Recently, I took us on an imaginary trip 4 billion years back in time. The exercise was to show how utterly dependent we all are on nature for our survival. Today, even with all of our modern technologies, we are just as dependent. So why is this connection so often overlooked?
It wasn't always this way. Throughout most of human history, people understood that we are part of the natural world — that everything is connected to everything else and nothing exists in isolation. This understanding was reflected in songs, dances, and stories, which reaffirmed our responsibility to act in ways that maintained nature's generosity.
It is ironic that today with all of our increased access to information, we no longer seem able to recognize those responsibilities. Our worldview has been shattered, and I think the greatest challenge we face will be putting the pieces back together. To do that, we have to examine the factors that have fragmented the world in the first place.
One is the way we live. In 1900, the global population was 1.5 billion people, with only 16 cities having more than a million people, the largest being London with 6.5 million. The vast majority of us lived in rural villages. We were an agrarian species. Today, there are more than 400 cities with more than a million people, and the 10 largest each has more than 11 million.
We have become large-city dwellers, and in this environment, it is no longer obvious that we still depend on nature. Processed food bears little resemblance to its biological origins, and seasons no longer restrict our food, which comes from all parts of Earth. Few reflect on the source of our energy or water, the final destiny of garbage or sewage, or the ecological consequences of our lifestyles. We simply pay for those services with money, as if that were the end of the story.
The way we receive information has also become fragmented. Newspapers, magazines, television, and computers all fight to attract and hold our attention. Armed with remote controls, television viewers zip through dozens of channels, spending a few seconds on each. To hold a potential viewer, programs must be louder, more sensational, sexier, or more violent. News reports come at us in brief snippets devoid of history or context that explain what they mean.
Modern science also contributes to fragmentation by the very methodology of focusing on a part of nature, isolating it, controlling all outside forces, and measuring the result. In the process, we acquire powerful insights into the properties of that fragment, but this is gained at the expense of the rhythms, cycles, and patterns that are crucial to our understanding of it.
Zoologists, for example, once believed that studying chimpanzees in a cage would reveal everything about the animal. But when Jane Goodall watched chimps in their natural habitat, she discovered completely different creatures — intelligent, creative, social, cooperative, competitive. Context is everything. Separate and isolate a part from the whole, and what we see is an artifact, an aberration.
Again and again, biologists find that nature is not a mechanical entity like a clock. It is possible to isolate and study the components of an ant colony, for example: the queen, workers, soldiers, and so on. But in a nest, patterns of behavior emerge that cannot be predicted by simply adding together the characteristics of the individual groups. Ants are not little robots or automatons; they are not preprogrammed to behave in completely predictable ways.
Despite these insights and the growth of systems analysis, which attempts to examine the whole rather than parts, we still largely focus on pieces and lose sight of the complete picture. It is a flawed and ultimately destructive way of examining the world around us. It fragments our worldview. To live sustainably within the limits of the ecosystems that support us, we have to put the pieces back together.
Reprinted from Environmental News Network.
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Source: David Suzuki Foundation
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