The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild
Reviewed by John Miles, The Rewilding Institute conservation historian
Enric Sala is a marine ecologist who left a career in academia to become a conservation activist, in particular to dedicate his life “to reversing the degradation of the ocean.” He realized, through his extensive studies, that everything we humans need to survive “is the product of work done by other species. And how do we repay them? We ignore, undo, and destroy them.” Sala found an influential home as a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and leads the National Geographic Pristine Seas project which he founded in 2008. This effort is a combination of exploration, research, and storytelling that aims to “inspire world leaders to protect the last wild places in the ocean.” This book is a tool for the storytelling part of the project.
Sala doesn’t confine himself to ocean conservation in this book—all of nature, and even culture, is his province. He begins by briefly describing the Biosphere 2 Project, an effort to recreate nature in a closed environment and see if it would support humans. It did not, and he concludes that this bold experiment “was a testament to our ignorance of how life on our planet works—and our inability to recreate it.” As a scientist and activist, he takes from this example a profound humility about how little we humans know and how small is our chance of flourishing without a healthy natural world to support us. He writes,
If it’s so difficult to keep even small ecosystems stable enough to sustain the life of a handful of humans, how do nine million species of plants and animals and a trillion species of microbes exist and allow for our survival? How does this Biosphere 1 manage to keep everything alive and in balance? In what way do we depend on all those other species for our survival?
What we know so far, he contends, we find in the insights of the young science of ecology.
He offers ten chapters, two-thirds of his book, as a “crash course in ecology.” Sala is not writing for an audience who has a background in ecology, but for those worried about climate change and the loss of biodiversity, the curious and literate readership of National Geographic generally concerned about the future of nature. Here is a sampling of what he covers in these ten chapters:
Chapter 2, “What’s an Ecosystem?”
An ecosystem is simply the community of living organisms (microbes, plants, and animals) and the physical environment (the habitat) they occupy. . . Ecosystems shrink and grow and senesce, and parts of them regress to a young state that allows dormant species to have a day in the sun. Ecosystems are never static. They self-regulate through feedback loops within the biological community but also between living organisms and their habitat.
Chapter 3, “The Smallest Ecosystem”
Alfred Lotka “suggested that in nature, a predator will never drive its prey extinct . . . When the prey abundance decreases because of predation, it will be followed by a decline in predator abundance because of a shortage of food. But when the predators decline, the prey will increase again because of decreased predation, and so on.”
Chapter 4, “Succession”
The more mature an ecosystem is the more inhabitants it has, the more connections between them there are, and the slower it changes—the slower its turnover rate.
Chapter 5, “Boundaries”
Boundaries between natural systems can be symmetrical—with smooth changes from one ecological community to another—or asymmetrical—when the change between the communities is sharp.
The energy we extract from the natural world around us flows in one direction: toward us and our built environment.
Recognizing asymmetrical boundaries is the key to understanding how energy moves between ecosystems. It can also help us understand our abuse of natural ecosystems and the inequalities that exist between industrialized countries and other countries.
And so on through chapters titled “Are All Species Equal?,” “The Biosphere,” “How Are We Different?,” “Diversity Is Good,” and “Protected Areas.” Each chapter includes solid discussion of ecological principles and their implications for natural communities. Sala also relates the principles to the human world situation today. “Diversity is good,” for instance, because “investing in biodiversity—that is preventing further decline and restoring as much as possible—is essential for the future of humanity. Natural ecosystems are both our savings accounts and our life insurance policies. We need to ensure that our natural capital portfolio is well diversified.”
Note the way Sala writes in a clear, informative, and expository style, using similes that he hopes will reach an audience not versed in ecological terminology. He stays away from specialized lingo and finds ways to connect with what he hopes will be curious general readers. His “crash course” in ecology is succinct and throughout he explains how ecological insights are relevant to current challenges.
Next is a chapter on “Rewilding,” and he begins with a discussion of wolves as keystone species in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem (he has explained “keystone species” in his discussion of “Are All Species Equal?”). Another example of “rewilding” he describes is the Knepp Farm in West Sussex, England, where an apex predator like the wolf cannot be reintroduced into a relatively densely populated area, but where other measures have led to restoration of many natural processes. (I earlier reviewed here in rewilding.org Isabella Tree’s Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm, which explains in detail the Knepp example.) Sala explains that rewilding cannot be the same everywhere for many reasons but is about using “the tools available” to accomplish rewilding goals. These tools and goals may include “the remaining megafauna, the principles of hydrology, plant and animal reintroductions—to create novel ecosystems: ecosystems with conditions and species that have never come together during our lifetimes, but which approach the successional maturity that makes them resilient in response to human impact.” He counters skeptics of rewilding who consider it rejection of progress and regression to the past writing that “It’s not a matter of returning to a prehuman ecosystem. The important thing is helping an ecosystem to function and mature. Therefore, rewilding is about the future, not the past.”
Finally, Sala turns directly to the overriding question of why bother with all of this ecological business, arguing that we have a moral obligation to do so and besides, it is in our human self-interest. Even before he understood anything about the natural world or became a scientist, he writes, he loved the natural world, was drawn to it by what he would later discover has been described as biophilia, present in many of us. He was drawn to science, interested in understanding the natural world because he loved it. He points out that all creatures have intrinsic value “because they belong to the constitution of our biosphere.” But he also believes “that deep and inexpressible love of nature—biophilia—is more powerful than any rational construct as an answer to the question of why we should care for the natural world.” He explains that his Pristine Seas project builds on this, showing leaders the wonder of the seas and evoking their latent biophilia. “We never start with the head,” he writes. “We go straight to the heart, and taking a leader to the field is the best recipe for doing so.” After awakening a sense of wonder in the leaders they have coaxed in the field with them, Sala and his colleagues bring on the scientific and economic reasons for protection.
There is also, Sala argues, an “economics of nature,” and biodiversity protection is good economics. There is a moral argument for protecting the natural world, but “there is an even stronger human survival argument, because the loss of all ecosystem services would mean global human extinction.” This seems obvious to him and to many scientists and conservationists, but not to economists. “Thus, the value of the natural world must be infinite. Yet the traditional economic argument, win-lose in its assumptions, is prevalent in policymaking today.” That surely is an understatement. There are costs to conservation, to setting aside protected areas on land and sea, he admits, but the benefits, if they would be calculated, will surely offset those costs.
Supporting a system of well-managed protected areas over a third of our planet, land and sea, could cost between $103 billion and $171 billion a year. The economic benefits would outweigh the costs: GDP would rise. That’s a cheap investment to maintain a $125 trillion life-support system! But some people—including finance ministers—will still say that this is impossible, that it’s too expensive and we don’t have the money.
The finance minister view is shortsighted and nonsensical, Sala argues, given all that we know of the instrumental value of nature and of the wild, how much we know of its benefits for us, and, in the end, what big trouble humanity will be in if it does not change its economic ways.
According to Sala, we need more than a land ethic as ecologist Aldo Leopold argued, we need a planetary ethic. The oceans must be included. And there are prospects for moving toward such an ethic, dim though they may seem at times. Edward O. Wilson, who writes a brief introduction to this book, has argued that we must protect nature in half of planet Earth. There is a growing movement to protect 30 percent of the Earth by 2030. In 2021 a United National Convention of Biological Diversity will be convened and, as Sala notes, leading countries are currently building a High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, pushing for the 30X30 goal “as an apex target for the CBD framework.” Sala wraps up with the point that “A degraded environment is a hotbed of all the problems affecting humanity.” A bold statement, for sure, but not an exaggeration, given all that he has presented in The Nature of Nature.
The Nature of Nature is hot off the press, and as it was going to press, the global coronavirus pandemic burst upon the world. The final chapter is titled “The Nature of Coronavirus.” Admitting that when he was writing soon after the outbreak of the pandemic there was much to be learned about the nature and origins of this virus, one thing seemed clear—“Ironically and tragically, it will make the strongest argument for why biodiversity is necessary for human health—and ultimately, human survival.” Covid-19 is not the first “zoonotic” virus, one transmitted from other animals into humans, and it will not be the last. He convincingly builds the case of how biodiversity is “necessary for human health,” and makes the case that “A healthy natural world is our best antivirus.”
This is a most timely book, coming as it does in the midst of the pandemic and linking this human tragedy to our treatment of nature. It comes also as there seems a real prospect of a viable campaign for 30X30 and even ultimately the protection of half the Earth, as E.O Wilson has advocated. The book also demonstrates something badly needed in conservation today, an educational approach aimed at mass audiences to complement work in policy arenas. Sala, in my opinion, brilliantly links many dimensions of the environmental crises we face—moral, economic, political—and does so in a most clear and accessible way. The world needs to be educated about what ecology is telling us we should do in our relationship to nature, and that requires highly literate scientists like Sala, and educational organizations with global reach like the National Geographic Society. It is timely also as it comes to readers on the eve of the 2021 UN Convention on Biological Diversity. For if decisions made at such a meeting are to lead to anything, publics need to know what is at stake and what can be done. This book will help get the word out.
One final thought—I note on the book jacket that this hardcover book sells for $28 in the United States and $37 in Canada. The hardcover sells for $14.99 on Amazon today (December 2020). It needs to be as inexpensive as possible so that it can be in the hands of many readers who cannot afford an expensive book or won’t pay the price for one. Perhaps, in advance of the UN meeting next year, the UN or National Geographic or Jeff Bezos or another billionaire can hand out copies to world leaders and any and all interested parties, and even conduct discussions of it on the many venues available today. Wouldn’t that be nice! Sala makes the case of how much is at stake. His closing message is that “We need to build for stability and resilience instead of unfettered growth. The protection of our natural world is the inoculation we need, right now, before it’s too late. Even if it’s just for selfish reasons—for our own survival—now more than ever, we need the wild.”
Get your own copy of Enric Sala’s The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild.
David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.