Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature

Book Review: The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature by David Suzuki with Amanda McConnell  (Graystone Books 1997, 2002)

I appreciated this book as a contemplation of the elements and of nature in general. It is an analysis, from an ecosystem perspective, of our place in that system. Suzuki is a Canadian zoologist, but is best known for his long-running science TV show – The Nature of Things. He is also an activist and author.

Suzuki has criticized human patterns of “hyperconsumption” based on the rather extravagant lifestyles of some. He also questions the goal of economic growth as primary. He discusses the birth of environmentalism after Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” revelations about the dangers of pesticides and the phenomenon of “biomagnification,” where pesticides and poisons work their way through the food chain. His own revelation came from indigenous peoples who noted that we are not really separate from our environment, so what we do to it, we do to ourselves. He says that he used psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous – hierarchy of needs, as a sort of model for structuring the book. He commences to try and “weave a worldview” with the indigenous-type respect for nature and our needs as modern humans. Previous revolutionary thought in science that is reflected in worldviews is noted. These scientific and reductionist ideas of people like Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, and Darwin, are contrasted with the holistic worldviews of indigenous peoples. Science tends to focus on parts rather than the whole, although the acknowledgement of new forms of interconnectedness and interdependence between different parts of nature continue to emerge. He notes that managing ecosystems with billions of variously interconnected components can be a daunting task. He suggests combining the holistic reverence of nature and its parts as siblings to us, with the view that arises from our scientific knowledge into a new overall worldview, or a new “environmental ethic” as E.O. Wilson stated it.

Air – “the breath of all green things” is the first element contemplated. Breath is, of course, something we need at all times, and is always moving in and out of us. Life and the atmosphere are intimately related.

“Breathing is controlled in the oldest part of the brain, the respiratory center of the brain stem, a relic that originated before the dawn of consciousness.”

Our bodies have many ways to regulate oxygen, to give us what we need at each time. Oxygen is combustible. It shares electrons at variable rates in the process known as oxidation. He describes in detail what happens in our bodies when we breathe. He describes a breath of air according to Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, who notes that 1% of breathed air is the inert gas argon, which is breathed in and then out. According to his calculations, each breath we breathe contains atoms of argon breathed by us a year earlier, after traveling around the world. It also contains the same argon atoms breathed by countless beings of the past and present. In this sense air transcends time. He describes air as a “matrix the joins all life together.” He also describes the development of the earth’s atmosphere, initially from the gases of volcanic eruptions. After a while the atmosphere cooled enough for water vapor to condense into clouds, which initiated the water cycle. Early sea life utilized CO2 dissolved in the ocean to make shells. The development of the metabolic process of photosynthesis enabled the atmosphere to be oxygenated by plants. He describes the layers of the atmosphere, comparing them to the medieval concept of the heavenly “music of the spheres.” The atmosphere also protects us against dangerous radiation, Oxygen, changing to O3, or ozone, is implicated in this process. So, he says, life and the atmosphere have a reciprocal relationship, “each creating, adjusting to, modifying and protecting the other …” Oxygen makes up 21% of the atmosphere. It is thought that 25% O2 could ignite the atmosphere and 15% would be lethal to life, so it is definitely optimized into a narrow range. CO2 and water vapor, as greenhouse gases, regulate the temperature of the earth. Just as plants release oxygen to our atmosphere, so too do our machines release gases and pollutants into the atmosphere, and sometimes at dangerous levels. There is no doubt that in a small but significant way, humans are changing the composition of the atmosphere.

About 74.5% of the surface of the earth is water. Just as the air element, the water element is explored through myth, metaphor, and science. Life began in the ocean and is dependent on the water cycle. Though he doesn’t mention it, some of the earliest writings of oral tradition in the Rig Veda, have much to do with the water cycle. Water has many qualities and properties that support life and various biological processes. Life requires water in liquid form. It has been said that life itself is animated water. The average human is about 60% water by weight. As with air, our body regulates the amount of available water through the presence of thirst, the increasing and decreasing of urine generation, saliva, our sweating mechanism, etc. Water plays a key role in regulating temperature. Water is a remarkable heat sink and so can regulate temperatures around itself. Water, the universal solvent, has amazing properties that are often based on its own molecular properties. In science, the measurement of the properties of water is often the reference point, the point of comparison, for other physical processes.

Freshwater sources, such as the great rivers, were key to the development of human civilization. North America, especially Canada and the U.S., are blessed with vast freshwater sources. These two countries also have the greatest per capita water usage.

The ocean and its currents stabilize the temperature of the Earth. Water exemplifies the fact that “life is opportunistic” so that organisms have learned to adapt to abundant water, scarce water, saltwater, freshwater, and to hone in on the diverse habitats available.

Suzuki recounts the loss of life in Lake Erie from pollution and overfishing. He notes that “eutrophication” – or excess algal growth stimulated by phosphates (from pesticides) had depleted oxygen and that DDT runoff from farms was also killing lake animals. Introduced species (such as the zebra mussel) and industrial effluents are also very problematic.

Microscopes reveal that soil is alive, full of microorganisms. Often in creation myths, the first humans were fashioned form soil or clay. Land is the traditional source of food and medicine. Indigenous societies magically promoted the fecundity of the land. In actuality, the soil is alive with nitrogen-fixing and other microorganisms that make it fertile. These microorganisms make up the major amount of species by mass, of all species. Many are unstudied. The soil filters, cleans, and recycles water and decaying matter.

The origins of soil are recounted with the three types of weathering of rock: mechanical, chemical, and biological. Mechanical weathering simply breaks rock into smaller pieces, usually initiated by water and ice. Chemical weathering is by chemical reactions, dissolving and precipitating, and is also often initiated by water, carrying reactants. Biological weathering is caused by life – by organisms excreting chemicals and decaying.

Life eventually enriched itself through its own decay by the development of organic-rich topsoil. Plants reduce erosion and hold the soil in place. The authors describe soil science, soil horizons, and processes of leaching and accumulation in soils. We need food and its molecular components such as vitamins. The sensory process of food interest, subsequent feeding, and digestion are described in detail. For me, all these descriptions served as reminders of basic life science processes. The process of starvation is also described. Indeed, food is our energy source, and without it we stop.

Agriculture is also examined. The effect of modern methods of factory farming on top soil tend to make it thinner, able to hold less water, and be more prone to washing away during flooding. But human depletion of food and agricultural resources actually began in pre-agricultural Paleolithic times when certain large species of animals were hunted to extinction. Controlled burning to make way for agriculture also devastated large swathes of land. Modern agricultural methods, while increasing yields, are also depleting topsoil at an alarming rate. Increasing population increases the need for agriculture and leads to more deforestation. Smaller traditional human groups, often developed better reciprocal relationships with the environment, through subsistence farming and conservation-minded hunting methods and hunting rituals. The current popularity of organic and sustainable farming methods offers hope to keep the soil resources useful for future generations.

Our source of light and heat, the sun, is here called the Divine Fire. According to the Rig Veda, the Supreme God first arose from heat. This sun fire is energy. Energy is the capacity to do work. Energy functions according to the various laws of physics. The sun powers the area beyond it with energy, which counteracts the decay of energy, the tendency toward randomness and disorder known as entropy. Mammals like us keep a constant body temperature (we are homeothermic). Our source of heat is the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We also absorb and lose heat through our skin. We make excessive heat in the form of fevers to weaken and destroy dangerous microorganisms.

Along with the fire within there is the fire without. Humans’ mastery of fire allowed us to enter and dwell in new and varied habitats. It also brought us together in campsites that we defended against predators and other humans. He gives the ancient Greek story of Prometheus and Pandora and compares it to the story of the Garden of Eden.

Energy transactions take place at the atomic, molecular, and cellular levels. It is thought that life began by utilizing energy and then improved itself by finding sources of continuous energy. Although some forms of life utilize the energy and heat arising from the planet’s interior, the sun is the source of energy for most of life. About 99.8 % of all matter in our solar system is contained by the sun – 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. Photosynthesis, the eating or internal metabolizing of the sun’s energy, was a big step in the evolution of life. This oxygenated the atmosphere. It took millions of years for the slow accumulation (in anoxic environments), burial, pressurizing, and heating of the carcasses of small forms of life that came to be hydrocarbons – coal, oil, and natural gas. These hydrocarbons store energy from the sun. Animal fat, dung, straw, and wood were the fuels used by humans before these hydrocarbons were discovered and fueled the Industrial Revolution. Now, our standards of living include constant instant access to light, heat, and power. But like Prometheus and Pandora, fire (energy) is a double-edged sword. The wastes – pollution and CO2 and ghg build-up – have the potential to destroy life as we know it.

Life itself shapes and creates the environment. Biodiversity, or the totality of life, say the authors, should take its place beside the elements as a fashioner of the biosphere. All species can be seen as a web, as an ecosystem. All species are linked in the food chain. Different species have different emphases and sensory abilities. While we humans have that crown jewel of consciousness and great awareness, other species have better sensory ranges and abilities than us. Of course, we can probe into the unknown and off-limits sensory realms with our scientific instruments. Now we know that the totality of microscopic organisms have a greater biomass than all other organisms. Nature is cyclic and organisms can be grouped into producers, consumers, and decomposers, so that each in some way provides for the others.

Biodiversity is important because it is one of life’s primary defenses against the potential damaging effects of changing conditions. All living organisms are genetically related so we all have the same source far enough back in time. The Native American statement that “we are all related” is quite scientifically accurate. It is well known that genetic diversity increases the survivability of a species. In the same manner, biodiversity increases the survivability of life. Genetic diversity is also called genetic polymorphism, and is based on gene variance. In modern times, the agricultural practice of “monoculture”, planting only one variety of a crop, has been shown often to weaken that particular variety by reducing genetic diversity and cross-pollination. This is counteractive to life’s evolutionary strategy. The biosphere is composed of diverse ecosystems, each with diverse life forms that have diverse genetics. By analogy, one would expect human cultural diversity to be a strategic advantage as well. Diversity of human cultural knowledge has also led to our success. Our minds have even become more diverse through time:

“Most of our instinctive behavior has been replaced by flexibility, an ability to change patterns of behavior on the basis of observation and experience.”

“Diversity confers resilience, adaptability, and the capacity for regeneration.”

Our success depends on the success of many, or perhaps most or all, other organisms. Since we are full of microorganisms it can be said that we are a community of organisms. Some recent biological research has been about “superorganisms”, from eusocial species that colonize, such as bees, ants, and humans, to massive underground mycelia networks and quaking aspen colonies. Is the totality of life on Earth a superorganism? Are we the living Gaia? That is what James Lovelock originally thought through his Gaia hypothesis, though I have heard he is not so sure these days. Earth/Biosphere balances itself through feedback mechanisms, but these are notoriously slow. That is why human effects such as global warming, may be so devastating. Such feedback mechanisms can be compared to the feedback and regulating mechanisms of the human body. There is no doubt that the Earth has changed rather drastically since the Industrial Revolution with the corresponding increase in human population and standard of living. There have been five major extinction crises over the last 500 million years where 65% or more of species have gone extinct. Each of these may be related to climate change and each took about 10 million years for natural restoration of biodiversity to occur.

Suzuki recounts the time he and his family spent among native Kayapus deep in in the Amazon rainforest and the different sort of life and time reckoning there. He also talks about environmental restoration being a top priority and notes some success stories where ecosystems have been restored to varying degrees through restorative processes but especially through abandoning destructive processes.

In a chapter called “The Law of Love” the idea that higher needs arise when base needs are met, based on Maslow’s hierarchy, is examined. Studies show that parental love and gestures of affection toward children can lead to better child development and contentment. The attunement of child and mother, even of fetus and mother, can be seen as a precursor of sorts, to love. The reciprocal benefits of nursing are another example. Humans bond in families and extended family clans, within which they show allegiance and affection to one another. Nature and nurture work in a balance of sorts. Humans require more than physiological health. Psychological health is also very important to we social creatures.

Humans also have the capacity for brutality. Even so, humans that were victims of tragedy and brutality, also have the capacity to heal those wounds - if needs for security and psychological comfort are met.

Early humans relied on memory and forethought for survival. This is an early form of “cost-benefit” analysis. Nowadays, with our global society, it is not so easy to do total cost-benefit analysis and people tend to disagree. We also need to consider costs and benefits to future generations. The definitions of community have also changed here in the post-Industrial Age. We have tended to think that the wonders of technology have improved our lives to the point that non-technological societies are inferior.

“Communities are bound together by shared beliefs, values, history, and rituals; they have always walked a fine line between inclusiveness and exclusivity.”

Modern society has rather estranged us from the clan and tribal structures, though we still have our family units. City life has resulted in many neighbors being strangers. Since we have cars we can go away to be where we want and need to be. Peace and stability in clans, neighborhoods, and communities, as well as in families, is important for our well-being. We now live in large heterogeneous societies. Consumerism is often valued over citizenship. We are expected to contribute to economic development. An example of a backfire is the overfishing problem off the coast of Newfoundland where 40,000 people lost their livelihood (temporarily) in an industry that had thrived for five centuries.

Suzuki goes on to recount E.O. Wilson’s notion of “biophilia” where we revive our evolutionary links to all other creatures. Wilson defined it as “the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” Fellowship with nature is considered by many to be therapeutic. It tends to relieve stress and bring on feelings of child-like wonder. He mentions ideas of wedding ecology and psychology into the field of ecopsychology. I suppose there can be a split for folk who are entirely city bound but I also think this split from nature notion is a bit overplayed as nature is everywhere, even within human structures.

Moving again up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, comes the so-called need for spiritual or sacred meaning. From the creation stories that bind together tribes to modern dogmatic religions, it can be argued that we have such a need. Along with myths of our origins there are often myths of our “mess-ups”: the fall of humans from paradise, dignity, or the favor of the gods. He notes that in the modern world we often see spirit and matter as separate but in the times of animism, matter was animated with spirit. While traditional animism is not likely where the world of modern spirituality is headed, there is some correlation of animism with an ecological worldview. In many traditional views, after we die, we, or a component of our soul becomes a contactable land spirit and/or an ancestor to call upon in times of need. Suzuki talks about our modern technological society being beset with an alienation of the spirit. While I agree that this is true, I am not certain that it is a bad thing. I don’t think it is so good that we get too attached to superstitions, which are in effect dogmas. Of course, even science can become dogmatic. He talks of the divided world of matter and spirit perpetuated by mechanistic science and the ideas of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, etc. When body and mind are seen as separate, our emphases change. The body is limited by mortality and so there is a dead-end in the maze if we seek that as our only possible route. His basic thesis is that we are unbalanced toward materialism and technological hope, that we are split and there is longing for wholeness. Matter is not mortal. It merely changes form. It is always there, somewhere, sometime, in the same original amount, or so science suggests. Objective reality is not the totality of reality. Our own mortality leads us to seek that which is eternal. Seeing the world in terms of ecology, an ecological vision, can lead us to think in terms of relationships rather than separated objects, says Suzuki. We are part of a system and how we relate to other parts is how we are. We are a tree but we are also the forest. They talk about labels, how naming a thing creates an identity, a separate existence, in our language-mind. They think that an ethical system based on ecological principles is what we need as humans. We need to re-connect the mind-body dichotomy.

To restore the balance, it is suggested that we engender humility and try to see things as all life, rather than as “me”, the individual. The suggestions for how to make the world better are mostly obvious hopeful things like using less, thinking deeply about how much material goods one needs, reducing/reusing/recycling, etc. While these are all fine things they are only truly effective if a large segment of the population indulges. He goes through some examples of people that have had positive affects on society and environment: yacht racer Ian Kiernan, architect William McDonough, the late Wangari Maathai – the great tree planter of the Green Belt Movement, biodiversity advocate Vandana Shiva, scientist-doctor Karl-Henrik Robert, mangrove reforestation advocate Motohiko Koga, and micro-loan pioneer Muhammed Yunis.

Overall, an interesting book, especially for the reminders of scientific facts and different perspectives they can bring. Even so, it was not a book with any groundbreaking ideas or creative solutions to world problems, though I did appreciate the examination of the values of biodiversity. For me, it was mostly a good contemplation on nature and life.



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