Ruth DeFries is Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York City, and is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. DeFries' most recent book is What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times. In a recent article in Aeon, the online magazine, De Fries provides what is probably a shorter version of the argument outlined in her book. The Aeon article is titled, "Nature's Playbook."
I enjoyed DeFries' article, which is 3,500 words long, relatively brief, and so I am pleased to suggest that you read it for yourself. There is no paywall, as far as I know, so you can just click that link.
What I liked best about the article was DeFries' description of how life evolved on Earth, a story of how living complexity ultimately overcame the daunting geologic conditions from which it emerged. Our planetary environment is complex, and "nature shows a remarkable ability to take advantage of the benefits of all this complexity while avoiding its dangers." Our human situation is also complex, DeFries says, so nature should have some lessons for us.
The key lesson for us, as I read DeFries, is "diversity." Diversity, in fact, is what makes life possible:
The life-saving benefits of diversity don’t just apply to ancient forms of life. In the current day, diversity is humanity’s insurance against the uncertainties of a changing climate. While our food supply depends increasingly on a homogeneous stew of a handful of crop species, nature’s experience shows the wisdom in keeping variety alive. The principle applies not just to plants and animals that humans eat, but to languages, world views, cultures, and forms of knowledge that the modern world overlooks as old-fashioned. In finance, the benefits of ‘portfolio diversity’ are well known, while ‘design diversity’ in engineering creates failsafe mechanisms by creating slightly different parts for the same function. Investments in seed banks and an awareness of the value of non-Western ways of thinking suggest we’re slowly absorbing the principles that allowed evolution to overcome inevitable calamities.
My only issue with what DeFries is saying is that human beings seem exceedingly reluctant actually to recognize "diversity" as the life-supporting and life-sustaining strategy it surely is. In order to make that strategy work for us - as it does for all life - human beings need to back off and let things alone, instead of trying to dominate everything. I have yet to read Under A White Sky, which I mentioned on Friday, but there seems to be some indication that even Elizabeth Kolbert thinks that it is time for human beings to start "geoengineering" our way out of the global warming crisis that we have created for ourselves (and for many other living species, too, of course).
To honor "diversity" on Planet Earth, human beings need to defer to Nature, and to Nature's complexity, and not attempt to put Nature under ever greater human control. We need to live within the limits set by Nature, instead of thinking that we set the limits.
Trying to suggest that human beings should take charge of the diversity and complexity that is the precondition of life itself is the very opposite of good advice. In other words, Nature has not furnished us with a "playbook" which, once we consult it, we should then use to run the world. To the contrary, we are part of Nature, and subject to Nature, and we need to follow the requirements and respect the limits that Nature imposes on all that is alive.
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