Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Listening to Nature

By Paul C. Adams (University of Texas)

The current geological era has been dubbed the Anthropocene. This term is meant to signify that humans now ‘have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system’. We are affecting so many systems simultaneously—atmospheric, terrestrial and aquatic—that earth scientists are at a loss to understand exactly how human actions are entangled in many of the processes of environmental disturbance they are observing. Are things changing because we’ve added something (like pollution), taken something away (like the animals we fish and hunt) or transformed something (like the rivers we have rerouted and channelized) or all three? The engineering mindset that got us into this situation may be the wrong approach to get us out. It might help to think in a radically different way, developing a respect for nature as a host of interdependent, intercommunicating organisms, and thinking of each place as what I call an ‘enviro-organism’. To see why I move in this direction, we have to take a step back and reflect for a moment on what people mean by ‘nature.’

Nature confronts us with impressions of the unbelievably large and the incredibly small. The New Horizons spacecraft departed from the earth at a whopping 58,000 kilometres an hour but it took nine years for it to reach Pluto.  The length of the voyage merely to the edge of our solar system reminds us that our planet is a mere speck in the universe. Meanwhile, the physicists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, are stretching our understanding down to the very smallest scale phenomena. The particles they study cannot really be thought of as things in a conventional sense, but they are necessary for the existence of more thing-like things such as atoms and molecules. And the scales of time taken into account by physicists and astronomers are equally alienating. Nature pushes us to our limits, extending human awareness to scales that are too large or too small to feel a sense of involvement. There is something awe-inspiring about imaginatively voyaging from the microscopic to the macroscopic, from the interior of atoms to the far edge of the universe, but these elements of nature seem to have no place for humanity as we know it.


adams-blogpic-Geological-time-spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey
Geological Time Spiral. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

There is of course another side to nature. When a dentist from Minnesota shot a lion named Cecil in 2014, there was international outrage. When sea stars (‘starfish’) began to tear themselves to pieces off the west coast of North America there was widespread concern. There is now a new concern about 12,000 square kilometres of coral that is expected to die over the next year because of climate change. It is more than a bit disturbing to many nature-lovers that hundreds of frog species are predicted to go extinct by the end of the century. In these cases, ‘nature’ appears as something fragile, something to care about, and something we should be taking care of. Nature’s middle scales are more easily embraced within human concern than the scalar extremes studied by astronomers and physicists.

Nature means radically different things and this raises questions. If the nature around us has all been humanized in some way, if it is not entirely wild like Pluto or entirely strange like subatomic particles (some of which are technically classified as ‘strange’), and furthermore if it is frequently unruly—unpredictable and occasionally dangerous, then why should we care about it? How can we make sense of our passion to save lions, frogs, corals, or starfish? Are our caring feelings misguided? Do they betray emotionalism more than our capacity for rational thought?

I would argue that a beginning of an answer lies in thinking of nature in a fundamentally different way—not as strange (like elementary particles and galaxies) or tragically compromised (like endangered species and ecosystems), but as a collection of beings that have things to say to us, beings we have only started to attend to, beings we could learn important things from if we knew how to listen. In my article ‘Placing the Anthropocene: A Day in the Life of an Enviro-Organism’, I offer a glimpse of nature as a collection of living and nonliving things that communicate with us and with each other. I propose that we should meet these fellow creatures in a spirit of dialogue, or even in a spirit of orchestral performance. By doing so, our ambivalent relation to nature becomes clearer. This attitude to nature helps us find a place for ourselves as observers filled with awe and scientific curiosity, but also as caretakers of a small corner of the universe.

About the author:

Dr. Paul C. Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin.

books_icon Adams, P. C. (2015), Placing the Anthropocene: a day in the life of an enviro-organism. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12103

60-world2 Capecchi C and Rogers k 2015 Killer of Cecil the Lion Finds Out That He Is a Target Now, of Internet Vigilantism The New York Times

60-world2 Dunnakey A 2015 Coral reefs endangered by bleaching in global event, researchers say CNN

60-world2 Lee J 2015 Starfish are still dying, but here’s reason for hope The National Geographic

60-world2 NASA 2015 New Horizons: The First Mission to the Pluto System and the Kuiper Belt

60-world2 Platt J 2015 Frog Mass Extinction on the Horizon Scientific American 

60-world2 Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’

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