An Ecologist Discusses How Disrupting Wild Places Impacts Our Lives

Clownfish on a reef in Indonesia
Clownfish on a reef in Indonesia. Photo: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
  • Marine ecologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala has written a new book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, published Aug. 25.
  • The book is a primer on “ecology for people in a hurry,” Sala writes, revealing the startling diversity of life on our planet.
  • It also serves as a warning, calling out the impacts we humans are having on the global ecosystem, as well as solutions, such as protecting half of the Earth for nature, to address these problems.

Early on in his new book, The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild, marine ecologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala offers a warning about our ability to control nature and mimic the services on which all life on this planet depend. Several ill-fated experiments in the Biosphere 2 capsule, a research structure designed to mimic the ecological connections found on Earth, revealed how difficult it was to create a system that produced enough oxygen, balanced out the carbon dioxide that the human participants and other animals exhaled, and kept vital pollinating species from going extinct.

Sala doesn’t bring up Biosphere 2 to criticize the project. Indeed, he notes that we learned a lot through failure as a result of the effort. But he says it also demonstrates that the best science at the time couldn’t recreate Biosphere 1 — also known as Earth, a self-sustaining wonder that holds a vast array of life that we humans are just beginning to comprehend. (Sala points out that we’ve documented fewer than 2 million of the 9 million species that share our planet.)

Given our inability to replicate the global system, it’s perhaps little surprise that our actions have warped the functioning of so much of it. In this modern era, we’re wiping out species on land and in the ocean at unprecedented rates. We’re “converting” forests to grow our crops and raise our livestock. And we’re pumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that our climate is warming at a rate faster than we and other species can adapt to.

“You tamper with nature in one part of the planet, and everyone suffers,” Sala told Mongabay in a conversation by email. “That’s why we need to protect the wild.”

He writes that, as a scientist, he felt like he was writing obituaries for the species he studied.

To be sure, Sala delights in the unique and sometimes bizarre strategies for survival that species employ and how they fit together.

“Life on Earth and its mind-blowing, intertwining complexity is the greatest miracle humanity has known,” he writes.

It seems to be that appreciation that compelled Sala to write the book, not just as a warning for the challenges we face as we continue to alter nature, but as a beacon of hope: that solutions to these problems exist.

“We need to remind folks about what’s wrong, but we also need to show how to fix it,” Sala said.

This interview was edited for clarity.

The Nature of Nature
The Nature of Nature was published on Aug. 25, 2020.

Mongabay: You write that this book is ecology for people in a hurry. Did you set out to write that book? More broadly, what prompted you to write The Nature of Nature?

Enric Sala: I wanted to share what I learned over 30 years of research on how plants, animals and microbes interact and self-assemble to create the wonderful ecosystems we call forests, coral reefs and many others. They are our life support system, but most people know very little about what they do and how they interact with each other, from the micro-scale to the global. I wanted to help people understand basic concepts of ecology, which are not only awesome, but also can be very useful for rebuilding our society better.

The first chapter is called “Re-creating Nature.” That seems like something we think we can do as humans but we’re not very good at. Why did you choose that title?

The point of the first chapter is to show that we cannot recreate nature, and set the stage for the discovery of what nature does — but I did not want a spoiler title!

You talk about the work of biologists and ecologists being like “writing the obituary of ocean life,” like a doctor offering a prognosis of death without providing a cure. The book, in a sense, offers ways to remedy that, in the search for solutions. Was that what you hoped to do?

Exactly. My intention was to share my story of why I felt frustrated by everything dying in the ocean I love so much, and quitting my job to work on a solution. And the book has clear, proven solutions. We need to remind folks about what’s wrong, but we also need to show how to fix it.

Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego
Part of the Rio Grande in winter. Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Photo: Santiago Pauli.

What did you learn from your early work looking at ecosystems in Corsica, from the underwater environment up to the 2,000-meter (6,500-foot) highlands?

First, what did I feel? Bliss. Spending time there every fall for a number of years, after the few tourists were gone, with the entire island (one of the most beautiful in the world) for our little team to explore and enjoy, was one of the most fulfilling times in my life. It was a naturalist’s dream. But we also learned a lot from studying marine life in the spectacularly gorgeous Scandola Marine Reserve, which provided a stark contrast from the overbuilt Costa Brava [in Spain] were I was raised.

You mention that we often refer to forests as the lungs of the planet, but you say they’re more like sweat glands. Can you explain what you mean by that?

I hope folks will buy the book and learn why there! But I can advance that large forests produce their own rain and weather, with benefits that propagate across the planet. The lungs of the planet are actually in the ocean. And guess what? We did not know the species that produces more oxygen than any other until 30 years ago. (Hint: It’s a very small bacterium.)

We humans often latch onto a single piece of an ecosystem — like a monoculture tree plantation or a single-species fish farm. Are we arrogant in thinking we can control one aspect of nature to suit our needs without consequences?

Humans are the most intelligent species on our planet by far, but also can be the most arrogant. We could not live on a planet without wild spaces and species, yet we act as though we had planets to spare. We cannot recreate what nature does for us — for free.

The habitat and lung of Biosphere 2. Image by DrStarbuck via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
The habitat and lung of Biosphere 2. Image by DrStarbuck via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Why is GDP such a poor indicator of human prosperity? How could we better measure human success/progress?

GDP measures everything but what’s important for you and me and every other person on the planet. If you cut a forest and sell the timber, GDP grows. But if you protect the forest, and that helps prevent floods, filter rainwater and contribute to people’s well-being, that is not accounted for in GDP. Neither is happiness, being part of a community or individual health. The only people who worship GDP as the modern golden idol are like those in the casino of the Titanic, trying to make as much money as possible — after hitting the iceberg.

You cover the “Gaia hypothesis” in the book. Can you explain briefly what that is and what it means for our relationship with nature?

Gaia assumes that all of the biosphere — the thin living layer of our planet — is a superorganism where everything is connected, which self-regulates. It means we’re part of Gaia and interdependent on all other creatures. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown once and for all that we all in this together.

This hypothesis is not a new idea — it’s almost 50 years old, and I’m sure aspects of it have been around much longer. Are we seeing a resurgence in interest in it in the scientific community? If so, why do you think that is?

When James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis developed the Gaia theory, many thought they had a hippie theory of the biosphere. But Gaia derives from the ancient Greek personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities. Many Indigenous peoples also have concepts for “Mother Earth.” Gaia has been around for a while. Why have scientists developed increasing interest in it? For the wrong reasons, I believe, because we’re all now seeing what happens to us if we tamper with enough parts of the superorganism.

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia as seen from the air. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
The Great Barrier Reef in Australia as seen from the air. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

You spend a lot of time discussing the importance of keystone species and predators in ecosystems, and you cover the complexity of their impact, or what happens in their absence. What do those ideas say about us as a species that, like it or not, is part of nature?

No other predator turns their prey extinct, or pollutes their habitat, or makes it inhabitable. Humans are the only species that does that. Keystone species are the glue the binds ecosystems together. We are the diluent that unglues and collapses everything.

Why is it important to consider ecological diversity and not just species diversity?

The number of species in one place does not tell us how healthy the place is. What’s more important is how the different species are distributed in abundance. In other words, you could dive in a degraded coral reef with one last shark left, or in a pristine reef with hundreds of sharks. If you only look at species diversity or richness, both reefs would qualify the same. Shark? Check. But the former reef is clearly in bad shape.

Why is the goal of protecting half the Earth so important? In that case, what do you see as qualifying as “protection”?

If we don’t safeguard half of our planet, we’re going to see the extinction of a million species and the collapse of our life support system this century. Also, there will be not enough nature around to absorb much of our carbon pollution. Without intact wild places, the world will be a place that neither you nor I would like to live in. And we can start by protecting at least 30% of the planet by 2030 — in national parks, nature reserves, and also by respecting the traditional land management of Indigenous peoples.

Purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) Photo: Laura Francis, NOAA.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic altered or intensified your perspective on the thoughts that drive the book?

The pandemic only made them more urgent. Everyone is talking about the response (testing, tracing, treatments, vaccines), which is understandable. But we also need to remember why the pandemic happened in the first place: because of wildlife trade in China. Previous infectious zoonotic diseases occurred because of wildlife trade and destruction of natural habitats, which put people in contact with viruses that our immune system is not familiar with. You tamper with nature in one part of the planet, and everyone suffers. That’s why we need to protect the wild.

You mention early on that the book is meant to appeal to the head, the heart and the pocketbook. Why should we care about the influence of nature on our economic system?

Without nature, there would be no humans, and without humans, there would be no economic system. The economy is the cherry on top of the wedding cake, but the most important is the wider, bottom layer. It supports us and everything else. There’s a reason why there is no economic system on the Moon or Mars!

The economic benefits that nature provides — indeed, our dependence on those services — amount to a powerful argument for protecting nature. But does it ever worry you to be, in a way, reducing the argument to literal dollars and cents? It’s clear from the book that you believe protecting nature is a moral/ethical imperative. But are the economic arguments a way to create the broadest consensus that addressing biodiversity loss and extinction, climate change and related issues is absolutely critical?

It’s all about the audience. Our National Geographic Pristine Seas team has worked with local communities and country leaders to help create 22 of the largest marine reserves on the planet, and learned that every group has a different motivation. Pope Francis understands the moral imperative, a country president may think of her legacy, but a finance minister will be more interested in his balance sheets. Whatever argument works, as long as we get to that 30% protected by 2030 — and the rest of our planet is managed far more reasonably.

This article is courtesy of Mongabay. You can view the original story here.

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