Relationships – A Unifying Vision

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in the community but his ethics prompt him to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).” –– from Aldo Leopold “A Sand County Almanac” 1949

This essay presents ideas to environmental educators, students,  and all stewards of Nature.   These ideas come from some of our modern great thinkers. The emphasis in this essay will be on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy into all life. The goal is to build a “Living Earth” worldview (a systems view of life)  into the consciousness of human beings that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth. This worldview is based on the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts and giving tests. Environmental education must be hands-on and take place outdoors if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become conscious in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the passing of this consciousness to future generations.

Relationships – A Unifying Vision

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. Any living system, whether it be an organism, an ecosystem, or a social system, is an integrated whole whose properties cannot be reduced to those properties of smaller parts.

Author Jeremy Lent suggests that we must understand Nature as a networked system: 

“The systems perspective offers important insights into the nature of reality that upend many assumptions forming the basis of the predominant worldview. It tells us that the relationship between things is frequently more important than the things themselves. It emphasizes that everything in the natural world is dynamic rather than static and that biological phenomena can’t be predicted with precision: instead of fixed laws, we, therefore, need to search for the underlying organizing principles of nature.”

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.

Without A Relationship With Nature, We Have No Life

We commonly think of the word “relationship” to describe a  personal, romantic, or passionate attachment of some kind. One might say: “I have a great relationship with my daughter”. Or, in your Facebook profile, you might state “I am in a relationship with Sandy Smith”. But rarely do we hear or read about the most important kind of human relationship that is so critical to the maintenance of life itself. This kind of relationship is a relationship with Nature.

Perhaps one reason for this omission is that much of humanity does recognize our dependency on Nature. In our “me” societies, our hubris suggests that we can control Nature. This arrogance prevents us from admitting that, while Nature can survive without us, we cannot survive without Nature.  Many scholars point out that the unchecked, exponential population growth of the human race will result in the resources of the Earth being unable to supply food for humans within the next 50 years. This dire prediction has come about because humanity has failed to look upon Nature as a relationship.

Some years ago, Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi published a seminal book entitled “The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision” .  Capra is well known as one of the fathers of modern systems science. Since the 1960s, modern science has undergone a major paradigm shift by recognizing that:

“…the material world, ultimately, is an evolving and ever-changing system in which complex structures are developed from simpler forms. Nature is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships. The planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. A central characteristic of this systems view of life is that all living systems are complex networks where there are countless interconnections between the biological, cognitive, social, and ecological dimensions of life.”

An ecosystem is greater than the sum of its parts. It cannot be defined by looking separately at each of its interconnected parts. In addition, the high complexity of an ecosystem makes it impossible to predict.

The problem is that the society of mankind is unable to grasp this fundamental truth. Humanity fails to see that we are part of the relationship. We cannot stand aside from something that we are part of. If we affect Nature, we affect ourselves. For example, if we pollute the air, we might suffer climate change.

The human concept of economics is another powerful example of how we might end up damaging or destroying relationships within human society by damaging Nature. Capra notes that:

The outstanding characteristic of most of today’s economic models – whether they are promoted by economists in government, in the corporate world, or in academia – is their assumption that perpetual economic growth is possible. Such undifferentiated and unlimited growth is seen as essential by virtually all economists and politicians, even though it should by now be abundantly clear that unlimited expansion on a finite planet can only lead to disaster. Since human needs are finite, but human greed is not, economic growth can usually be maintained through the artificial creation of needs by means of advertising. The goods that are produced and sold in this way are often unneeded and thus are essentially waste. The pollution and depletion of natural resources generated by this enormous waste of unnecessary goods is exacerbated by the waste of energy and materials in inefficient production processes. The continuing illusion of unlimited growth on a finite planet is the fundamental dilemma at the roots of all the major problems of our time.”

Indeed, we humans are an integral part of Fritjof Capra’s system view of life.

What does the term “systems view” mean when it is applied to life? It implies looking at a living organism in the totality of its relationships. But clearly, the idea of a relationship of interdependence with Nature is ignored by most of the human race. Instead, we pursue a reckless dominance that might wipe out our species.

In April of 2018, the Ecologist Journal published an essay by Fritjof Capra entitled “The Way To Sustain Life Is To Build And Nurture Community” . 

Capra’s essay is a wonderful summary of modern systems science thinking that has been completely ignored by many organizations who are carrying on “conservation” projects in Nature. What follows is a series of quotes from Capra’s essay that suggest a new way of thinking about conserving Nature. 

The Systems View of Life Requires A New Kind Of Thinking

Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

“The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities, designed in such a manner that their ways of life — businesses, economies, physical structures, and technologies — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life.”

“The first step in this endeavor, naturally, must be to understand how nature sustains life. It turns out that this involves a new ecological understanding of life. Indeed, such a new understanding of life has emerged in science over the last 30 years.”

“The systems view of life requires a new kind of thinking — thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.”

“One of the most important insights of the systemic understanding of life is the recognition that networks are the basic pattern of organization of all living systems. Ecosystems are understood in terms of food webs – i.e., networks of organisms; organisms are networks of cells, organs, and organ systems; and cells are networks of molecules.”

“The network is a pattern that is common to all life. Indeed, at the very heart of the change of paradigms from the mechanistic to the systemic view of life, we find a fundamental change of metaphors: from seeing the world as a machine to understanding it as a network. “

” Today, it is becoming more and more evident that concern with the environment is no longer one of many “single issues.” It is the context of everything else — of our lives, our businesses, our politics.”

” Sustainability, then, 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.

“Today, it is becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time — energy, environment, climate change, economic inequality, violence and war, and so on — cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent. They require corresponding systemic solutions — solutions that do not solve any problem in isolation but deal with it within the context of other related problems.”

“Unfortunately, this realization has not yet dawned on most of our political and corporate [and scientific] leaders who are unable to connect the dots. Instead of taking into account the interconnectedness of our major problems, their so-called ‘solutions’ tend to focus on a single issue, thereby simply shifting the problem to another part of the system — for example, by producing more energy at the expense of biodiversity, public health, or climate stability. Moreover, our leaders refuse to recognize how their piecemeal solutions affect future generations. What we need is solutions that are systemic and sustainable.”

Ecoliteracy And The Understanding Of Nature’s Systems Is Vital To Sustainable Living 

In the coming decades the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy — our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly.”

“This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels — from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.”

“We need to teach our children, our students, and our political and corporate leaders the fundamental facts of life — for example, that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by partnerships and networking.

Environmental Educators Hold The Key To Altering Humanity’s Misguided Worldview About Nature

Is there any hope of building an eco-literate worldview of systems thinking within humans? I think so !! Despite the irresponsible ignorance of a large number of humans, many of our children and future generations do not hold this destructive point of view. Their minds are fresh and responsive to awe and wonder. Through environmental education programs that emphasize Earth’s web of life, they are likely candidates for embracing the idea of relationships and interdependence. By being shown how to identify and protect energy connections in Nature, they become effective stewards of our Earth.

Through hands-on, place-based education:

  • Ask each student to describe his or her relationship with a plant or animal.
  • Ask students to draw a complete food web diagram, INCLUDING THEMSELVES,  of the ecosystem that they are observing.
  • Have the students play the Web of Life game that includes themselves.
  • With care, guide the students away from consumerism.

Hopefully, with these ideas and other ideas, our children can develop an ecoliterate “relationship consciousness” and become legacy builders — Nature’s evangelists for future generations.

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Interbeing – No Man Is An Island


No man is an island. Instead, his “interbeing” is shared with the plants and animals he eats, the people who make his clothes and food, the people who populate his home, country and the very world he perceives, the insects that pollinate the trees that yield his fruit, shade him from the sun, and provide lumber or his house.”                                                                                                     Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh

There is something about the world “interbeing” that tugs at my soul leaving a joyous and very comfortable feeling. In one word, “Interbeing”  describes all of the processes that drive our planet because it describes the processes of inter-dependence and co-existence among all things. Without interbeing, Nature would fail to function. In human terms, interbeing recognizes the dependence of any one person on all other people and objects. Interbeing is the process that describes Nature as a living system as well as a well-functioning human society.

One of my favorite environmental writers is Dr. Scott Sampson who is a  dinosaur paleontologist, science communicator, and author of the book  How To Raise A Wild Child. In a 2011 essay at, Scott does a great job of describing the absurd mindset of a very large group of human adults over the age of 25.

Arguably the most cherished and deeply ingrained notion in the Western mindset is the separateness of our skin-encapsulated selves — the belief that we can be likened to isolated, static machines. Having externalized the world beyond our bodies, we are consumed with thoughts of furthering our own ends and protecting ourselves. Yet this deeply rooted notion of isolation is illusory, as evidenced by our constant exchange of matter and energy with the “outside” world. At what point did your last breath of air, sip of water, or bite of food cease to be part of the outside world and become you? Precisely when did your exhalations and wastes cease being you? Our skin is as much permeable membrane as barrier, so much so that, like a whirlpool, it is difficult to discern where “you” end and the remainder of the world begins. Energized by sunlight, life converts inanimate rock into nutrients, which then pass through plants, herbivores, and carnivores before being decomposed and returned to the inanimate Earth, beginning the cycle anew. Our internal metabolisms are intimately interwoven with this Earthly metabolism; one result is the replacement of every atom in our bodies every seven years or so.”

The idea that we humans are separate from Nature and can control Nature is blatantly false. The truth is that we humans are totally dependent on Nature and each other in order to live. Like every other creature on Earth, we are in a state of “interbeing” — this highly interconnected state of dependency on Nature. We humans must embrace the fact that we are not outside or above Nature, but fully enmeshed within it!!! As a result, every act that we do can affect everything else. But most of the time we have no idea what the consequence of that act might be. WHY?? Because we have no way of predicting what Nature will do.

The tragedy is that we adults are blindly consuming and abusing Nature at a rate that destroys or alters Nature’s ecosystems in addition to leaving little or nothing for our children, our grandchildren, future generations, and life in general.

Scott Sampson goes on to then pose the question, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” His response to his question is that humanity “would greatly benefit by embracing and practicing the concept of interbeing”.

The idea of interbeing comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who says:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in a sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.”

‘Interbeing’   is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are. . . . ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

We must learn to see ourselves not as isolated but as permeable and interwoven — selves within larger selves, including the species self (humanity) and the biospheric self (life). The interbeing perspective encourages us to view other life forms as fellow travelers in the current of this ancient river. On a still more profound level, it enables us to envision ourselves and other organisms not as static “things” at all, but as processes deeply and inextricably embedded in the background flow.

Interbeing, an expression of ancient wisdom backed by science, can help us comprehend this radical ecology, fostering a much-needed transformation in mindset.”

The solution to climate change problems, human over-population, and over-consumption rests with those humans who have embraced a consciousness for the “interbeing” of everything on our Earth. When our central organizing priority becomes the interbeing of all life, we then experience the recovery of our world. When a person is gifted with a consciousness of interbeing and acts upon an ecosystem in some way, that action is always accompanied by the question:

If I do this here, what might happen over there? 

Here is a famous example. If I kill all the wolves at Yellowstone  National Park, what will happen to the ecosystem where those wolves lived? (Hint: Look at the video “Lords of Nature).  The killing of all the wolves at Yellowstone in the early 1900s by ranchers and hunters resulted in major, unexpected changes in the Yellowstone ecosystem. In the later 1900s, scientists recognized the negative ecological impact of the wolf killings and wolf reintroduction began. This recovery effort demonstrated the power of interbeing. This is a video worth watching !!!

It is a sad fact that the development of consciousness for interbeing will not come from the current generations of human adults who are separated from Nature, are focused on near term financial “growth”, and who choose not to consider the welfare of Earth’s creatures or the well-being of future human generations. This group of adult humans has left a mess for future human generations.

However, in all good stories, there are heroes that come to the rescue. These heroes are environmental educators, other specialists in education, scientists, college students, and those other folks who are angry about what is going on. What is essential for the long-term survival of the human race is a strong sense of interbeing with Earth and all life on Earth. Interbeing exists as a profoundly important tool in the arsenal of those who, through education, direct action, or example, will help define a new and positive future for all life on earth.

For Your Further Consideration

Video:  The Story of Interbeing   (8:44 minutes) Charles Eisenstein

In this video on interbeing, Charles Eisenstein explains how the real power we have to create change comes from alignment with the web of being.

Video: If We Don’t Protect Nature We Can’t Protect Ourselves  (5:34 minutes) Harrison Ford

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms the energy necessary for all life to exist. The key to an active group of eco literate humans 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 – particularly our youth. This worldview (the “Living Earth Story”) is supported by the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental educators,  their students, scientists, and all stewards of Nature  are a powerful progressive force that, through their knowledge about Nature, through the legacies that they create for the future, 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 include the acts of passing a worldview of a living Mother Earth on to humanity. Environmental education must be hands-on, and action-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become conscious in the minds and hearts of all of our youth.
  • This website offers a free PDF book entitled “Empowering Nature’s Stewards”. ‎ The book offers educational methodology and content for creating Nature’s “Living Earth Story” within our youth and all stewards of Nature. To download this book, follow the instructions when you click the “Empowering Nature’s Stewards ” menu item from the menu list. 
  • If you are interested in working with me, other environmental educators, and other stewards of Nature to build a legacy of young people who will embrace and evangelize the worldview that “Everything on Earth is Connected and Interdependent”, please provide your questions and comments in the space provided below or by contacting me at my Twitter account @ballenamar.


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