Together, With Nature

THIS POST IS THE WINNER OF THE PRIZE FOR BEST ESSAY BY AN UNDERGRADUATE ON THE QUESTION, “HOW DID THE ANTHROPOCENE BIOSPHERE PROJECT AFFECT THE WAY I UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HUMAN BEINGS AND NATURE?” CONGRATULATIONS, MARY!

The 2016 Anthropocene Biosphere project brought together intellectuals from various fields to share their intellectual expertise on how humankind is shaping our planet. These experts, through the blog and live presentation, wove together an understanding of the many facets of environmental change. Reading the works of these great minds gave me a deeper understanding of how essential communication and interaction are to the concept of the Anthropocene. It is all too easy to think of environmental activism as something reserved for people who think, talk, or act a certain way, but that could not be any farther from the truth. The call to care about the environment should be felt by each individual person, just as the consequences of the environmental changes of the Anthropocene will be felt by each person. When it comes to humanity’s relationship with nature, it does not help to pit the rich versus the poor or “developed countries” against “developing countries”. Help comes from a complicated merging of every person, regardless of their perceived affiliation, in a quest for a common good.

In his presentation on April 14th, 2016, Erle Ellis highlighted the sword that our species wields so expertly in our search for environmental stability: “ultrasociality”. Ellis explains this term as a human’s extraordinary aptitude for learning from other humans, allowing the culture to evolve dramatically within one human lifetime. This is one of the reasons that we have been able to become a global force, impacting this geologic time period to the point of naming rights. Change of any kind is essentially connected to people learning from each other and mimicking working practices in order to advance or evolve a culture. One of the most heartfelt moments of Ellis’ presentation came when he said “We have more capacity to change the Earth for the better than humanity has ever had before” (Ellis 2016). This sort of optimism calls people to understand their responsibility to the maintenance of our Anthropocene Earth, and understand the wealth of knowledge that can be gathered and shared by a cooperative mankind.

The interactions between the worlds of sustainability and policy-making are a prime example of using a common goal in order to kick-start progress through social learning. Both the environmental activists and law-makers in this situation want the best for the people who live within a governing body. They want to do what is right for the people who depend on their expertise. Unfortunately, relations between these two groups sometimes become more of a conflict than a place for active discussion. Dr. Kiza Gates alluded to this tendency when she asked how Dr. Ellis’ theories on the Anthropocene can help bridge these gaps and aid communities in becoming better sustainers of nature. Ellis responded to this question with a perspective that emphasizes the importance of cooperation in the fight for a healthy planet. He said that environmental activists must, rather than focusing on the dire consequences that a piece of legislation might have on the environment, give attention to concessions, in an effort to defray environmental degradation. While some die-hard activists think it is better to demand full consideration of environmental impacts, that is not always practical. Negotiations can become a stepping stone to bring about environmental change that will benefit in the long run.

Another perspective on the importance of cooperation to environmental practices came in Tom Burns’ blog post, “Looking at Lenski”. This piece explores how “niche construction theory”, described in Ellis’ paper, is a model for cultural changes in relation to the environment. In Burns’ post and subsequent comments, he explores the idea that different cultural climates, with their related technological advances, are all called to the same ethical responsibility towards the planet. As he so eloquently put:

For us, I believe the best hope lies in the rise of a new environmental consciousness, in which relationship with, and stewardship for, the natural environment, becomes a central organizing principle of the culture itself. We are in a time that is qualitatively different from the past in so many dimensions, that it is difficult to know what cultural codes to follow, and what bears reworking. And yet I do think that is the task of citizens and (dare I use the word?) intellectuals in the new millennium (Burns 2016).

Because the world is so different from the past, we must culturally evolve and adapt to these new situations. By communicating with people of different groups, whether it be differing departments of academia, disparate social classes, or any other perceived separation, a common thread of environmental stewardship and consciousness will unite and empower modern humanity.

There is something beautiful about imagining all of mankind expressing themselves in their own language, culture, spirituality and perspective to come together for the common good of all people. By our sheer existence, we impacted the environment, so through our collective efforts, we must work to protect it. In order to secure the planet on which we live, we must realize that each and every one of us have a relationship with nature. We must cash in on our ultrasociality, joining together our efforts in order make notable change. Humanity can interact with the cultural niches we have created so that we might help the earth in a way that is uniquely and promisingly possible. From the very beginning it was clear that the Anthropocene Biosphere project put an emphasis on the interactions between people with different formations of expertise. The lesson of communication as an aid to progress was interwoven into the fabric of the project. Knowledgeable professors from different disciplines came together to negotiate an understanding of human relations with nature. This sort of interaction gives me hope for the fate of all humanity.


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MARY LaPORTE is a Freshman at the University of Oklahoma, working towards a B.S. in Plant Biology. She is originally from Bellevue, Nebraska. After completing her degree she hopes to study swamp systems and wetland biology.
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2 thoughts on “Together, With Nature

  1. Mary- very nicely done!
    One concept I would avoid though, is the idea that humans “wield” ultrasociality. The way I see it, our ultrasociality just means that as individuals and members of groups and societies- we must swim in the social world, like fish in water. Perhaps when we can gain more understanding and social capacities, we might learn to manage the water we live in more effectively….

  2. Thank you for that clarification! Ultrasociality is a fascinating concept, that I hope to learn more about. I hope that further understanding how humans relate to each other will in the end help us learn how to better relate with the environment.

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