In June of 2009, ecoliteracy.org published an important essay that offered a basis for how we humans must develop a relationship with Mother Earth in order to survive as a race. The essay was based upon ideas first proposed by Fritjof Capra, the father of modern systems thinking. This blog post is a paraphrased summary of that essay.
What is Life?
The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life which is called “metabolism.” Metabolism is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions. This enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself through the intake, digestion, and transformation of food. Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. Said another way, life is the transportation and transformation of energy.
The fundamental facts of life are that:
- Nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation.
- Life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.Diversity assures resilience and survival.
- Energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun.
- Matter cycles continually through the web of life.
- One species’ waste is another species’ food.
Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs. Plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; Together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.
We need to “understand how Nature sustains life because sustained life is a property of an entire ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization is what we mean by ‘ecological literacy’.”
The survival of humanity depends upon our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of a connected Nature and how to live accordingly. This means that ecological literacy must become a critical skill for all humans to embrace if we are to remain on Earth.
In order to become ecologically literate and to survive on this Planet, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household. A living system – organism, ecosystem, or social system – is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. These “systemic” properties are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. Consequently, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Systems thinking means that understanding life requires a shift of focus from objects to relationships. Each species in an ecosystem helps to sustain the entire food web. If one species is decimated by some natural catastrophe, the ecosystem may still be resilient enough to survive if there are other species that can fulfill similar functions. In other words, the stability of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity. Biodiversity is a popular word that describes the complexity of Nature’s network of relationships. Nature’s ecosystems.
Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from Nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.
Current world problems
Once we become ecologically literate, we can understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life. We can then understand that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems. This means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. Virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security. The vicious circle of humanity’s population growth pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources. This means falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on. The depletion of resources, aggravated by human triggered climate change, produces failing governments that can no longer provide security for their citizens. Terrorism then becomes a means for temporary human survival.
All of these problems must be seen as different facets of one single crisis — a lack of ecological literacy. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.
There are solutions to the major problems of our time. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key world views that must be part of a new paradigm that portrays the vital interconnections between food, health, and the environment. This profound transformation in the global thinking of all humans is needed for humanity to survive.
For Your Further Consideration
This essay, and other essays in this web site, present ideas about ecoliteracy and legacy to all environmental educators, all students, and all stewards of Nature.The emphasis is on three key ideas:
- Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms the energy necessary for all life to exist. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview includes the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
- Students, environmental educators, scientists, and all stewards of Nature are a powerful progressive force that, through their “stories”, their legacies that they create, and through their informed actions are capable of overseeing the well-being of our home — Mother Earth
- Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and place-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the acts of passing this consciousness on to future generations.
The purpose of this web site is to build a dialog between myself and my readers. I invite you to offer your comments, your critique, and to share your ideas with all of my readers in the comment space provided below.
My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.