EARTH IN OUR CARE
Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability
In a world exploding in the fire of ethnic and religious hatreds, I see fear and its grisly gang of distrust, divisiveness, separation, slander, reprisal, greed, fraud, distortion, and duplicity slithering through the dark halls of governments in each of the four hemispheres. It matters not which hemisphere you choose; each has its despots with fingers on the trigger as they suck the life energy from the people in a bid for the power of control. In their anxiety about life’s uncertainties and the irrational fear of the future it spawns, their sense of security depends on this control to suppress the imagined portents of personal annihilation.
In such a world, it is difficult to remain consciously aware of the miraculous beauty of form and function that surrounds us. I am particularly blessed in that I have been privileged to travel in many lands, near and afar, from ocean strand to lofty mountain, from parching desert to steaming jungle, and in each have I found beauty unsurpassed: it may have been the odor of jasmine along the Nile, the smile of a Nubian child, the soft touch of a Chilean fern, the iridescence of a Nepalese sunbird, the fuzzy face of an Austrian edelweiss, the intricate structure of a Japanese Shinto shrine, the alert stance of a tiger beetle on a jungle trail in Malaysia, or the leap of a flying fish in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Each experience is a snapshot, a touchstone along the continuum of evolution through which the eternal mystery of life unfolds.
Part of our inability to grasp the eternal mystery with our intellect is that no two things in the universe have ever been—or ever will be—exactly the same. Therefore, no two things can ever be equal—except in their inequality. Moreover, all life is composed of physical relationships in ever-changing patterns and rhythms that both affect life and are, in turn, affected by life. In this sense, life not only is pattern seeking and pattern sensitive but also is guided by the eternal rhythms of the universe. As well, every life form is a microcosm of the whole—from the most simple to the most complex.
Everything in the universe is thus connected to everything else in a cosmic web of interactive feedback loops, all entrained in self-reinforcing relationships that continually create novel, never-ending stories of cause and effect, stories that began with the eternal mystery of the original story, the original cause. Everything, from a microbe to a galaxy, is defined by its ever-shifting relationship to every other component of the cosmos. Thus “freedom” (perceived as the lack of constraints) is merely a continuum of fluid relativity. Hence, every change (no matter how minute or how grand) constitutes a systemic modification that produces novel outcomes. A feedback loop, in this sense, comprises a reciprocal relationship among countless bursts of energy moving through specific strands in the cosmic web that cause forever-new, compounding changes at either end of the strand, as well as every connecting strand.
How, then, is human ownership of anything possible?
Ownership assumes that we humans are somehow in control, that we can actually possess something and hold it in a condition of our choosing—a snapshot, if you will. In reality, however, we are totally incapable of owning anything because we are not in control of a single aspect of life other than our thoughts, motives, and their subsequent actions—the outcomes of which are beyond our ability to control. Therefore, all we ever do is borrow from the cosmic store of materials to form our bodies, our homes, our automobiles, the roads on which to drive them, and so on ad infinitum. Everything in every part of the universe is on indefinite loan to every other part of the universe—such is the cosmic web of never-ending stories that form the relationships of life.
In turn, individual, living organisms (that collectively form the species that collectively form the communities as they spread over the land and fill the seas) join the myriad constituents of diversity itself, such as the scales of time, space, and temperature, and the processes that shape the Earth. Together, the nonliving, physical elements and the living organisms have molded and remolded the earthscape in an ever-changing kaleidoscope. These organisms, through the exchange medium of the soil, are influenced by short-term ecological limitations even as they influence those same limitations through their life cycles. The interactions of communities and soil are controlled and influenced by the long-term dynamics that coincidentally form the three, interactive spheres of our earthscape: the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (the life forms that exist within the other two spheres). We humans, however, arbitrarily delineate our seamless world into discrete ecosystems as we try to understand the fluid interactions between nonliving and living components of planet Earth. If you picture the interconnectivity of the three spheres as being analogous to the motion of a waterbed, you will see how patently impossible such divisions are because you cannot touch any part of a waterbed without affecting the whole of it.
Beauty in form is clearly visible to our senses, from the microscopic to the infinite, from the delicate design of a diatom to the violent death throes of a star. But the beauty of function is often hidden in the act of living—be it a bearded vulture riding the thermals high in the Himalayas, a polar bear wandering the Arctic sea ice in search of seals, or the “emergent properties,” by means of which termites in the Australian savannah construct their twenty-foot-tall towers. Yet each of life’s actions is a form of participation in a feedback loop whereby life serves life.
As the autumn of life approaches and my time on Earth wanes, I have come to understand that the biophysical principles governing our home planet and the universe function perfectly—albeit our understanding of these principles is imperfect, and our acceptance of their limitations is unwilling. And our unwillingness to accept what is, often through informed denial, causes the pain and suffering I witness in my travels—virtually all of which is human caused. Yet, despite our all-too-often inhumane treatment of one another and our environment, the collective, functional beauty of nature’s biophysical principles lies in their flawless impartiality, the absolute fairness whereby every living being is treated during its life—whether we accept this truth or not.
Nevertheless, wherever my sojourn on Earth leads, my field of view is graced by the splendor of nature’s patterns in form and function and my relationship with them. And it is my sense of wonder that I would share with you, as a reminder that all the horrific ugliness unleashed by the severely dysfunctional among us cannot erase nature’s ineffable beauty or your place within it—if you will but choose to remain consciously focused on the eternal mystery of life. Yet, hidden within the splendor I find in living, there lurks an abiding question that must be addressed within the first part of this century if life is to be more than simply a matter of survival: Are the lifestyles we have chosen sustainable on Earth?
“Chris Maser, one of the strongest voices in the forestry community, interweaves the cause-and-effect tales of known historical events and the author’s own personal journey. While the conservation debate will always exist, this book describes for the general public how seemingly small transgressions lead to irreversible ecological paths. He elevates the need for individual awareness, accountability, and action to emphasize the sustainable vision for our Earth, rather than focusing solely on short-term goals. He asserts that the individual’s power lies within the ability to ask relevant questions as the key to protecting the Earth with the utmost humility.”—Koeunyi Bae, senior manager, Energy Initiative, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Bethesda, MD.
“In Earth in our Care, Chris Maser transports us to remote wonders around the planet on a journey that ends deep within our individual souls. By exploring the dynamics of interdependence—acacias and ants, figs and wasps, prairie grasses and the giant Palouse earthworm—he hones his message of holism: All life on Earth is connected. We are left with the urgency of taking responsibility for our own relationships with plants, air, water, rocks, time, space, and with our fellow humans.”—Jane Braxton Little, Environmental Writer and Photographer, Plumas County, California.
“Chris Maser has a knack for exploring the complexities of ecosystems and the ever-evolving role of humans in the care of the ‘good earth’ in a clear and entertaining fashion. He weaves a tapestry of knowledge, theory, and wisdom that surrounds the earth’s welfare and evolutionary status. He weaves that story and holds the listener the old-fashioned way—through the telling of simple insightful stories to illustrate his points in clear and memorable ways, much as a wise elder talking around a campfire.”—Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service Chief in the Clinton Administration; Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation, School of Forestry, the University of Montana, Missoula.
“Those of you already acquainted with Chris Maser will certainly be interested in his new book [Earth in Our Care]. Maser is a prolific writer having authored or co-authored 31 books and over 250 papers. Maser has over 40 years experience in ecological research. The challenges facing society in this study range from global warming to general environmental degradation caused by unsustainable use of the planet’s resources. Maser is one of the global thinkers trying to get his hands around how to address these problems. To quote from the book description, ‘As Chris Maser puts it, fulfilling our obligation as environmental trustees—of Earth as a biological living trust—requires fundamental changes in our social consciousness and cultural norms. To meet these challenges, we need to fundamentally reframe our way of thinking. Instead of arbitrarily delineating our seamless world into discrete parts, we need a more holistic approach—one that acknowledges the interconnectedness of causes and effects, actions and consequences. Knowledge of systems is essential if we are to pass a habitable, healthy planet to future generations. Proper trusteeship is critical to maintaining the Earth’s ability to produce, nourish, and maintain life. Without it, we risk becoming the authors of our own demise.’ Though one may agree or disagree, Maser’s book will provide food for thought. A review of the Table of Contents will whet your appetite including: Our Ever-changing Landscape Patterns; the Never-ending Stories of Cause, Effect, and Change; and Repairing Ecosystems.”—The Acorn • Spring 2009:5.
Earth In Our Care: Ecology, Economy, and Sustainability. 2009. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 304 pp.
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Flower photos © by Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.