A discussion of the interrelations between food, health, and the environment is extremely topical today. In part one of this three part essay we’ll discuss Ecological Literacy.
Rising food prices together with the price of oil and a series of so-called “natural” catastrophes dominate the news every day. At the same time, there is a lot of confusion. Why are world food prices increasing so quickly and dramatically? Why is world hunger rising again after a long steady decline? What do
food prices have to do with the price of oil? Why is it so important to grow food locally and organically? In this brief talk, I shall try to show that a full understanding of these issues requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.
Indeed, over the last 25 years, such a new understanding of life has emerged at the forefront of science. I want to illustrate this new understanding by asking the age-old question, what is life? What’s the difference between a rock and a plant, animal, or microorganism? To understand the nature of life, it is not enough to understand DNA, proteins, and the other molecular structures that are the building blocks of living organisms, because these structures also exist in dead organisms, for example, in a dead piece of wood or bone.
The difference between a living organism and a dead organism lies in the basic process of life – in what sages and poets throughout the ages have called the “breath of life.” In modern scientific language, this process of life is called “metabolism.” It is the ceaseless flow of energy and matter through a network of chemical reactions, which enables a living organism to continually generate, repair, and perpetuate itself. In other words, metabolism involves the intake, digestion, and transformation of food.
Metabolism is the central characteristic of biological life. But understanding metabolism is not enough to understand life. When we study the structures, metabolic processes, and evolution of the myriads of species on the planet, we notice that the outstanding characteristic of our biosphere is that it has sustained life for billions of years. How does the Earth do that? How does nature sustain life?
To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.”
In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that ecoliteracy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels – from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.
We need to teach our children, our students, and our corporate and political leaders, the fundamental facts of life – that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the web of life; that the energy driving the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life, from its beginning more than three billion years ago, did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.
All these principles of ecology are closely interrelated. They are just different aspects of a single fundamental pattern of organization that has enabled nature to sustain life for billions of years. In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.
Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.