By Jonathan Foley
Originally published at bioGraphic.com. Reprinted with permission.
For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of sorts, first as a university professor and now as the director of a science museum. While the students and settings have changed, the job has remained the same – to share the wonders of the natural world, and teach the science we need to understand and sustain our planet.
I have come to believe our environmental problems stem from too many people not understanding, or intentionally overlooking, the physical and biological systems governing this planet. We have gotten very good at ignoring nature’s laws, pretending that we are exempt from them.
But we’re not, and that’s where our problems arise. Whether we’re causing dangerous climate change, degrading the world’s ecosystems, or collapsing our natural resources, environmental problems begin when we ignore the physical limits of our planet, and act as if they don’t apply to us. This is a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance.
Lesson One: Physics Trumps Politics and Economics. Every Time.
Despite what many people claim, politics and economics are arbitrary systems of belief that people in power have invented. Regardless of what we have been brought up to believe, the planet does not obey the rules of politics and economics. It never has.
Although our beliefs about these systems are often useful, ultimately they are entirely negotiable. Believing otherwise isn’t just lazy thinking, it’s an excuse people use to justify poor decision-making and maintaining the status quo. When you hear someone dismiss something sensible and necessary – such as protecting our oceans, shifting to 100 percent renewable energy sources, or making agriculture sustainable – because it “isn’t economical” or “isn’t political feasible,” what they’re really saying, whether they realize or not, is “that’s kind of inconvenient for people in power right now, so please don’t talk about it.”
Instead of allowing ourselves to be trapped by arbitrary economic and political systems, we should instead focus more attention on what really governs the planet: the physical systems that have been operating here for eons.
Unlike politics and economics, Earth’s physics, chemistry and biology are natural systems based on empirical, reproducible facts. And these facts are fixed and entirely non-negotiable. Nature doesn’t care what we choose to believe, and you can’t cheat the laws of physics. Ever. Ignoring them is at best shortsighted. At worst, it guarantees the demise of our civilization.
That’s why it is so alarming that some political leaders ignore the laws of physics and profess that climate change is not “real.” Of course it is. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the early 19th century, and we have overwhelming evidence that increasing CO2 levels are warming the planet. Denying those facts is either dishonest or delusional. While the basic physical realities of climate change are no longer debatable, the political and economic concerns are. For example, what should we do about climate change? What will it cost us, and who will pay? But let’s not confuse negotiable political and economic frameworks with the non-negotiable, inviolable laws of physics.
Lesson Two: Thermodynamics and Systems Thinking Are Powerful Tools.
Thermodynamics is the study of energy – how it flows through the universe, and how it changes from one form to another. It is also a good way to learn about life, as living systems are ultimately all about energy – energy gathered from the sun, converted to biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Energy is what fuels everything on this planet, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution. To understand Earth’s biology, climate, water cycle, chemical cycles, and so on, you must first understand the basics of thermodynamics.
Systems thinking is another powerful tool for our mental toolbox, as it helps us organize our view of the world, seeing connections among all of Earth’s living and non-living things. Systems thinking provides a framework through which to view the planet. Systems thinking also helps us build powerful models that enable us to test our understanding of the world.
Thermodynamics and systems thinking, combined with some keen observations of the natural world, can give us many important insights, including:
Earth is powered by renewable energy. The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space – something we call the “solar constant” – and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, natural systems have lived on this “solar income.” And we can, too, if we put our minds to it. Sunlight – and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass – can provide all the energy we need. Ultimately, it has to.
Nature has almost zero waste. Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, on the planet to work with. So natural systems have gotten very good at recycling everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What’s waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorous atom – a necessary ingredient for life – can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently re-deposited into Earth’s sediments, where geology will ultimately recycle it once again. Unfortunately, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy.”
Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity. Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. We need to realize that diversity is essential to building strong, enduring and sustainable systems.
Lesson Three: We Need a Big Dose of Humility.
The natural world has also taught me that we should be far less arrogant about the power of our science and technology. We still have so much to learn.
It’s humbling, but we have to admit that nature does things that we cannot yet do ourselves. Even the simplest pond scum is able to run entirely on renewable energy, with nearly infinite recycling, with extraordinary diversity and resilience. In short, nature is one hell of an engineer.
Sadly, we are still far from matching the capabilities of the natural world. We still use dirty fossil fuels, not renewable energy – leading to air pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and other critical problems. We still recklessly extract raw materials from nature, far faster than they can be regenerated, so they inevitably run out. Our throwaway culture then uses something once, creating a dangerous waste product that is tossed into the environment. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore the lessons even simple pond scum can teach us.
What we need is a big dose of humility, and to admit that we have much to learn from the rest of life on Earth. The rest of life has learned the lessons of the planet, and we have not.
Lesson Four: Go Outdoors and Observe Nature.
Nature is the best teacher I’ve ever had. I learned about photosynthesis, carbon stocks and nutrient cycling from my garden. And I learned about meteorology and oceanography by watching clouds and waves. While classroom learning is certainly important, it is crucial that we spend time observing and interacting with the natural world to truly internalize the lessons of the planet.
For example, keen observations of the natural world have led to the basic concept and innovations of biomimicry, which seeks to design products that emulate solutions already found in nature. Observations of nature have also spurred the development of agroecology and permaculture, which seek to design agricultural systems that emulate processes found in nature. We have also begun to more keenly recognize the flow of ecosystem goods and services and how they support human wellbeing.
We should look to nature for even more practical solutions for living sustainably on planet Earth. After all, if we just stop to look, and learn, nature can teach us how to build extraordinary things, with zero waste, amazing resilience, all powered by the sun.
Final Lesson: Get to Work!
Whether we realize it or not, the fate of the planet is in our hands. We are a driving force on an enormously complex planetary machine. Our leaders – all of us – urgently need a crash course in how the planet really works, including the principles we need to follow in order to thrive into the future. We must learn the lessons of the planet so we can build a civilization that endures.
There is no major, and no degree that teach these lessons of the planet. It’s not that simple. A mix of humility, a little training in physics and systems thinking, a keen eye for observation, and a lot of time in the natural world would be a good start.
Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the Academy or any other organization.