I used to study tiger beetles, which are in the family Cicindelidae and are cosmopolitan in geographical distribution. One of the things I found fascinating is they are devoid of pigment and yet are arrayed in brilliant, metallic hues. But, how can that be, one might ask. Rather than pigment, the colors exhibited by tiger beetles are created by light refracted off the minute structural topography of their wing covers and external skeletons. The day I first noticed this, I was examining an Oregon tiger beetle under a binocular scope. Although the background color of the beetle appeared dull brown to my naked eye, under the scope, every color of the rainbow dazzled my view, as I turned the beetle this way and that in awe of its brilliance. Its beauty was breathtaking.
Like the background color of the Oregon tiger beetle, which is a composite of its biological and physical aspects, our world is filled with unseen wonders, one of the most phenomenal of which is the often-hidden beauty of the biophysical diversity that surrounds us. Although most people speak of “ecological this” and “ecological that,” I have begun using the term “biophysical” (“bio” from the Greek bios, “life” + “physical” from the Greek physis, “nature, matter”) to instruct that all Earthly relationships involving humans are composed of inseparable, interactive, biotic (living), and physical (non-living) components. I do this to foster systemic thinking, while precluding the symptomatic thinking that is the cause of our worldwide, social-environmental problems.
In other words, biophysical understanding not only spans all levels of biotic (living) and physical (non-living) interactions, from the molecular scale to whole organisms, landscape, seascapes, and Earth’s relationship to the cosmos but also shares significant overlap with such fields of study as: biochemistry (the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms), biology (the study of living organisms), nanotechnology (manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular scale), bioengineering (the employment of engineering’s analytical and synthetic methodologies to solve practical problems related to life sciences), agrophysics (the physical aspects of using plants for food and fuel), and biophysical systems (the dynamic, ever novel interface between the biotic and abiotic components of our home planet). When taken collectively, these fields of study provide a reciprocal link between the living (biotic) and non-living (physical) components of Earth.
To illustrate, arsenic occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust, but if it leaches into groundwater, long-term exposure can have serious consequences for human health. Natural, arsenic-contaminated groundwater used for drinking in China is a health threat that was first recognized in the 1960s. Moreover, it is thought that China has more than 10 million wells used for domestic water, thus exposing 19.6 million people to unsafe levels of arsenic, according to the World Health Organization guideline and current Chinese standard for drinking water. And, China is not the only place arsenic contamination of groundwater is found. It occurs in central Europe and South America, as well as parts of the United States and Asia.1
On the other hand, the usual understanding of the term “ecological” (from the Greek oikos “house, dwelling place” and logia “study of”) is the relationship between organisms and their immediate environment. As such, “ecosystem” is a group of interdependent organisms taken together with the environment they inhabit (their “house” or “dwelling place,” + “system”)—delineated within a human, intellectual fence of spatial and temporal scale.
As such, it does not enlighten our understanding of the seamless union between the living and non-living aspects of our dynamic, ever-changing, ever-novel world—a biophysical system—impregnated with the wonder of life, as it spins miraculously in space while orbiting the sun from whence it draws energy. Moreover, I have over the years found the notion of “ecosystem” too-often ensconced in the symptomatic-quick-fix thinking of politics, as opposed to the unavoidable systemic thinking of a “biophysical system,” which is seamless in scale, whether spatial or temporal.
Apart from the beauty biophysical diversity affords our lives, however, there is the functional aspect of that is absolutely necessary to the sustainability of life itself. It is the functional aspect of biophysical diversity that is the true wealth of each and every village, town, city, and nation. It is the functional aspect of biophysical diversity that is the soil in which the taproot of social-environmental sustainability grows. It is the functional aspect of biophysical diversity that causes us to plumb the depths of our imaginations, where, enshrouded in that depthless place we call ignorance, bubble the mysteries we try so hard through science to unveil that we might understand their significance in and to our lives.
There is more to diversity, however, than just the biophysical dimension with which we are so often preoccupied in the sciences. There is also a human dimension, which extends beyond the physical to include the realms of perception and spirituality. “We don’t see things as they are,” wrote American author Anaïs Nin. “We see things as we are.”2 To this, American clergyman Henry Emerson Fosdick might have added, “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”3 I am of like mind.
In dealing with biophysical diversity, as best I understand it anyway, I find it to be the currency of social-environmental sustainability, both locally and globally, because it adds and subtracts pieces of a living system in such a way that manipulation of those pieces causes a continuum of events to occur in the form of directed change, often of unknown magnitude. In turn, every change is beneficial to some organisms and detrimental to others. Whether a particular chain of events is beneficial or detrimental to humanity depends on how the outcome either adds to or subtracts from the necessities of human survival and the potentialities of human values in time and space.
The dimension of time is important because an outcome that is apparently beneficial in the short term can prove detrimental in the long term—well after the decision makers are deceased. On the other hand, the dimension of space is critical because a decision that is seemingly beneficial in a local area can, and often does, have detrimental effects many miles away, unbeknownst to the decision makers. In either case, the outcome affects the social-environmental sustainability of human communities at the local level—often without recourse to rectify negative impacts, even life-threatening ones.
Today’s social problems are based largely on a bourgeoning human population that is increasingly degrading the Earth’s biophysical systems by polluting the air, water, and soil; acidifying the oceans; overexploiting natural resources in the name of economics, and thereby accelerating not only global warming but also the rate of biotic extinctions—none of which can be mended with scientific Band-Aids or technological quick fixes.4 Nevertheless, out of the current social turmoil can come a society with a better balance between the scientific and the social, the materialistic and the spiritual, the masculine and the feminine, the intellectual and the intuitive, the unconscious and the conscious, the present and the future, and local and the global. To achieve that better balance, however, we must view the world and society differently, including the varied dimensions of biophysical diversity.
Humanity has taken for granted the world of nature and has exploited it in such a way and to such an extent that human society cannot long endure with any sense of well-being and dignity on its present course. People within a community compete with one another for the goods and services of nature. In turn, each community competes with every other community within a society and each society competes with every other society for the same goods and services. In that competition, each community within a society—and therefore the society itself—has become so needy and so specialized in the materialistic sense that today we live in a global collection of competing societies, which stands like a house of cards. If one society’s economic prowess falters, even momentarily, the ripples of fear are felt throughout the world, at times with stunning rapidity.
The day must therefore arrive when the citizens of this planet come to understand that, if local communities and their societies are to survive, we must set aside our historic, exploitive, environmental competition and begin instead to cooperate with one another. Only then will we be able to bring our various cultures into social-environmental harmony so there will be room for all planetary citizens, both human and nonhuman. Only then will planet Earth be adaptable to changes shaped by the hand of humanity and be at least benign to human existence within the realm of sustainability allowed by the cosmic, biophysical principles that guide this grand experiment called “life.”
1. (1) Luis Rodriguez-Lado, Guifan Sun, Michael Berg, and others. 2013. Groundwater Arsenic Contamination Throughout China. Science, 341:866–868; (2) Rebecca Morelle. China’s arsenic contamination risk is assessed. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23794644 (accessed August 23, 2013); and (3) Laura E. Erban, Steven M. Gorelick, Howard A. Zebker, and Scott Fendorf. 2013. Release of arsenic to deep groundwater in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam, linked to pumping-induced land subsidence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110:13751–13756.
2. Anaïs Nin. http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/27655.html.
3. Henry Emerson Fosdick. http://www.quoteworld.org/quotes/4878.
4. Chris Maser. 2014. Interactions Of Land, Oceans, And Humans: A Global Perspective. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. 308 pp.
Text © by Chris Maser 2015. All rights reserved.
Tiger beetles of the genus Cicindela. Photographs by David L. Pearson, University of Arizona, Tempe.