Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Usefulness" of Nature

To many people, NATURE is a place "out there." They fail to notice how indebted we are to the natural world - and how much a part of it we still are, despite thousands of years of trying to separate ourselves from it. It is neither supermarket nor recreation site nor messy menace we should keep out as much as possible.
Our food certainly continues that thread of intimate connection, even if some people would happily try to sell you lab-grown meat and genetically modified plants. In fact, our diet has probably been one of the biggest problems. We have evolved strategies to separate good from not-good food, and that mindset has led to separating "good" (useful) nature from "bad" or useless.
I think many would agree that we have messed up spectacularly in this dichotomy.
World-renown marine biologist Sylvia Earle says this about saving apparently useless species frome extinction. (A larger part of her essay appears here.)

[W]e need the leatherback, the panda and the worm because they might be useful to us. We have all heard about medicines that come from the rain forest. That is true. But consider this. With all of the millions of species on this planet is it possible that there is a cure for colon cancer in the genetic information of a beetle, a plant or a fungus in the forests of Costa Rica? The earth is like a house overflowing with wedding presents. When the bride and groom come home from their honeymoon they decide it is too crowded and throw out some of those gifts. A few weeks later they find that they don’t have a toaster or a vacuum. They were there but got thrown away. That is what we are doing, throwing away the gifts of biodiversity before we even unwrap (study) them. There are scientists who question whether biodiversity is needed for the stability of ecosystems. We might want to keep that biodiversity around until we figure that out.
 I see her approach, but it saddens me. In order to get people to agree with her, she's playing into the same dominant social paradigm that causes the problem.
In future posts I will try to wrestle with these issues.

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