Learning the Lessons of the Planet
Opinion by Jonathan Foley
For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of sorts, first as a university professor, and now as the director of a science museum. While the students and settings have changed, the job has remained the same—to share the wonders of the natural world, and teach the science we need to understand and sustain our planet.
Over time, I have come to believe that our environmental problems stem from too many people not understanding, or intentionally overlooking, the physical and biological systems governing this planet. We have gotten very good at ignoring nature’s laws, pretending that we are exempt from them.
But we’re not, and that’s where our problems arise. Whether we’re causing dangerous climate change, degrading the world’s ecosystems, or collapsing our natural resources, environmental problems begin when we ignore the physical limits of our planet, and act as if they don’t apply to us. This is a dangerous combination of ignorance and arrogance.
As a science educator, I feel we can and should do a far better job of helping people see and understand the systems that govern our world, and internalize the lessons they can teach us. In other words, we need to truly learn the lessons our living planet can teach us, and start living by them. Only then we can truly sustain our environment, and our civilization, into the future.
And we must share these “planet lessons” with as many people as possible—presidents and preschoolers, CEOs and cab drivers, parents and policy-makers. We all need to learn the lessons of our living world, and act accordingly.
I’ve decided to do my part by sharing some of the planet lessons I’ve learned so far.
Lesson One. Physics Trumps Politics and Economics. Every Time.
The first lesson I learned from the planet is about the absurdity of our “real world” politics and economics.
Despite what many people claim, politics and economics are arbitrary systems of belief that people in power have invented over the years. And regardless of what we have been brought up to believe, the planet does not actually obey the rules of politics and economics. It never has.
Although our beliefs about these systems are often useful, ultimately they are entirely negotiable. After all, people in power just made them up. Believing otherwise isn’t just lazy thinking, it’s an excuse people use to justify poor decision-making and maintain the status quo. When you hear someone dismiss something sensible and necessary—like protecting our oceans, shifting to 100% renewable energy sources, or making agriculture sustainable—because it “isn’t economical” or “isn’t political feasible”, what they’re really saying, whether they realize or not, is “that’s kind of inconvenient for people in power right now, so please don’t talk about it.”
Instead of allowing ourselves to be trapped by arbitrary economic and political systems, we should instead focus more attention on what really governs the planet: the physical systems that have been operating here for eons.
Unlike politics and economics, Earth’s physics, chemistry, and biology are natural systems based on empirical, reproducible facts. And these facts are fixed and entirely non-negotiable. Nature doesn’t care what we choose to believe, and you can’t cheat the laws of physics. Ever. Ignoring them is at best shortsighted. At worst, it guarantees the demise of our civilization.
That’s why it is so alarming that some political leaders ignore the laws of physics and profess that climate change is not “real”. Of course it is. The greenhouse effect has been understood since the early 19th century, and we have overwhelming evidence that increasing CO2 levels are warming the planet. Denying those facts is either dishonest or delusional. Yet, while the basic physical realities of climate change are no longer debatable, the political and economic concerns are. For example, what should we do about climate change? What will it cost us, and who will pay? But let’s not confuse negotiable political and economic frameworks with the non-negotiable, inviolable laws of physics.
We can—and should—have debates about how our political and economic systems solve the problems we face. After all, economics and politics are meant to be debated. But for these debates to be rational and productive, we need to understand and acknowledge the physical realities of the planet. What we cannot do is pretend that the laws of physics are somehow ours to control or ignore, as we see fit. On that path lies delusion and ruin.
Lesson Two. Thermodynamics and Systems Thinking are Powerful Tools.
The next lesson I’ve learned over the years is that thermodynamics and systems thinking are very powerful tools for understanding and describing the workings of our planet.
Thermodynamics is the study of energy—how it flows through the universe, and how it changes from one form to another. It is also a good way to learn about life, as living systems are ultimately all about energy—energy gathered from the sun, converted to biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Energy is what fuels everything on this planet, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution. To understand Earth’s biology, climate, water cycle, chemical cycles, and so on, you must first understand the basics of thermodynamics.
Systems thinking is another powerful tool for our mental toolbox, as it helps us organize our view of the world, seeing connections among all of Earth’s living and non-living things. Systems thinking provides a framework through which to view the planet—through the lenses of complexity, feedback loops, and the countless connections of stocks and flows coursing through the environment. Systems thinking also helps us build powerful models—whether conceptual models in our head or numerical models running on a computer—that enable us to test our understanding of the world. Of all of the things I’ve learned in my education so far, systems thinking has been the most useful.
Thermodynamics and systems thinking, combined with some keen observations of the natural world, can give us many important insights, including:
- Earth is powered by renewable energy. The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter sunlit space— something we call the “solar constant”—and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, natural systems have lived on this “solar income”. And we can too, if we put our minds to it. Sunlight—and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass—can provide all the energy we need. Ultimately, it has to.
- Nature has almost zero waste. Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, on the planet to work with. So natural systems have gotten very good at recycling everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What’s waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorous atom—a necessary ingredient for life—can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geology will ultimately recycle it once again. Unfortunately, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy.”
- Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity. Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. We need to realize that diversity is essential to building strong, enduring, and sustainable systems.
Lesson Three: We Need a Big Dose of Humility.
The natural world has also taught me that we should be far less arrogant about the power of our science and technology. We still have so much to learn.
It’s humbling, but we also have to admit that nature does things that we cannot yet do ourselves. Even the simplest pond scum is able to run entirely on renewable energy, with nearly infinite recycling, with extraordinary diversity and resilience. In short, nature is one hell of an engineer.
Sadly, we are still far from matching the capabilities of the natural world. We still use dirty fossil fuels, not renewable energy—leading to air pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and other critical problems. We still recklessly extract raw materials from nature, far faster than they can be regenerated, so they inevitably run out. Our throw-away culture then uses something once, creating a dangerous waste product that is tossed into the environment. Unfortunately, we continue to ignore the lessons even simple pond scum can teach us.
What we need is a big dose of humility, and to admit that we have much to learn from the rest of life on Earth. The rest of life has learned the lessons of the planet, and we have not.
Lesson Four. Go Outdoors and Observe Nature.
Nature is the best teacher I’ve ever had. I learned about photosynthesis, carbon stocks, and nutrient cycling from my garden. And I learned about meteorology and oceanography by watching clouds and waves. While classroom learning is certainly important, it is crucial that we spend time observing and interacting with the natural world to truly internalize the lessons of the planet.
Thankfully, many people are beginning to look to nature as a source of inspiration and solutions. And we can follow their lead.
For example, keen observations of the natural world have led to the basic concept and innovations of biomimicry, which seeks to design products that emulate solutions already found in nature. Observations of nature have also spurred the development of agroecology and permaculture, which seek to design agricultural systems that emulate processes found in nature. We have also begun to more keenly recognize the flow of ecosystem goods and services and how they support human wellbeing.
We should look to nature for even more practical solutions for living sustainably on planet Earth. After all, if we just stop to look, and learn, nature can teach us how to build extraordinary things, with zero waste, amazing resilience, all powered by the sun.
Final Lesson. Get to Work!
Finally, the natural world has inspired me to roll up my sleeves, focus on the problems we can solve, and get to work.
Whether we realize it or not, the fate of the planet is now in our hands. We are a driving force on an enormously complex planetary machine, and most of the people in charge have no idea how it operates, or are still under the mistaken belief that political and economic systems outweigh the laws of physics. They simply don’t know the rules. Worse yet, they are obeying the wrong rules. This a very dangerous situation.
Our leaders—hell, all of us—urgently need a crash course in how the planet really works, including the principles we need to follow in order to thrive into the future. We must learn the lessons of the planet so we can build a civilization that endures.
So far, there is no major, and no degree that teach these lessons of the planet. It’s not that simple. In the meantime, a mix of humility, a little training in physics and systems thinking, a keen eye for observation, and a lot of time in the natural world would be a good start.