I’ve just finished reading Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm, by the gloriously appropriately named Isabella Tree. My thoughts on that intersected with thoughts on listening to my new favourite podcast, Bliss & Grit, and especially their conversation with Jeannie Zandi on “Embodying Yin“, and got me thinking about the currently prevailing approach to conservation.
(There’s a good, quick overview of yin and yang here, but in brief, yin is the feminine/passive principle, while yang is the masculine/active principle in Chinese philosophy.)
Environmental organisations have tended to take a very yang approach, which is unsurprising and forgivable, given that they operate in an economic system where donors want to see a measurable return on their investment in terms of numbers of trees planted, square miles protected, or mating pairs reintroduced into the wild. Give us those lovely yang metrics!
Similar problems appear in the political realm which, in cahoots with the sensationalist media, favours the grand gesture over the “leaving-well-enough-alone”, even though the grand gesture often backfires, tipping over into overkill. I’m sure we can all think of examples where the introduction of non-native species to “solve” one problem has ended up creating a bigger problem. (10 examples of unintended – and undesirable – consequences here!)
In recent years, the increasing sense of desperation has led to ever more yang measures. Implicit in the conceptualisation of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, in which human beings are the primary agents of change at a planetary scale, is the notion that we have completed our domination of nature, and every aspect of our ecosystem from now on will have to be micro-managed by humans, despite our extremely imperfect understanding of the systems we are attempting to manage.
For example, it is only in the last few years that the “wood wide web” – the web of mycorrhizal fibres lying under the soil of a forest, distributing nutrients and even a form of information, such as warning of attacking species of insect, between the more conspicuous plants above the surface – has even begun to be understood. This is a relatively straightforward, visible, tangible, measurable aspect of our planet’s complex ecosystem, and yet have only recently started to appreciate its intricacy and intelligence. Meanwhile, geoengineers presume to intervene in one of the most complex and vitally important systems on our planet – the weather.
Hubris is the ancient Greek word for the fatal flaw of the powerful, when success tips over into outrageous arrogance, foolish pride, and dangerous overconfidence, leading to the downfall of a group or individual. The ancient Greeks believed that this downfall was preceded by a moral blindness that led the powerful to believe they could do anything they wanted to, free of consequences from either Gods or men. As the yang of expansion swells to its maximum in the yin-yang wheel, the dark seed of its destruction appears at its heart.
Having created a culture, supported by structures, that have led with an increasing inevitability towards severe damage to our environment, we now try to remedy that damage from within the same mindset and the same structures that created it. This appears to be hubristic in the extreme.
What would the yin-yang balanced course be? There is, of course, still a time and a place for urgent and massive action, such as radical decarbonisation, but a useful question would be: “What is the minimum effective response?” in relation to other issues. Sometimes, what is most needed is simply for nature to be left alone to recover.
This may not make for inspiring political vision statements, or gratifying ROI for non-profit donors, and it most certainly will not benefit GDP, but it may be best for nature’s long-term interests. It may run counter to human discomfort once we realise how badly we have messed things up – we have a natural urge to clean up the mess as quickly as we can – but this may not be the appropriate response. For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which happened while I was on the final leg of the Pacific Ocean, was already catastrophic, but was aggravated by BP’s response. Their hasty clean-up operation may have been motivated more by a commercial desire to minimise detectable oil in order to reduce the subsequent fines, than by a conservationist desire to minimise damage, but either way, the results were disastrous. A Georgia Tech study in 2012 determined that the Corexit dispersant made the oil up to 52 times more toxic to the planktonic food chain. A very yang response made a bad situation much worse.
By contrast, I remember vividly the evidence presented by underwater photographer Brian Skerry when he spoke just before I did at the TED Mission Blue conference in the Galapagos in that same year. He talked about the resilience of the ocean, and how life has flourished within marine reserves. He concluded his speech:
“I wanted to finish with this photograph, a picture I made on a very stormy day in New Zealand when I just laid on the bottom amidst a school of fish swirling around me. And I was in a place that had only been protected about 20 years ago. And I talked to divers that had been diving there for many years, and they said that the marine life was better here today than it was in the 1960s. And that’s because it’s been protected, that it has come back. So I think the message is clear. The ocean is, indeed, resilient and tolerant to a point, but we must be good custodians.”
My interpretation of “custodian” in this context means protecting from harm (yin), rather than proactively intervening (yang).
This yin strategy of less-is-more is nicely captured by Isabella Tree in Wilding.
“Allowing natural processes to happen, and having no predetermined targets to meet, no species or numbers to dictate the plan, is a challenge to conventional thinking. It particularly unsettles scientists who like to test hypotheses, run computer models, tick boxes and fix goals. Rewilding – giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself – is largely a leap of faith. It involves surrendering all preconceptions, and simply sitting back and observing what happens.”
(Anybody who has read the book will know that the author and her husband actually do an enormous amount of work, and not so much sitting back, but as an experiment in conservation their accelerated timeline is tremendously informative.)
“Rewilding Knepp [their estate] is full of surprises, and the unexpected outcomes are changing what we thought we knew about some of our native species’ behaviour and habitats – indeed it is changing the science of ecology. And it is also teaching us something about ourselves, and the hubris that has led us to our current predicament.”
Yang is certainly not a bad thing. It has made our world a better place in so many ways. But we would do well to remember that the classic yin-yang symbol shows a white dot in the black side, and a black dot in the white side, symbolising that each aspect contains the seed of the other. Just as one aspect reaches its zenith, the other aspect is already starting to emerge. According to John Glubb’s theory, our current civilisation has already reached its peak.
Could it be that our yang expansion is about to give way to yin contraction? If so, we will need to accept that our future may not be a continuation of our past – and that we will need a new kind of leader to take us into a new kind of reality.