Our Connection to the Earth

Photo by Nima Kasraie

Photo by Nima Kasraie

The Nature Museum is embarking on a series of programs related to the notion of “Connections.”  There are a lot of ways to approach this idea so Carrie King, the Museum’s Executive Director, has asked me to comment on two.

A number of years ago, a graduate student at UMASS Amherst sent out a questionnaire to members of six professional environmental societies.  These ranged from National Park rangers, to fisheries experts, to the Society of Conservation Biology, which is how he his hooks on me and my colleague, Jenny Ramstetter.  We filled out the thorough form, sent it back, and got the scored results a few months later.  Both of us were shocked at what we saw.

Even though all six groups’s missions involved dealing with nature — its protection, its management and utilization, or its conservation, — Jenny and I scored way out on the end of the curve.  We looked like environmental wackos.  Why?  Primarily because we didn’t value and understand nature as resources to be used to benefit humans; instead we saw enormous intrinsic value in nature, where its primary value was just in its existence.  In many ways, however, these two, very different perspectives have to connect for all of us.

As a human, I need to eat, move about, and live in a dwelling.  So I do use resources from the planet, but I try to minimize my footprint by careful thought and resulting selective behavior.  I also know that I depend on the many services provided by nature — things like flood mitigation by wetlands, detoxification of my effluents by bacteria, or the pollination of the fruits and vegetables that I eat.

These “services” come free, but when possible, it can be useful to steal from economics and conduct a cost/benefit analysis of something’s instrumental value (in dollars) so that we can compare its benefits to the cost of its elimination. In Puerto Rico, for example, a new marina was not built over the “useless” existing mangrove forest on the site.  Hurricanes pummel the Island every 60 years, on average, and mangroves reduce the fury of the storms.  The replacement costs of the already existing storm-damaged structures without the mangroves were determined to be more than the income the marina would generate.  So, no marina.

For some, however, a dollar value on any part of nature is hard to take.  For such people all organisms have intrinsic value by virtue of being alive.  O.K., but then some interesting questions can arise.  For example: does a panda have more intrinsic value than, say, a rattlesnake; is an uncommon Blue whale more valuable than a common dolphin; or does a Zika virus filled mosquito have any value at all?  The virus?

Thinking ecologically is one way to describe what we’re talking about here. Are we better off thinking that humans are animals too, animals that are just as dependent on the natural world as is any other organism?  When the dust settles (wife and friends), on a global or even regional scale, is my death any more significant than the death of a road-killed gray squirrel?  And, if we acknowledge ourselves to be the dominant species on Earth, do we have any obligation to care for our “only know living companions in the universe?” (E.O. Wilson)  Finally, if most people continue to think they come first, what will be left?

Times have changed substantially.  You can now see The General Sherman sequoia without a sign’s telling you how many houses can be built from it (yup, used to be one).  Further, more of us buy smaller cars, have solar panels, and think carefully about what we eat.  But mostly these are luxuries available only in the developed world.  When “Deep Ecology Meets the Developing World,” (J. Nations) all bets are off.  That said, because the developed world does most of the consuming our connection to our planet, and its thin film of life, is vitally important.