Ecology is defined as the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. The word ecology is derived from the Greek oikos, which means “house” and -logia, “study of”. Few people are ever trained in the basic foundations on which the earth, our home, functions, and on which we are wholly dependent.
Based on generations of scientific investigation we do have access to proven universal laws that should govern our decision making. These are Laws of Ecology, and the Laws of Thermodynamics.
1st Law of Ecology: In nature, we can never do just one thing; everything we do creates effects that are often unpredictable.
2nd Law of Ecology: Everything is connected to and intermingled with everything else; we are all in it together.
This is reflected in what John Muir said,
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
And, Aldo Leopold often remarked that when making changes that affect ecosystems we need to use a wisdom principle:
“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering”.
Think of the destructive “unintended consequences” resulting from narrow-minded decisions over the last two hundred years – a rapidly changing climate being perhaps the most damaging in the long run. It is also possible to have positive unintended consequences, but generally only when one is creating actions in nature that considers these laws of ecology. One promising example is Permaculture, and its principles used to design ecologically based human support systems whereby the evolution of the human supporting ecosystem mimics that found in a healthy wild ecosystem.
There are a couple of more laws that are vexing to our modern lifestyles. Known by several different titles as the First Law of Energy, or the Law of Conservation of Energy, or most often First Law of Thermodynamics states that:
We cannot create or destroy energy; we can only change it from one form to another.
In other words, we can’t get energy for nothing; it takes energy to get energy. Ecologists often refer to this law by saying, ‘We can’t get something for nothing – There is no free lunch’
So, the amount of energy in our world remains constant, but…it gets worse!
We can’t break even: In any conversion of energy from one form to another, high-quality, useful energy is always degraded to lower-quality, less useful energy that can’t be recycled to give back high-quality energy; We can’t break even in terms of energy quality. This is known as the Second Law of Energy or more commonly the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
These laws describe exactly why the veiled promises of endless energy and economic growth can’t possibly be true. It’s akin to running a perpetual motion machine. My favorite and humorous example of a perpetual motion machine comes from the Red Green Show:
In all seriousness, the real problem here is that we’ve been running our societies as if it is one big perpetual motion machine, treating the earth as an endless supermarket and a dumpster while continuing to ignore the “unintended consequences”. It seems both our politicians and our economists believe in perpetual motion machines – and I guess it becomes easy for us as citizens to go on with our day-to-day lives without questioning any of this. It is easier not to question because it is what we’ve always known. It’s easy too because the modern lifestyle gives us creature comforts we can’t imagine living without. It’s given us things such as modern medical understanding and hygiene, and many other benefits such as the ease of staying warm in winter and cool in summer, etc. To start deeply questioning the system in which we are living can bring us into cognitive dissonance – learning that many of the decisions we make and the lifestyles we live are in part to blame for climate change and other ills, yet we continue to live this way mainly because our culture and the institutions that reinforce the culture leave little room for the individual to adopt radical change. This can lead to a feeling of powerlessness to change at all, and hopelessness and depression about the state of things when we continue peering behind the ‘wizard’s curtain’ at the social, cultural, and environmental seismic shifts occurring in our lifetimes.
Although humans and long-term sustainability might not be a possibility given our species history (see the footnote), I don’t know that all is lost. One path forward is to regain the knowledge, skills, and wisdom of becoming native to the places we live while concurrently striving to live into wholehearted lives as human beings stewarding our home and loving one another. If we can do this while also using science and data-driven decision making, future generations will have a chance.
One promising science and ecologically based whole systems accounting method that we can begin to use at local, national, and global levels is something known as Emergy. No, this isn’t the misspelled word that President Trump tweeted out a few months ago when he meant to type out the word ‘emergency’. Rather it is a real word with real insights for the future of humanity. I’ll go into more depth with this concept in the next Emerge Wild post. Thanks for reading and staying with me on this Eco-literacy journey!
Regarding our species history and the need to consider that humans and sustainability might be less achievable than anyone wants to admit: We need to delve into a little bit of myth-busting regarding the infallibility of hunter-gatherer peoples throughout the ages. Evidence has come to light in recent years that it is likely that our distant ancestors degraded ecosystems taking everything they could get to survive and thrive. Although currently debated by scholars, the evidence is pointing to our hunter-gatherer ancestors influencing or even causing the extinction of species – especially the large mammals known as megafaunas – such as the wooly mammoth and mastodons. These were likely keystone species and their extinctions caused negative ripple effects across ecosystems.
When one considers how an invasive plant, such as kudzu or Asian honeysuckle, can invade an area and out compete native plants, it is often because the native system didn’t co-evolve with that particular plant. There is nothing to keep the population in check. Similarly, when an animal species invades an area that it didn’t co-evolve with there can be widespread impacts – take the pigs that became feral on the Hawaiian Islands. Ground dwelling birds there are now extinct. The steep slopes and Vulcanic soils and plants there are highly susceptible to the rooting behaviors of pigs. The presence of the pigs has caused numerous plants to become endangered or extinct, and soil erosion can be a problem in places.
Likewise, when our human ancestors left the African continent and spread relatively quickly into other lands they had a large brain, tools and weapons, and the ability to plan and strategize to overcome even the most dangerous of predators. The ecosystems that humans migrated into had no previous evolutionary history in which to balance against human impacts. Even the Neanderthals were absorbed and outcompeted. However, the important point here is that these impacts by small populations of early homo sapiens sapiens did not impart prolonged degradation to the entire system. Although impacts and changes resulted, they occurred slowly enough that ecosystems remained largely resilient overall.
Although our distant ancestors didn’t know about specific ecological laws of the universe, many of the indigenous peoples alive today carry forward creeds based on thousands of years of living close to the land that are meant to guide their behavior:
“The Earth is our Mother. We are Her Children. We honor the Mother, and she will care for us.”
“We live on the turtle’s back. The turtle swims in the great sea. It is not wise to harm the turtle.”
“We take into account our children’s children unto the seventh generation when we make decisions for ourselves today.”
You can find many examples from the ancient Jewish and Christian traditions as well. Here are just a few examples where the Bible instructs us to be stewards of creation:
God looked on the world & called it good not once, not twice, but seven times. ~ Genesis 1
God commands all people to “serve and protect” creation. ~ Genesis 2
God mandates that not only the people, but the land that sustains them, shall be respected. ~ Leviticus
Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet?~ Ezekial 34:18
You shall not pollute the land in which you live ~ Numbers 35:33
Modern societies like ours in the U.S. with millions of humans have lost Earth-based understandings almost entirely. Today we guide decision making based on capitalistic monetary value of what we can extract from the environment, what we can produce that will be profitable, and how quickly these can be accomplished. The impacts on the environment and other organisms, including ourselves, are rarely included in the decision-making equation. Nor are future generations.