Earth’s life from comets could be an important ecological role for humans to play.
I guess what I’m saying is: we can participate in natural cycles deliberately or not. Not participating is not an option.
We’ve built a civilization that we value. If we want to operate in a civilized, conscious way for the extended future, we need to include nature in that vision of civilization. If we don’t deal with broader nature on the best human terms, it will deal with us on its own.