First read
· Paul Taylor “The Ethics of Respect for Nature.” If you wish, you may SKIP pages 104 and 112.
· David Suzuki, Chapter 6 “Protected by our Kin” (from The Sacred Balance). If you wish, you may SKIP pp 193-197.[If you did not purchase a hard copy, here’s an electronic version (Links to an external site.) through our library.]
Second read
· Jabr, “The Social Life of Trees”
Third read
· Jarvis, The Insect Apocalypse Is Here (Links to an external site.) (NYT, 2018) You may SKIP the section about the study in Krefeld (beginning “Krefeld sits a half-hour drive outside Düsseldorf, near the western bank of the Rhine….” and ending “That gives us today the possibility to go back in time.”
· Wilson,A Biologist’s Manifesto for Preserving Life on Earth
· Carrington,Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn
Fourth read
· Assadourian, “The Rise and Fall of Consumer Culture”
· Soper,”Alternative Hedonism”:Listen to radio interview (15 min) on Philosophy Bites
· Matthews, “Letting the World Grow Old” (SKIP p. 228 & first column of 229)
* you are NOT required to submit responses to these questions, but you SHOULD take notes for yourself and be able to answer these after completing each reading.You will use your notes and insights from these questions to develop your
Reading Responses
(due every 2 weeks in the quarter), so it’s important to take notes as you work through the readings.
First read
1. Many think of human beings as the “pinnacle” or highest expression of evolution, as if the whole process were leading up to the emergence of our species. What points does Paul Taylor make about our place in the evolutionary saga to challenge this perspective? In particular, consult the section titled “Humans as Members of Earth’s Community of Life” (and please note, Taylor includes MULTIPLE points).
2. [Suzuki] Understand some basic points concerning our genetic kinship to other organisms and why biodiversity is essential to the stability & survival of life in general.
Second read
1. How does recent forest research disrupt the conventional evolutionary theories favoring individualism? Please give some examples.
2. What kind of larger ETHICAL issues or insights might we glean from this essay? How might this “community” view of forests (and other forms of life on our planet) point us toward more ethical and compassionate behaviors and practices?
3. How does the documentary you viewed, combined with the findings in the article, connect with other material or arguments we’ve covered so far? Do you see links to Suzuki, Singer, Wilson, Taylor, or any other readings?
Third Read
Jarvis article
1. Define shifting baseline syndrome, and give an example of this.
2. What is “defaunation”? Give an example of this in insect populations.
3. Why is the collapse of insect populations a problem? (name 2-3 consequences this article cites)
E.O. Wilson article
1. What is Wilson’s “Half Earth” proposal (a single sentence is enough!) Why does he argue for half?
2. What is the Anthropocene, and how would extraterrestrial visitors detect it from examining evidence in the geological record?
Forth Read
1) From 224-5, Matthews’ argues that simply “letting the world be” would actually halt the capitalist order. Identify & explain a few aspects that Matthews includes in this section to support her claim.
2) Name some of key historical developments Assadourian cites in tracking the rise of western consumer culture.
3) Briefly summarize Kate Soper’s concept of “alternative hedonism,” and explain how it would help promote a more sustainable society.
Students will write a response to the assigned readings, films and other course materials covered since the last reading response. This is a place for you to record your thoughts about what we’re learning, and further develop the methods of philosophical analysis we will practice in class. Assessment will be based on evidence that you have remained engaged in class and used each entry to develop your critical thinking, philosophic and ethical perspectives, and understanding of the issues and debates.
Review the materials assigned since your last submission (2 weeks ago) and write a ~650 word response (longer entries are OK) that touches on the most important ideas/points from *EACH* day. High-scoring responses will integrate concepts from most or ALL assigned materials (although there may be some occasional discussions where you don’t incorporate the smaller/secondary readings or media if you already thoroughly covered the concepts in analyzing the primary/first reading from that day). At a minimum you must address the “main” reading or video (the first one listed in the module) for each day. And to earn an especially high score, you should also touch on the smaller/secondary pieces on the list for that day as well.
What do I write about?
Reading responses should record your thoughts and interpretations about what we’re reading, and further develop the methods of *PHILOSOPHIC* and *ETHICAL* analysis we’re practicing in class. What you choose to focus on is ultimately up to you, but it should be based on the assigned material, and ideally trace connections (or contrasts) between those materials. Please go beyond just summarizing the readings to really dig into the implications and philosophic dimensions of the issue. Assessment will be based on evidence that you have remained engaged in class and used each entry to develop your critical thinking, philosophic and ethical perspectives, and understanding of the issues and debates.
Before writing your entry, you can consult the reading comprehension questions (on the daily Canvas modules); however, while these may be helpful to take into consideration, the idea is *NOT* to just answer a list of Canvas questions verbatim, but ratherexpand on the issues you find interesting, trace connections, and share your unique perspective on them. Also keep in mind that strong philosophic writing often does NOT reduce an issue down to simpler terms, but rather expands on its complexity and ambiguity, revealing additional perspectives, philosophical insights, and possibilities within that work. Responses that engage complexity and nuance in these debates will generally earn a higher score.
(grades will be based on these elements)
· Length: ~650 words (longer entries are OK too!)
· Include materials covered in the last 2 weeks. Choose as leastthe “primary” reading (the first one listed in the module) for EACH day. This means there will be a minimum of 4 items included if we’ve had 4 full class modules since your last submission.
High-scoring responses will integrate concepts from most or ALL assigned materials (although there may be some occasional discussions where you don’t incorporate the smaller/secondary readings or media if you alreadythoroughlycovered the concepts in analyzing the primary/”main” reading from that day).
· Take a philosophic or ethical approach to analyzing the material, rather than just summarizing it or focusing on scientific/technical aspects. Remember this is a class on ETHICS, so you should think and write like a philosopher!
· Try to trace connections (or contrasts) between the different materials, rather than discussing different issues for each reading/film featured in your essay.
· Posts should give specific evidence that you completed and understood the week’s assigned materials. This meansdirectly responding to details from the reading(or podcast or film)so I know you completed it. Entries that do not specifically refer to points, arguments, quotes or scenes in the material, but simply lapse into generalizations or personal opinions, will receive a low score.
· You mayinclude personal reflections & experiences related to the topic, but these should not displace the assigned reading.
· Demonstrate that you have remained engaged in class discussions but also developed yourown, original thoughts
David Schmidtz
Elizabeth Willott
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Environmental ethics: what really matters, what really works j [edited by) David Schmidtz, Elizabeth Willott. – [2nd ed.).
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0- 19-979351-8
1. Environmental ethics. I. Schmidtz, David. II. Willott, Elizabeth, 1955- III. Title.
G E42.E585 2012
1 79′.1-dc23
Printing Number: 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper
In this paper I show how the taking of a certain ulti­
mate moral attitude toward nature, which I call
“respect for nature,” has a central place in the founda­
tions of a life-centered system of environmental eth­
ics. I hold that a set of moral norms (both standards
of character and rules of conduct) governing human
treatment of the natural world is a rationally grounded
set if and only if, first, commitment to those norms
is a practical entailment of adopting the attitude of
respect for nature as an ultimate moral attitude, and
second, the adopting of that attitude on the part of all
rational agents can itself be justified. When the basic
characteristics of the attitude of respect for nature are
made clear, it will be seen that a life-centered system of
environmental ethics need not be holistic or organi­
cist in its conception of the kinds of entities that are
deemed the appropriate objects of moral concern and
consideration. Nor does such a system require that the
concepts of ecological homeostasis, equilibrium, and
integrity provide us with normative principles from
which could be derived (with the addition of factual
knowledge) our obligations with regard to natural
ecosystems. The “balance of nature” is not itself a
moral norm, however important may be the role it
plays in our general outlook on the natural world that
underlies the attitude of respect for nature. I argue that
finally it is the good (well-being, welfare) of individ­
ual organisms, considered as entities having inherent
worth, that determines our moral relations with the
Earth’s wild communities of life.
In designating the theory to be set forth as life­
centered, I intend to contrast it with all anthropo­
centric views. According to the latter, human actions
affecting the natural environment and its nonhuman
inhabitants are right (or wrong) by either of two cri­
teria: they have consequences which are favorable (or
unfavorable) to human well-being, or they are con­
sistent (or inconsistent) with the system of norms
that protect and implement human rights. From this
human-centered standpoint it is to humans and only
to humans that all duties are ultimately owed. We may
have responsibilities with regard to the natural ecosys­
tems and biotic communities of our planet, but these
responsibilities are in every case based on the contin­
gent fact that our treatment of those ecosystems and
communities of life can further the realization of
human values and/or human rights. We have no obli­
gation to promote or protect the good of nonhuman
living things, independently of this contingent fact.
A life-centered system of environmental ethics is
opposed to human-centered ones precisely on this
point. From the perspective of a life-centered theory,
we have prima facie moral obligations that are owed
to wild plants and animals themselves as members of
the Earth’s biotic community. We are morally bound
(other things being equal) to protect or promote their
good for their sake. Our duties to respect the integrity
of natural ecosystems, to preserve endangered species,
and to avoid environmental pollution stem from the
fact that these are ways in which we can help make it
possible for wild species populations to achieve and
maintain a healthy existence in a natural state. Such
Paul W. Taylor. “The Ethics of Respect for Nature,” Environmental Ethics 3 {1981): 197-218. Reprinted with permission of the
author and the journal.
obligations are due those living things out of recogni­
tion of their inherent worth. They are entirely addi­
tional to and independent of the obligations we owe to
our fellow humans. Although many of the actions that
fulfill one set of obligations will also fulfill the other,
two different grounds of obligation are involved. Their
well-being, as well as human well-being, is something
to be realized as an end in itself
If we were to accept a life-centered theory of envi­
ronmental ethics, a profound reordering of our moral
universe would take place. We would begin to look at
the whole of the Earth’s biosphere in a new light. Our
duties with respect to the “world” of nature would be
seen as making prima facie claims upon us to be bal­
anced against our duties with respect to the “world” of
human civilization. We could no longer simply take
the human point of view and consider the effects of
our actions exclusively from the perspective of our
own good.
What would justify acceptance of a life-centered sys­
tem of ethical principles? In order to answer this it is
first necessary to make clear the fundamental moral
attitude that underlies and makes intelligible the com­
mitment to live by such a system. It is then necessary
to examine the considerations that would justify any
rational agent’s adopting that moral attitude.
Two concepts are essential to the taking of a moral
attitude of the sort in question. A being which does
not “have” these concepts, that is, which is unable to
grasp their meaning and conditions of applicability,
cannot be said to have the attitude as part of its moral
outlook. These concepts are, first, that of the good
(well-being, welfare) of a living thing, and second, the
idea of an entity possessing inherent worth. I examine
each concept in turn.
( 1) Every organism, species population, and com­
munity of life has a good of its own which moral agents
can intentionally further or damage by their actions.
To say that an entity has a good of its own is simply to
say that, without reference to any other entity, it can be
benefited or harmed. One can act in its overall interest
or contrary to its overall interest, and environmental
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 103
conditions can be good for it (advantageous to it) or
bad for it (disadvantageous to it). What is good for an
entity is what “does it good” in the sense of enhancing
or preserving its life and well-being. What is bad for an
entity is something that is detrimental to its life and
We can think of the good of an individual nonhu­
man organism as consisting in the full development of
its biological powers. Its good is realized to the extent
that it is strong and healthy. It possesses whatever
capacities it needs for successfully coping with its envi­
ronment and so preserving its existence throughout
the various stages of the normal life cycle of its spe­
cies. The good of a population or community of such
individuals consists in the population or community
maintaining itself from generation to generation as a
coherent system of genetically and ecologically related
organisms whose average good is at an optimum level
for the given environment. (Here average good means
that the degree of realization of the good of individual
organisms in the population or community is, on aver­
age, greater than it would be under any other ecologi­
cally functioning order of interrelations among those
species populations in the given ecosystem.)
The idea of a being having a good of its own, as I
understand it, does not entail that the being must have
interests or take an interest in what affects its life for bet­
ter or for worse. We can act in a being’s interest or con­
trary to its interest without its being interested in what
we are doing to it in the sense of wanting or not want­
ing us to do it. It may, indeed, be wholly unaware that
favorable and unfavorable events are taking place in its
life. I take it that trees, for example, have no knowledge
or desires or feelings. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that
trees can be harmed or benefited by our actions. We
can crush their roots by running a bulldozer too close
to them. We can see to it that they get adequate nour­
ishment and moisture by fertilizing and watering the
soil around them. Thus we can help or hinder them
in the realization of their good. It is the good of trees
themselves that is thereby affected. We can similarly
act so as to further the good of an entire tree popula­
tion of a certain species (say, all the redwood trees in a
California valley) or the good of a whole community
of plant life in a given wilderness area, just as we can
do harm to such a population or community.
When construed in this way, the concept of a
being’s good is not coextensive with sentience or the
capacity for feeling pain. William Frankena has argued
for a general theory of environmental ethics in which
the ground of a creature’s being worthy of moral con­
sideration is its sentience. I have offered some criti­
cisms of this view elsewhere, but the full refutation of
such a position, it seems to me, finally depends on the
positive reasons for accepting a life-centered theory of
the kind I am defending in this essay. 1
It should be noted further that I am leaving open
the question of whether machines-in particular,
those which are not only goal directed, but also self­
regulating-can properly be said to have a good of
their own.2 Since I am concerned only with human
treatment of wild organisms, species populations, and
communities of life as they occur in our planet’s natu­
ral ecosystems, it is to those entities alone that the con­
cept “having a good of its own” will here be applied. I
am not denying that other living things, whose genetic
origin and environmental conditions have been pro­
duced, controlled, and manipulated by humans for
human ends, do have a good of their own in the same
sense as do wild plants and animals. It is not my pur­
pose in this essay, however, to set out or defend the
principles that should guide our conduct with regard
to their good. It is only insofar as their production and
use by humans have good or ill effects upon natural
ecosystems and their wild inhabitants that the ethics
of respect for nature comes into play.
( 2) The second concept essential to the moral
attitude of respect for nature is the idea of inherent
worth. We take that attitude toward wild living things
(individuals, species populations, or whole biotic
communities) when and only when we regard them
as entities possessing inherent worth. I ndeed, it is
only because they are conceived in this way that moral
agents can think of themselves as having validly bind­
ing duties, obligations, and responsibilities that are
owed to them as their due. I am not at this juncture
arguing why they should be so regarded; I consider it
at length below. But so regarding them is a presup­
position of our taking the attitude of respect toward
them and accordingly understanding ourselves as
bearing certain moral relations to them. This can be
shown as follows:
What does it mean to regard an entity that has a
good of its own as possessing inherent worth? Two
general principles are involved: the principle of moral
consideration and the principle of intrinsic value.
According to the principle of moral consider­
ation, wild living things are deserving of the concern
and consideration of all moral agents simply in virtue
of their being members of the Earth’s community of
life. From the moral point of view their good must be
taken into account whenever it is affected for better or
worse by the conduct of rational agents. This holds no
matter what species the creature belongs to. The good
of each is to be accorded some value and so acknowl­
edged as having some weight in the deliberations of
all rational agents. Of course, it may be necessary for
such agents to act in ways contrary to the good of this
or that particular organism or group of organisms in
order to further the good of others, including the good
of humans. But the principle of moral consideration
prescribes that, with respect to each being an entity
having its own good, every individual is deserving of
The principle of intrinsic value states that, regard­
less of what kind of entity it is in other respects, if it
is a member of the Earth’s community of life, the real­
ization of its good is something intrinsically valuable.
This means that its good is prima facie worthy of being
preserved or promoted as an end in itself and for the
sake of the entity whose good it is. Insofar as we regard
any organism, species population, or life community
as an entity having inherent worth, we believe that it
must never be treated as if it were a mere object or
thing whose entire value lies in being instrumental to
the good of some other entity. The well-being of each
is judged to have value in and of itself.
Combining these two principles, we can now define
what it means for a living thing or group of living
things to possess inherent worth. To say that it pos­
sesses inherent worth is to say that its good is deserving
of the concern and consideration of all moral agents,
and that the realization of its good has instrinsic value,
to be pursued as an end in itself and for the sake of the
entity whose good it is.
The duties owed to wild organisms, species popu­
lations, and communities of life in the Earth’s natu­
ral ecosystems are grounded on their inherent worth.
When rational, autonomous agents regard such enti­
ties as possessing inherent worth, they place intrinsic
value on the realization of their good and so hold
themselves responsible for performing actions that
will have this effect and for refraining from actions
having the contrary effect . . . .
The attitude we take toward living things in the natural
world depends on the way we look at them, on what
kind of beings we conceive them to be, and on how we
understand the relations we bear to them. Underlying
and supporting our attitude is a certain belief system
that constitutes a particular world view or outlook
on nature and the place of human life in it. To give
good reasons for adopting the attitude of respect for
nature, then, we must first articulate the belief sys­
tem which underlies and supports that attitude. If it
appears that the belief system is internally coherent
and well-ordered, and if, as far as we can now tell, it
is consistent with all known scientific truths relevant
to our knowledge of the object of the attitude (which
in this case includes the whole set of the Earth’s natu­
ral ecosystems and their communities of life), then
there remains the task of indicating why scientifi­
cally informed and rational thinkers with a developed
capacity of reality awareness can find it acceptable as a
way of conceiving of the natural world and our place
in it. To the extent we can do this we provide at least
a reasonable argument for accepting the belief system
and the ultimate moral attitude it supports.
I do not hold that such a belief system can be
proven to be true, either inductively or deductively. As
we shall see, not all of its components can be stated in
the form of empirically verifiable propositions. Nor is
its internal order governed by purely logical relation­
ships. But the system as a whole, I contend, constitutes
a coherent, unified, and rationally acceptable “picture”
or “map” of a total world. By examining each of its
main components and seeing how they fit together, we
obtain a scientifically informed and well-ordered con­
ception of nature and the place of humans in it.
This belief system underlying the attitude of respect
for nature I call (for want of a better name) “the bio­
centric outlook on nature. ” Since it is not wholly
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 05
analyzable into empirically confirmable assertions, it
should not be thought of as simply a compendium of
the biological sciences concerning our planet’s eco­
systems. It might best be described as a philosophical
world view, to distinguish it from a scientific theory or
explanatory system. However, one of its major tenets
is the great lesson we have learned from the science
of ecology: the interdependence of all living things in
an organically unified order whose balance and stabil­
ity are necessary conditions for the realization of the
good of its constituent biotic communities . . . .
The biocentric outlook on nature has four main com­
ponents. ( 1) Humans are thought of as members of
the Earth’s community of life, holding that member­
ship on the same terms as apply to all the nonhu­
man members. (2) The Earth’s natural ecosystems as
a totality are seen as a complex web of interconnected
elements, with the sound biological functioning of
each being dependent on the sound biological func­
tioning of the others. (This is the component referred
to earlier as the great lesson that the science of ecology
has taught us.) (3) Each individual organism is con­
ceived of as a teleological center of life, pursuing its
own good in its own way. ( 4) Whether we are con­
cerned with standards of merit or with the concept of
inherent worth, the claim that humans by their very
nature are superior to other species is a groundless
claim and, in the light of elements (I), (2), and (3),
must be rejected a snothing more than an irrational
bias in our own favor.
The conjunction of these four ideas constitutes
the biocentric outlook on nature. In the remainder of
this paper I give a brief account of the first three com­
ponents, followed by a more detailed analysis of the
fourth. I then conclude by indicating how this outlook
provides a way of justifying the attitude of respect for

We share with other species a common relationship
to the Earth. In accepting the biocentric outlook we
take the fact of our being an animal species to be a
fundamental feature of our existence. We consider it
an essential aspect of “the human condition.” We do
not deny the differences between ourselves and other
species, but we keep in the forefront of our conscious­
ness the fact that in relation to our planet’s natural
ecosystems we are but one species population among
many. Thus we acknowledge our origin in the very
same evolutionary process that gave rise to all other
species and we recognize ourselves to be confronted
with similar environmental challenges to those that
confront them. The laws of genetics, of natural selec­
tion, and of adaptation apply equally to all of us as
biological creatures. In this light we consider ourselves
as one with them, not set apart from them. We, as well
as they, must face certain basic conditions of existence
that impose requirements on us for our survival and
well-being. Each animal and plant is like us in having
a good of its own. Although our human good (what
is of true value in human life, including the exercise
of individual autonomy in choosing our own particu­
lar value systems) is not like the good of a nonhuman
animal or plant, it can no more be realized than their
good can without the biological necessities for survival
and physical health.
When we look at ourselves from the evolutionary
point of view we see that not only are we very recent
arrivals on Earth, but that our emergence as a new spe­
cies on the planet was originally an event of no par­
ticular importance to the entire scheme of things. The
Earth was teeming with life long before we appeared.
Putting the point metaphorically, we are relative new­
comers, entering a home that has been the residence
of others for hundreds of millions of years, a home
that must now be shared by all of us together.
The comparative brevity of human life on Earth
may be vividly depicted by imagining the geologi­
cal time scale in spatial terms. Suppose we start with
algae, which have been around for at least 600 million
years. (The earliest protozoa actually predated this by
several billion years.) If the time that algae have been
here were represented by the length of a football field
(300 feet) , then the period during which sharks have
been swimming in the world’s oceans and spiders have
been spinning their webs would occupy three quarters
of the length of the field; reptiles would show up at
about the center of the field; mammals would cover
the last third of the field; hominids (mammals of the
family Hominidae) the last two feet; and the species
Homo sapiens the last six inches.
Whether this newcomer is able to survive as long
as other species remains to be seen. But there is surely
something presumptuous about the way humans look
down on the “lower” animals, especially those that
have become extinct. We consider the dinosaurs, for
example, to be biological failures, though they existed
on our planet for 65 million years. One writer has
made the point with beautiful simplicity:
We sometimes speak of the dinosaurs as failures;
there will be time enough for that judgment when we
have lasted even for one tenth as long . . . .3
The possibility of the extinction of the human
species, a possibility which starkly confronts us in
the contemporary world, makes us aware of another
respect in which we should not consider ourselves
privileged beings in relation to other species. This is
the fact that the well-being of humans is dependent
upon the ecological soundness and health of many
plant and animal communities, while their soundness
and health does not in the least depend upon human
well-being. Indeed, from their standpoint the very
existence of humans is quite unnecessary. Every last
man, woman, and child could disappear from the face
of the Earth without any significant detrimental con­
sequence for the good of wild animals and plants. On
the contrary, many of them would be greatly benefited.
The destruction of their habitats by human “develop­
ments” would cease. The poisoning and polluting of
their environment would come to an end. The Earth’s
land, air, and water would no longer be subject to the
degradation they are now undergoing as the result of
large-scale technology and uncontrolled population
growth. Life communities in natural ecosystems would
gradually return to their former healthy state. Tropical
forests for example, would again be able to make
their full contribution to a life-sustaining atmosphere
for the whole planet. The rivers, lakes, and oceans of
the world would (perhaps) eventually become clean
again. Spilled oil, plastic trash, and even radioactive
waste might finally, after many centuries, cease doing
their terrible work. Ecosystems would return to their
proper balance, suffering only the disruptions of natu­
ral events such as volcanic eruptions and glaciation.
From these the community of life could recover, as it
has so often done in the past. But the ecological disas­
ters now perpetrated on it by humans-disasters from
which it might never recover-these it would no lon­
ger have to endure.
If, then, the total, final, absolute extermination
of our species (by our own hands?) should take place
and if we should not carry all the others with us into
oblivion, not only would the Earth’s community of
life continue to exist, but in all probability its well­
being would be enhanced. Our presence, in short, is
not needed. If we were to take the standpoint of the
community and give voice to its true interest, the end­
ing of our six-inch epoch would most likely be greeted
with a hearty “Good riddance!”
To accept the biocentric outlook and regard ourselves
and our place in the world from its perspective is to
see the whole natural order of the Earth’s biosphere as
a complex but unified web of interconnected organ­
isms, objects, and events. The ecological relationships
between any community of living things and their
environment form an organic whole of function­
ally interdependent parts. Each ecosystem is a small
universe itself in which the interactions of its various
species populations comprise an intricately woven net­
work of cause-effect relations. Such dynamic but at the
same time relatively stable structures as food chains,
predator-prey relations, and plant succession in a for­
est are self-regulating, energy-recycling mechanisms
that preserve the equilibrium of the whole.
As far as the well-being of wild animals and plants
is concerned, this ecological equilibrium must not be
destroyed. The same holds true of the well-being of
humans. When one views the realm of nature from the
perspective of the biocentric outlook, one never for­
gets that in the long run the integrity of the entire bio­
sphere of our planet is essential to the realization of
the good of its constituent communities of life, both
human and nonhuman.
Although the importance of this idea cannot be
overemphasized, it is by now so familiar and so widely
acknowledged that I shall not further elaborate on it
here. However, I do wish to point out that this “holis­
tic” view of the Earth’s ecological systems does not
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 07
itself constitute a moral norm. It is a factual aspect of
biological reality, to be understood as a set of causal
connections in ordinary empirical terms. Its signifi­
cance for humans is the same as its significance for
nonhumans, namely, in setting basic conditions for
the realization of the good of living things. Its ethical
implications for our treatment of the natural environ­
ment lie entirely in the fact that our knowledge of these
causal connections is an essential means to fulfilling
the aims we set for ourselves in adopting the attitude
of respect for nature. In addition, its theoretical impli­
cations for the ethics of respect for nature lie in the fact
that it (along with the other elements of the biocentric
outlook) makes the adopting of that attitude a ratio­
nal and intelligible thing to do.
As our knowledge of living things increases, as we
come to a deeper understanding of their life cycles,
their interactions with other organisms, and the mani­
fold ways in which they adjust to the environment,
we become more fully aware of how each of them is
carrying out its biological functions according to the
laws of its species-specific nature. But besides this, our
increasing knowledge and understanding also develop
in us a sharpened awareness of the uniqueness of each
individual organism. Scientists who have made care­
ful studies of particular plants and animals, whether
in the field or in laboratories, have often acquired a
knowledge of their subjects as identifiable individu­
als. Close observation over extended periods of time
has led them to an appreciation of the unique “per­
sonalities” of their subjects. Sometimes a scientist may
come to take a special interest in a particular animal or
plant, all the while remaining strictly objective in the
gathering and recording of data. Nonscientists may
likewise experience this development of interest when,
as amateur naturalists, they make accurate observa­
tions over sustained periods of close acquaintance
with an individual organism. As one becomes more
and more familiar with the organism and its behav­
ior, one becomes fully sensitive to the particular way it
is living out its life cycle. One may become fascinated
by it and even experience some involvement with its
good and bad fortunes (that is, with the occurrence
of environmental conditions favorable or unfavorable
to the realization of its good). The organism comes
to mean something to one as a unique, irreplaceable
individual. The final culmination of this process is the
achievement of a genuine understanding of its point
of view and, with that understanding, an ability to
“take” that point of view. Conceiving of it as a center of
life, one is able to look at the world from its perspective.
This development from objective knowledge to
the recognition of individuality, and from the recogni­
tion of individuality to full awareness of an organism’s
standpoint, is a process of heightening our conscious­
ness of what it means to be an individual living thing.
We grasp the particularity of the organism as a teleo­
logical center of life, striving to preserve itself and to
realize its own good in its own unique way.
It is to be noted that we need not be falsely anthro­
pomorphizing when we conceive of individual plants
and animals in this manner. Understanding them as
teleological centers of life does not necessitate “read­
ing into” them human characteristics. We need not,
for example, consider them to have consciousness.
Some of them may be aware of the world around
them and others may not. Nor need we deny that dif­
ferent kinds and levels of awareness are exemplified
when consciousness in some form is present. But con­
scious or not, all are equally teleological centers of life
in the sense that each is a unified system of goal-ori­
ented activities directed toward their preservation and
When considered from an ethical point of view, a
teleological center of life is an entity whose “world”
can be viewed from the perspective of its life. In look­
ing at the world from that perspective we recognize
objects and events occurring in its life as being benefi­
cent, maleficent, or indifferent. The first are occurrences
which increase its powers to preserve its existence and
realize its good. The second decrease or destroy those
powers. The third have neither of these effects on the
entity. With regard to our human role as moral agents,
we can conceive of a teleological center of life as a
being whose standpoint we can take in making judg­
ments about what events in the world are good or evil,
desirable or undesirable. In making those judgments
it is what promotes or protects the being’s own good,
not what benefits moral agents themselves, that sets
the standard of evaluation. Such judgments can be
made about anything that happens to the entity which
is favorable or unfavorable in relation to its good. As
was pointed out earlier, the entity itself need not have
any (conscious) interest in what is happening to it for
such judgments to be meaningful and true.
It is precisely judgments of this sort that we are
disposed to make when we take the attitude of respect
for nature. In adopting that attitude those judgments
are given weight as reasons for action in our practical
deliberation. They become morally relevant facts in
the guidance of our conduct.
This fourth component of the biocentric outlook on
nature is the single most important idea in estab­
lishing the justifiability of the attitude of respect for
nature. Its central role is due to the special relationship
it bears to the first three components of the outlook.
This relationship will be brought out after the concept
of human superiority is examined and analyzed.4
In what sense are humans alleged to be superior to
other animals? We are different from them in having
certain capacities that they lack. But why should these
capacities be a mark of superiority? From what point
of view are they judged to be signs of superiority and
what sense of superiority is meant? After all, various
nonhuman species have capacities that humans lack.
There is the speed of a cheetah, the vision of an eagle,
the agility of a monkey. Why should not these be taken
as signs of their superiority over humans?
One answer that comes immediately to mind is
that these capacities are not as valuable as the human
capacities that are claimed to make us superior. Such
uniquely human characteristics as rational thought,
aesthetic creativity, autonomy and self-determination,
and moral freedom, it might be held, have a higher
value than the capacities found in other species. Yet we
must ask: valuable to whom, and on what grounds?
The human characteristics mentioned are all valu­
able to humans. They are essential to the preservation
and enrichment of our civilization and culture. Clearly
it is from the human standpoint that they are being
judged to be desirable and good. It is not difficult here
to recognize a begging of the question. Humans are
claiming human superiority from a strictly human
point of view, that is, from a point of view in which the
good of humans is taken as the standard of judgment.
All we need to do is to look at the capacities of non­
human animals (or plants, for that matter) from the
standpoint of their good to find a contrary judgment
of superiority. The speed of the cheetah, for example,
is a sign of its superiority to humans when considered
from the standpoint of the good of its species. If it
were as slow a runner as a human, it would not be able
to survive. And so for all the other abilities of nonhu­
mans which further their good but which are lacking
in humans. In each case the claim to human superior­
ity would be rejected from a nonhuman standpoint.
When superiority assertions are interpreted in this
way, they are based on judgments of merit. To judge
the merits of a person or an organism one must apply
grading or ranking standards to it. (As I show later,
this distinguishes judgments of merit from judgments
of inherent worth.) Empirical investigation then deter­
mines whether it has the “good-making properties”
(merits) in virtue of which it fulfills the standards
being applied. In the case of humans, merits may be
either moral or nonmoral. We can judge one person
to be better than (superior to) another from the moral
point of view by applying certain standards to their
character and conduct. Similarly, we can appeal to
nonmoral criteria in judging someone to be an excel­
lent piano player, a fair cook, a poor tennis player, and
so on. Different social purposes and roles are implicit
in the making of such judgments, providing the frame
of reference for the choice of standards by which the
nonmoral merits of people are determined. Ultimately
such purposes and roles stem from a society’s way of
life as a whole. Now a society’s way of life may be
thought of as the cultural form given to the realiza­
tion of human values. Whether moral or nonmoral
standards are being applied, then, all judgments of
people’s merits finally depend on human values. All
are made from an exclusively human standpoint.
The question that naturally arises at this juncture
is: why should standards that are based on human val­
ues be assumed to be the only valid criteria of merit
and hence the only true signs of superiority? This
question is especially pressing when humans are being
judged superior in merit to nonhumans. It is true that
a human being may be a better mathematician than a
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 109
monkey, but the monkey may be a better tree climber
than a human being. If we humans value mathematics
more than tree climbing, that is because our concep­
tion of civilized life makes the development of mathe­
matical ability more desirable than the ability to climb
trees. But is it not unreasonable to judge nonhumans
by the values of human civilization, rather than by
values connected with what it is for a member of that
species to live a good life? If all living things have a
good of their own, it at least makes sense to judge the
merits of nonhumans by standards derived from their
good. To use only standards based on human values
is already to commit oneself to holding that humans
are superior to nonhumans, which is the point in
A further logical flaw arises in connection with the
widely held conviction that humans are morally supe­
rior beings because they possess, while others lack,
the capacities of a moral agent (free will, account­
ability, deliberation, judgment, practical reason) . This
view rests on a conceptual confusion. As far as moral
standards are concerned, only beings that have the
capacities of a moral agent can properly be judged to
be either moral (morally good) or immoral (morally
deficient) . Moral standards are simply not applicable
to beings that lack such capacities. Animals and plants
cannot therefore be said to be morally inferior in merit
to humans. Since the only beings that can have moral
merits or be deficient in such merits are moral agents, it
is conceptually incoherent to judge humans as supe­
rior to nonhumans on the ground that humans have
moral capacities while nonhumans don’t.
Up to this point I have been interpreting the claim
that humans are superior to other living things as a
grading or ranking judgment regarding their compara­
tive merits. There is, however, another way of under­
standing the idea of human superiority. According to
this interpretation, humans are superior to nonhu­
mans not as regards their merits but as regards their
inherent worth. Thus the claim of human superiority
is to be understood as asserting that all humans, sim­
ply in virtue of their humanity, have a greater inherent
worth than other living things.
The inherent worth of an entity does not depend
on its merits. 5 To consider something as possessing
inherent worth, we have seen, is to place intrinsic value
on the realization of its good. This is done regardless
of whatever particular merits it might have or might
lack, as judged by a set of grading or ranking stan­
dards. In human affairs, we are all familiar with the
principle that one’s worth as a person does not vary
with one’s merits or lack of merits. The same can hold
true of animals and plants. To regard such entities as
possessing inherent worth entails disregarding their
merits and deficiencies, whether they are being judged
from a human standpoint or from the standpoint of
their own species.
The idea of one entity having more merit than
another, and so being superior to it in merit, makes
perfectly good sense. Merit is a grading or ranking con­
cept, and judgments of comparative merit are based
on the different degrees to which things satisfy a given
standard. But what can it mean to talk about one thing
being superior to another in inherent worth? In order
to get at what is being asserted in such a claim it is
helpful first to look at the social origin of the concept
of degrees of inherent worth.
The idea that humans can possess different degrees
of inherent worth originated in societies having rigid
class structures. Before the rise of modem democracies
with their egalitarian outlook, one’s membership in a
hereditary class determined one’s social status. People
in the upper classes were looked up to, while those in
the lower classes were looked down upon. In such a
society one’s social superiors and social inferiors were
clearly defined and easily recognized.
Two aspects of these class-structured societies are
especially relevant to the idea of degrees of inherent
worth. First, those born into the upper classes were
deemed more worthy of respect than those born into
the lower orders. Second, the superior worth of upper
class people had nothing to do with their merits nor
did the inferior worth of those in the lower classes rest
on their lack of merits. One’s superiority or inferiority
entirely derived from a social position one was born
into. The modem concept of a meritocracy simply did
not apply. One could not advance into a higher class by
any sort of moral or nonmoral achievement. Similarly,
an aristocrat held his title and all the privileges that
went with it just because he was the eldest son of a
titled nobleman. Unlike the bestowing of knighthood
in contemporary Great Britain, one did not earn mem­
bership in the nobility by meritorious conduct.
We who live in modem democracies no longer
believe in such hereditary social distinctions. Indeed,
we would wholeheartedly condemn them on moral
grounds as being fundamentally unjust. We have
come to think of class systems as a paradigm of social
injustice, it being a central principle of the democratic
way of life that among humans there are no superi­
ors and no inferiors. Thus we have rejected the whole
conceptual framework in which people are judged to
have different degrees of inherent worth. That idea
is incompatible with our notion of human equality
based on the doctrine that all humans, simply in vir­
tue of their humanity, have the same inherent worth.
(The belief in universal human rights is one form that
this egalitarianism takes.)
The vast majority of people in modem democra­
cies, however, do not maintain an egalitarian outlook
when it comes to comparing human beings with other
living things. Most people consider our own species
to be superior to all other species and this superior­
ity is understood to be a matter of inherent worth,
not merit. There may exist thoroughly vicious and
depraved humans who lack all merit. Yet because they
are human they are thought to belong to a higher class
of entities than any plant or animal. That one is born
into the species Homo sapiens entitles one to have lord­
ship over those who are one’s inferiors, namely, those
born into other species. The parallel with hereditary
social classes is very close. Implicit in this view is a
hierarchical conception of nature according to which
an organism has a position of superiority of inferiority
in the Earth’s community of life simply on the basis
of its genetic background. The “lower” orders of life
are looked down upon and it is considered perfectly
proper that they serve the interests of those belong­
ing to the highest order, namely humans. The intrinsic
value we place on the well-being of our fellow humans
reflects our recognition of their rightful position as our
equals. No such intrinsic value is to be placed on the
good of other animals, unless we choose to do so out
of fondness or affection for them. But their well-being
imposes no moral requirement on us. In this respect
there is an absolute difference in moral status between
ourselves and them.
This is the structure of concepts and beliefs that
people are committed to insofar as they regard humans
to be superior in inherent worth to all other species. I
now wish to argue that this structure of concepts and
beliefs is completely groundless. If we accept the first
three components of the biocentric outlook and from
that perspective look at the major philosophical tradi­
tions which have supported that structure, we find it to
be at bottom nothing more than the expression of an
irrational bias in our own favor. The philosophical tra­
ditions themselves rest on very questionable assump­
tions or else simply beg the question. I briefly consider
three of the main traditions to substantiate the point.
These are classical Greek humanism, Cartesian dual­
ism, and the Judea-Christian concept of the Great
Chain of Being.
The inherent superiority of humans over other spe­
cies was implicit in the Greek definition of man as a
rational animal. Our animal nature was identified with
“brute” desires that need the order and restraint of rea­
son to rule them (just as reason is the special virtue of
those who rule in the ideal state) . Rationality was then
seen to be the key to our superiority over animals. It
enables us to live on a higher plane and endows us
with a nobility and worth that other creatures lack.
This familiar way of comparing humans with other
species is deeply ingrained in our Western philosophi­
cal outlook. The point to consider here is that this
view does not actually provide an argument for human
superiority but rather makes explicit the framework
of thought that is implicitly used by those who think
of humans as inherently superior to nonhumans. The
Greeks who held that humans, in virtue of their ratio­
nal capacities, have a kind of worth greater than that of
any nonrational being, never looked at rationality as
but one capacity of living things among many others.
But when we consider rationality from the standpoint
of the first three elements of the ecological outlook,
we see that its value lies in its importance for human
life. Other creatures achieve their species-specific good
without the need of rationality, although they often
make use of capacities that human lack. So the human­
istic outlook of classical Greek thought does not give
us a neutral ( nonquestion-begging) ground on which
to construct a scale of degrees of inherent worth pos­
sessed by different species of living things.
The second tradition, centering on the Cartesian
dualism of soul and body, also fails to justify the claim
to human superiority. That superiority is supposed to
derive from the fact that we have souls while animals
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 1 1
do not. Animals are mere automata and lack the divine
element that makes us spiritual beings. I won’t go into
the now familiar criticisms of this two-substance view. I
only add the point that, even if humans are composed
of an immaterial, unextended soul and a material,
extended body, this in itself is not a reason to deem
them of greater worth than entities that are only bod­
ies. Why is a soul substance a thing that adds value
to its possessor? Unless some theological reasoning
is offered here (which many, including myself, would
find unacceptable on epistemological grounds), no
logical connection is evident. An immaterial some­
thing which thinks is better than a material something
which does not think only if thinking itself has value,
either intrinsically or instrumentally. Now it is intrin­
sically valuable to humans alone, who value it as an
end in itself, and it is instrumentally valuable to those
who benefit from it, namely humans.
For animals that neither enjoy thinking for its own
sake nor need it for living the kind of life for which they
are best adapted, it has no value. Even if “thinking” is
broadened to include all forms of consciousness, there
are still many living things that can do without it and
yet live what is for their species a good life. The anthro­
pocentricity underlying the claim to human superior­
ity runs throughout Cartesian dualism.
A third major source of the idea of human supe­
riority is the Judea-Christian concept of the Great
Chain of Being. Humans are superior to animals and
plants because their Creator has given them a higher
place on the chain. It begins with God at the top, and
then moves to the angels, who are lower than God
but higher than humans, then to humans, positioned
between the angels and the beasts (partaking of the
nature of both) , and then on down to the lower lev­
els occupied by nonhuman animals, plants, and
finally inanimate objects. Humans, being “made in
God’s image,” are inherently superior to animals and
plants by virtue of their being closer (in their essential
nature) to God.
The metaphysical and epistemological difficul­
ties with this conception of a hierarchy of entities are,
in my mind, insuperable. Without entering into this
matter here, I only point out that if we are unwilling
to accept the metaphysics of traditional Judaism and
Christianity, we are again left without good reasons for
holding to the claim of inherent human superiority.
The foregoing considerations (and others like
them) leave us with but one ground for the assertion
that a human being, regardless of merit, is a higher
kind of entity than any other living thing. This is the
mere fact of the genetic makeup of the species Homo
sapiens. But this is surely irrational and arbitrary. Why
should the arrangement of genes of a certain type be a
mark of superior value, especially when this fact about
an organism is taken by itself, unrelated to any other
aspect of its life? We might just as well refer to any
other genetic makeup as a ground of superior value.
Clearly we are confronted here with a wholly arbitrary
claim that can only be explained as an irrational bias
in our own favor.
That the claim is nothing more than a deep-seated
prejudice is brought home to us when we look at our
relation to other species in the light of the first three
elements of the biocentric outlook. Those elements
taken conjointly give us a certain overall view of the
natural world and of the place of humans in it. When
we take this view we come to understand other liv­
ing things, their environmental conditions, and their
ecological relationships in such a way as to awake in
us a deep sense of our kinship with them as fellow
members of the Earth’s community of life. Humans
and nonhumans alike are viewed together as integral
parts of one unified whole in which all living things
are functionally interrelated. Finally, when our aware­
ness focuses on the individual lives of plants and ani­
mals, each is seen to share with us the characteristic of
being a teleological center of life striving to realize its
own good in its own unique way.
As this entire belief system becomes part of the
conceptual framework through which we understand
and perceive the world, we come to see ourselves as
bearing a certain moral relation to nonhuman forms
of life. Our ethical role in nature takes on a new sig­
nificance. We begin to look at other species as we
look at ourselves, seeing them as beings which have
a good they are striving to realize just as we have a
good we are striving to realize. We accordingly develop
the disposition to view the world from the standpoint
of their good as well as from the standpoint of our
own good. Now if the groundlessness of the claim
that humans are inherently superior to other species
were brought clearly before our minds, we would not
remain intellectually neutral toward that claim but
would reject it as being fundamentally at variance with
our total world outlook. In the absence of any good
reasons for holding it, the assertion of human supe­
riority would then appear simply as the expression of
an irrational and self-serving prejudice that favors one
particular species over several million others.
Rejecting the notion of human superiority entails
its positive counterpart: the doctrine of species impar­
tiality. One who accepts that doctrine regards all living
things as possessing inherent worth-the same inher­
ent worth, since no one species has been shown to
be either “higher” or “lower” than any other. Now we
saw earlier that, insofar as one thinks of a living thing
as possessing inherent worth, one considers it to be
the appropriate object of the attitude of respect and
believes that attitude to be the only fitting or suitable
one for all moral agents to take toward it.
Here, then, is the key to understanding how the
attitude of respect is rooted in the biocentric outlook
of nature. The basic connection is made through the
denial of human superiority. Once we reject the claim
that humans are superior either in merit or in worth to
other living things, we are ready to adopt the attitude
of respect. The denial of human superiority is itself the
result of taking the perspective on nature built into the
first three elements of the biocentric outlook.
Now the first three elements of the biocentric out­
look, it seems clear, would be found acceptable to any
rational and scientifically informed thinker who is
fully “open” to the reality of the lives of nonhuman
organisms. Without denying our distinctively human
characteristics, such a thinker can acknowledge the
fundamental respects in which we are members of the
Earth’s community of life and in which the biological
conditions necessary for the realization of our human
values are inextricably linked with the whole system of
nature. In addition, the conception of individual living
things as teleological centers of life simply articulates
how a scientifically informed thinker comes to under­
stand them as the result of increasingly careful and
detailed observations. Thus, the biocentric outlook
recommends itself as an acceptable system of concepts
and beliefs to anyone who is dear-minded, unbiased,
and factually enlightened, and who has a developed
capacity of reality awareness with regard to the lives
of individual organisms. This, I submit, is as good a
reason for making the moral commitment involved
in adopting the attitude of respect for nature as any
theory of environmental ethics could possibly have.
I have not asserted anywhere in the foregoing account
that animals or plants have moral rights. This omis­
sion was deliberate. I do not think that the reference
class of the concept, bearer of moral rights, should
be extended to include nonhuman living things. My
reasons for taking this position, however, go beyond
the scope of this paper. 6 I believe I have been able to
accomplish many of the same ends which those who
ascribe rights to animals or plants wish to accomplish.
There is no reason, moreover, why plants and animals,
including whole species populations and life commu­
nities, cannot be accorded legal rights under my theory.
To grant them legal protection could be interpreted as
giving them legal entitlement to be protected, and this,
in fact, would be a means by which a society that sub­
scribed to the ethics of respect for nature could give
public recognition to their inherent worth.
There remains the problem of competing claims,
even when wild plants and animals are not thought of
as bearers of moral rights. If we accept the biocentric
outlook and accordingly adopt the attitude of respect
for nature as our ultimate moral attitude, how do we
resolve conflicts that arise from our respect for persons
in the domain of human ethics and our respect for
nature in the domain of environmental ethics? This
is a question that cannot adequately be dealt with
here. My main purpose in this paper has been to try to
establish a base point from which we can start work­
ing toward a solution to the problem. I have shown
why we cannot just begin with an initial presumption
in favor of the interests of our own species. I tis after
all within our power as moral beings to place limits on
human population and technology with the deliberate
The Ethics of Respect for Nature 1 13
intention of sharing the Earth’s bounty with other spe­
cies. That such sharing is an ideal difficult to realize
even in an approximate way does not take away its
claim to our deepest moral commitment.
1 .W .K .Frankena, “Ethics and the Environment, ”
in Ethics and Problems of the 21 st CentUT}’, ed. K. E.
Goodpaster and K. M. Sayre (South Bend, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1 9 79), pp. 3-20.
I critically examine Frankena’s views i n”Frankena
on Environmental Ethics, ” Monist 64 (July 1 9 81 ) :
31 3-24.
2 .In the light of considerations set forth in Daniel
Dennett’s Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind
and Psychology (Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books,
1 9 78), it is advisable to leave this question unset­
tled at this time. When machines are developed
that function in the way our brains do, we may
well come to deem them proper subjects of moral
3. Stephen R. L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1 9 77), p. 1 1 2 .
4. M ycriticisms o fthe dogma o fhuman superiority
gain independent support from a carefully reasoned
essay by R. and V. Routley showing the many logi­
cal weaknesses in arguments for human-centered
theories of environmental ethics. R. and V. Routley,
“Against the Inevitability of Human Chauvinism, ”
in Ethics and Problems of the 21 st CentuT}’, ed. K. E.
Goodpaster and K. M. Sayre (South Bend, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1 9 79), pp. 36-59 .
5. For this way of distinguishing between merit
and inherent worth, I am indebted to Gregory
Vlastos, “Justice and Equality, ” in Social Justice, ed.
R. Brandt (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,
1 9 62), 3 1 – 7 2 .
6 .Editor’s Note: For further discussion, see Paul
Taylor, Respect for Nature (Princeton, N . J. :Princeton
University Press, 1 9 86), 245ff.
There is grandeur in this view of life… whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the
fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most
wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. CHARLES DARWIN, The Origin of Species
… the multifarious forms of life envelop our planet and, over aeons, gradually but profoundly
change its surface. In a sense, life and Earth become a unity, each working changes on the other.
LYNN MARGULIS, Five Kingdoms
EVERY CHILD who has marvelled at the growth of a plant from a seed, observed the
transformation of a frog’s egg into a tadpole or witnessed the emergence of a butterfly from its
cocoon understands in the most profound way that life is a miracle. Science cannot penetrate
life’s deepest mystery; music and poetry attempt to express it; every mother and father feels it
to the core.
To the centre of the world you have taken me and showed the goodness and beauty and
strangeness of the greening Earth, the only mother.
BLACK ELK, quoted in T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth
Early thinkers recognized the four elements necessary for life—air, water, earth and fire. But
they did not know that the collective effect of living things themselves had played a vital hand
in shaping and maintaining those elements. Life is not a passive recipient of these elemental
gifts but an active participant in creating and replenishing them.
A thought exercise is useful to illustrate the critical role that all life plays in providing what
aboriginal people refer to as the four sacred elements: earth, air, fire and water. Imagine that
scientists have created a time machine that takes us back four billion years before life arose on
this planet. If we rush out of the time capsule to investigate this sterile world, we’d be dead in
minutes because the prebiotic atmosphere, although rich in water vapour and carbon dioxide,
lacked oxygen. It was only after life discovered photosynthesis that oxygen was released as a
by-product of the capture of sunlight. This process transformed the atmosphere over millions of
years producing the air that animals like us depend upon.
Suppose we anticipated these inhospitable conditions and have stored tanks of air that we
can strap on before exploring the Earth. After a few hours in the warmth (water and carbon
dioxide are greenhouse gases), we would get thirsty, but any water would be questionable for
drinking because there are no plant roots, soil fungi or other microorganisms to filter out heavy
metals and other potentially dangerous leachates from rock. We would get hungry, but, of
course, since every bit of the food we eat was once alive, there would be nothing to eat. Even
Suzuki, D. (2009). The sacred balance : Rediscovering our place in nature. Greystone Books.
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if, in addition to a supply of food, we brought some seeds to grow fresh vegetables, we would
find no soil in which to grow anything because soil is created when living organisms die and
their carcasses mix with the matrix of clay, sand and gravel.
And suppose at the end of the day on this lifeless planet, we feel homesick and decide to
light a campfire for comfort. There would be no fuel to burn because every bit of our fuel—
wood, dung, peat, coal, oil, gas—is formed by life. Furthermore, even if we had brought fuel,
we couldn’t burn it because without oxygen, no flame could ignite. This incredible journey
through time reveals that the web of all life keeps the planet hospitable.
Life maintains its unique handiwork by means of its extraordinary power to diversify—to
adapt to opportunities as they present themselves and to create new opportunities in the
process. No single species is indispensable, but the totality of all life-forms maintains the
fecundity of Earth. Thus, the diverse array of life itself may be regarded as another of the
fundamental elements that support all living things. Biodiversity must take its place beside air,
water, earth and fire, the ancient creators of the planet’s fertility and abundance.
The components of the natural world are myriad but they constitute a single living system.
There is no escape from our interdependence with nature; we are woven into the closest
relationship with the Earth, the sea, the air, the seasons, the animals and all the fruits of the
Earth. What affects one affects all—we are part of a greater whole—the body of the planet.
We must respect, preserve, and love its manifold expression if we hope to survive.
Life and death are a balanced pair. It is a strange irony that death has been a critical instrument
in the persistence of life. Humanity’s age-old dream of eternal life, if ever realized, would lock
any species into an evolutionary straitjacket, eliminating the flexibility required to adapt to the
planet’s ever-changing conditions. By allowing adaptive change to arise in successive
generations, individual mortality enables species to survive over long periods of time.
In the end, however, the species proves as mortal as the individual. Over the sweep of
evolutionary time, it is estimated that 30 billion species have existed since multicellular
organisms arose in the explosion of life in the Cambrian era, 550 million years ago. On
average, scientists believe, a species exists for some 4 million years before giving way to
other life-forms. It is estimated that there may be about 30 million species on Earth today—that
means 99.9 per cent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. But all forms of life on
the planet today have their beginning in one cell that arose in the oceans perhaps as long as 3.8
billion years ago, and from the perspective of the vital force imbued in that first cell, life has
been astonishingly persistent and resilient.
The forest is one big thing—it has people, animals and plants. There is no point in saving
the animals if the forest is burned down. There is no point in saving the forest if the animals
and people are driven away. Those trying to save the animals cannot win if the people trying
to save the forest lose.
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BEPKOROROTI, quoted in “Amazonian Oxfam’s Work
in the Amazon Basin”
No species exists in isolation from all others. In fact, today’s estimated 30 million species are
all connected through the intersection of their life cycles—plants depend on specific insect
species to pollinate them, fish move through the vast expanses of the oceans feeding and being
fed upon by other species, and birds migrate halfway around the world to raise their young on
the brief explosion of insect populations in the Arctic. Together, all species make up one
immense web of interconnections that binds all beings to each other and to the physical
components of the planet. The disappearance of a species tears the web a little, but that web is
highly elastic. When one strand is rent the whole network changes configuration, but so long as
there are many remaining strands to hold it together, it retains its integrity.
We have to feel the heartbeats of the trees, because trees are living beings like us.
SUNDERLAL BAHUGUNA, quoted in E. Goldsmith et al.,
Imperilled Planet
All life ultimately depends on energy from the sun, which is exploited by plants and
microorganisms through photosynthesis (as we have seen, only a very small number of
microbial species, which are said to be chemosynthetic, can oxidize inorganic substances such
as nitrogen and sulfur to obtain energy or can utilize energy coming from the core of the
planet). The primary consumers of the photosynthetic and chemosynthetic organisms are
herbivores as varied as grasshoppers, deer and krill, which in turn provide sustenance for
primary carnivores such as spiders, wolves and small squids. Secondary carnivores such as
toothed whales, eagles and humans feed on primary carnivores and are furthest away from the
original exploiters of energy. Eventually, all parts of the network will be reprocessed by
decomposing organisms and returned to the Earth (Figure 6.1).
It is humbling to realize how restricted our perception is compared with other creatures on this
planet. Our view of the world is created by the degree of sensitivity of our sensory organs. We
are aware of how limited this can be each time we watch the peregrinations of a dog as it runs
from hydrant to tree, breathing in a world of impressions, the chemical signatures left by other
animals that indicate their age, sex and species, as well as how long ago they were there.
Insects can respond to a single molecule of pheromone floating in the air. Other animals, from
black-tipped sharks to fiddler crabs, sense changes in barometric pressure and can therefore
anticipate changes in weather long before humans can. Our ears lack the ability to detect the
high-pitched sounds that help bats manoeuvre, capture prey and avoid predators. We are deaf
to the low-pitched frequencies that are the songs of marine leviathans echoing through oceans
halfway around the world. The seismic communication of elephants—vibrations received
through the feet and nerve-riddled, ultra-sensitive tip of the trunk—pass by us undetected. Our
vision is limited to wavelengths of light that our sense organs can detect in the range from red
to purple. We can’t see infrared as the rattlesnake can or the ultraviolet light that guides insects
to specific flowers.
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FIGURE 6.1: A food chain in a temperate ecosystem.
Adapted from Science Desk Reference (New York: Macmillan, 1995) p. 463.
As air-breathing animals, we are ignorant of the vast range of diverse marine and freshwater
ecosystems and the plants and animals that have adapted so wonderfully to them. Being held to
Earth’s surface by gravity, few of us have seen the planet as a soaring bird has or as members
of communities dwelling in forest canopies have. Nor do we have the subterranean perspective
of the burrowing animals, plants and microorganisms that spend most of their lives beneath our
feet. As animals of the day, we are insensitive to the interplay of creatures that are active at
Our light receptors cannot resolve objects in the size range of single cells, and so we are
blind to the vast numbers and variety of microscopic life in a single drop of pond or ocean
water or a pinch of soil. Of course we have compensated for our physical shortcomings by
creating technologies that extend our sensory range. We detect the symphony of inaudible
sounds through machinery that can make their patterns visible or audible. We can detect
extremely low concentrations of molecules—drugs, explosives, dna—in the air or adhering to
But it is microscopy that has opened a whole new world to us. What a wondrous shock it
must have been to the pioneers who first saw the cosmos of bizarre forms in staggering
abundance and variety revealed by magnifying lenses. These miniature organisms were the
only life-forms for most of the time that Earth has been animated, and even today they have a
biomass equivalent to or greater than that of all of the ancient forests, great herds of mammals,
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vast flocks of birds, enormous schools of fish and countless insects taken together. (For some
sense of scale, in her book The Garden of Microbial Delights, Lynn Margulis tells us there are
a hundred thousand microbes per square centimetre of human skin!) This vast universe of life,
invisible to our species, has carried on as the dominant organisms on the planet for billions of
years. As we marvel at the large creatures—ancient trees, birds, mammals—we owe our very
existence to the teeming universe of microscopic lives.
Tinkering with Life
One of modern biology’s great insights has been the recognition that dna is the blueprint of life,
dictating the physical makeup of all multicellular organisms. By elucidating its molecule
structure as a double helix, Watson and Crick began a revolution that now allows scientists to
create organisms virtually at will. Today, scientists can isolate, purify, sequence and synthesize
specific genes and then transfer them between unrelated species. This ability has led to an
explosive growth in biotechnology, wherein spectacular new organisms are created by gene
transfer: strawberries resistant to frost because of an implanted fish gene that produces
antifreeze; rice rich in blindness-preventing vitamin A; bananas implanted with genes allowing
them to produce antibiotics. The list is only restricted by one’s imagination. The notion of
creating designer organisms for human benefit is irresistible.
Biotechnology is trumpeted as a means to eliminate starvation and suffering by increasing
yields for a growing human population, creating crops resistant to pests and generating new
drugs. Yet the risks of genetically engineered organisms or their products, like the risks of DDT
or CFCS when they were first introduced, are largely unknown, because our basic knowledge
about how cells, organisms and ecosystems work is too limited to allow us to anticipate the
repercussions of manipulating these organisms’ genes. The terrible error in biotechnology is
thinking that genes exist and function in isolation. A gene is part of a greater, integrated whole
—the genome—which has been selected and honed to turn off and on whole suites of genes in
proper sequence and timing from fertilization to maturity, a network of gene relationships and
connections we are just beginning to tease apart and reveal. A gene transferred from one
species into another finds itself in a totally alien context leaving us little ability to anticipate
consequences, much like removing Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones and inserting him into
the New York Philharmonic orchestra and asking him to make music. Sounds will emerge, but
whether they will be music is unknown.
It is the context that makes a gene relevant. As, Richard Strohman, a biochemist and former
Head of Molecular and Cell Biology at Berkeley, says:
When you insert a single gene into a plant or animal, the technology will work…
you’ll get the desired characteristics. But you will also…have produced changes in
the cell or the organism as a whole that are unpredictable…Genes exist in networks,
interactive networks which have a logic of their own… And the fact that the industry
folks don’t deal with these networks is what makes their science incomplete and
dangerous… We are in a crisis position where we know the weakness of the genetic
concept, but we don’t know how to incorporate it into a new, more complete
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We live now in the “Age of Bacteria.” Our planet has always been in the “Age of Bacteria,”
ever since the first fossils—bacteria, of course—were entombed in rocks more than 3 billion
years ago.
STEPHEN JAY GOULD, “Planet of the Bacteria”
Natural systems are deeply entwined—and they are circular, one species’ waste becoming
another’s raw materials or opportunity so that nothing goes to waste (Figure 6.2). The cyclic
linking of different species is illustrated by the exquisite life cycle of the five species of
Pacific salmon, which are renowned for their incredible abundance. Even though fewer than
one in ten thousand fertilized eggs may reach adulthood, the survivors return from the ocean to
their natal streams at maturity by the tens of millions. From the moment a salmon begins life at
fertilization, it runs a gauntlet of predators—trout, ravens and fungi in fresh water; killer
whales, eagles and seals when it migrates to the oceans. Even in death salmon provide
nourishment: their carcasses are food for bacteria and fungi, which feed microscopic
invertebrates, which eventually nourish the emerging fry that are the salmon’s own offspring.
Birds and mammals, bellies swollen with their bonanza of salmon carcasses, spread nutrients
from the salmon across the forest floor in their droppings. To human predators, the salmon life
cycle may seem “excessive” or “wasteful,” but in the cycle of living things, nothing goes to
Early in the history of life, Nature began to shape new species to fit into habitats already
occupied by other species. Never since the Archaean Period has a living thing evolved
alone. Whole communities have evolved as if they were one great organism. Thus all
evolution is coevolution and the biosphere is now a confederation of dependencies.
Human beings depend on Earth and its life-forms for every aspect of their survival and life.
It is impossible to draw lines that delineate separate categories of air, water, soil and life. You
and I don’t end at our fingertips or skin—we are connected through air, water and soil; we are
animated by the same energy from the same source in the sky above. We are quite literally air,
water, soil, energy and other living creatures.
FIGURE 6.2: Groups of organisms classified by food consumption.
Adapted from Cecie Starr and Ralph Taggart, Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, 6th ed.
(Belmont, ca: Wadsworth, 1992), fig. 40.8.
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From the earliest times we humans have used our massive brains to exploit the variety of
species surrounding us. We learned which plants were edible and how to catch animals that
were faster or stronger than we were. We learned how to use the natural defences of animals
and plants, tipping arrows with poison, stunning fish in rivers. The medicinal properties of
other species healed our ills, their beauty decorated our bodies, and their skins protected ours,
as clothing and shelter. The diversity of living things in different ecosystems is demonstrated
by the range of uses we have found for other creatures as we spread and settled across the
Salmon Forests
Along the west coast of North America, pinched between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal
mountains, is a temperate rain forest that stretches from California to Alaska and boasts the
greatest biomass (weight of living things) of any ecosystem on the planet. It is a rain forest
because it rains a lot, but one of the mysteries of this ecosystem is how such huge trees—red
and yellow cedar, Douglas-fir, Sitka spruce, hemlock and balsam—can flourish when essential
nitrogen is in limited supply because it is washed from the soil. The answer to this puzzle
illustrates the exquisite interconnectedness of life.
We have long known that salmon born in coastal rivers and streams need the forest to keep
the waters cool, to retain the soil (which, in turn, prevents erosion) and to provide feed for
baby fish, because when a watershed is clearcut, salmon populations plummet or disappear.
But now we are learning that the forest needs the fish, too.
Almost all of the nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems is the isotope nitrogen-14 (14N), but in the
oceans, there is a relatively high concentration of the heavier isotope nitrogen-15 (15N). When
the salmon go to sea, they consume 15N-laden prey and accumulate the isotope in their tissues.
Upon reaching maturity and migrating back to their natal streams, the salmon’s protoplasm is
laden with 15N. Eagles, ravens, wolves, bears and dozens of other organisms feed on the
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carcasses of spawned out salmon and then distribute the marine nitrogen throughout the forest
in their feces. During the spawning season, bears may consume up to six hundred fish each.
They usually carry a captured salmon up to 150 metres away from the river before eating part
of it and then returning to catch another. The remains of the carcass are then eaten by
salamanders, beetles, birds and other creatures, including flies that hatch as maggots. The 15N-
filled maggots mature and fall onto the forest litter, where they pupate over winter to emerge
the next spring as flies in time to feed birds migrating from South America on their way to the
Arctic. Salmon that die in the river sink to the bottom and are soon covered in a thick blanket
of fungus and bacteria, which in turn feed insects and other invertebrates. So when the fry
emerge from the spawning gravel four months later, the waters are filled with a banquet of 15N-
laden food that fed on the carcasses of their parents.
And now the mystery of the huge trees in coastal rain forests is solved. Salmon represent the
single largest pulse of nitrogen fertilizer spread by other creatures that the trees get all year.
That record can be deduced by measuring the amount of 15N in tree rings and correlating those
data with the size of the annual runs.
Humans, with our political, economic and social priorities, assign various facets of the
salmon’s vast reach to different ministerial departments. Departments responsible for
commercial, sport and native food fisheries handle the salmon themselves; the department of
forestry handles the trees; environment, the whales, eagles and bears; agriculture and energy,
the rivers; mining, the mountains and rock; and so on. We fail to account for the
interconnectedness of ocean, forest and northern and southern hemispheres, thereby
fragmenting the integrity of this system and guaranteeing that we will never manage it
When we domesticated animals and plants, only ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago,
human life changed forever, vaulting to another level in the evolution of culture. All the
domesticated animals and plants that human beings depend on today were once wild, and we
continue to need the genetic diversity that exists in wild populations—that diversity is still
life’s major defence against changing conditions. For this reason alone humanity has an
absolute need to protect biological diversity: it is a matter of sheer self-interest. Biodiversity
has its own worth regardless of how it serves people. As French philosopher Catherine
Larrère says, “All living organisms, through their existence and their use of complex, non-
mechanical strategies to survive and reproduce, have their own value. Beyond that, biological
diversity itself, because it is the product of evolution and also the condition for its
continuation, has its own intrinsic value…”
Another compelling argument for protecting biodiversity is the unfortunate fact that we know
next to nothing about most species on Earth. We know there is a web of life, but every time we
study a small section of the web we discover what seems to be an infinity of interconnections.
The more we learn, the more we realize how much else there is to learn about the way life acts
and interacts to survive.
The past few years have made us aware as we have never been before of the depth of kinship
among all living organisms… So all life is akin, and our kinship is much closer than we had
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ever imagined.
GEORGE WALD, “The Search for Common Ground”
By studying dna, molecular biologists have verified that all living organisms are genetically
related. The central novelty of the movie Jurassic Park was the discovery of an ancient
mosquito preserved in amber whose gut carried intact pieces of dinosaur DNA. Were it a true
story, the even more remarkable fact would have been that both the mosquito’s DNA and the
dinosaur’s DNA could be shown to carry segments identical to genes found in every one of us.
Through our evolutionary history, we are related to all other beings present and past—they are
our genetic kin. When we see other species as our relatives rather than as resources or
commodities, we will have to treat them with greater care and respect. In the words of Black
It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing
in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are
children of one mother and their father is one Spirit.
Indeed, all life forms are our relations. Whereas it may not be too hard to grasp that humans
and apes share about 98 per cent of their genes, it may be more of a stretch to realize that
humans share about 85 per cent of their genes with mice. What’s more, we carry hundreds of
genes that are similar, and in many cases, identical, to genes found in fruit flies, roundworms,
yeast and even bacteria.
The evolutionary unity of humans with all other organisms is the cardinal message of
Darwin’s revolution for nature’s most arrogant species.
STEPHEN JAY GOULD, The Mismeasure of Man
How does life achieve its extraordinary resilience? In the early 1960s, when new biochemical
techniques were developed, scientists began to analyze the products of specific genes carried
by individuals of a species. To their great surprise, the biologists discovered a large number of
hitherto undetected gene variants, or different forms of the same gene, within a species.
Geneticists refer to this diversity as genetic polymorphism; it seems to be the means by which
a species responds to changing environmental circumstances. Most gene variants apparently
have little or no effect on the way the product they specify functions, so they are referred to as
neutral differences, neither beneficial nor detrimental in a given environment.
But neutrality is temporary and relative. When conditions in the surrounding environment
change—in acidity, salinity or temperature, for example—then different forms of one gene can
specify products having quite dissimilar functional activities or efficiencies. In humans, a
classic example is a gene variant or mutation called sickle cell that affects hemoglobin in the
blood. When people carry two copies of the mutant gene (inheriting one from each parent), they
suffer from a condition known as sickle-cell anemia, which is extremely painful and often
lethal. Those who carry one copy of the sickle gene and a normal gene are normal, except in
places where malaria is rampant. In such places these people have a greater resistance to the
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parasite than people who carry two normal genes.
In my own work with the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, I was able to recover chemically
induced mutations that are invisible (that is, not expressed) under certain conditions but
produce an abnormality when grown under a different environmental regime. The mutations I
studied were influenced by temperature—at one temperature, the flies were completely
normal, yet a shift of as little as 5° or 6°C would result in a variety of mutant expressions. I
discovered such environmentally determined expression of genes causing everything from
visible abnormalities in wings, eyes or legs to reversible paralysis or death. When global
weather patterns and average temperatures fluctuate as a result of climate change, those
species with genes that enable individuals to function properly or better at the new
temperatures will be the survivors who will carry on.
… in the great majority of species, somewhere between 10 and 50 percent of genes are
polymorphic. A typical figure is roughly 25 percent.
EDWARD O. WILSON, The Diversity of Life
Genetic polymorphism is crucial to a species’ survival. When a species such as the
whooping crane or Siberian tiger is reduced to a handful of survivors, its long-term future is in
doubt because the range of its genetic variability has been radically diminished. Thus, it has
fewer options for adapting to changes in the environment. Furthermore, in a small population,
there is a greater likelihood that recessive genes that are lethal or that threaten viability when
two copies are present will be exposed. A diverse mixture of gene variants is a fundamental
characteristic of a vibrant, healthy species, a reflection of its successful evolutionary history
and continued potential to adapt to unpredictable change.
Population geneticists believe that the most successful species (where success is defined by
long-term survival) are found in many isolated pockets or islands that are connected by
“bridges” across which a constant trickle of individuals passes. Thus, each isolated community
can evolve a set of genes adapted to its local habitat, while the occasional migrant becomes a
means of introducing “new blood”—different genes with a new potential to respond to change.
In recent times, large-scale industrial agriculture has taught us an expensive lesson—
reducing genetic diversity by the widespread use of a single selected strain of a crop, known
as monoculture, is extremely risky because it makes a species vulnerable to change. In 1970,
approximately 80 per cent of the 26.8 million hectares planted in corn in the United States
carried a genetic factor for male sterility. But that trait, so useful to seed companies, was its
Achilles’ heel, rendering the strains vulnerable to a specific parasite. Within three months, a
devastating southern corn blight had swept across the continent, affecting virtually all fields.
Overall losses were 15 per cent, but many farms lost 80 to 100 per cent of their corn that year
for a total cost of $1 billion.
Monoculture counters life’s evolutionary strategy. In fish hatcheries, the broad genetic
polymorphism of wild stocks of fish such as salmon are displaced by large numbers of
hatchery-reared fingerlings grown from eggs and sperm taken from a few fish selected
according to their size. Again, this type of selection reduces genetic diversity, and decreased
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diversity is one of the causes of catastrophic declines in salmon returns. Foresters have
belatedly recognized that tree plantations of fast-growing strains of commercially valued
species lack the resilience of wild forests when pests, fire and other perturbations occur.
High levels of genetic diversity provide the biological mechanisms needed to maintain
productivity and forest health during periods of environmental change… reductions in
genetic diversity predispose forests to environmentally-related decline in health and
GEORGE P. BUCHERT, “Genetic Diversity: An Indicator of Stability”
An ecosystem is a complex community of producers, consumers, decomposers and
detritivores, which interact within boundaries imposed by their physical surroundings to cycle
energy and material through the web of life. In any ecosystem, the eaters and the eaten are
joined through a web of interdependence. A kind of biological warfare is constantly waged
between predator and prey, host and parasite, as each species jockeys for an upper hand.
Mutations or new gene combinations conferring an advantage for one species are soon matched
by a countering response in the other species to restore a balance. For example, a fungal
parasite may develop an enzyme that digests the cell wall of a plant more efficiently, enabling
it to penetrate its target species more readily. But in the population of its host organisms,
individuals with thicker or tougher cell walls will be more likely to survive and reproduce.
Over time, the parasite will have to come up with another innovation to penetrate the host’s
improved defences. So although there is a constant state of flux and change, the long-term
overall effect is a standoff between the various constituents of ecosystems.
Tropical rain forests, believed by biologists to be home to most species on Earth, are a vast
patchwork mosaic of diversity in which particular species are often severely confined by their
habitat requirements to small areas within the forest. Agroforestry expert Francis Hallé says
that introduced species do not spread in tropical forests the way the purple loosestrife plant,
for example, has exploded in North America, because the area of potential habitat is smaller
and there are always many potential predators to keep any introduced species under control.
Just as genetic diversity confers resilience on a species, diversity of species within any
ecosystem is also a factor in maintaining balance and equilibrium within that community of
creatures. Species diversity, like genetic polymorphism within a species, appears to be an
evolutionary survival strategy within whole ecosystems.
Across the broad expanse of the planet there exists a vast assortment of climatic and
geophysical conditions—from the searing heat of deserts to the frigid cold of the permafrost
above the Arctic Circle, from steamy equatorial river systems to dry grasslands, from the
depths of the oceans to the soaring heights of rarefied mountains kilometres above sea level
and to the intertidal junction between air, land and sea. Life has found ways to seize
opportunities and flourish under all of these conditions. “Extremophiles,” organisms that live
in Earth’s most extreme places, show us the versatility of life. It seems there is no place on our
planet devoid of life: NASA scientists revived a bacterium in 2005 that had sat dormant in a
frozen Alaskan pond for 32,000 years; soil samples taken from the ocean’s deepest point 11
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kilometres down are filled with single-celled organisms called foraminifera; and entire
communities of organisms, including clams, tube worms, and bacteria, thrive around
hydrothermal vents synthesizing energy from chemicals in the water rather than from sunlight.
Every ecosystem contains a variety of species—and each species possesses its locally
confined set of genes. So even where species diversity is relatively limited—as, for example,
in boreal forests—the genetic variation within a species in one watershed will differ from that
within the same species in the next watershed. Every ecosystem is unique and special. Every
ecosystem is local.
In this way, Earth itself is a mosaic of diversity within diversity, a patchwork of ecosystems,
species and genes. Over time, this fabric of interconnections has been torn by major upheavals,
most recently in North America by the rapid extermination of billions of passenger pigeons,
millions of bison and vast tracts of short-grass prairie and old-growth forests. The persistence
of plants and animals after such catastrophic change is testimony to the tenacity of the planet’s
Human beings have extended diversity to yet another level. The successful evolution of our
species has depended on the brain’s gifts of memory, foresight, curiosity and inventiveness—
and its recognition of patterns and cycles in the world around us. Our ability to exploit our
surroundings and to pass on with language the lessons acquired by failure and success
accelerated the pace of human evolution. Humans have had an added edge in culture. Every
individual human being must begin life from the same starting point, as an infant, laboriously
acquiring all the accumulated lore and beliefs of society until he or she is ready to become a
productive adult. But culture grows steadily, without having to go through the same learning
curve every generation. Compared with rates of biological change, culture evolves with
lightning speed—and for this reason we have come a long way in a relatively short time.
Using molecular techniques to measure degrees of biological relatedness in dna, scientists
can identify the origins of human beings and trace their movement across the continents.
Population biologists have concluded that a mere 195,000 years ago, the ancestors of all of
humanity arose along the great Rift Valley of Africa. From there, they radiated out—northeast
across the Sahara, southwest into what is now South Africa, northward across the Arabian
peninsula and west to India (Figure 6.3).
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FIGURE 6.3: The spread of human beings across the planet.
The numbers indicate number of years ago.
Adapted from John Pickrell, “Instant Expert: Human Evolution,” New Scientist,
http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn9990. Accessed April 3,2007.
From these new locations they fanned out into Europe and Russia, from New Guinea to
Australia, into Siberia and across the Bering land bridge to the Americas. Although people are
wonderfully diverse in skin colour and facial and other physical features, the most significant
differences between groups of human beings are not biological but cultural and linguistic.
In many animals, genetically encoded instinctive behaviour has enabled them to persist and
survive. In contrast, the great strategy in our species has been the evolution of a massive brain
capable of assessing sensory information and therefore deliberately making choices. Most of
our instinctive behaviour has been replaced by flexibility, an ability to change patterns of
behaviour on the basis of observation and experience. Culture and language have been our
crucial attributes, enabling us to adapt to a wide range of surroundings and conditions. As
Vandana Shiva has said:
Diversity is the characteristic of nature and the basis of ecological stability. Diverse
ecosystems give rise to diverse life forms, and to diverse cultures. The co-evolution
of culture, life forms, and habitats has conserved the biological diversity of this
planet. Cultural diversity and biological diversity go hand in hand.
Just as genetic diversity within a species and the variety of species within an ecosystem
allow single species or whole ecosystems to survive in the face of changing conditions, so
diversity of traditional knowledge and culture have been the main reason for our success. We
have adapted to environments as diverse as the Arctic tundra, deserts, tropical rain forests,
prairie grasslands and modern megacities. If variation of genes in a species that is adapted to
local conditions provides a buffer against catastrophic change, then cultural diversity has been
just as crucial to humanity’s continued vigour and success in a variety of ecosystems.
Ethnobotanist Wade Davis has defined the sum of all cultures, which have been so critical to
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human survival in so many different ecosystems, as the ethnosphere. Scientists are rightly
concerned about the rapid extinction of species within the biosphere, but Davis points out that
the threat that 50 per cent of all human languages may disappear by the middle of this century
ought to arouse just as much concern.
One might suggest that the long and gnarled path of evolution might arrive at a point where
the very “best” genetic or species combination or “ideal” human society has been achieved and
should then spread globally to replace all “less advanced” forms. Diversity would then be
totally outmoded. If global conditions were unchanging and uniform, it is at least theoretically
possible that there might be a most highly evolved and stable society or species. But in nature,
“best,” “superior” and “advanced” are nonsensical terms because on Earth conditions are
never constant. The nature of the biosphere—that thin layer of air, land and water within which
life can be found—is that change, albeit often at a geological snail’s pace, has always
occurred, so there can never be one perfect or ideal state. Nature is in constant flux, and
diversity is the key to survival. If change is inevitable but unpredictable, then the best tactic for
survival is to act in ways that retain the most diversity; then, when circumstances do change,
there will be a chance that a set of genes, a species or a society will be able to continue under
the new conditions. Diversity confers resilience, adaptability and the capacity for regeneration.
From genes to organisms to ecosystems to cultures—at every level the patchwork diversity
adds up to a single living whole. The final sum may be Earth itself. Many cultures have myths
in which the planet we inhabit is perceived as alive—as a creative force, a nurturing goddess
or a collection of powerful spirits. And modern science may be providing corroborating
evidence for such a view of life on Earth. When the first images of our planetary home were
taken by astronauts in space, the beauty of the blue orb cloaked in white lace was breathtaking
and changed our perception of Earth. This is our home, free of human borders and boundaries,
a single integrated whole with a thin ephemeral layer within which life flourishes.
A scientific expedition from another galaxy in search of life in the universe might reasonably
conclude from observing this planet that it is a living entity. The tenacious layer of protoplasm
that wraps the Earth has survived and flourished through endless planetary upheavals.
Continents have drifted around the globe, mountains have thrusted skyward, gaseous mixtures
in the atmosphere have waxed and waned, and the temperature has fluctuated from tropical heat
to the frozen grip of ice sheets. No life-form managed to survive this turmoil on its own but
depended on help from other organisms.
A single cell can be a complete organism, possessing all of the genetic material and
molecular architecture to respond to the environment, grow and reproduce. Multicellular
organisms such as sponges and slime moulds may have complex life cycles, yet when their
individual cells are isolated each can grow and multiply as if it were a complete organism—or
the cells can reassemble themselves into the multicellular aggregate that behaves as a single
In fact, each cell in our bodies is an aggregate of species functioning as a single entity. In the
1970s biologist Lynn Margulis resurrected a theory that structures called organelles found
within cells of complex organisms are actually the evolutionary remnants of bacterial
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parasites. Armed with the tools of molecular biology, she showed that organelles are able to
reproduce within a cell and even possess DNA and distinct hereditary traits. So, Margulis
proposed, organelles were once free-living organisms that invaded cells and were eventually
integrated into the host as mitochondria and chloroplasts. Giving up their independence, these
microbial relics received nourishment and protection from the host cell. Thus, each of us is a
community of organisms. We are each an aggregate of trillions of cells, every one of which is
inhabited by numerous descendents of parasites; they now provide services for us in return for
an ecological niche.
By sheer numbers, chloroplasts and mitochondria, rather than humans, are Earth’s
dominant life forms. Wherever we go, the mitochondria go too, since they are inside us,
powering our metabolism: that of our muscles, our digestion, and our thoughtful brains.
LYNN MARGULIS, Symbiotic Planet
Almost all of the 60 trillion cells that make up our bodies carry the entire genetic blueprint
that specifies the development of a complete person. In principle, then, each cell has the
potential, if triggered to read from the beginning of the instructions, to form another person or
clone. Every cell may function according to the demands of the tissue or organ of which it is a
part, just as every person may work according to the demands of his or her occupation. But
each of us, like every cell, carries out many activities that we people do regardless of the job
we have. As individuals, we cannot escape being part of families, communities or nations,
which have their own characteristics and behaviour. Many other species are also part of larger
I once asked Harvard University’s eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson why ants are so
successful. He has spent his entire career studying these ubiquitous insects, and he gave an
animated response. Although the number of species of social insects is in the tens of thousands,
there are millions of other nonsocial insects. But the social insects dominate the world because
they behave, says Wilson, as a “superorganism.”
A colony of ants is more than just an aggregate of insects that are living together. One
ant is no ant. Two ants and you begin to get something entirely new. Put a million
together with the workers divided into different castes, each doing a different
function—cutting the leaves, looking after the queen, taking care of the young,
digging the nest out and so on—and you’ve got an organism, weighing about 10
kilograms, about the size of a dog and dominating an area the size of a house.
The nest involves moving about 40,000 pounds of soil and sends out great
columns of workers like the pseudopods of an amoeba, reaching out and gathering
leaves and so on. This is a very potent entity. It can protect itself against predators. It
can control the environment, the climate of the nest. When I encounter one of these
big nests of leaf cutter ants, I step back and let my eyes go slightly out of focus. And
what you see then is this giant, amoeboid creature in front of you.
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It was a thrilling description that lets us contemplate ants in a very different way.
In 1992, scientists in Michigan made the astounding announcement that the network of
mycelia, threadlike extensions of fungi found in the ground, could be derived from a single
individual, not an aggregate of different organisms. They reported a single organism that
extended throughout 16 hectares! Amazingly, even that impressive record has been surpassed,
and in a big way. In 2003, a root-rot fungus, Armillaria, covering 890 hectares was found in an
Oregon forest.
When a person is part of a system, he cannot easily see what his role accomplishes… Unless
he understands the system thoroughly, he will not have any inkling of the network of
controls that may or may not exist to keep the flow(s) continuous, adapted to inputs, adapted
to outside demands, and stabilized in the face of fluctuations.
HOWARD T. ODUM, Environment, Power and Society
A grove of quaking aspen, the lovely white-barked trees whose leaves shimmer at the
slightest puff of air, is, in fact, a single organism. Like a strawberry plant that sends out runners
that put down roots and sprout leaves, quaking aspen multiply vegetatively. Shoots may grow
up from a root 30 metres away. Thus, the aspen is another kind of superorganism that can
exploit a diverse landscape—some parts may grow in moist soil and, through their common
underground roots, share the water with other portions, perhaps growing in mineral-rich soil
higher up. In Utah, a single aspen plant made up of 47,000 tree trunks was discovered. It
covers an area of 43 hectares and is estimated to weigh almost 6 million kilograms.
So if at each level of complexity—cell, organism and ecosystem—new kinds of structures
and functions emerge, then the total of all life on the planet can be taken as a single entity too.
A single envelope of atmosphere encircles the Earth, while water flows around the
continents, creating great islands (Figure 6.4). The entire conglomerate of living things makes a
wonderfully complex, interconnected community held together by the matrix of air and water.
The entire layer of protoplasm (the living material within cells) on the globe is intermeshed
into a living, breathing entity, which has survived through an immensity of time and space.
People are fond of applying mechanical metaphors to living systems: the heart is a pump,
lungs are bellows, and the brain is a switchboard or computer; Earth itself is often referred to
as a spaceship. But it is a mistake to compare living systems with machines. Mechanical
devices constantly wear out with time unless they are carefully maintained and repaired by
people. Living things persist on their own, healing, replacing, adapting and reproducing in
order to continue. If the total of all life on Earth is a superorganism, then it must have
processes that perpetuate its survival.
FIGURE 6.4: The continents as an island in a planet of water.
Adapted from a satellite portrait entitled “Our Spaceship Earth” (Burlington, Ont.: WorldSat
International Inc., 1995).
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James Lovelock has called that totality of the living Earth Gaia, the ancient Greeks’ name for
Mother Earth.
Gaia is as indifferent to our fate as the stars. In the long run, the biosphere survives but its
species do not… Virtually all of the species that have ever lived on this planet are now
extinct. At times… half of the species on the planet have gone extinct almost at once. The
next one hundred years may be such a time again. The story of life is punctuated by Ice
Ages, volcanic winters, meteoritic collisions, mass dyings. And at the moment it is
punctuated by us.
JONATHAN WEINER, The Next Hundred Years
Lovelock has pointed out that human activity is a major perturbation in the biophysical
makeup of the planet. Many organisms can undoubtedly take advantage of the new conditions
created by our disturbances. Life is opportunistic, and when a change occurs, life-forms will
be there to find a use for it. Thus, large tracts of clearcut forests often quickly “green up” with
vegetation, and ungulates such as deer use the abundant foodstuff to grow and multiply. No
doubt microbial species will flourish on our waste, just as gulls have a heyday in garbage
dumps. But Gaia’s feedback mechanisms take place over time, without regard to which species
ultimately survive or disappear. The idea of Gaia, or the totality of the living Earth, may
provide the comforting thought that life will survive the current spasm of human-induced
extinction, but we should also remember that it will not ensure our own survival.
The intriguing hints and tantalizing clues emerging from the laboratories and the minds of
modern scientists are creating a new story to give meaning and significance to our presence.
We are creatures of Earth, created out of stardust, energized by the sun, carrying with us
fragments of the first life-forms—evidence of our kinship with every other creature on the
planet. As Earth beings we share in life’s basic survival method—diversity, both biological
and cultural—and we are honed by evolution to live in the company of our fellow life-forms.
Armed with our emerging worldview, we find ourselves back on centre stage, holding the fate
of our newfound family—and our own—in our trembling and incompetent hands.
In the cities inhabited by an increasing proportion of humanity, the links between human life
and the lives of other creatures are often obscured by technology. Besides providing us with
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clean air, soil and water, other living organisms make our lives possible every day in countless
fundamental ways. Every bit of our food was once living, however its source is disguised.
Sugar, flour, vegetables, fruit, meat and spices nourish and delight us. When we clothe
ourselves in cotton and wool, consume wood, plastics and fossil fuels, or fertilize our fields
with manure, we are beneficiaries of once-living organisms. Insects fertilize plants that we
depend on, horses and oxen provide muscle power, plants and animals are the source of many
medicines. Body and soul, we are nourished by nature.
James Lovelock and the Concept of Gaia
James Lovelock began his career in medical research. In his quest to find ways to detect
molecules in minute quantities, he developed an instrument so sensitive it could detect parts
per trillion. Using the machine, he discovered CFCS in the atmosphere above Antarctica,
thereby leading to the discovery that the ozone layer was being depleted.
In the early 1960s he was asked for advice in the design of the Surveyor spacecraft that was
to explore the moon. Soon after, NASA asked Lovelock to design experiments for the Viking
spacecraft that would search for life on Mars. Ruminating on the problem, Lovelock had to
think about life itself, what it is and what distinguishes it from nonlife. He realized that Mars
and Venus have atmospheres composed almost totally of carbon dioxide, with no free oxygen.
In contrast, Earth’s atmosphere has small amounts of carbon dioxide and is 21 per cent oxygen.
Although oxygen is a highly reactive element and tends to be removed from the atmosphere,
plants continually release more oxygen to compensate for this loss.
What is remarkable is that the level of oxygen has remained relatively constant over a long
period of time. A small increase to perhaps 25 or 30 per cent oxygen could cause the
atmosphere to burst into flames, while a decrease to 10 per cent would probably be lethal to
most life-forms. Something has kept the amount of oxygen at just the right concentration for
millions of years.
Lovelock reasoned that the oceans became salty by the leaching of minute quantities of salt
from rock and soil into rivers and streams that flow to the sea. Why, then, haven’t the oceans
become saltier and saltier? Similarly, why haven’t rising levels of carbon dioxide increased
the temperature on Earth? On Venus, the carbon dioxide–rich atmosphere has turned the planet
into an oven. In contrast, the thin atmosphere of Mars, which is low in carbon dioxide, cannot
retain heat, and so the planet is frigid. Yet here on Earth the oceans haven’t boiled away, even
though the sun’s intensity has increased by 25 per cent since the sun was formed. Something has
kept the temperature of Earth and the salt concentration in the oceans relatively constant.
Lovelock’s daring conclusion was that the total of all living things on Earth has somehow
kept the concentration of carbon dioxide and oxygen, the amount of salt in the ocean and the
surface temperature constant—not consciously or deliberately, but as part of an automatic
process, just as our bodies increase our heart rate when we exercise or repair wounds when
we are hurt. But now, technology has allowed us to generate massive quantities of greenhouse
gases far faster than Gaia’s capacity to remove them. Eventually, compensatory changes may
reduce carbon dioxide levels, but not before tremendous ecological changes occur. Gaia’s
persistence plays no favourites on which species survive or disappear.
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Whereas our species once lived lightly on Earth, today we have exploded in numbers,
technological dexterity and demand for consumer goods to such a degree that we are now co-
opting much of the planet’s productivity for our use. In the process, we deprive other species
of habitat and opportunity and so drive them to extinction. Stanford University ecologist Paul
Ehrlich’s group estimated that human beings, one species among millions, now harness for our
use 40 per cent of the net primary productivity of the planet. That is, of all the sunlight captured
by plants, human beings deny a large portion of it to other species by using it for pasture,
farmland, logging and so on. Our appropriation of this energy makes it unavailable for other
species and drives them out of existence.
As we drain wetlands, dam river systems, pollute air, water and soil, clearcut vast tracts of
forest, and develop land for agriculture, urban sprawl or industrial parks, the biodiversity that
is the source of the planet’s productive capacity is diminished. As a result, the world is
experiencing a catastrophic rate of species extinction.
An indication of the unprecedented rate and scale of human activity is graphically illustrated
by Alan Thein Durning in his paper “Saving the Forests: What Will It Take?”:
Imagine a time-lapse film of the Earth taken from space. Play back the last 10,000
years sped up so that a millennium passes by every minute. For more than seven of
the ten minutes, the screen displays what looks like a still photograph: the blue
planet Earth, its lands swathed in a mantle of trees. Forests cover 34 percent of the
land. Aside from the occasional flash of a wildfire, none of the natural changes in the
forest coat are perceptible. The Agricultural Revolution that transforms human
existence in the film’s first minute is invisible.
After seven and a half minutes, the lands around Athens and the tiny islands of the
Aegean Sea lose their forest. This is the flowering of classical Greece. Little else
changes. At nine minutes—1,000 years ago—the mantle grows threadbare in
scattered parts of Europe, Central America, China and India. Then 12 seconds from
the end, two centuries ago, the thinning spreads, leaving parts of Europe and China
bare. Six seconds from the end, one century ago, eastern North America is
deforested. This is the Industrial Revolution. Little else appears to have changed.
Forests cover 32 percent of the land.
In the last three seconds—after 1950—the change accelerates explosively. Vast
tracts of forest vanish from Japan, the Philippines, and the mainland of Southeast
Asia, from most of Central America and the horn of Africa, from western North
America and eastern South America, from the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan
Africa. Fires rage in the Amazon basin where they never did before, set by ranchers
and peasants. Central Europe’s forests die, poisoned by the air and rain. Southeast
Asia resembles a dog with mange. Malaysian Borneo appears shaved. In the final
fractions of a second, the clearing spreads to Siberia and the Canadian north. Forests
disappear so suddenly from so many places that it looks like a plague of locusts has
descended on the planet.
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The film freezes on the last frame. Trees cover 26 percent of the land. Three-
fourths of the original forest area still bears some tree cover. But just 12 percent of
the Earth’s surface—one-third of the initial total—consists of intact forest
ecosystems. The rest holds biologically impoverished stands of commercial timber
and fragmented regrowth. This is the present: a globe profoundly altered by the
workings—or failings—of the human economy.
Seen this way, the planet’s forests are being irrevocably lost in what amounts to a mere tick
of the geological clock. Plotted over a mere ten millennia, the curve of forest devastation leaps
almost straight off the page in our lifetime. And if we add to that graph the generation of
pollution, loss of topsoil, increase in human numbers, production of greenhouse gases and so
on, the curves all climb vertically in the very last moments. Individual disasters such as
Chernobyl, large clearcuts, the explosion at Bhopal, the construction of megadams or oil spills
are merely part of a terrifying spasm of annihilation.
… it is not Christ who is crucified now; it is the tree itself, and on the bitter gallows of
human greed and stupidity. Only suicidal morons, in a world already choking to death,
would destroy the best natural air-conditioner creation affords…
JOHN FOWLES, quoted in T.C. McLuhan, Touch the Earth
Our tenuous inferences about life in the past are based on fossil remains suggesting that species
expand in number and complexity and then are suddenly reduced through successive spasms of
extinction. Scientists have identified five major extinction crises over the past 500 million
years, in which at least 65 per cent of all species known in the fossil record of the time
disappeared. The fossil record is highly skewed—95 per cent of the quarter of a million
known fossilized animal species are marine creatures. Nevertheless, these five major
extinction episodes show groups of species disappearing on a massive scale, suggesting that
the events were global. The Big Five were at the end of the Ordovician (440 million years
ago), late Devonian (365 MYA), end Permian (245 MYA), end Triassic (210 MYA) and end
Cretaceous (65 MYA). People often think that the dinosaurs were evolutionary losers because
they suddenly disappeared, but the fact is that they ruled the land for some 175 million years. In
contrast, our species has been around for less than 1 million years.
Following each major extinction, it has taken millions of years for the species that remain to
branch out, expand in number and complexity, and restore the level of biodiversity that existed
before each crash. In the words of Edward O. Wilson:
The five previous major spasms of the past 550 million years… each required about
10 million years of natural evolution to restore. What humanity is doing now in a
single lifetime will impoverish our descendants for all time to come.
We are fortunate to have evolved when biological diversity has been at the greatest level
ever achieved. Succeeding human generations will not be as fortunate: the current extinction
crisis is without precedent—never before has a single species been responsible for such a
massive loss of diversity. In essence, humans are the catalyst driving Earth’s sixth major
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extinction event.
When the first European settlers arrived in what is now the United States, the continent was
covered by an estimated 3.2 million km2 of forest. In just 500 years, all but 220,000 km2
have been cleared.
EDWARD GOLDSMITH et al., Imperilled Planet
By comparing the estimated rate of species loss today with the changes observed in the
fossil record, Wilson concludes that the present extinction rate is “1000 to 10,000 times higher
than existed in prehistoric times.” Based on the current rate of destruction of tropical rain
forests (about 1.8 per cent per year), about 0.5 per cent of all species are gone or going
annually. More than half of all species live in tropical rain forests, and if we conservatively
estimate that there are 10 million species, then the rate of extinction is more than 50,000
species a year—that’s 137 a day, 6 an hour! This is an extremely conservative estimate, since
it doesn’t include species lost through pollution, nonclearcutting forest disturbances and the
introduction of exotic species. Wilson’s calculations have led him to conclude that if human
activity continues to expand at the current rates, at least 20 per cent of Earth’s species will
have disappeared in thirty years. Already, he suggests, since human beings arrived on the
scene, we have been responsible for the elimination of 10 to 20 per cent of all species that
existed during that period.
It is widely agreed that changes to biodiversity due to human actions have occurred more
rapidly in the past fifty years than at any time in human history. As of 2006, approximately one
in three amphibians, one in four coniferous trees and mammals, and one in eight birds are
threatened with extinction. The oceans are particularly under threat with 20 per cent of the
world’s coral reefs and 35 per cent of the world’s mangroves lost in the last two decades. In
the North Atlantic, the biomass of larger fish at the top of the marine food chains (for example,
cod) declined by two thirds during the second half of the twentieth century alone and by a
factor of nine during the entire century. In 2003, a paper in the journal Nature revealed the
urgency: only 10 per cent of all the large fish—including open ocean species such as tuna and
marlin, and groundfish such as cod and halibut—remain in our oceans. Most alarming is our
lack of restraint when new fish communities are discovered. The same study, which took ten
years to compile, also showed that it took industrial fishers only ten to fifteen years to deplete
fish communities to one tenth of their original size. It is no wonder that Nobel laureate Paul
Crutzen has dubbed our epoch the Anthropocene, after the humans that have had a significant
impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate. The most frightening aspect of the current
extinction crisis is our ignorance of and lack of concern for what we are losing. According to
John A. Livingston:
We have seen the bison, the trumpeter swan, and the bighorn sheep fall before the
gunners; we have seen the prairie dog, the black-footed ferret and the whooping
crane give way before the sod-busters; we have seen the giant baleen whales
reduced to the vanishing point by international commercial greed. Most significant of
all, perhaps, has been the unchanging traditional assumption that although the loss of
these animals may well have been regrettable, it was inevitable and unavoidable in
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the context of the advancement of human progress…
What is relevant is that, if for no other reason than his own survival, man must
soon adopt an ethic toward the environment. “The environment” encompasses all
nonhuman elements in the one and only home we have on Earth.
Although extinction is as necessary to the evolutionary process as species formation, it has
accelerated at an unprecedented rate as a result of human depredation. There are many reasons
to be alarmed by the loss of species, all of them completely selfish. Perhaps the shallowest is
regret for loss of species whose potential utility for humankind is yet to be discovered.
Another is that species such as spotted owls or marbled murrelets serve as “indicator species”
of the state of the planet, just as canaries did for the state of air in coal mines. In other words,
when such species disappear, they indicate that the planet as a whole may have become less
habitable in a way that may be relevant to humanity.
The emerging viruses are surfacing from ecologically damaged parts of the Earth. Many of
them come from the tattered edges of tropical rain forest or tropical savanna that is being
settled rapidly by people. The tropical rain forests are the deep reservoirs of life on the
planet… [including] viruses, since all living things carry viruses. In a sense, the Earth is
mounting an immune response against the… flooding infection of people, the dead spots of
concrete all over the planet…
As a biologist, I find it much more compelling to regard the current makeup of life on Earth
as the latest stage in evolution—the reason the planet is as productive as it is. Even though we
have little understanding of what the components of this complex web of life are, we know
with absolute certainty that it is the web as a whole that has made it possible for human beings
to exist. To tear at the web in such a massive way with so little regard for our own future is a
kind of collective insanity that is suicidal.
In 1990, the Worldwatch Institute designated the next ten years the Turnaround Decade, the
period during which it was essential to shift the trajectory of human activity to a sustainable
level. The 1990s passed by, and now more than halfway through the first decade of a new
millennium, the planet is exhibiting increasingly troubling signs of stress. Many of us are
alarmed and have been trying to find the best strategy for action. The famed American
environmentalist David Brower has called for a program of CPR for the planet. Brower’s cpr
stands for “Conservation, Protection and Restoration” and is deliberately used as a reminder
of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, which was the original source of the acronym. Brower once
told me that he believes that restoration must be our priority in the years to come, and I agree.
But how? Science provides tiny, fragmented insights into the natural world. We know next to
nothing about the biological makeup of Earth’s life-forms, let alone how they are
interconnected and interdependent. Nor do we understand the physical features and complexity
of the atmosphere, landmasses and oceans. It is a dangerous delusion if we think we know
enough to “manage” forests, climate, water or wild ocean or land animals.
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Since after extinction no one will be present to take responsibility, we have to take full
responsibility now.
Extinction, of course, is irreversible. And even heroic measures to keep an endangered
species going don’t stand much of a chance without profound changes in human behaviour and
genuine protection of the species’ habitat.
The thin layer of biological complexity within the biosphere ensures the productivity and
cleanliness of the soil, air and water. Only time and nature safeguard these life-supporting
elements and keep them intact. Remarkably, if we pull back and decrease or halt our assault on
a given environment, nature can restore itself. We have seen life return to Lake Erie, once
declared “dead” from eutrophication, vegetation revive around Sudbury after sophisticated
scrubbers were installed to reduce acidic emissions from smelter stacks, fish reappearing in
the River Thames in England after antipollution laws were imposed.
Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as
long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, the
ebb and flow of tides, the folded bud ready for spring. There is something infinitely healing
in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after the night and
spring after the winter.
RACHEL CARSON, Silent Spring
Even though we can’t re-create what no longer exists, there are things we can do to stimulate
the natural process of regeneration. First we must rein in our destructive ways and then
provide conditions to encourage the return and regrowth of life. We can liberate land and
creeks from rubbish, concrete or asphalt, cultivate specific vegetation and even reintroduce
plant or animal species that were once present. But mainly, we must give Earth’s restorative
powers time to act. There are projects that could be inspirational models for beginning to heal
the planet. From Japan to Canada, people are working to “daylight” creeks and rivers—that is,
to reexpose water systems that have been buried under urban development. Once the water is
opened to the air, freed from concrete coffins, allowed to flow across soil and surrounded by
plant life, it can support life again and purify itself and its surroundings. Australians have also
undertaken an economic and ecological analysis indicating that it would be practical to take
down a bitterly opposed dam that flooded the Pedder River in Tasmania twenty years ago. In
the United States, wolves have been reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park, while free-
ranging herds of bison are being returned to parts of Montana and Wyoming.
A Day in the Life
Economic growth is necessary to satisfy the needs of all members of society. But this growth is
at the expense of the rest of life on Earth, and it behooves us to reflect on what best satisfies
our needs and brings us happiness. I was able to do that in 1989, when my six- and nine-year-
old daughters, my wife and I were guests of the Kayapo leader Paiakan in the village of Aucre,
deep in the Amazon rain forest. For ten days, we lived a simple life, sleeping in hammocks
Suzuki, D. (2009). The sacred balance : Rediscovering our place in nature. Greystone Books.
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stretched inside a mud hut. The nearest settlement was a fourteen-day canoe trip, and the two
hundred residents of Aucre had no plumbing, tap water or electricity. The pace of life was
leisurely. Often we awoke to find a roomful of children inches away, observing us. We were
obviously the entertainment for that non-television-watching audience. Breakfast might be
bananas or guavas and leftovers from the night before. We would drink fresh water from a
spring and meet socially with others for a long morning swim while the children and women
fished for a delicious fish they called piaau.
Each day we went on expeditions through the forest to gather fruits and edible plants or
travelled by dugout canoe in search of fish, turtle eggs or capybara. In the village, we
witnessed a spectacular three-day festival to celebrate women and their fertility, observed an
emotional funeral for an old man who had died of tuberculosis and watched the men weave
straps to carry babies, or feather headdresses. There was time to reflect, play, observe and
learn. My daughters wept when our ten-day visit was over and we had to leave.
What a contrast with our daily life in the rich, industrialized country of Canada. My days are
spent working on television programs in Toronto, or at the David Suzuki Foundation or the
University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which is my home. My time is set by obligations
and commitments—the clock, my secretary and the daily schedule dictate my every activity. I
wake to an alarm in the morning and race through a shower, make breakfast and lunches for the
girls and then zip to the office for a round of answering calls, reading mail and fulfilling
requests. The day is fragmented into short intervals that preclude any time for observation or
As a boy, I loved to read articles about the world of the future when robots and machines
would serve our every need and free us to read, play and interact with others. Well, that future
has arrived. In my home, I have a microwave oven, instant foods, computer, fax, modem,
telephone and answering machine, hair dryer, dishwasher, television and VCR, stereo and CD
player, and a clothes washer and dryer. But life has accelerated as we race through it, and there
is little time to watch and think. Thinking back to our time in Aucre, I often ask myself what
this way of life and all of the material things are for. Am I happier or freer now than when we
were swimming in the river, fishing or singing in Aucre? My children are not yet caught up in
the turbulence of the adult world and economics, so it’s small wonder they knew the answer to
my question. That’s why they wept when we left Aucre.
In small ways as well as large, there are signs that we are turning away from destroying
natural systems. Native flora are replacing exotic, chemical-dependent, high-maintenance
lawns and bedding plants on public and private land in cities and towns across Canada,
providing habitat for insects, birds and small mammals. Organic farming is beginning to
become an economic alternative, as demand for pesticide-free produce grows, allowing soil
organisms to thrive and multiply in the service of productivity. And individuals are becoming
involved in small local conservation projects that enable many forms of life to co-exist with
human beings.
In the past, it was possible to destroy a village, a town, a region, even a country. Now it is
the whole planet that has come under threat. This fact should compel everyone to face a
basic moral consideration; from now on, it is only through a conscious choice and then
Suzuki, D. (2009). The sacred balance : Rediscovering our place in nature. Greystone Books.
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deliberate policy that humanity will survive.
POPE JOHN PAUL II, “The Ecological Crisis:
A Common Responsibility”
Humanity has shown itself capable of heroic acts of courage and sacrifice in times of crisis.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, North Americans knew that
life would never be the same. They didn’t debate economic cost; they knew they had to do
whatever it took to win—and they did. The ecological holocaust that has been loosed on the
planet is the equivalent of “a million Pearl Harbors happening at once,” in Paul Ehrlich’s
words. The challenge is to make the extinction threat as real as Pearl Harbor.
From his work studying ants of the world, Edward O. Wilson offers this humbling
If we were to vanish today, the land environment would return to the fertile balance
that existed before the human population explosion. But if the ants were to disappear,
tens of thousands of other plant and animal species would perish also, simplifying
and weakening the land ecosystem almost everywhere.
In the end, the crucial change is attitudinal; we have to see ourselves in a different
relationship with the rest of nature.
Most high, omnipotent, good Lord
To you alone belong praise and glory
Honor, and blessing
No man is worthy to breathe your name.
Be praised, my Lord, for all your creatures.
In the first place for the blessed Brother Sun
Who gives us the day and enlightens us through you.
He is beautiful and radiant with his great splendour,
Giving witness of you, most Omnipotent One.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind
And the airy skies, so cloudy and serene;
For every weather, be praised, for it is life-giving.
Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water
So necessary yet so humble, precious, and chaste.
Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
Who lights up the night,
He is beautiful and carefree, robust and fierce.
Be praised, my Lord, for our sister, Mother Earth,
Who nourishes and watches us
Suzuki, D. (2009). The sacred balance : Rediscovering our place in nature. Greystone Books.
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While bringing forth abundant fruits with coloured flowers
And herbs.
Praise and bless the Lord.
Render him thanks.
Serve him with great humility. Amen.
Suzuki, D. (2009). The sacred balance : Rediscovering our place in nature. Greystone Books.
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1/25/2021 The Insect Apocalypse Is Here – The New York Times
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What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?
By Brooke Jarvis
Nov. 27, 2018
une Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting
over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it
suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss.
Specifically, something was missing.
It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any
For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the
Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick
clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him
driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect
carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He
couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered,
vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off
insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him.
Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed?
Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by the
melancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eating
experience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But he
couldn’t shake a feeling of loss. “I guess it’s pretty human to think that everything was
better when you were a kid,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t like it when I was on my bike and I ate
all the bugs, but looking back on it, I think it’s something everybody should experience.”
I met Riis, a lanky high school science and math teacher, on a hot day in June. He was
anxious about not having yet written his address for the school’s graduation ceremony that
evening, but first, he had a job to do. From his garage, he retrieved a large insect net, drove
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to a nearby intersection and stopped to strap the net to the car’s roof. Made of white mesh,
the net ran the length of his car and was held up by a tent pole at the front, tapering to a
small, removable bag in back. Drivers whizzing past twisted their heads to stare. Riis eyed
his parking spot nervously as he adjusted the straps of the contraption. “This is not 100
percent legal,” he said, “but I guess, for the sake of science.”
Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, the
more his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of
ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing their
decline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies
fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched
bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. With
other, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is wave
our arms and say, ʻIt’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t the
disappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis and
many others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundance
that could alter the planet in unknowable ways. “We notice the losses,” says David Wagner,
an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”
Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there
might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals
or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become
unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand
for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many
bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.
To test what had been primarily a loose suspicion of wrongness, Riis and 200 other Danes
were spending the month of June roaming their country’s back roads in their outfitted cars.
They were part of a study conducted by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, a joint
effort of the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and North Carolina State
University. The nets would stand in for windshields as Riis and the other volunteers drove
through various habitats — urban areas, forests, agricultural tracts, uncultivated open land
and wetlands — hoping to quantify the disorienting sense that, as one of the study’s
designers put it, “something from the past is missing from the present.”
When the investigators began planning the study in 2016, they weren’t sure if anyone would
sign up. But by the time the nets were ready, a paper by an obscure German entomological
society had brought the problem of insect decline into sharp focus. The German study found
that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature
reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer
population peaks, the drop was 82 percent.
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Riis learned about the study from a group of his students in one of their class projects. They
must have made some kind of mistake in their citation, he thought. But they hadn’t. The
study would quickly become, according to the website Altmetric, the sixth-most-discussed
scientific paper of 2017. Headlines around the world warned of an “insect Armageddon.”
Within days of announcing the insect-collection project, the Natural History Museum of
Denmark was turning away eager volunteers by the dozens. It seemed there were people
like Riis everywhere, people who had noticed a change but didn’t know what to make of it.
How could something as fundamental as the bugs in the sky just disappear? And what
would become of the world without them?
Anyone who has returned to a childhood haunt to find that everything somehow got smaller
knows that humans are not great at remembering the past accurately. This is especially true
when it comes to changes to the natural world. It is impossible to maintain a fixed
perspective, as Heraclitus observed 2,500 years ago: It is not the same river, but we are also
not the same people.
A 1995 study, by Peter H. Kahn and Batya Friedman, of the way some children in Houston
experienced pollution summed up our blindness this way: “With each generation, the
amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as
the norm.” In decades of photos of fishermen holding up their catch in the Florida Keys, the
marine biologist Loren McClenachan found a perfect illustration of this phenomenon, which
is often called “shifting baseline syndrome.” The fish got smaller and smaller, to the point
where the prize catches were dwarfed by fish that in years past were piled up and ignored.
But the smiles on the fishermen’s faces stayed the same size. The world never feels fallen,
because we grow accustomed to the fall.
By one measure, bugs are the wildlife we know best, the nondomesticated animals whose
lives intersect most intimately with our own: spiders in the shower, ants at the picnic, ticks
buried in the skin. We sometimes feel that we know them rather too well. In another sense,
though, they are one of our planet’s greatest mysteries, a reminder of how little we know
about what’s happening in the world around us.
We’ve named and described a million species of insects, a stupefying array of thrips and
firebrats and antlions and caddis flies and froghoppers and other enormous families of bugs
that most of us can’t even name. (Technically, the word “bug” applies only to the order
Hemiptera, also known as true bugs, species that have tubelike mouths for piercing and
sucking — and there are as many as 80,000 named varieties of those.) The ones we think we
do know well, we don’t: There are 12,000 types of ants, nearly 20,000 varieties of bees,
almost 400,000 species of beetles, so many that the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane reportedly
quipped that God must have an inordinate fondness for them. A bit of healthy soil a foot
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square and two inches deep might easily be home to 200 unique species of mites, each,
presumably, with a subtly different job to do. And yet entomologists estimate that all this
amazing, absurd and understudied variety represents perhaps only 20 percent of the actual
diversity of insects on our planet — that there are millions and millions of species that are
entirely unknown to science.
With so much abundance, it very likely never occurred to most entomologists of the past
that their multitudinous subjects might dwindle away. As they poured themselves into
studies of the life cycles and taxonomies of the species that fascinated them, few thought to
measure or record something as boring as their number. Besides, tracking quantity is slow,
tedious and unglamorous work: setting and checking traps, waiting years or decades for
your data to be meaningful, grappling with blunt baseline questions instead of more
sophisticated ones. And who would pay for it? Most academic funding is short-term, but
when what you’re interested in is invisible, generational change, says Dave Goulson, an
entomologist at the University of Sussex, “a three-year monitoring program is no good to
anybody.” This is especially true of insect populations, which are naturally variable, with
wide, trend-obscuring fluctuations from one year to the next.
When entomologists began noticing and investigating insect declines, they lamented the
absence of solid information from the past in which to ground their experiences of the
present. “We see a hundred of something, and we think we’re fine,” Wagner says, “but what
if there were 100,000 two generations ago?” Rob Dunn, an ecologist at North Carolina State
University who helped design the net experiment in Denmark, recently searched for studies
showing the effect of pesticide spraying on the quantity of insects living in nearby forests.
He was surprised to find that no such studies existed. “We ignored really basic questions,”
he said. “It feels like we’ve dropped the ball in some giant collective way.”
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If entomologists lacked data, what they did have were some very worrying clues. Along with
the impression that they were seeing fewer bugs in their own jars and nets while out doing
experiments — a windshield phenomenon specific to the sorts of people who have bug jars
and nets — there were documented downward slides of well-studied bugs, including various
kinds of bees, moths, butterflies and beetles. In Britain, as many as 30 to 60 percent of
species were found to have diminishing ranges. Larger trends were harder to pin down,
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though a 2014 review in Science tried to quantify these declines by synthesizing the findings
of existing studies and found that a majority of monitored species were declining, on
average by 45 percent.
Entomologists also knew that climate change and the overall degradation of global habitat
are bad news for biodiversity in general, and that insects are dealing with the particular
challenges posed by herbicides and pesticides, along with the effects of losing meadows,
forests and even weedy patches to the relentless expansion of human spaces. There were
studies of other, better-understood species that suggested that the insects associated with
them might be declining, too. People who studied fish found that the fish had fewer mayflies
to eat. Ornithologists kept finding that birds that rely on insects for food were in trouble:
eight in 10 partridges gone from French farmlands; 50 and 80 percent drops, respectively,
for nightingales and turtledoves. Half of all farmland birds in Europe disappeared in just
three decades. At first, many scientists assumed the familiar culprit of habitat destruction
was at work, but then they began to wonder if the birds might simply be starving. In
Denmark, an ornithologist named Anders Tottrup was the one who came up with the idea of
turning cars into insect trackers for the windshield-effect study after he noticed that rollers,
little owls, Eurasian hobbies and bee-eaters — all birds that subsist on large insects such as
beetles and dragonflies — had abruptly disappeared from the landscape.
The signs were certainly alarming, but they were also just signs, not enough to justify grand
pronouncements about the health of insects as a whole or about what might be driving a
widespread, cross-species decline. “There are no quantitative data on insects, so this is just
a hypothesis,” Hans de Kroon, an ecologist at Radboud University in the Netherlands,
explained to me — not the sort of language that sends people to the barricades.
Then came the German study. Scientists are still cautious about what the findings might
imply about other regions of the world. But the study brought forth exactly the kind of
longitudinal data they had been seeking, and it wasn’t specific to just one type of insect. The
numbers were stark, indicating a vast impoverishment of an entire insect universe, even in
protected areas where insects ought to be under less stress. The speed and scale of the drop
were shocking even to entomologists who were already anxious about bees or fireflies or the
cleanliness of car windshields.
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The results were surprising in another way too. The long-term details about insect
abundance, the kind that no one really thought existed, hadn’t appeared in a particularly
prestigious journal and didn’t come from university-affiliated scientists, but from a small
society of insect enthusiasts based in the modest German city Krefeld.
Krefeld sits a half-hour drive outside Düsseldorf, near the western bank of the Rhine. It’s a
city of brick houses and bright flower gardens and a stadtwald — a municipal forest and
park — where paddle boats float on a lake, umbrellas shade a beer garden and (I couldn’t
help noticing) the afternoon light through the trees illuminates small swarms of dancing
Near the center of the old city, a paper sign, not much larger than a business card, identifies
the stolid headquarters of the society whose research caused so much commotion. When it
was founded, in 1905, the society operated out of another building, one that was destroyed
when Britain bombed the city during World War II. (By the time the bombs fell, members
had moved their precious records and collections of insects, some of which dated back to the
1860s, to an underground bunker.) Nowadays, the society uses more than 6,000 square feet
of an old three-story school as storage space. Ask for a tour of the collections, and you will
hear such sentences as “This whole room is Lepidoptera,” referring to a former classroom
stuffed with what I at first took to be shelves of books but which are in fact innumerable
wooden frames containing pinned butterflies and moths; and, in an even larger room, “every
bumblebee here was collected before the Second World War, 1880 to 1930”; and, upon
opening a drawer full of sweat bees, “It’s a new collection, 30 years only.”
On the shelves that do hold books, I counted 31 clearly well-loved volumes in the series
“Beetles of Middle Europe.” A 395-page book that cataloged specimens of spider wasps —
where they were collected; where they were stored — of the western Palearctic said “1948-
2008” on the cover. I asked my guide, a society member named Martin Sorg, who was one of
the lead authors of the paper, whether those dates reflected when the specimens were
collected. “No,” Sorg replied, “that was the time the author needed for this work.”
Sorg, who rolls his own cigarettes and wears John Lennon glasses and whose gray hair
grows long past his shoulders, is not a freewheeling type when it comes to his insect work.
And his insect work is really all he wants to talk about. “We think details about nature and
biodiversity declines are important, not details about life histories of entomologists,” Sorg
explained after he and Werner Stenmans, a society member whose name appeared
alongside Sorg’s on the 2017 paper, dismissed my questions about their day jobs. Leery of an
article that focused on him as a person, Sorg also didn’t want to talk about what drew him to
entomology as a child or even what it was about certain types of wasps that had made him
want to devote so much of his life to studying them. “We normally give life histories when
someone is dead,” he said.
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There was a reason for the wariness. Society members dislike seeing themselves described,
over and over in news stories, as “amateurs.” It’s a framing that reflects, they believe, a too-
narrow understanding of what it means to be an expert or even a scientist — what it means
to be a student of the natural world.
Amateurs have long provided much of the patchy knowledge we have about nature. Those
bee and butterfly studies? Most depend on mass mobilizations of volunteers willing to walk
transects and count insects, every two weeks or every year, year after year. The scary
numbers about bird declines were gathered this way, too, though because birds can be hard
to spot, volunteers often must learn to identify them by their sounds. Britain, which has a
particularly strong tradition of amateur naturalism, has the best-studied bugs in the world.
As technologically advanced as we are, the natural world is still a very big and complex
place, and the best way to learn what’s going on is for a lot of people to spend a lot of time
observing it. The Latin root of the word “amateur” is, after all, the word “lover.”
Some of these citizen-scientists are true beginners clutching field guides; others, driven by
their own passion and following in a long tradition of “amateur” naturalism, are far from
novices. Think of Victorians with their butterfly nets and curiosity cabinets; of Vladimir
Nabokov, whose theories about the evolution of Polyommatus blue butterflies were ignored
until proved correct by DNA testing more than 30 years after his death; of young Charles
Darwin, cutting his classes at Cambridge to collect beetles at Wicken Fen and once putting a
live beetle in his mouth because his hands were already full of other bugs.
The Krefeld society is volunteer-run, and many members have other jobs in unrelated fields,
but they also have an enormous depth of knowledge about insects, accumulated through
years of what other people might consider obsessive attention. Some study the ecology or
evolutionary taxonomy of their favorite species or map their populations or breed them to
study their life histories. All hone their identification skills across species by amassing their
own collections of carefully pinned and labeled insects like those that fill the society’s
storage rooms. Sorg estimated that of the society’s 63 members, a third are university-
trained in subjects such as biology or earth science. Another third, he said, are “highly
specialized and highly qualified but they never visited the university,” while the remaining
third are actual amateurs who are still in the process of becoming “real” entomologists:
“Some of them may also have a degree from the university, but in our view, they are
The society members’ projects often involved setting up what are called malaise traps, nets
that look like tents and drive insects flying by into bottles of ethanol. Because of the
scientific standards of the society, members followed certain procedures: They always
employed identical traps, sewn from a template they first used in 1982. (Sorg showed me the
original rolled-up craft paper with great solemnity.) They always put them in the same
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places. (Before GPS, that meant a painstaking process of triangulating with surveying
equipment. “We are not sure about a few centimeters,” Sorg granted.) They saved
everything they caught, regardless of what the main purpose of the experiment was. (The
society bought so much ethanol that it attracted the attention of a narcotics unit.)
Those bottles of insects were gathered into thousands of boxes, which are now crammed into
what were once offices in the upper reaches of the school. When the society members, like
entomologists elsewhere, began to notice that they were seeing fewer insects, they had
something against which to measure their worries.
“We don’t throw away anything, we store everything,” Sorg explained. “That gives us today
the possibility to go back in time.”
In 2013, Krefeld entomologists confirmed that the total number of insects caught in one
nature reserve was nearly 80 percent lower than the same spot in 1989. They had sampled
other sites, analyzed old data sets and found similar declines: Where 30 years earlier, they
often needed a liter bottle for a week of trapping, now a half-liter bottle usually sufficed. But
it would have taken even highly trained entomologists years of painstaking work to identify
all the insects in the bottles. So the society used a standardized method for weighing insects
in alcohol, which told a powerful story simply by showing how much the overall mass of
insects dropped over time. “A decline of this mixture,” Sorg said, “is a very different thing
than the decline of only a few species.”
The society collaborated with de Kroon and other scientists at Radboud University in the
Netherlands, who did a trend analysis of the data that Krefeld provided, controlling for
things like the effects of nearby plants, weather and forest cover on fluctuations in insect
populations. The final study looked at 63 nature preserves, representing almost 17,000
sampling days, and found consistent declines in every kind of habitat they sampled. This
suggested, the authors wrote, “that it is not only the vulnerable species but the flying-insect
community as a whole that has been decimated over the last few decades.”
For some scientists, the study created a moment of reckoning. “Scientists thought this data
was too boring,” Dunn says. “But these people found it beautiful, and they loved it. They
were the ones paying attention to Earth for all the rest of us.”
The current worldwide loss of biodiversity is popularly known as the sixth extinction: the
sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually
rapid succession, caused this time not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans. When we
think about losing biodiversity, we tend to think of the last northern white rhinos protected
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by armed guards, of polar bears on dwindling ice floes. Extinction is a visceral tragedy,
universally understood: There is no coming back from it. The guilt of letting a unique
species vanish is eternal.
But extinction is not the only tragedy through which we’re living. What about the species
that still exist, but as a shadow of what they once were? In “The Once and Future World,”
the journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has only
just been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; off
Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of sperm
whales as far as the eye can see. … Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities that
splashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the south
of France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to fly
overhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now.
“These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are
talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.”
What we’re losing is not just the diversity part of biodiversity, but the bio part: life in sheer
quantity. While I was writing this article, scientists learned that the world’s largest king
penguin colony shrank by 88 percent in 35 years, that more than 97 percent of the bluefin
tuna that once lived in the ocean are gone. The number of Sophie the Giraffe toys sold in
France in a single year is nine times the number of all the giraffes that still live in Africa.
Finding reassurance in the survival of a few symbolic standard-bearers ignores the value of
abundance, of a natural world that thrives on richness and complexity and interaction.
Tigers still exist, for example, but that doesn’t change the fact that 93 percent of the land
where they used to live is now tigerless. This matters for more than romantic reasons:
Large animals, especially top predators like tigers, connect ecosystems to one another and
move energy and resources among them simply by walking and eating and defecating and
dying. (In the deep ocean, sunken whale carcasses form the basis of entire ecosystems in
nutrient-poor places.) One result of their loss is what’s known as trophic cascade, the
unraveling of an ecosystem’s fabric as prey populations boom and crash and the various
levels of the food web no longer keep each other in check. These places are emptier,
impoverished in a thousand subtle ways.
Scientists have begun to speak of functional extinction (as opposed to the more familiar
kind, numerical extinction). Functionally extinct animals and plants are still present but no
longer prevalent enough to affect how an ecosystem works. Some phrase this as the
extinction not of a species but of all its former interactions with its environment — an
extinction of seed dispersal and predation and pollination and all the other ecological
functions an animal once had, which can be devastating even if some individuals still persist.
The more interactions are lost, the more disordered the ecosystem becomes. A 2013 paper in
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Nature, which modeled both natural and computer-generated food webs, suggested that a
loss of even 30 percent of a species’ abundance can be so destabilizing that other species
start going fully, numerically extinct — in fact, 80 percent of the time it was a secondarily
affected creature that was the first to disappear. A famous real-world example of this type of
cascade concerns sea otters. When they were nearly wiped out in the northern Pacific, their
prey, sea urchins, ballooned in number and decimated kelp forests, turning a rich
environment into a barren one and also possibly contributing to numerical extinctions,
notably of the Steller’s sea cow.
Conservationists tend to focus on rare and endangered species, but it is common ones,
because of their abundance, that power the living systems of our planet. Most species are
not common, but within many animal groups most individuals — some 80 percent of them —
belong to common species. Like the slow approach of twilight, their declines can be hard to
see. White-rumped vultures were nearly gone from India before there was widespread
awareness of their disappearance. Describing this phenomenon in the journal BioScience,
Kevin Gaston, a professor of biodiversity and conservation at the University of Exeter,
wrote: “Humans seem innately better able to detect the complete loss of an environmental
feature than its progressive change.”
In addition to extinction (the complete loss of a species) and extirpation (a localized
extinction), scientists now speak of defaunation: the loss of individuals, the loss of
abundance, the loss of a place’s absolute animalness. In a 2014 article in Science, researchers
argued that the word should become as familiar, and influential, as the concept of
deforestation. In 2017 another paper reported that major population and range losses
extended even to species considered to be at low risk for extinction. They predicted
“negative cascading consequences on ecosystem functioning and services vital to sustaining
civilization” and the authors offered another term for the widespread loss of the world’s wild
fauna: “biological annihilation.”
It is estimated that, since 1970, Earth’s various populations of wild land animals have lost, on
average, 60 percent of their members. Zeroing in on the category we most relate to,
mammals, scientists believe that for every six wild creatures that once ate and burrowed
and raised young, only one remains. What we have instead is ourselves. A study published
this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that if you look at
the world’s mammals by weight, 96 percent of that biomass is humans and livestock; just 4
percent is wild animals.
We’ve begun to talk about living in the Anthropocene, a world shaped by humans. But E.O.
Wilson, the naturalist and prophet of environmental degradation, has suggested another
name: the Eremocine, the age of loneliness.
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Wilson began his career as a taxonomic entomologist, studying ants. Insects — about as far
as you can get from charismatic megafauna — are not what we’re usually imagining when
we talk about biodiversity. Yet they are, in Wilson’s words, “the little things that run the
natural world.” He means it literally. Insects are a case study in the invisible importance of
the common.
Scientists have tried to calculate the benefits that insects provide simply by going about
their business in large numbers. Trillions of bugs flitting from flower to flower pollinate
some three-quarters of our food crops, a service worth as much as $500 billion every year.
(This doesn’t count the 80 percent of wild flowering plants, the foundation blocks of life
everywhere, that rely on insects for pollination.) If monetary calculations like that sound
strange, consider the Maoxian Valley in China, where shortages of insect pollinators have
led farmers to hire human workers, at a cost of up to $19 per worker per day, to replace bees.
Each person covers five to 10 trees a day, pollinating apple blossoms by hand.
By eating and being eaten, insects turn plants into protein and power the growth of all the
uncountable species — including freshwater fish and a majority of birds — that rely on them
for food, not to mention all the creatures that eat those creatures. We worry about saving the
grizzly bear, says the insect ecologist Scott Hoffman Black, but where is the grizzly without
the bee that pollinates the berries it eats or the flies that sustain baby salmon? Where, for
that matter, are we?
Bugs are vital to the decomposition that keeps nutrients cycling, soil healthy, plants growing
and ecosystems running. This role is mostly invisible, until suddenly it’s not. After
introducing cattle to Australia at the turn of the 19th century, settlers soon found themselves
overwhelmed by the problem of their feces: For some reason, cow pies there were taking
months or even years to decompose. Cows refused to eat near the stink, requiring more and
more land for grazing, and so many flies bred in the piles that the country became famous
for the funny hats that stockmen wore to keep them at bay. It wasn’t until 1951 that a visiting
entomologist realized what was wrong: The local insects, evolved to eat the more fibrous
waste of marsupials, couldn’t handle cow excrement. For the next 25 years, the importation,
quarantine and release of dozens of species of dung beetles became a national priority. And
that was just one unfilled niche. (In the United States, dung beetles save ranchers an
estimated $380 million a year.) We simply don’t know everything that insects do. Only about
2 percent of invertebrate species have been studied enough for us to estimate whether they
are in danger of extinction, never mind what dangers that extinction might pose.
When asked to imagine what would happen if insects were to disappear completely,
scientists find words like chaos, collapse, Armageddon. Wagner, the University of
Connecticut entomologist, describes a flowerless world with silent forests, a world of dung
and old leaves and rotting carcasses accumulating in cities and roadsides, a world of
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“collapse or decay and erosion and loss that would spread through ecosystems” — spiraling
from predators to plants. E.O. Wilson has written of an insect-free world, a place where most
plants and land animals become extinct; where fungi explodes, for a while, thriving on death
and rot; and where “the human species survives, able to fall back on wind-pollinated grains
and marine fishing” despite mass starvation and resource wars. “Clinging to survival in a
devastated world, and trapped in an ecological dark age,” he adds, “the survivors would
offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”
But the crux of the windshield phenomenon, the reason that the creeping suspicion of
change is so creepy, is that insects wouldn’t have to disappear altogether for us to find
ourselves missing them for reasons far beyond nostalgia. In October, an entomologist sent
me an email with the subject line, “Holy [expletive]!” and an attachment: a study just out
from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he labeled, “Krefeld comes to
Puerto Rico.” The study included data from the 1970s and from the early 2010s, when a
tropical ecologist named Brad Lister returned to the rain forest where he had studied lizards
— and, crucially, their prey — 40 years earlier. Lister set out sticky traps and swept nets
across foliage in the same places he had in the 1970s, but this time he and his co-author,
Andres Garcia, caught much, much less: 10 to 60 times less arthropod biomass than before.
(It’s easy to read that number as 60 percent less, but it’s sixtyfold less: Where once he
caught 473 milligrams of bugs, Lister was now catching just eight milligrams.) “It was, you
know, devastating,” Lister told me. But even scarier were the ways the losses were already
moving through the ecosystem, with serious declines in the numbers of lizards, birds and
frogs. The paper reported “a bottom-up trophic cascade and consequent collapse of the
forest food web.” Lister’s inbox quickly filled with messages from other scientists, especially
people who study soil invertebrates, telling him they were seeing similarly frightening
declines. Even after his dire findings, Lister found the losses shocking: “I didn’t even know
about the earthworm crisis!”
The strange thing, Lister said, is that, as staggering as they are, all the declines he
documented would still be basically invisible to the average person walking through the
Luquillo rain forest. On his last visit, the forest still felt “timeless” and “phantasmagorical,”
with “cascading waterfalls and carpets of flowers.” You would have to be an expert to notice
what was missing. But he expects the losses to push the forest toward a tipping point, after
which “there is a sudden and dramatic loss of the rain-forest system,” and the changes will
become obvious to anyone. The place he loves will become unrecognizable.
The insects in the forest that Lister studied haven’t been contending with pesticides or
habitat loss, the two problems to which the Krefeld paper pointed. Instead, Lister chalks up
their decline to climate change, which has already increased temperatures in Luquillo by
two degrees Celsius since Lister first sampled there. Previous research suggested that
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tropical bugs will be unusually sensitive to temperature changes; in November, scientists
who subjected laboratory beetles to a heat wave reported that the increased temperatures
made them significantly less fertile. Other scientists wonder if it might be climate-induced
drought or possibly invasive rats or simply “death by a thousand cuts” — a confluence of
many kinds of changes to the places where insects once thrived.
Like other species, insects are responding to what Chris Thomas, an insect ecologist at the
University of York, has called “the transformation of the world”: not just a changing climate
but also the widespread conversion, via urbanization, agricultural intensification and so on,
of natural spaces into human ones, with fewer and fewer resources “left over” for nonhuman
creatures to live on. What resources remain are often contaminated. Hans de Kroon
characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis
to the next but with “a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.” Of particular
concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but
turned out to accumulate in the landscape and to be consumed by all kinds of nontargeted
bugs. People talk about the “loss” of bees to colony collapse disorder, and that appears to be
the right word: Affected hives aren’t full of dead bees, but simply mysteriously empty. A
leading theory is that exposure to neurotoxins leaves bees unable to find their way home.
Even hives exposed to low levels of neonicotinoids have been shown to collect less pollen
and produce fewer eggs and far fewer queens. Some recent studies found bees doing better
in cities than in the supposed countryside.
The diversity of insects means that some will manage to make do in new environments,
some will thrive (abundance cuts both ways: agricultural monocultures, places where only
one kind of plant grows, allow some pests to reach population levels they would never
achieve in nature) and some, searching for food and shelter in a world nothing like the one
they were meant for, will fail. While we need much more data to better understand the
reasons or mechanisms behind the ups and downs, Thomas says, “the average across all
species is still a decline.”
Since the Krefeld study came out, researchers have begun searching for other forgotten
repositories of information that might offer windows into the past. Some of the Radboud
researchers have analyzed long-term data, belonging to Dutch entomological societies,
about beetles and moths in certain reserves; they found significant drops (72 percent, 54
percent) that mirrored the Krefeld ones. Roel van Klink, a researcher at the German Center
for Integrative Biodiversity Research, told me that before Krefeld, he, like most
entomologists, had never been interested in biomass. Now he is looking for historical data
sets — many of which began as studies of agricultural pests, like a decades-long study of
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grasshoppers in Kansas — that could help create a more thorough picture of what’s
happening to creatures that are at once abundant and imperiled. So far he has found
forgotten data from 140 old data sets for 1,500 locations that could be resampled.
In the United States, one of the few long-term data sets about insect abundance comes from
the work of Arthur Shapiro, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis. In 1972,
he began walking transects in the Central Valley and the Sierras, counting butterflies. He
planned to do a study on how short-term weather variations affected butterfly populations.
But the longer he sampled, the more valuable his data became, offering a signal through the
noise of seasonal ups and downs. “And so here I am in Year 46,” he said, nearly half a
century of spending five days a week, from late spring to the end of autumn, observing
butterflies. In that time he has watched overall numbers decline and seen some species that
used to be everywhere — even species that “everyone regarded as a junk species” only a
few decades ago — all but disappear. Shapiro believes that Krefeld-level declines are likely
to be happening all over the globe. “But, of course, I don’t cover the entire globe,” he added.
“I cover I-80.”
There are also new efforts to set up more of the kind of insect-monitoring schemes
researchers wish had existed decades ago, so that our current level of fallenness, at least, is
captured. One is a pilot project in Germany similar to the Danish car study. To analyze what
is caught, the researchers turned to volunteer naturalists, hobbyists similar to the ones in
Krefeld, with the necessary breadth of knowledge to know what they’re looking at. “These
are not easy species to identify,” says Aletta Bonn, of the German Center for Integrative
Biodiversity Research, who is overseeing the project. (The skills required for such work “are
really extreme,” Dunn says. “These people train for decades with other amateurs to be able
to identify beetles based on their genitalia.”) Bond would like to pay the volunteers for their
expertise, she says, but funding hasn’t caught up to the crisis. That didn’t stop the
“amateurs” from being willing to help: “They said, ʻWe’re just curious what’s in there, we
would like to have samples.’ ”
Goulson says that Europe’s tradition of amateur naturalism may account for why so many of
the clues to the falloff in insect biodiversity originate there. (Tottrup’s design for the car net
in Denmark, for example, was itself adapted from the invention of a dedicated beetle-
collecting hobbyist.) As little as we know about the status of European bugs, we know
significantly less about other parts of the world. “We wouldn’t know anything if it weren’t for
them,” the so-called amateurs, Goulson told me. “We’d be entirely relying on the fact that
there’s no bugs on the windshield.”
Thomas believes that this naturalist tradition is also why Europe is acting much faster than
other places — for example, the United States — to address the decline of insects: Interest
leads to tracking, which leads to awareness, which leads to concern, which leads to action.
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Since the Krefeld data emerged, there have been hearings about protecting insect
biodiversity in the German Bundestag and the European Parliament. European Union
member states voted to extend a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and have begun to put
money toward further studies of how abundance is changing, what is causing those changes
and what can be done. When I knocked on the door of de Kroon’s office, at Radboud
University in the Dutch city Nijmegen, he was looking at some photos from another meeting
he had that day: Willem-Alexander, the king of the Netherlands, had taken a tour of the
city’s efforts to make its riverside a friendlier habitat for bugs.
Stemming insect declines will require much more than this, however. The European Union
already had some measures in place to help pollinators — including more strictly regulating
pesticides than the United States does and paying farmers to create insect habitats by
leaving fields fallow and allowing for wild edges alongside cultivation — but insect
populations dropped anyway. New reports call for national governments to collaborate; for
more creative approaches such as integrating insect habitats into the design of roads, power
lines, railroads and other infrastructure; and, as always, for more studies. The necessary
changes, like the causes, may be profound. “It’s just another indication that we’re destroying
the life-support system of the planet,” Lister says of the Puerto Rico study. “Nature’s
resilient, but we’re pushing her to such extremes that eventually it will cause a collapse of
the system.”
Scientists hope that insects will have a chance to embody that resilience. While tigers tend
to give birth to three or four cubs at a time, a ghost moth in Australia was once recorded
laying 29,100 eggs, and she still had 15,000 in her ovaries. The fecund abundance that is
insects’ singular trait should enable them to recover, but only if they are given the space and
the opportunity to do so.
“It’s a debate we need to have urgently,” Goulson says. “If we lose insects, life on earth will.
…” He trailed off, pausing for what felt like a long time.
In Denmark, Sune Boye Riis’s transect with his car net took him past a bit of woods, some
suburban lawns, some hedges, a Christmas-tree farm. The closest thing to a meadow that
we passed was a large military property, on which the grass had been allowed to grow tall
and golden. Riis had received instructions not to drive too fast, so traffic backed up behind
us, and some people began to honk. “Well,” Riis said, “so much for science.” After three
miles, he turned around and drove back toward the start. His windshield stayed mockingly
Riis had four friends who were also participating in the study. They had a bet going among
them: Who would net the biggest bug? “I’m way behind,” Riis said. “A bumblebee is in the
lead.” His biggest catch? “A fly. Not even a big one.”
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At the end of the transect, Riis stopped at another parlous roadside spot, unfastened the net
and removed the small bag at its tip. Some volunteers, captivated by what the study
revealed about the world around them, asked the organizers for extra specimen bags, so
they could do more sampling on their own. Some even asked if they could buy the entire car-
net apparatus. Riis, though, was content to peer through the mesh, inside of which he could
make out a number of black specks of varying tininess.
There was also a single butterfly, white-winged and delicate. Riis thought of the bet with his
friends, for which the meaning of bigness had not been defined. He wondered how it might
be reckoned. What gave a creature value?
“Is it weight?” he asked, staring down at the butterfly. In the big bag, it looked small and sad
and alone. “Or is it grace?”
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The Social Life of Forests
Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean
networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another?
By Ferris Jabr
Photographs by Brendan George Ko
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As a child, Suzanne Simard often roamed Canada’s
old-growth forests with her siblings, building forts
from fallen branches, foraging mushrooms and
huckleberries and occasionally eating handfuls of dirt
(she liked the taste). Her grandfather and uncles,
meanwhile, worked nearby as horse loggers, using
low-impact methods to selectively harvest cedar,
Douglas fir and white pine. They took so few trees
that Simard never noticed much of a difference. The
forest seemed ageless and infinite, pillared with
conifers, jeweled with raindrops and brimming with
ferns and fairy bells. She experienced it as “nature in
the raw” — a mythic realm, perfect as it was. When
she began attending the University of British
Columbia, she was elated to discover forestry: an
entire field of science devoted to her beloved
domain. It seemed like the natural choice.
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By the time she was in grad school at Oregon State
University, however, Simard understood that
commercial clearcutting had largely superseded the
sustainable logging practices of the past. Loggers
were replacing diverse forests with homogeneous
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plantations, evenly spaced in upturned soil stripped
of most underbrush. Without any competitors, the
thinking went, the newly planted trees would thrive.
Instead, they were frequently more vulnerable to
disease and climatic stress than trees in old-growth
forests. In particular, Simard noticed that up to 10
percent of newly planted Douglas fir were likely to
get sick and die whenever nearby aspen, paper birch
and cottonwood were removed. The reasons were
unclear. The planted saplings had plenty of space,
and they received more light and water than trees in
old, dense forests. So why were they so frail?
Simard suspected that the answer was buried in the
soil. Underground, trees and fungi form partnerships
known as mycorrhizas: Threadlike fungi envelop and
fuse with tree roots, helping them extract water and
nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen in exchange
for some of the carbon-rich sugars the trees make
through photosynthesis. Research had demonstrated
that mycorrhizas also connected plants to one
another and that these associations might be
ecologically important, but most scientists had
studied them in greenhouses and laboratories, not in
the wild. For her doctoral thesis, Simard decided to
investigate fungal links between Douglas fir and
paper birch in the forests of British Columbia. Apart
from her supervisor, she didn’t receive much
encouragement from her mostly male peers. “The
old foresters were like, Why don’t you just study
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growth and yield?” Simard told me. “I was more
interested in how these plants interact. They thought
it was all very girlie.”
Now a professor of forest ecology at the University of
British Columbia, Simard, who is 60, has studied
webs of root and fungi in the Arctic, temperate and
coastal forests of North America for nearly three
decades. Her initial inklings about the importance of
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mycorrhizal networks were prescient, inspiring whole
new lines of research that ultimately overturned
longstanding misconceptions about forest
ecosystems. By analyzing the DNA in root tips and
tracing the movement of molecules through
underground conduits, Simard has discovered that
fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest —
even trees of different species. Carbon, water,
nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from
tree to tree through these subterranean circuits.
Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest
trees to the youngest and smallest. Chemical alarm
signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees
for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s
underground lifelines are much more likely to die
than their networked counterparts. And if a tree is on
the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a
substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.
Although Simard’s peers were skeptical and
sometimes even disparaging of her early work, they
now generally regard her as one of the most rigorous
and innovative scientists studying plant
communication and behavior. David Janos, co-editor
of the scientific journal Mycorrhiza, characterized her
published research as “sophisticated, imaginative,
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cutting-edge.” Jason Hoeksema, a University of
Mississippi biology professor who has studied
mycorrhizal networks, agreed: “I think she has really
pushed the field forward.” Some of Simard’s studies
now feature in textbooks and are widely taught in
graduate-level classes on forestry and ecology. She
was also a key inspiration for a central character in
Richard Powers’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel,
“The Overstory”: the visionary botanist Patricia
Westerford. In May, Knopf will publish Simard’s own
book, “Finding the Mother Tree,” a vivid and
compelling memoir of her lifelong quest to prove that
“the forest was more than just a collection of trees.”
Since Darwin, biologists have emphasized the
perspective of the individual. They have stressed the
perpetual contest among discrete species, the
struggle of each organism to survive and reproduce
within a given population and, underlying it all, the
single-minded ambitions of selfish genes. Now and
then, however, some scientists have advocated,
sometimes controversially, for a greater focus on
cooperation over self-interest and on the emergent
properties of living systems rather than their units.
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Suzanne Simard in Nelson, British Columbia,
holding a Douglas fir seedling, right. She
studies the way trees exchange carbon, water
and nutrients through underground networks of
Before Simard and other ecologists revealed the
extent and significance of mycorrhizal networks,
foresters typically regarded trees as solitary
individuals that competed for space and resources
and were otherwise indifferent to one another.
Simard and her peers have demonstrated that this
framework is far too simplistic. An old-growth forest
is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms
tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless
battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.
There is conflict in a forest, but there is also
negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even
selflessness. The trees, understory plants, fungi and
microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected,
communicative and codependent that some
scientists have described them as superorganisms.
Recent research suggests that mycorrhizal networks
also perfuse prairies, grasslands, chaparral and Arctic
tundra — essentially everywhere there is life on land.
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Together, these symbiotic partners knit Earth’s soils
into nearly contiguous living networks of
unfathomable scale and complexity. “I was taught
that you have a tree, and it’s out there to find its own
way,” Simard told me. “It’s not how a forest works,
In the summer of 2019, I met Simard in Nelson, a
small mountain town not far from where she grew up
in southern British Columbia. One morning we drove
up a winding road to an old-growth forest and began
to hike. The first thing I noticed was the aroma. The
air was piquant and subtly sweet, like orange peel
and cloves. Above our heads, great green plumes
filtered the sunlight, which splashed generously onto
the forest floor in some places and merely speckled it
in others. Gnarled roots laced the trail beneath our
feet, diving in and out of the soil like sea serpents. I
was so preoccupied with my own experience of the
forest that it did not even occur to me to consider
how the forest might be experiencing us — until
Simard brought it up.
“I think these trees are very perceptive,” she said.
“Very perceptive of who’s growing around them. I’m
really interested in whether they perceive us.” I asked
her to clarify what she meant. Simard explained that
trees sense nearby plants and animals and alter their
behavior accordingly: The gnashing mandibles of an
insect might prompt the production of chemical
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defenses, for example. Some studies have even
suggested that plant roots grow toward the sound of
running water and that certain flowering plants
sweeten their nectar when they detect a bee’s wing
beats. “Trees perceive lots of things,” Simard said.
“So why not us, too?”
I considered the possibility. We’d been walking
through this forest for more than an hour. Our sweat
glands had been wafting pungent chemical
compounds. Our voices and footsteps were sending
pressure waves through the air and soil. Our bodies
brushed against trunks and displaced branches.
Suddenly it seemed entirely plausible that the trees
had noticed our presence.
A little farther along the trail, we found a sunny alcove
where we stopped to rest and chat, laying our
backpacks against a log plush with moss and lichen.
A multitude of tiny plants sprouted from the log’s
green fleece. I asked Simard what they were. She
bent her head for a closer look, tucking her frizzy
blond hair behind her ears, and called out what she
saw: queen’s cup, a kind of lily; five-leaved bramble,
a type of wild raspberry; and both cedar and hemlock
seedlings. As she examined the log, part of it
collapsed, revealing the decaying interior. Simard
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dug deeper with her thumbs, exposing a web of
rubbery, mustard-yellow filaments embedded in the
“That’s a fungus!” she said. “That is Piloderma. It’s a
very common mycorrhizal fungus” — one she had
encountered and studied many times before in
circumstances exactly like these. “This mycorrhizal
network is actually linked up to that tree.” She
gestured toward a nearby hemlock that stood at least
a hundred feet tall. “That tree is feeding these
The trees, plants, fungi and microbes in forests
are so thoroughly connected some scientists
describe them as superorganisms.
Mycorrhizas in the soil, right, provide the
In some of her earliest and most famous
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experiments, Simard planted mixed groups of young
Douglas fir and paper birch trees in forest plots and
covered the trees with individual plastic bags. In each
plot, she injected the bags surrounding one tree
species with radioactive carbon dioxide and the bags
covering the other species with a stable carbon
isotope — a variant of carbon with an unusual
number of neutrons. The trees absorbed the unique
forms of carbon through their leaves. Later, she
pulverized the trees and analyzed their chemistry to
see if any carbon had passed from species to species
underground. It had. In the summer, when the smaller
Douglas fir trees were generally shaded, carbon
mostly flowed from birch to fir. In the fall, when
evergreen Douglas fir was still growing and
deciduous birch was losing its leaves, the net flow
reversed. As her earlier observations of failing
Douglas fir had suggested, the two species appeared
to depend on each other. No one had ever traced
such a dynamic exchange of resources through
mycorrhizal networks in the wild. In 1997, part of
Simard’s thesis was published in the prestigious
scientific journal Nature — a rare feat for someone so
green. Nature featured her research on its cover with
the title “The Wood-Wide Web,” a moniker that
eventually proliferated through the pages of
published studies and popular science writing alike.
In 2002, Simard secured her current professorship at
the University of British Columbia, where she
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continued to study interactions among trees,
understory plants and fungi. In collaboration with
students and colleagues around the world, she made
a series of remarkable discoveries. Mycorrhizal
networks were abundant in North America’s forests.
Most trees were generalists, forming symbioses with
dozens to hundreds of fungal species. In one study of
six Douglas fir stands measuring about 10,000 square
feet each, almost all the trees were connected
underground by no more than three degrees of
separation; one especially large and old tree was
linked to 47 other trees and projected to be
connected to at least 250 more; and seedlings that
had full access to the fungal network were 26
percent more likely to survive than those that did not.
Depending on the species involved, mycorrhizas
supplied trees and other plants with up to 40 percent
of the nitrogen they received from the environment
and as much as 50 percent of the water they needed
to survive. Below ground, trees traded between 10
and 40 percent of the carbon stored in their roots.
When Douglas fir seedlings were stripped of their
leaves and thus likely to die, they transferred stress
signals and a substantial sum of carbon to nearby
ponderosa pine, which subsequently accelerated
their production of defensive enzymes. Simard also
found that denuding a harvested forest of all trees,
ferns, herbs and shrubs — a common forestry
practice — did not always improve the survival and
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growth of newly planted trees. In some cases, it was
When Simard started publishing her provocative
studies, some of her peers loudly disapproved. They
questioned her novel methodology and disputed her
conclusions. Many were perplexed as to why trees of
different species would help one another at their own
expense — an extraordinary level of altruism that
seemed to contradict the core tenets of Darwinian
evolution. Soon, most references to her studies were
immediately followed by citations of published
rebuttals. “A shadow was growing over my work,”
Simard writes in her book. By searching for hints of
interdependence in the forest floor, she had
inadvertently provoked one of the oldest and most
intense debates in biology: Is cooperation as central
to evolution as competition?
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Simard is studying whether preserving some older trees in plots that are logged will improve the health
of future saplings. Here, 60 percent of veteran trees in the foreground have been retained, while
behind them a vast majority have been cut.
The question of whether plants possess some form of
sentience or agency has a long and fraught history.
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Although plants are obviously alive, they are rooted
to the earth and mute, and they rarely move on a
relatable time scale; they seem more like passive
aspects of the environment than agents within it.
Western culture, in particular, often consigns plants
to a liminal space between object and organism. It is
precisely this ambiguity that makes the possibility of
plant intelligence and society so intriguing — and so
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In a 1973 book titled “The Secret Life of Plants,” the
journalists Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird
claimed that plants had souls, emotions and musical
preferences, that they felt pain and psychically
absorbed the thoughts of other creatures and that
they could track the movement of the planets and
predict earthquakes. To make their case, the authors
indiscriminately mixed genuine scientific findings
with the observations and supposed studies of
quacks and mystics. Many scientists lambasted the
book as nonsense. Nevertheless, it became a New
York Times best seller and inspired cartoons in The
New Yorker and Doonesbury. Ever since, botanists
have been especially wary of anyone whose claims
about plant behavior and communication verge too
close to the pseudoscientific.
In most of her published studies, Simard, who
considered becoming a writer before she discovered
forestry, is careful to use conservative language, but
when addressing the public, she embraces metaphor
and reverie in a way that makes some scientists
uncomfortable. In a TED Talk Simard gave in 2016,
she describes “a world of infinite biological
pathways,” species that are “interdependent like yin
and yang” and veteran trees that “send messages of
wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings.” She
calls the oldest, largest and most interconnected
trees in a forest “mother trees” — a phrase meant to
evoke their capacity to nurture those around them,
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even when they aren’t literally their parents. In her
book, she compares mycorrhizal networks to the
human brain. And she has spoken openly of her
spiritual connection to forests.
Some of the scientists I interviewed worry that
Simard’s studies do not fully substantiate her boldest
claims and that the popular writing related to her
work sometimes misrepresents the true nature of
plants and forests. For example, in his international
best seller, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” the forester
Peter Wohlleben writes that trees optimally divide
nutrients and water among themselves, that they
probably enjoy the feeling of fungi merging with their
roots and that they even possess “maternal instincts.”
“There is value in getting the public excited about all
of the amazing mechanisms by which forest
ecosystems might be functioning, but sometimes the
speculation goes too far,” Hoeksema said. “I think it
will be really interesting to see how much
experimental evidence emerges to support some of
the big ideas we have been getting excited about.”
At this point other researchers have replicated most
of Simard’s major findings. It’s now well accepted
that resources travel among trees and other plants
connected by mycorrhizal networks. Most ecologists
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also agree that the amount of carbon exchanged
among trees is sufficient to benefit seedlings, as well
as older trees that are injured, entirely shaded or
severely stressed, but researchers still debate
whether shuttled carbon makes a meaningful
difference to healthy adult trees. On a more
fundamental level, it remains unclear exactly why
resources are exchanged among trees in the first
place, especially when those trees are not closely
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In their autobiographies, Charles Darwin and Alfred
Russel Wallace each credited Thomas Malthus as a
key inspiration for their independent formulations of
evolution by natural selection. Malthus’s 1798 essay
on population helped the naturalists understand that
all living creatures were locked into a ceaseless
contest for limited natural resources. Darwin was also
influenced by Adam Smith, who believed that
societal order and efficiency could emerge from
competition among inherently selfish individuals in a
free market. Similarly, the planet’s dazzling diversity
of species and their intricate relationships, Darwin
would show, emerged from inevitable processes of
competition and selection, rather than divine
craftsmanship. “Darwin’s theory of evolution by
natural selection is obviously 19th-century capitalism
writ large,” wrote the evolutionary biologist Richard
As Darwin well knew, however, ruthless competition
was not the only way that organisms interacted. Ants
and bees died to protect their colonies. Vampire bats
regurgitated blood to prevent one another from
starving. Vervet monkeys and prairie dogs cried out
to warn their peers of predators, even when doing so
put them at risk. At one point Darwin worried that
such selflessness would be “fatal” to his theory. In
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subsequent centuries, as evolutionary biology and
genetics matured, scientists converged on a
resolution to this paradox: Behavior that appeared to
be altruistic was often just another manifestation of
selfish genes — a phenomenon known as kin
selection. Members of tight-knit social groups
typically share large portions of their DNA, so when
one individual sacrifices for another, it is still
indirectly spreading its own genes.
Kin selection cannot account for the apparent
interspecies selflessness of trees, however — a
practice that verges on socialism. Some scientists
have proposed a familiar alternative explanation:
Perhaps what appears to be generosity among trees
is actually selfish manipulation by fungi. Descriptions
of Simard’s work sometimes give the impression that
mycorrhizal networks are inert conduits that exist
primarily for the mutual benefit of trees, but the
thousands of species of fungi that link trees are living
creatures with their own drives and needs. If a plant
relinquishes carbon to fungi on its roots, why would
those fungi passively transmit the carbon to another
plant rather than using it for their own purposes?
Maybe they don’t. Perhaps the fungi exert some
control: What looks like one tree donating food to
another may be a result of fungi redistributing
accumulated resources to promote themselves and
their favorite partners.
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“Where some scientists see a big cooperative
collective, I see reciprocal exploitation,” said Toby
Kiers, a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam. “Both parties may benefit,
but they also constantly struggle to maximize their
individual payoff.” Kiers is one of several scientists
whose recent studies have found that plants and
symbiotic fungi reward and punish each other with
what are essentially trade deals and embargoes, and
that mycorrhizal networks can increase conflict
among plants. In some experiments, fungi have
withheld nutrients from stingy plants and
strategically diverted phosphorous to resource-poor
areas where they can demand high fees from
desperate plants.
Several of the ecologists I interviewed agreed that
regardless of why and how resources and chemical
signals move among the various members of a
forest’s symbiotic webs, the result is still the same:
What one tree produces can feed, inform or
rejuvenate another. Such reciprocity does not
necessitate universal harmony, but it does undermine
the dogma of individualism and temper the view of
competition as the primary engine of evolution.
The most radical interpretation of Simard’s findings is
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that a forest behaves “as though it’s a single
organism,” as she says in her TED Talk. Some
researchers have proposed that cooperation within
or among species can evolve if it helps one
population outcompete another — an altruistic forest
community outlasting a selfish one, for example. The
theory remains unpopular with most biologists, who
regard natural selection above the level of the
individual to be evolutionarily unstable and
exceedingly rare. Recently, however, inspired by
research on microbiomes, some scientists have
argued that the traditional concept of an individual
organism needs rethinking and that multicellular
creatures and their symbiotic microbes should be
regarded as cohesive units of natural selection. Even
if the same exact set of microbial associates is not
passed vertically from generation to generation, the
functional relationships between an animal or plant
species and its entourage of microorganisms persist
— much like the mycorrhizal networks in an old-
growth forest. Humans are not the only species that
inherits the infrastructure of past communities.
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Western larches being commercially grown in Procter, British Columbia.
The emerging understanding of trees as social creatures has
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urgent implications for how we manage forests.
Humans have relied on forests for food, medicine
and building materials for many thousands of years.
Forests have likewise provided sustenance and
shelter for countless species over the eons. But they
are important for more profound reasons too. Forests
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function as some of the planet’s vital organs. The
colonization of land by plants between 425 and 600
million years ago, and the eventual spread of forests,
helped create a breathable atmosphere with the high
level of oxygen we continue to enjoy today. Forests
suffuse the air with water vapor, fungal spores and
chemical compounds that seed clouds, cooling Earth
by reflecting sunlight and providing much-needed
precipitation to inland areas that might otherwise dry
out. Researchers estimate that, collectively, forests
store somewhere between 400 and 1,200 gigatons
of carbon, potentially exceeding the atmospheric
Crucially, a majority of this carbon resides in forest
soils, anchored by networks of symbiotic roots, fungi
and microbes. Each year, the world’s forests capture
more than 24 percent of global carbon emissions,
but deforestation — by destroying and removing
trees that would otherwise continue storing carbon
— can substantially diminish that effect. When a
mature forest is burned or clear-cut, the planet loses
an invaluable ecosystem and one of its most effective
systems of climate regulation. The razing of an old-
growth forest is not just the destruction of
magnificent individual trees — it’s the collapse of an
ancient republic whose interspecies covenant of
reciprocation and compromise is essential for the
survival of Earth as we’ve known it.
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One bright morning, Simard and I climbed into her
truck and drove up a forested mountain to a clearing
that had been repeatedly logged. A large tract of
bare soil surrounded us, punctuated by tree stumps,
saplings and mounds of woody detritus. I asked
Simard how old the trees that once stood here might
have been. “We can actually figure that out,” she
said, stooping beside a cleanly cut Douglas fir stump.
She began to count growth rings, explaining how the
relative thickness reflected changing environmental
conditions. A few minutes later, she reached the
outermost rings: “102, 103, 104!” She added a few
years to account for very early growth. This particular
Douglas fir was most likely alive in 1912, the same
year that the Titanic sank, Oreos debuted and the
mayor of Tokyo gave Washington 3,020 ornamental
cherry trees.
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Mushrooms and conks are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Their underground filaments form
networks among the root systems.
Looking at the mountains across the valley, we could
see evidence of clearcutting throughout the past
century. Dirt roads snaked up and down the incline.
Some parts of the slopes were thickly furred with
conifers. Others were treeless meadows, sparse
shrubland or naked soil strewn with the remnants of
sun-bleached trunks and branches. Viewed as a
whole, the haphazardly sheared landscape called to
mind a dog with mange.
When Europeans arrived on America’s shores in the
1600s, forests covered one billion acres of the future
United States — close to half the total land area.
Between 1850 and 1900, U.S. timber production
surged to more than 35 billion board feet from five
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billion. By 1907, nearly a third of the original expanse
of forest — more than 260 million acres — was gone.
Exploitative practices likewise ravaged Canada’s
forests throughout the 19th century. As growing cities
drew people away from rural and agricultural areas,
and lumber companies were forced to replant
regions they had logged, trees began to reclaim their
former habitats. As of 2012, the United States had
more than 760 million forested acres. The age, health
and composition of America’s forests have changed
significantly, however. Although forests now cover 80
percent of the Northeast, for example, less than 1
percent of its old-growth forest remains intact.
And though clearcutting is not as common as it once
was, it is still practiced on about 40 percent of
logged acres in the United States and 80 percent of
them in Canada. In a thriving forest, a lush understory
captures huge amounts of rainwater, and dense root
networks enrich and stabilize the soil. Clearcutting
removes these living sponges and disturbs the forest
floor, increasing the chances of landslides and floods,
stripping the soil of nutrients and potentially
releasing stored carbon to the atmosphere. When
sediment falls into nearby rivers and streams, it can
kill fish and other aquatic creatures and pollute
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sources of drinking water. The abrupt felling of so
many trees also harms and evicts countless species
of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects.
Simard’s research suggests there is an even more
fundamental reason not to deprive a logging site of
every single tree. The day after viewing the clear-
cuts, we took a cable ferry across Kootenay Lake and
drove into the Harrop-Procter Community Forest:
nearly 28,000 acres of mountainous terrain
populated with Douglas fir, larch, cedar and hemlock.
In the early 1900s, much of the forest near the lake
was burned to make way for settlements, roads and
mining operations. Today the land is managed by a
local co-op that practices ecologically informed
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The road up the mountain was rough, dusty and
littered with obstacles. “Hold on to your nips and
your nuts!” Simard said as she maneuvered her truck
out of a ditch and over a series of large branches that
jostled us in our seats. Eventually she parked beside a
steep slope, climbed out of the driver’s seat and
began to skitter her way across a seemingly endless
jumble of pine needles, stumps and splintered
trunks. Simard was so quick and nimble that I had
trouble keeping up until we traversed the bulk of the
debris and entered a clearing. Most of the ground
was barren and brown. Here and there, however, the
mast of a century-old Douglas fir rose 150 feet into
the air and unfurled its green banners. A line of blue
paint ringed the trunk of every tree still standing.
Simard explained that at her behest, Erik Leslie, the
Harrop-Procter Forest Manager, marked the oldest,
largest and healthiest trees on this site for
preservation before it was logged.
When a seed germinates in an old-growth forest, it
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immediately taps into an extensive underground
community of interspecies partnerships. Uniform
plantations of young trees planted after a clear-cut
are bereft of ancient roots and their symbiotic fungi.
The trees in these surrogate forests are much more
vulnerable to disease and death because, despite
one another’s company, they have been orphaned.
Simard thinks that retaining some mother trees,
which have the most robust and diverse mycorrhizal
networks, will substantially improve the health and
survival of future seedlings — both those planted by
foresters and those that germinate on their own.
For the last several years, Simard has been working
with scientists, North American timber companies
and several of the First Nations to test this idea. She
calls the ongoing experiment the Mother Tree
Project. In 27 stands spread across nine different
climatic regions in British Columbia, Simard and her
collaborators have been comparing traditional clear-
cuts with harvested areas that preserve varying ratios
of veteran trees: 60 percent, 30 percent or as low as
10 percent — only around eight trees per acre. She
directed my attention across Kootenay Lake to the
opposing mountains, where there were several more
experimental plots. Although they were sparsely
vegetated, there was an order to the depilation. It
looked as though a giant had meticulously plucked
out particular trees one by one.
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Since at least the late 1800s, North American
foresters have devised and tested dozens of
alternatives to standard clearcutting: strip cutting
(removing only narrow bands of trees), shelterwood
cutting (a multistage process that allows desirable
seedlings to establish before most overstory trees
are harvested) and the seed-tree method (leaving
behind some adult trees to provide future seed), to
name a few. These approaches are used throughout
Canada and the United States for a variety of
ecological reasons, often for the sake of wildlife, but
mycorrhizal networks have rarely if ever factored into
the reasoning.
Sm’hayetsk Teresa Ryan, a forest ecologist of
Tsimshian heritage who completed her graduate
studies with Simard, explained that research on
mycorrhizal networks, and the forestry practices that
follow from it, mirror aboriginal insights and
traditions — knowledge that European settlers often
dismissed or ignored. “Everything is connected,
absolutely everything,” she said. “There are many
aboriginal groups that will tell you stories about how
all the species in the forests are connected, and
many will talk about below-ground networks.”
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Dusky fork moss, left. Powderhorn lichen near
Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in British
Columbia, right.
Ryan told me about the 230,000-acre Menominee
Forest in northeastern Wisconsin, which has been
sustainably harvested for more than 150 years.
Sustainability, the Menominee believe, means
“thinking in terms of whole systems, with all their
interconnections, consequences and feedback
loops.” They maintain a large, old and diverse
growing stock, prioritizing the removal of low-quality
and ailing trees over more vigorous ones and
allowing trees to age 200 years or more — so they
become what Simard might call grandmothers.
Ecology, not economics, guides the management of
the Menominee Forest, but it is still highly profitable.
Since 1854, more than 2.3 billion board feet have
been harvested — nearly twice the volume of the
entire forest — yet there is now more standing
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timber than when logging began. “To many, our
forest may seem pristine and untouched,” the
Menominee wrote in one report. “In reality, it is one
of the most intensively managed tracts of forest in
the Lake States.”
On a mid-June afternoon, Simard and I drove 20
minutes outside Nelson to a bowl-shaped valley
beneath the Selkirk Mountains, which houses an
active ski resort in winter. We met one of her
students and his friend, assembled some supplies —
shovels, water bottles, bear spray — and started
hiking up the scrubby slope toward a population of
subalpine conifers. The goal was to characterize
mycorrhizas on the roots of whitebark pine, an
endangered species that feeds and houses numerous
creatures, including grizzly bears, Clark’s nutcracker
and Douglas squirrels.
About an hour into our hike, we found one: small and
bright-leaved with an ashen trunk. Simard and her
assistants knelt by its base and began using shovels
and knives to expose its roots. The work was slow,
tiring and messy. Mosquitoes and gnats relentlessly
swarmed our limbs and necks. I craned over their
shoulders, trying to get a better look, but for a long
time there was not much to see. As the work
progressed, however, the roots became darker, finer
and more fragile. Suddenly Simard uncovered a
gossamer web of tiny white threads embedded in
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the soil.
“Ho!” she cried out, grinning broadly. “It’s a
[expletive] gold mine! Holy [expletive]!” It was the
most excited I’d seen her the whole trip. “Sorry, I
shouldn’t swear,” she added in a whisper. “Professors
are not supposed to swear.”
“Is that a mycorrhiza?” I asked.
“It’s a mycorrhizal network!” she answered, laughing
with delight. “So cool, heh? Here’s a mycorrhizal tip
for sure.”
She handed me a thin strip of root the length of a
pencil from which sprouted numerous rootlets still
woolly with dirt. The rootlets branched into even
thinner filaments. As I strained to see the fine details,
I realized that the very tips of the smallest fibers
looked as though they’d been capped with bits of
wax. Those gummy white nodules, Simard explained,
were mycorrhizal fungi that had colonized the pine’s
roots. They were the hubs from which root and
fungus cast their intertwined cables through the soil,
opening channels for trade and communication,
linking individual trees into federations. This was the
very fabric of the forest — the foundation of some of
the most populous and complex societies on Earth.
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Trees have always been symbols of connection. In
Mesoamerican mythology, an immense tree grows at
the center of the universe, stretching its roots into the
underworld and cradling earth and heaven in its trunk
and branches. Norse cosmology features a similar
tree called Yggdrasil. A popular Japanese Noh drama
tells of wedded pines that are eternally bonded
despite being separated by a great distance. Even
before Darwin, naturalists used treelike diagrams to
represent the lineages of different species. Yet for
most of recorded history, living trees kept an
astonishing secret: Their celebrated connectivity was
more than metaphor — it had a material reality. As I
knelt beneath that whitebark pine, staring at its root
tips, it occurred to me that my whole life I had never
really understood what a tree was. At best I’d been
aware of just one half of a creature that appeared to
be self-contained but was in fact legion — a chimera
of bewildering proportions.
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We, too, are composite creatures.
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Diverse microbial communities inhabit our bodies,
modulating our immune systems and helping us
digest certain foods. The energy-producing
organelles in our cells known as mitochondria were
once free-swimming bacteria that were subsumed
early in the evolution of multicellular life. Through a
process called horizontal gene transfer, fungi, plants
and animals — including humans — have
The Social Life of Forests – The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-…
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continuously exchanged DNA with bacteria and
viruses. From its skin, fur or bark right down to its
genome, any multicellular creature is an amalgam of
other life-forms. Wherever living things emerge, they
find one another, mingle and meld.
Five hundred million years ago, as both plants and
fungi continued oozing out of the sea and onto land,
they encountered wide expanses of barren rock and
impoverished soil. Plants could spin sunlight into
sugar for energy, but they had trouble extracting
mineral nutrients from the earth. Fungi were in the
opposite predicament. Had they remained separate,
their early attempts at colonization might have
faltered or failed. Instead, these two castaways —
members of entirely different kingdoms of life —
formed an intimate partnership. Together they
spread across the continents, transformed rock into
rich soil and filled the atmosphere with oxygen.
Eventually, different types of plants and fungi
evolved more specialized symbioses. Forests
expanded and diversified, both above- and below
ground. What one tree produced was no longer
confined to itself and its symbiotic partners. Shuttled
through buried networks of root and fungus, the
water, food and information in a forest began
traveling greater distances and in more complex
patterns than ever before. Over the eons, through
the compounded effects of symbiosis and
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coevolution, forests developed a kind of circulatory
system. Trees and fungi were once small,
unacquainted ocean expats, still slick with seawater,
searching for new opportunities. Together, they
became a collective life form of unprecedented
might and magnanimity.
After a few hours of digging up roots and collecting
samples, we began to hike back down the valley. In
the distance, the granite peaks of the Selkirks
bristled with clusters of conifers. A breeze flung the
scent of pine toward us. To our right, a furtive squirrel
buried something in the dirt and dashed off. Like a
seed waiting for the right conditions, a passage from
“The Overstory” suddenly sprouted in my
consciousness: “There are no individuals. There aren’t
even separate species. Everything in the forest is the
Ferris Jabr is a contributing writer for the magazine. His previous cover story on the
evolution of beauty is featured in the latest edition of “The Best American Science
and Nature Writing.” He is currently working on his first book, which explores how
living creatures have continually transformed Earth throughout its history.
Brendan George Ko is a visual storyteller based in Toronto and Maui who works in
photography, video and installation. His first art book, “Moemoea,” about traditional
voyaging in the Pacific, will be published next year by Conveyor Editions.
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