For most of the world, the future seems fraught with dangers and uncertainties. We talk about the depletion of natural resources (including food and fresh water), the overfishing of the seas, the acidification of the oceans, the loss of wilderness and wildlife habitat, deforestation, the extinction of species, the devastating impacts of climate change, the demands of burgeoning population growth, a diminishing job market, the growing gap between rich and poor and the ravages of terrorism, war and unrest (to name just a few). It’s as if these dilemmas comprise an overwhelming tide against which our best stabs at global solutions seem worthy but ineffectual in the face of the politics of fear, apathy, and the deep morass of materialism and greed.
These challenges are not the inevitable outcomes of advancing civilization, but are the products of human thought. There needs to be a fundamental change in the bedrock of our thinking, in the way we see our planet, in our relationship to the life around us, and, just as importantly, the ways we view the universe at large.
Back in high school we were assigned an essay to read by Nobel laureate John Galsworthy called “Holiday” whose metaphorical message still rings insistently and hauntingly in my ears decades later. It depicted holiday revelers on a beach at night, making noise in a big tent, dancing, cranking up the music, and closing out the dark brooding waves on the beach outside, lest at any moment they should look at the night sky and the stars and face the solitude and the terrible unknown. Of humankind, Galsworthy writes:
He walks and talks and laughs around his pavilion by the beach; he casts no glances at the pavilion of the night, where Nature is playing her wind-music for the stars to dance. Long ago he found he could not bear his mother Nature’s inscrutable ironic face, bending above him in the dark, and with a moan he drew the clothes over his head . . . Nature! There is no Nature! For what I cannot understand I cannot face, and what I cannot face, I will not think of . . . For nothing is so dreadful to this man as solitude. . . . The show is over . . . and man is left by the black beach with nothing to look on but the sky, or hear but the beat of wave-wings flighting on the sea. And suddenly in threes and fours he scurries home, lest for one second he should see Her face whose smile he cannot bear.
The insight here is powerful. We stolidly refuse to look into the face of a universe that nurtures us. We clothe ourselves with distractions; we clutch our creature comforts around us, clinging to social conventions that turn us inward and muffle our sensitivities to the natural world. And so we chatter and turn up the volume, filling the silences with “noise” to avoid confronting and discovering the very ideas that could engage and elevate our hopes for the future.
It’s notable how this picture of civilization contrasts with the Eskimo adage that “wisdom is found far from man, out in the great loneliness.” That loneliness is not the loneliness of despair but a place of humble contemplation where man encounters the greatest of all possible adventures—a glimpse into the depths of an infinitely vast universe. Such glimpses come when we find ourselves suddenly outside the cocoon of insular thinking, when we let the sense of wonder take us beyond ourselves to see something new.
The rarified impact of a wilderness experience cannot be communicated well in words. And many who traipse through the wild with the thought that they must conquer it or plunder it never really feel it or understand it. To truly grasp the opportunity we must meet wilderness, and the life it contains, on its own terms, and we must listen with our deepest intuitions. Only as we do this can we really learn and discover our part in this planet’s future and the promise of our ability to make the world better.
What wilderness patiently teaches is that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that there is far more to grasp than what we can see on the surface. Just as all the matter in the known universe barely weighs against the mass of the so-called “dark matter” that we cannot see, so the value of wilderness as a corridor for thought reaches far beyond the material sum of the life it harbors or the natural history it envelops. That is why the ideas and precepts it holds for our future need to be cherished and made a part of our everyday lives, even when those lives are lived—as most now are in cities—in places far removed from wilderness. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the awe and wonder and curiosity that are inherent in our kinship with all life.
Why is that important? Because it allows us to see beyond ourselves and, as a result, to see ourselves better. So much in our lives prompts us to turn inward, leading to a kind of blindness, a fearful, self-indulgent drift of thought that encourages us to build fences, to withhold, and to pull the covers over our heads. Yet, to those attuned to it, wilderness unfolds the munificence and grandeur of the universe, a sense that we belong in it and that it will provide the means for us to prosper.
David Loye is a systems scientist, futurist, evolution theorist and founder of the Darwin Project and a co-founder of the multinational General Evolution Research Group. In his book Darwin’s Lost Theory, he maintains that Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theory in Origin of Species was but the prelude to a higher vision for mankind in The Descent of Man, one in which he sees us as imbued with moral sensitivity and caring. Thus Darwin’s work, properly understood, takes our thinking beyond the “selfish gene” to an appreciation of who we really are as beings “driven by love to transcend selfishness.” Loye spent years delving into Darwin’s private notes, reconstructing a theory that actually provides “a carefully reasoned, empirically grounded scientific expression of the supremacy of love and moral sensitivity . . .”
Bemoaning how modern education has focused almost exclusively on Darwin’s earlier volume, Loye writes:
The old theory of Origin, misapplied, tells us that we are inherently, predominantly, and indeed overwhelmingly selfish and aggressive. But the new theory emergent in Descent tells us that unless we have been unnaturally and disastrously warped, both over the short term and the long term we can be—and generally are—more powerfully driven by the concern for and the regard of others and by love. . . . The old theory tells us we are overwhelmingly driven by the need to perpetuate our own genes or the genes of our kin. The new theory tells us that we are also driven by the need to transcend ourselves, resonating to the whole of humanity and to the whole of life. . . . The old theory tells us that we are alone in the universe . . . , the new theory tells us that we are “at home in the universe.” The new theory and the new story tells us that the message is open-ended and eternal, stretching out of the dim past into the mists of the future for our species. It tells us that we have a voice in the shaping of the message—but that this message needs a great deal more nurturing and understanding . . . Much more importantly—standing with the best of minds and hearts over the ages—we are what we refuse to adapt to.
These insights begin to characterize the mindset and inclination that should guide our relationship to the planet, to our fellow man, and to all life. Just as the tyranny of the belief in a flat earth once stifled exploration and discovery, so the tyranny of fear and selfish thinking lock us into constructs that limit what we can see. Our awareness of the richness and diversity of the biosphere, and our openness to learning that the universe holds ideas that go beyond what we see with our eyes—these are things that can change the way we view the planet and interact with it, and they provide a fulcrum for reaching beyond our preconceived notions about how we fit into the world around us.
We are starting to see a universe that is continually unfolding new aspects of itself. That is crucial to how we approach the many crises that face our planet. And that is why wilderness is so important: it is the only untrammeled universe we have close at hand, that has not been decimated by human intervention. Again, we need to cherish it and preserve it and make it part of our everyday lives, wherever we live, especially in cities.
Henry Thoreau said in Walden, that “man cannot afford to be a naturalist, to look at nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must see through and beyond her.” And this thought is echoed by Loren Eiseley when he said in his book, The Unexpected Universe, that “each man deciphers from the ancient alphabets of nature only those secrets his own deeps possess the power to endow with meaning.”
Wilderness may do more than just enrich our understanding of how other life forms express themselves and live. In fact, what we discover in the natural world may be as much about the thinking and the intelligence that we ourselves bring to it as about physical evidence. Our thoughtful interactions with the wild can illumine our appreciation for all life and our potential for discovery and success.
To this end, the life forms we see around us are not just fixtures in our landscape, not merely less evolved expressions of life that share this earth with us. They are bound to us in ways that transcend the thoughts we give to them. What they continually show us is that life finds solutions at the most humble and seemingly insignificant levels (even without our help) and that, despite what we may learn by looking at nature’s forms and processes, whether live or fossilized, we cannot take the measure of life by merely analyzing parts in a process of physical reductionism.
Moreover, to characterize other life forms merely as less evolved (from our often egoistic human perspective) may be a misapprehension that ignores the fact that they are perfectly evolved to fill the niches that support the vitality of the biosphere. And as they do, they subtly but significantly enlarge our mental horizons. Understanding life points to the promise of seeing beyond present limits. The cecropia moth, releasing only a single molecule of pheromone, can be detected by the antennae of a potential mate from as far away as eleven kilometers; whales, using deep underwater channels as acoustic lenses can communicate across whole oceans; the “immortal” jellyfish-like hydrozoan (Turrotopsis nutricul) can reverse its life cycle and be reborn, apparently indefinitely; the salamander can generate new limbs, the crayfish new claws, and the conch new eyes. These and untold other discoveries show us that life is bristling with infinite potential and that the universe is nurturing and caring for us with ideas that we need to pay attention to.
I use the term wilderness to encompass two ideas: (1) The idea of wilderness evokes what we do not yet know about the life on our planet and life in general. (2) Wilderness is the best corridor to wonder that we have. In a sense, these can be characterized as states of thought: a state of becoming keenly aware of life expressing itself without human intervention and a state of humility that recognizes our ignorance in the face of an overwhelmingly awesome and infinitely vast universe. These states of thought can be kindled not only in tracts of unspoiled and pristine places, but in solitary walks along desolate beaches where waves swell under the tug of our distant moon or, perhaps, from rarified mountaintop observatories that break through the planet’s urban light pollution to expose dazzling arrays of stars. It is in these and all the places that telescope thought beyond ourselves, where we feel part of a larger universe.
Now, more than ever, we need to evoke the wonder that primitive man must have felt when he looked up at the stars with awe—the wonder we have lost in the noise of increasingly self-centered lives. This wonder will inspire what the architect, inventor, and visionary Buckminster Fuller called “an entirely new relationship with the universe.” Fuller entertains the idea of that new relationship in the context of dwindling traditional resources. In his book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, he notes we need to acknowledge that the abundance of immediately consumable and essential resources on our planet has “been sufficient until now to allow us to carry on despite our ignorance” but “only up to this critical moment.” He continues:
This cushion-for-error of humanity’s survival and growth up to now was apparently provided just as a bird inside of the egg is provided with liquid nutriment to develop it to a certain point. But then by design the nutriment is exhausted at just the time when the chick is large enough to be able to locomote on its own legs. And so as the chick pecks at the shell seeking more nutriment it inadvertently breaks open the shell. Stepping forth from its initial sanctuary, the young bird must now forage on its own legs and wings to discover the next phase of its regenerative sustenance. . . . Our innocent, trial-and-error-sustaining nutriment is exhausted. We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe. We are going to have to spread our wings of intellect and fly or perish; that is, we must dare immediately to fly by the generalized principles governing universe and not by the ground rules of yesterday’s superstitious and erroneously conditioned reflexes.
Thus, it is highly important that we move beyond a selfish, plundering mentality to one where we recognize that the greatest good and the largest opportunities are not behind us but ahead of us—opportunities that are rooted in new ways of thinking. In an age when we have unprecedented power to impact our environment (as we stand on the verge of planetary and climate engineering) we need, perhaps more than ever, to stand back and feel all of life embracing us and inspiring our actions. And in a world hurtling towards the agglomeration of cities and towns into continuous semi-urban environments (compactly known as conurbation), the last fragile remnants of wilderness hold enormous meaning for our civilization, not only as reservoirs of habitat and diversity, but also as touchstones of insight and discovery. Places that have been relatively untouched by human endeavors—where natural ecosystems have been allowed to flourish in all their magnificent diversity and genius—can, in many ways, illumine our understanding of the universe and our place in it in ways we can’t fully imagine right now.
A good many of us who are living in cities (and many who don’t) have a sketchy, storybook view of nature. We know the importance of agriculture, without knowing where most of our food comes from or how it looks when it grows. We embrace charismatic mega-fauna without a deep appreciation for the subtle and often profound revelations that come with immersing ourselves in their worlds. We love to breathe and cavort in parks and know the names of a few trees and flowers and birds, but we are far from the kinship that early man felt when he named (and thus embraced) the living features of his world. And so, by and large, we see nature as a backdrop—as always there, as intellectually and physically necessary, even joyfully existential, but denying it any proper centrality in our everyday thinking and often forgetting what it is we are a part of.
In short, we live far from the wonder and awe which make us ponder our connection to the universe. We live inside the wadding of social and economic constructs that often consume and overwhelm our lives—the video games and consumer malls, the personal technologies and market-driven obsessions that tend to blot out the quiet revelatory potential of the universe around us. In the frenzied concourse of human affairs, we often lose the sense that we are connected to a larger universe. Loren Eiseley put it well when he said that “as adults we are preoccupied with living; as a consequence, we see little.”
Returning to Galsworthy, he repeatedly and justifiably scorns our reluctance to look into the face of the cosmos:
Towns! more towns! There you can talk and listen to your fellows’ talk! Crowd into the towns; the eyes in your whitened faces need never see Her there! Fill every cranny of your houses so that no moment of silence or of solitude can come to any one of you. And if, by unhappy chance, in their parks you find yourself alone, lie neither on your back, for then you will see the quiet sunlight on the leaves, the quiet clouds, and birds with solitude within their wings; nor on your face, or you will catch the savor of the earth, and a faint hum, and for a minute live the life of tiny things that straddle in the trodden grasses. . . . This, then is the medicine you have mixed, my little man, to cure the pain of your fevered souls. Well done! But if you had not left me you would have had no fever! There is none in the wind and the stars and the rhythm of the sea; there is none in green growth or fallen leaves; in my million courses it is not found. Fever is fear—to you alone, my restless mannikin, has fever come, and this is why, even in your holiday, you stand in your sick crowds gulping down your little homeopathic draughts!
In recent decades, science has been looking to the natural world for answers that might have some bearing on solving human problems; and places like the Amazon forests and the world’s great wilderness preserves have become prime prospecting sites. Biomimetics has become big business and biologists and technologists have been scouring the natural world to discover solutions that we have overlooked to problems that nature has long since quietly solved.
Adhesive solutions have been inspired by the gecko’s setae (micro-hairs) or the chemistry of the mussel’s byssus (the tufts of filaments that attach it to hard surfaces). Nanotech self-cleaning solutions have been inspired by the superhydrophobic lotus leaf. Lens advances have been inspired by the brittlestar (similar to a starfish) whose entire skeleton comprises a micro lens array system that surpasses our current lens-making technology. The micro cones on a moth’s eyeball have inspired anti-reflective and anti-glare solutions for solar panels and other materials. The tiny stenocara beetle, a denizen of one of the driest deserts in the world, has shown us (with the hydrophobic bumps and hydrophilic depressions on its back) how we can make materials that will precipitate moisture from the air. Scientists are looking at how microstructures in the ant’s neck allow it to lift at least 350 times its weight and how that might be applied to robotics. And the list goes on, and on, and on.
The world should be more broadly aware of these sorts of discoveries, but just being aware of them is no substitute for the idea of making wilderness more relevant in our lives. For if we look at the incredible richness of the natural world as merely a repository of solutions that we can mine to aid technology and medicine and invention, we have missed the point. The real value of the natural world is not about the solutions that we can extract from it, but in how it can inspire us to see our connections to all life and our own fathomless potential. If we relegate the search for answers to the so-called experts, wilderness and protected ecosystems will become nothing more than research labs.
In fact, we have become too accustomed to the idea that we can pawn off the heavy lifting to scientists and that they will save us. We expect somehow that specialists who are probing the natural world to uncover innovative designs will somehow magically ameliorate and reverse the damage caused by our runaway indifference and neglect and greed. Perhaps we even expect they will mop up after us so we can continue to be apathetic and detached.
Science and curiosity will certainly help us, but it is only a sea change in thinking that will save the planet—one that centers around a greater respect for the environment, and all life, together with a recognition of the true and often hidden munificence of the universe we find ourselves in.
The French writer Guy de Maupassant once said that we tend to view the world through the memories of those that have gone before us. Granted, it isn’t easy to break free of those thought conventions. But in principle, the ideas behind all our technology and engineering and architecture, and all the things we produce, have always existed. They simply come into our lives when they become tangent with our beliefs about what we think is possible.
That is why we need the distance of wilderness and the circumspection of a more cosmic view. While nature gives to us abundantly, it’s also a kind of mirror that reflects our love or neglect and thus our thought. Are not humans who do violence to animals and to nature also doing violence to themselves? Poachers in Africa kill more than thirty thousand elephants per year for their ivory. According to conservationist Belinda Wright, “wildlife crime is the 4th largest illegal occupation in the world and it’s a trade that’s worth 19-20 billion dollars.”
The chilling indifference of poachers to the sanctity of life belies not only an ignorance of what all of life has to teach us, but also the desperate, rudderless conditions many poachers find themselves in, abandoned by society and without opportunities for education. It raises the question whether governments and local leaders, like the poachers, are also doing violence to their own natures by neglecting segments of their populations through their own self-aggrandizement, corruption, and misrule. Man’s inhumanity to man and the growing gap between the rich and poor, unnecessarily fueled by greed and the pre-conditioned fear that there is not enough to go around, is as much a factor in gauging how to protect the wild as any poacher’s lack of moral compass.
That is why the efforts to protect these wild populations with fences, flyovers, or electronic surveillance alone will never be enough until we deal with the underlying thoughts and motivations. The uniqueness of an African lion, a peregrine falcon, a dung beetle, or a humpback whale goes far beyond their forms and their senses. If we observe them closely, in their natural habitats, they tell us something about life that cannot be preserved in a zoo or some future genome bank the way grains are stored for posterity in repositories like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Nor should we expect that DNA cloning will circumvent our mismanagement and neglect, for such extreme measures overlook the holistic, symbiotic, and caring contexts in which life exists.
Some time ago a group of forty young male elephants were relocated to start another herd. A few years later a disaster ensued when these elephants began overturning tourist cars, killing rhinos, and generally running amuck. When a small group of elders were introduced to the herd, the killing of rhinos stopped and things returned to normal. Renowned zoologist Anne Innis Dagg has observed:
. . . in our hunt for ivory, for whale oil, for fish protein, for trophy lions and tigers, we have eliminated so many older animals in so many species, that we have reshaped the natural world. Today, when biologists go into the field to look at elephants or fish, what they are seeing is not the natural behavior of animal society, but the warped behavior of animals who have lost their elders, and who are now flailing in a diminished, disarranged world. Those missing grandmas and grandpas, far from being a luxury, are essential if we want to keep the world in balance.
The protection of wildlife preserves and fragile ecosystems in their natural states will only be accomplished as a result of education on a colossal scale. But part of this education is the mitigation of fear and greed based on old models of limited resources, as Bucky Fuller pointed out. And this is why the gestalt of wilderness is so important to our future and why we need to re-embrace the wild. While educational efforts are ongoing in many regions tangential to wildlife sanctuaries, they will never really be effective until the world has internalized the idea that the more we give to our environment, the more it will give back to us. Not knowing what is hidden beneath the surface of so many ecosystems, we are ravaging habitat and species before we understand what they represent to our future and where they can take us. And while the physical manifestations of life are just the packaging (albeit wonderfully expressive), they will not tell us the really important things we need to learn about life and its possibilities.
Roger Payne, who made some of the best and earliest recordings of humpback whale songs, and analyzed them for clues to whale language and intelligence, talked of whales as “gentle, cloud-like beings” and, quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald, as “something commensurate with man’s capacity for wonder.” Payne once said, “I don’t care to survive if whales don’t survive. I’m not interested in a life without whales. I don’t wish to live in a world from which whales have been removed. It seems to me that that would be the sort of final symbol of madness in people if we were forced to live in sort of the unspeakably boring world of our own creation . . . and that’s something I don’t care to do.”
What he understood was that the life around us represents something that is far greater than the range of our personal imaginations, and that rejoicing in the wonder of its expression is enriching beyond our own power to create. Payne’s love for the whale invites us to see the things that only humility and gratitude and wonder can bring to light. And these revelations should temper our relationships with each other and the whole planet. Henry David Thoreau made a similar point when he wrote: “I love Nature partly because she is not man, but a retreat from him. None of his institutions control or pervade her. There a different kind of right prevails. In her midst I can be glad with an entire gladness. If this world were all man, I could not stretch myself, I should lose all hope.”
This reminds us of yet another aspect of the importance of wilderness in a world that is completely fabricated and artificial, an “all man” urban world. The 2012 New Cities Summit in Paris noted that we have become “a world of cities” and that “by the middle of this century, the world’s urban population will likely have doubled to reach 7 billion people.” Thomas Friedman, commenting on a visit to Dohar and Dalian, was struck by how they both had grown at astounding rates. He hardly recognized their new skylines:
Doha is the capital of Qatar, a tiny state east of Saudi Arabia. Dalian is in northeast China and is one of China’s Silicon Valleys . . . In Doha, since I was last there, a skyline that looks like a mini-Manhattan has sprouted from the desert. . . . Dalian, with six million people, already had a mini-Manhattan when I was last here. It seems to have grown two more since. . . . Can you imagine how much energy all these new skyscrapers in just two cities you’ve never heard of are going to consume and how much CO2 they are going to emit?. . . That’s why we’re fooling ourselves. There is no green revolution, or, if there is, the counter-revolution is trumping it at every turn. Without a transformational technological breakthrough in the energy space, all of the incremental gains we’re making will be devoured by the exponential growth of all the new and old ‘Americans’ [his name for Manhattan-like cities].
The way I see it, the trouble with cities is not the density of people but the way cities tend to wall out the natural world and our sense of wonder. All the more reason to radically rethink what our cities express in their structures and how they interface and integrate with the natural world. I say this knowing how wilderness and cities seem to be diametrically opposed on every level. Yet could we transform our cities into spaces that reflect the limitless imagination of the wild and also inspire a genuine sense of wonder?
I’m not just talking about more parks. The truth is, we have been absolutely timid about bringing the spectacular design elements and ideas inherent in the natural world to the forefront of our lives and to the way we live.
Is it possible to imagine the gradual transformation of our cities, where their structures and pathways and surfaces all reflect the understated harmony and economy of the natural world? Can we imagine living and working spaces that mirror natural biotic structures and pleasing land-forms, rolling, waving, and soaring into grand, ever-variegated vistas—where all architecture is a celebration of the natural world, capturing something of our delight in the magnificent diversity and wonder of the planet’s botanic and zoologic designs?
The architect Michael Pawlyn gave a TED Talk called “Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture” in which he posited a future of sustainable architectural environments using what he calls nature’s catalog of 3.8 billion year R&D products. Using closed-loop biomimetic systems to cycle energy, food, water, and waste, he foresees huge advances in energy-efficient architectural ecosystems that use light, flexible materials that could mimic the beauty of nature’s forms. He said: “If we could learn to make things and do things the way nature does, we could achieve factor 10, factor 100, maybe even factor 1,000 savings in resource and energy use.”
Beyond such efficiencies, the challenge is to use nature-inspired design to teach and to make the natural world a continual presence in our lives. Compared to the generally grim monotony of today’s cities, the panoply of nature’s designs are staggeringly wondrous and thought expanding. We need to surround ourselves with reminders of nature’s ingenuity and infinite potential.
Certainly there’s no dearth of imaginative designers, artists, architects and engineers to fuel the rethinking of our cities and help bring the promise of wilderness to our everyday lives. A passing example is Vincent Callebaut’s lily pad designs for floating cities (which would be solar powered and self-sufficient and would produce zero emissions); or the soaring, nature-inspired bridges and terminals and public works of the architect Santiago Calatrava.
People are impelled by visions, not by monotonous and blighted surroundings. Holding up visions of nature’s robust ingenuity might help us take our heads out of our personal electronic devices and show us that video games and social memes can’t hold a candle to the excitement and challenge of solving earth’s problems, of engaging with the ideas that can provide employment for the whole planet.
Despite what I have said here, I don’t mean to suggest the immediate rebuilding of our cities. Such things happen gradually and follow the drift of popular thought and changing values. But there is plenty of room for leaps of insight and the creation of local environments that might influence the way we live and think, particularly in so many of our drab inner cities. Because the world not only needs physical tracts of wilderness but also the “idea” of wilderness—that is, the perception of a universe that sets no limits on life’s resources and its ability to succeed.
That perception emanates from a different place than the notion of what we too often think of as wealth—the mere accumulation of things as the symbols of personal power and privilege. The key word here is accumulation. I’m not even remotely saying that people should become ascetics or forgo the right to use acquired resources to create or express their visions in any way they please. But I am saying that we are living in a world that, more than ever, needs our love and care, and not our privileged indifference.
There are lessons in the trees that share their water with surrounding vegetation (even with their competitors) for mutual benefit—for example, the micorrhizal (fungal) networks by which trees and plants share surplus nutrients, carbon and water. The beauty of this sharing shows the simple sufficiencies in nature’s economy that might inspire our own use of resources. “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only,” Thoreau observes in the concluding chapter of Walden. “Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”
That is to say that the altruistic thinking and attitudes we bring to looking at world resources and needs is everything, because given benevolent individuals, corporations, governments, and the political will to succeed, the energy, environmental, economic, and pollution problems that we face are all eminently solvable.
In a recent column, Paul Krugman maintains that “there’s no necessary one-to-one relationship between growth and pollution . . . . On the left, you sometimes find environmentalists asserting that to save the planet we must give up on the idea of an ever-growing economy; on the right, you often find assertions that any attempt to limit pollution will have devastating impacts on growth. But there’s no reason we can’t become richer while reducing our impact on the environment.” He goes on to say that the advances in renewable energy technologies—like decarbonizing electricity generation, and radical cost reductions (such as the 75 percent drop in the cost of solar panels)—have changed the picture. “All that stands in the way of saving the planet,” Krugman concludes, “is a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests.” In my view the biggest hurdle, irrespective of any technological advances, is entrenched thinking—ignorance, prejudice and the often blind resistance of vested interests. I say “blind” because building political fences around, for example, the profitability of fossil fuels at all costs could be counterintuitive and short-sighted. After all, as Michael Pawlyn has noted, “we receive 10,000 times as much energy from the sun every year as we use in energy from all forms—10,000 times. So our energy problems are not intractable. It’s a challenge to our ingenuity.”
In our present global predicament, we don’t want to be like dogs fighting over scraps under the table, when there is a banquet just out of sight. Now is the time, in Bucky Fuller’s words, “to spread our wings of intellect and fly.” We’ve been learning that what we’re able to see depends on the kind of thoughts we bring into focus. Anthony Aveni reminds us that “if twentieth-century science has revealed anything, it is that knowledge once regarded as absolute often emerges as transparent. It melts, disintegrates, and transforms again in our very hands, even as we try to focus in upon it to illuminate the unknown.”
Nature has taught us that there are many ways of seeing. As we push beyond our dim physical capacities, we learn of realities beyond the limits of our senses. As a result, we can probe the structures of the cosmos; we look for interference patterns that mark the space-time fluctuations of passing gravity waves; we peer through gravitational lenses at faint blue galaxies a billion light years away; we scan the spectrums of stars, listen to their echoes with million-channel analyzers, push the powers of our telescopes with adaptive optics, and stretch their baselines with interferometry.
Such sense extensions are leading us to new vantage points. We are learning to look in more intuitive ways, not just through our eyes or through other peoples’ memories. We are reaching for deeper definitions of reality. The continual displacement of scientific theories from age to age suggests that the universe will always be more than our theories can predict and that new answers will always be accessible to those who are willing to look deeper. Are there ultimate physical limits? Or do the natural laws we experience somehow just reflect the limits of our thinking? Will the laws of the universe change as our perceptions change?
Chances are that we will not cross the seemingly unbridgeable gulfs that separate us from the stars until we learn to communicate with the other life on our own planet—and, with our fellow man. Then—perhaps sooner than we think—we’ll know with collective certainty that intelligence outspans the frozen silences of space. That moment of “first contact” with extraterrestrial intelligent beings may raise intense hopes and fears. But, deep down, I think we’ll find that the most far-reaching surprises won’t derive from what is alien—from the strange morphologies such life may possess—but, rather, from what is profoundly familiar, something we’ll recognize even though we’ve never seen it, something closer to home. That is the promise of listening to the wilderness with our intuitions—to see beyond the overt forms that life takes.
The work of Glen Schaefer, who was a world authority on animal migration and the first person to track individual desert locusts across the Sahara desert by radar, is instructive in this regard. He showed how our efforts to strong arm nature (for example, to eliminate crop pests by spraying) could actually make things worse in the long run. “The flowers which we love,” he observed, “were evolved for insects, or to put it more correctly, express the intelligence which allows insects to find them for their benefit. That’s another view of a flower—an insect view.”
That insect view (put aside for a moment the thought that it attributes a kind of anthropomorphism to the relationships of non-human forms of life) has implications for how we might reset our view of the natural world to accommodate a more participatory relationship rather than one in which we stand outside of it. Schaefer argues that “we are being forced for many reasons to reconsider our attitudes towards everything within the universe. To me nature is a kind of mirror. When we observe nature with the least bias, we are seeing more and more clearly the nature of our own minds, our own assumptions.”
Certainly, we have far more to learn about the life we share this planet with (and consequently about ourselves). But that relationship is calibrated to our own thinking and is likely to change with our perceptions. For example, it’s interesting to see how we are increasingly seeing evidence of more intelligence in other species due to new expectations and shifts in our own thinking about them.
Irene Pepperberg showed she could teach an ordinary African Grey parrot (the now-famous Alex) complex concepts regarding language, numbers, shapes, colors, and more—to the point where his ability to recognize and identify objects and extrapolate meaning and syntax in exchanges with people was far beyond anything previously understood. It has recently been shown that chimpanzees have better short-term memories than humans and that elephants have better numerical skills than primates or even human children; a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that elephants can discern different human languages, ethnicity, age, and sex “from acoustic cues in human voices” and use that to determine threat levels; and a team of researchers from Sussex University showed that matriarch elephants can learn to recognize at least one hundred other unseen elephants by their voices alone from as far away as several kilometers.
We may never be able fully to assess the animal and plant worlds that are tangent to ours, but there are overriding reasons for protecting and preserving them. They give us joy and a precious window into life’s possibilities. How should we express our relationship with these worlds? It is best neither to be dismissive nor sentimental. As Henry Beston wrote, “For the animal shall not be measured by man. They move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not underlings; they are not brethren; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
We must learn to make what nature teaches us more integral to our everyday lives. As we emerge from our planetary cocoon, “space” is quickly becoming the new wilderness. But I think we won’t reap the greatest benefits of space until we grasp the lessons implicit in our own backyard. Solving the planetary problems we are now faced with hinges on expanding our thinking in order to better understand our relationship to all life. We need to live beyond ourselves. That is the challenge for all of us. We cannot just drift, put on our headphones and turn the volume up. As Loren Eiseley said, “the venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with a certain interior expansion, an ever-growing universe within.”
Such is the promise of those pristine places and thought corridors that invite us to see with new eyes.