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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

Does Nature Need Us? Symbiosis as One Way to Survive


Man's shadow in arroyoIt’s hard to find an ecologist who will say that the human species is necessary for this planet, in any way, shape, or form.  Would not nature be better off without us, given all the energy we require to sustain ourselves, the vast effort we spend reshaping the land in our image, the whole mess we have made of the atmosphere and the oceans, the huge number of species we have helped to deplete?  Spare me, wrote the poet A.R. Ammons, man’s redundancy.  No one needs us but ourselves.

From the perspective of evolution we are but one odd strategy for survival, a strand sure to go nowhere, the one species specialized enough to wonder what we are doing here, to reflect on our place in the scheme of things, to think beyond our own self-interest.  I do not know if this makes other species selfish, just that they do not think who they are, they know who they are.  Or perhaps they don’t need to know.  They just are, living how they are supposed to live, never doing too much damage, fitting into the world as they must fit in, interwoven with those species who need them and flitting by those who do not interfere with their niches.  The evolution of a being who needs to wonder why it is here, to consider whole different possible cultural ways of living—this is clearly a strand of selection destined to fizzle out.  And on all the millions of planets out there, and on all the myriad galaxies, have any other species evolved to be this curious, this unsettled?

Sure, from the perspective of nature, in its grandest scale of eons past and future, we or our current sense of ecological crisis cannot possibly matter.  Our symbiotic importance is nil, and our tragedy is that we have evolved far enough to realize this loud and clear.

No, it has never been scientists who have claimed the importance of human beings to the pantheon of nature.  It has been artists, poets, especially philosophers who have announced how important we are.  “Man,” wrote Heidegger, “sings the Earth into being.”  That line always made me feel important to the ecology, as much as I want to believe that nature holds a place for me.  Is it nothing but hubris, raw human pride.  Sings the Earth into Being!  How absurd!  As if we really need to be there when the tree in the forest falls!

It may be wishful thinking, but we must believe something like that if we are to believe our species should continue as part of the biosphere.  We are the questioning species, the answering species, the ones who solve the puzzles we have by necessity created.  Our species was destined to transform the environment, so we had best find the most viable kind of transformation.  I know this is fatalist and woolly, but we have gotten to this point and we must imagine we can get out, even if that is faith and nothing more.

Nature may not need humanity in any eternal sense, but it certainly needs us right now.  We have polluted the air, land, and sea, we have taxed the finite resources of this planet, and we have avoided the challenge of finding safer ways of fueling our growth and development.  We’ve plotted our course without realizing how much we depend on the flourishing of the rest of life, and the more we learn of how ecosystems work, the more we know one act at one edge of the system impacts the rest of the system in ways we can hardly comprehend.

We may not sing the Earth into being, but we sing our parts in the whole chorus only if we know the rest of the music.  We’re going to be changing our tune, but each new part still has to fit in with the rest.  If nature is never going to depend on us, more than ever we must depend on it, especially if we want to be more than a curious footnote in evolutionary history.

Maybe we are alone in the universe, the one species that is not needed because we can think and choose too much.  Like all dominant species, one day we are bound to fail.  But it’s too easy to become stymied by such a thought, as there are still so many paths we have to try, so many possibilities for depending on the rest of the world.  Maybe such dependence is only of value to us, as the world neither smiles not acknowledges us back.  There is still so much more our species can do!  Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years of possibility.  Let’s reach out and strive to understand more.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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Photo by Simmons Buntin.


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