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Ecological Intelligence - Page 3

To tap into this intelligence we need to get beyond the thinking that puts mankind outside nature; the fact is we live enmeshed in ecological systems, and impact them for better or worse—and they us. We need to discover and share among us all the ways this intimate interconnectedness operates, to see the hidden patterns that connect human activity to the larger flows of nature, to understand our true impacts, and to learn how to do better.

We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well-suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as much sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure toxins triggered nausea and disgust to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hard-wired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.

But ensuing centuries have blunted the skills of the billions of individuals who live amidst modern technologies. Career pressures drive us to master hyperspecialized expertise, and in turn to depend on other specialists for tasks beyond our realm. Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts—farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics—to make life work for us. We no longer can rely on our astute attunement to our natural world nor the passing on through generations of local wisdom that let native peoples find ways to live in harmony with their patch of the planet.

Ecologists tell us that natural systems operate at multiple scales. At the macro level there are global biogeochemical cycles, like that for the flow of carbon, where shifts in ratios of elements can be measured not just over the years, but over centuries and geologic ages. The ecosystem of a forest balances the entwined interplay of plant, animal, insect species, down to the bacteria in soil, each finding an ecological niche to exploit, their genes co-evolving together. At the mico-level cycles run through on a scale of millimeters or microns, in just seconds.

How we perceive and understand all this makes the crucial difference. "The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way," wrote the poet William Blake two centuries ago. "Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees."

When it comes to seeing nature, these differences in perception have huge consequence. A polar bear stranded on an ice drift or a vanishing glacier offer powerful symbols of the perils we face from global warming. But the inconvenient truths don't stop there—only our collective ability to perceive them does. We need to sharpen the resolution and broaden the range of our lens on nature; to see how synthetic chemicals disrupt the cells of an endocrine system as well as the slow rising of ocean levels.

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