Today’s blog is the latest in a series from Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, ran the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, launching a degree in Sustainability Studies.  His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability.  As ever, with our blogs, Richard’s views are not necessarily shared by NAEE.

We love to view the world in a simplistic fashion.  The California Otter is a classically taught case of how removal of a keystone species created havoc on California’s coastal Kelp beds – its reintroduction helped restore those kelp beds.  Were that most ecosystem interactions so clean cut a story.  When ecologically and spiritually focused people say “we are all one” it really isn’t some nice meme to inspire cooperation, but a literal statement of how all life exists.  Species co-exist and leverage conditions that create mutual benefit.  There is individualized competition, but the system remains cooperative.  Most ‘civilized’ humans see the natural world as something to be used, or as a competitor, and then act to remove all competitors without recognizing that they also remove most allies at the same time.  Materialist imperatives drive resource extraction and degradation as economic realities are primary. Curiously, Indigenous peoples are estimated to protect 80% of world’s biodiversity and live with spiritual practices that drive connection and collaboration.    

The human microbiome is composed of 100 trillion interacting cells (90% bacteria in symbiosis with human system) that self-regulate to maintain a dynamic and healthy homeostatic system.  From an economic perspective, which parts of the body could be effectively removed to maximize profit within the digestive system?  An absurd question?  Think of a larger system like the planet.  In the 1970s, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis developed the Gaia hypothesis in which the Earth was viewed as a complete, complex, delicately balanced living system.  Indigenous peoples that thrived for millennia obviously understood this even as they manipulated the localized environments in which they lived.  Civilized societies with materialist imperatives seem oblivious.  The lesson is simple – nature shows us what works and what doesn’t, but it is a lesson in chaotic complexity, not convenient reductionism.  The natural world, like the human body is a complex, chaotic and adaptive system.  Chaos theory proposes that all complex systems have homeostasis with underlying patterns, interconnectedness, constant feedback loops, and self-organization.  A lack of homeostasis is a diseased state.  

We, in the so-called civilized world, have been adapting the planet to us, and consequently have moved farther away from understanding the natural world, persisting in the belief that we are somehow still in control of the system.  Our education system persists in teaching within disciplines.  It’s easier for students, teachers and administrators to think linearly and reductionist.  There is an immense challenge in teaching systems thinking.  All our environmental problems are complex challenges that are multidimensional and both the problems and solutions require a creative understanding across multiple disciplines simultaneously.  We must recognize that human political, cultural and economic systems are an integral part of the natural system and we must teach and adapt with that interdependency in mind.  

Making informed decisions, as individuals and society, requires an understanding of the dynamic complexity of all the systems that make up our planet.  Nature is a wonderful model to use to teach us that complexity.  “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status,” Sir Ken Richardson.


Richard can be contacted at:

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