Mladen Šolić, a scientist in microbiology at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split and professor of ecology at the University of Split, discusses our relationship with the living planet.
We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to. (Terry Swearingen, environmental protection activist)
Our planet appears as a pale blue dot in the depths of space. That is the name of the photo that Voyager 1 took, at the suggestion of Carl Sagan, at a distance of about 6 billion kilometres from the Sun, before finally turning off its cameras and flying into interstellar space. This iconic photo, in which Earth occupies only a single pixel, sent a message to humanity about Earth’s vulnerability as a small and fragile dot in the cosmic ocean.
Looking at the pale blue dot, Carl Sagan wrote in 1994:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.
It is not without a certain irony that the warning about the fragility of our planet did not come from Earth, but from the depths of space through human technology, through the lens of a mechanical camera on board a spaceship.
There are few people who would say they hate nature and want to destroy it. Most of us are sincerely convinced that we love the beauty of nature, enjoy being in it, find it relaxing, and that it brings us the peace we need. Yet our environment is constantly deteriorating, and environmental problems are becoming increasingly difficult to solve. Why is this so? How can we explain this paradox between most people’s positive attitude toward nature and our collective impact, which is anything but positive for nature? It would seem that each of us is making a small contribution to the destruction of nature in our daily lives, usually completely unknowingly. This paradox has been called the tragedy of the commons by American ecologist Garrett Hardin, and the tragedy is that in the absence of any rules and regulations, everyone’s interest is to satisfy their own needs, which ultimately harms everyone. Citing Hegel’s thought that freedom is the recognition of necessity, Hardin warns of the importance of recognising the commons (such as water, soil, atmospheric gases, stable climate) and the need to manage these goods in a way that brings cooperation and benefit to all. In addition to our personal freedoms, people should also preserve and nurture these other, perhaps more valuable freedoms.
Nature and human civilization are inextricably linked and intertwined. Ecology is not only a science that studies nature, but also a science of human society and its relations with nature. Social relations, political and economic systems on the one hand, and the natural world and man’s relationship with nature on the other, have always reflected each other. The relationship between humans and nature has often been determined by social conditions, which have influenced ecological science and sought support for its ethical relationship with nature, while ecological science has sometimes imposed different views of nature on society and brought a new ethic, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully.
An ethical approach to nature views all living organisms and entire ecosystems as important and valuable in their own right. All living beings and their natural environment are interconnected and interdependent and should therefore be treated as a unique system. This approach assumes that all parts of ecosystems have value and that humans should act in ways that maintain the integrity and stability of ecosystems rather than destroy them for their own interests. Leo Tolstoy expressed this as follows: One of the first conditions for happiness is that the connection between man and nature is not broken. Even if our actions are not always firmly grounded in moral, aesthetic and emotional principles, man could find more convincing motives for a more careful treatment of nature in the fact that it benefits him, and such arguments are fortunately numerous. Organisms and ecosystems on Earth perform such important functions that touch the core of the possibility of life on Earth. To name just the most important: photosynthesis (primary production), nutrient cycling, water cycling, soil formation and conservation, atmospheric gas conservation, regulation of the global climate, decomposition of the waste produced by our species in vast quantities, control of pests and pathogens that infect the plants and animals grown by humans. All these processes are the result of the activities of organisms on Earth. In addition, there is the role of organisms as a source of food, medicine, industrial resources, and enormous genetic diversity. We refer to all these processes that provide us with the necessary conditions for life as ecosystem services, and Gilbert White, an 18th-century pastoral naturalist, called them the grace of nature. American ecologist Eugene Odum said: We are able to breathe, drink, and eat in comfort because millions of organisms and hundreds of processes are operating to maintain a liveable environment, but we tend to take nature’s services for granted because we don’t pay money for most of them. The decline of Earth’s biodiversity calls these services into question, and without them, the survival of life on Earth would be seriously threatened. As Henry David Thoreau romantically put it: What is the use of a fine house if you do not have a tolerable planet to put it on?
In contrast to this ethic is the “imperial” utilitarian ethic, which promotes man’s dominion over nature and utility as the basic principle of human action. Anything that benefits man is permissible and moral. This ethic finds its basis in the Christian religion as well as in all other monotheistic religions and their view of man as the ruler of nature. The utilitarian ethic became the dominant social ethic with the onset of the industrial revolution, which brought better living conditions and a higher standard of living to the population, but at the same time sowed the seeds of degradation and destruction of nature. Victorian thinkers believed that man’s aggression toward nature was perfectly legitimate, even honourable, as long as that aggression was done in the name of humanity, decency, virtue, and even health and cleanliness. Humans should build a paradise garden, a civilized landscape which needs to be defended from Darwin’s jungle. Nature is wild and endangers civilized society; to be civilized is to be separate and independent from nature. Darwin’s theory of evolution supported his “imperial” contemporaries. If Darwin’s world of aggression, struggle for survival, and survival of the fittest eventually leads to incredible evolutionary progress, then the same must be true for human economics. These thoughts have led to the rigid social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer.
James Lovelock, the founder of the extreme holistic idea that the whole Earth is a living organism, which he called Gaia, said the following about the relationship between man and nature: I think that we reject the evidence that our world is changing because we are still, as that wonderfully wise biologist E. O. Wilson reminded us, tribal carnivores. We are programmed by our inheritance to see other living things as mainly something to eat, and we care more about our national tribe than anything else. We will even give our lives for it and are quite ready to kill other humans in the cruellest of ways for the good of our tribe. We still find alien the concept that we and the rest of life, from bacteria to whales, are parts of the much larger and diverse entity, the living Earth.
These two ethics have clashed throughout history and are still present today. This Victorian view of the relationship between humans and nature is still strongly present. Competition, survival of the fittest, the philosophy that might makes right, and the imperial utilitarian ethic in relation to human nature (but also relations between people) are ideas that have been the driving force of the capitalist world and its ethics for more than two centuries, especially after the industrial revolution. The second ethic, the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living beings on Earth, the holisticapproach in ecology, is now being upheld by “green” environmental movements and environmental activism.
However, our prevailing utilitarian attitude toward nature seriously threatens all of Earth’s ecosystems. The effects of human civilization are numerous: destruction and degradation of habitats; various forms of pollution, from solid waste (today mainly plastic waste, which forms veritable islands of garbage in the world’s oceans, the most famous being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered in 1997, whose area is growing rapidly and amounted to about 1.6 million square kilometres in 2019) to various toxic substances such as pesticides and oil spills. In addition, overfishing and the introduction of non-native species are an ever-increasing problem. Finally, global warming is increasing air and ocean temperatures, increasing the frequency of weather extremes such as droughts, floods, heat waves, and severe hurricanes, contributing to ocean acidification, and raising ocean salinity. Environmental activist Alan M. Eddison succinctly stated his opinion on the impact of technology on the environment: Modern technology owes ecology an apology.
All these negative effects lead to the extinction of species and changes in the structure of biotic communities. The reduction of biodiversity significantly affects the stability of ecosystems and calls their functioning into question. Biodiversity provides a functional stock of species, a kind of “reserve bench” for potential disturbances. On the other hand, greater species diversity increases the proportion of weak interactions in the community that dampen the destabilizing potential of strong interactions. Finally, greater diversity increases the range of responses of individual species to perturbations, reducing the likelihood of catastrophic consequences. All of these mechanisms, present in diverse communities, increase the resilience of ecosystems to disturbance, making them more stable and ensuring the fulfilment of their functions, which are essential for sustaining life on Earth, including our species. Biodiversity is a kind of insurance policy for the functioning of Earth’s ecosystems.
This decline in natural diversity is also reflected in our globalized civilization. One of the most brilliant physicists in the field of elementary particles, Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, has warned that both biological and cultural diversity are now seriously threatened, and working to preserve them is a critically important task. Indeed, our entire human civilization has become uniform; we all eat the same food, watch the same movies, and wear the same clothes. If we are to accept the lesson that nature can teach us, it is that globalization makes our civilization vulnerable, unstable and non-resistant to disturbances of any kind.
Ecologists have long seen competition as the dominant evolutionary force and relationship governing nature, from Darwin’s time to the present. They have observed the struggle for survival, conflict, extinction, and survival of the fittest; they have seen nature described by the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson as one with bloody teeth and claws. Over time, however, ecologists have begun to observe cooperation, mutualism, and interdependence everywhere in their studies of nature. Today we know that the number of interdependent and cooperative interactions in nature far outnumbers those characterised by competition and conflict. We find cooperation in every corner of nature. Without insect and plant cooperation, most plants on Earth could not exist because there would be no one to pollinate them or disperse their seeds. Without cooperation, the largest biological structures on Earth, the coral reefs, would not exist because thousands of species work together to build them. Each coral polyp contains about one million unicellular algae in its tissue in one square centimetre. Corals and algae are partners and cannot live without each other. The phenomenon of coral “bleaching”, due to global warming, pollution, and/or acidification, occurs when these mutualistic algae die, the coral turns white because these algae gave it the colour, and then dies itself because the food produced by the algae is missing. Millions of microorganisms live in our body as our partners. The number of cells of these microorganisms is approximately equal to the number of our human cells. These microorganisms ensure the health and proper functioning of numerous systems in our body. Recent medical research suggests that the origin of many diseases lies in a dysfunctional relationship between our body and our microbial partners.
Ecologists have found that nature strives for more cooperation and less competition. Even Darwin knew that evolution is a process of increasing ecological complexity in nature. On the one hand, species “work” on their diversity to avoid competition, and the environment itself becomes more complex, creating new “places” (ecological niches) for new species to occupy. In the Galapágos Islands, when two species of finches live on different islands, they have approximately the same beak size. However, when they live together on the same island, one species has smaller bills and the other has larger bills and feeds on different foods. This phenomenon, called a character displacement by ecologists, shows an evolutionary process of increasing differentiation between species to avoid competition for the same food.
If Victorian society and today’s capitalist society imitated nature, where competition and the struggle for survival dominate, can we change our perspective today and imitate nature’s cooperation? If, as quantum physicists say, the observer influences the observed, can the observed also affect the observer? Can the cooperation we observe in nature be our guide for the future? Ecologist Warder Clyde Allee says: Widespread knowledge of the important role of cooperation and assistance processes among living beings can lead to the acceptance of cooperation as a leading principle in social theory and as a foundation for human behaviour. Such a development, when it occurs, will change the course of human history.
How does nature cope with the effects of human civilization? Many ecologists and environmentalists have expressed in various ways that man cannot live without “Mother Earth”, but the planet can live without man. Nature is certainly more resilient than any single species, including humans. James Lovelock has astutely observed this: Nature favours those organisms which leave the environment in better shape for their progeny to survive. According to Lovelock, the human species does not appear to be nature’s first choice. Lovelock sometimes expressed himself more forcefully, saying, for example, that humans on Earth behave in some ways like a pathogenic microorganism or like the cells of a tumour. Planet Earth does not exist because of man, but man is its product, and our longevity will depend in large measure on our relationship to each other. In response to the effects of civilization, nature is reorganising itself, changing the composition and distribution of species on Earth and the functioning of ecosystems, and establishing new equilibrium relationships. In the process, nature does not care about humans; it does not notice us. Humans can be victims of changes in nature, and it is especially paradoxical when we ourselves have caused these changes. For example, global warming can lead to the disappearance of many species of fish, with jellyfish replacing the small pelagic fish that cope better with warming, and fish reducing their size because one response of organisms to global warming is a reduction in body size. In addition, global warming may trigger geographic shifts in plants and insects, as well as shifts in the timing of plant flowering and insect reproduction, but in a mismatched way, so that the occurrence of flowers and insects does not coincide in space or time. We have said that biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystems and maintains their functions. We do not know exactly how many species will have to disappear for ecosystems to stop functioning, when the grace of nature will cease and when we will no longer have services without which we cannot survive. Our ecosystems are like airplanes whose wings are attached to the fuselage with rivets. We do not know how many rivets have to fall off before the wing falls off, but we do know that with each rivet lost, our plane becomes more vulnerable and closer to disaster.
Can nature and ecological science give us advice for the future? Nature can certainly offer us numerous models useful for human society. Above all, nature operates on the principle of interdependence. In fact, it can only function in this way. No organism or species has much chance of survival without the help of others. John Muir, an American naturalist of the 19thand early 20th century, once said: When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it connected to everything else in the universe. Rachel Carson expressed this by saying: In nature, nothing exists alone. If you send a single organism or a population of organisms into the universe alone, without the services of other species of organisms, from soil fertility to oxygen production, it will not survive. Evolutionary companions are needed.
Nature is built primarily on interdependence and cooperation, much less on conflict and competition. For some time, many people have lost sight of this truth and sometimes even believe that they can live solely on the basis of their technological progress. Barbara Ward, a British economist and environmental activist, criticized this view of progress by saying: We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.
But the last decades have completely destroyed this illusion. The fact of our interdependence with other living beings, the interconnectedness of all life on the planet, has become more apparent than ever before. Nature can provide us with numerous models of successful adaptations from which we can learn today. If we want to fly, for example, we can find models in the wings of birds that took tens of millions of years to perfect. If we want to stop soil erosion or survive a drought, we have a proven model in vegetation, which conserves soil and water in the ground much better than, for example, wheat monocultures, and which, unlike domestic crops, can recover more successfully from severe droughts. We may not think of such models as lessons from history, but they are all products of past experience, and an ecologist who thinks historically discovers how they arose through the process of evolution, which we can call the evolving wisdom of life. In light of this way of thinking, environmental protection becomes an effort to protect certain rates of change in the biological world from incompatible changes in our economy and technology. This way of thinking should occupy a high place in our value system. It requires some effort and even giving up certain comforts we have taken for granted. As Gaylord Nelson, an American politician and environmental activist, said, the ultimate test of a man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.
Man shapes himself through decisions that shape his environment. (Rene Dubos, French-American microbiologist and ecological activist)
This is a very difficult question. It is clear that we cannot simply turn all of our wheat fields or other crops, no matter how ecologically misguided they may be, into the grassy vegetation of meadows, steppes, savannas, pampas, or prairies, nor can we turn industrial capitalism into a medieval Alpine village or a Bushman hunter-gatherer society. We simply cannot turn back time and undo all that has happened. In that sense, we are prisoners of time. But we can approach the records of the past with much more respect, acknowledging that most of the innovations we have recently made are unlikely to survive, that what has happened in the past deserves respect and can serve as a guide to new forms of behaviour; that what is very old and belongs to the past can actually be wise.
We probably cannot find societies that are perfect in every respect, either in the past or in the present, but we can find models to study and learn from. They are everywhere, these communities that were able to adapt to life in their environment over impressive periods of time, that were less aggressive toward nature, that cooperated more with nature and with each other, that were more successful in dealing with the common good, and that might have gained some important insights about nature that we are missing. Perhaps these communities could not escape the ravages of time (hardly anyone can), but they were more successful than we are in resisting the inevitable passage of time. The American scientist Elinor Ostrom, Nobel laureate in economics, has devoted her career to the study of human communities that were successful examples of managing the common good and avoiding the tragedy of the commons.
Is there a secret hidden in these communities that we need to uncover? It seems that these communities had a common feature. They created numerous rules, sometimes carefully planned and calculated, sometimes rooted in tradition, but always based on familiar local experiences to regulate their behaviour. Crucially, Ostrom argues, everyone participated in making the rules and everyone had the ability to monitor compliance with them. In these successful communities, people did not try to live in isolation from nature or from each other, nor did they resist restrictions on individual rights. On the contrary, they accepted many kinds of restrictions on themselves and imposed them on each other. Their methods of enforcing rules may not meet the standards of our modern “democratic,” “free,” and “rightful” society, or they may not conform to our contemporary standards of personal rights and security, and they certainly may suppress creativity or originality to some extent. But history is clear on this point: having these rules and enforcing them consistently and persistently seems to be an essential recipe for long-term ecological survival.
Mladen Šolić was born in Split in 1959. He received his PhD in biological sciences from the Faculty of Science at the University of Zagreb in 1993. He is a scientific advisor with tenure at the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split, where he heads the Laboratory of Microbiology, and a full professor of ecological subjects at the Universities of Split and Zagreb. From 2002 to 2011, he was the head of the Marine Biology and Ecology study program at the University of Split. He has published more than 150 scientific and professional papers and 11 books. He has popularised various ecological topics through several popular science books. He is a member of several international organisations for marine research and conservation. In 2006, he received the award of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts for the highest scientific achievements in natural sciences and mathematics in the Republic of Croatia.
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