Humans arose from eons of evolution and are inescapably intertwined with nature. Nature is our most important teacher, test, and nurturer. Ignoring our interdependence with natural systems—and with human nature—is folly. So tailor all actions and civilization to the demands, dynamics, limits, lessons and blessings of nature.
Related: 3 Appropriate Innovation, 4 Big Empathy, 17 Deep Time Stewardship, 26 Full Cost Accounting, 34 Life-Enhancing Enoughness, 60 Systems Thinking, 62 Universal Intelligence
Going Deeper …
This is an edited version of the video on this page.
I got the pattern name “Nature First” from William Ophuls, from his book, Sane Polity: A Pattern Language. I think it’s a great statement of a fundamental truth.
We are facing potential civilizational collapse and human extinction if we don’t get aligned with what nature has available for us, and has been trying to tell us for quite a while now. So putting that as the first standard feels totally right to me. Our technological civilization has made us think we are separate from nature because we live in such an artifact civilization. We live in spaces that are designed by humans for human needs, so we’ve become accustomed to believing we are “disconnected from nature”. But in fact we aren’t disconnected nature. We’re embedded in nature every second of our lives no matter what we do. The air we breathe is thanks to nature and evolution.
If we want to reify humanity’s importance and glorify humanity’s capacities above nature, we could say we’re stuck here with nature. But the fact is, we are nature’s creativity on speed. We are nature – we are totally natural. We are just doing a different version of some very old, well tested patterns, which include the patterns that potentially could drive us into extinction – our overreach, our overshoot, our technological developments. It turns out a lot of nature’s animals and sometimes plants use tools. So we are not the only tool users – and we are not the only intelligent organisms.
Nature has been around a long time developing its capacities, and if we stop and attend, we will see, we will learn things from that teacher, learn from the billions of years of trial and error that nature has been working on all that time. We can learn things from that in terms of dynamics, systemic dynamics, and even actual solutions to specific problems, like the biomimicry people do.
Nature is our test because we are constantly pushing against nature. Another word for nature could be reality, and we are always pushing against the limits. Nature and reality are always sending us tests, sending us feedback back, saying, “Hey, check this out! This is not smart!“ And nature is, of course, our nurturer: we get virtually all our food from nature, even if we end up creating foods, genetically engineering foods, and have test tube foods grown in industrial laboratories. They are still all going to be based on natural substances and principles that we have manipulated.
The problem is we haven’t gone through the heavy intense trial and error testing that nature does with our inventions, and those inventions often have what we call “side effects” that can be problematic or even disastrous. So our interdependence with natural systems should be fundamental to everything that we do. We should not make a move without thinking in those terms.
And human nature is of course part of nature. And human nature is relatively complex. We have evolved to be flexible beings. We can be cooperative, we can be competitive, and we can be creative and destructive… We have all those capacities individually and collectively. We need to take that flexibility into account. It is largely cultural and technological, and it increases our ability to do this or that. We should become part of nature’s evolution thinking about what makes sense for us in terms of our survival and flourishing, and we should use our flexibility to support those aspects of our flexibility that will enable us to sustain ourselves and have rich lives individually and collectively.
In the pattern heart I say “Tailoring civilization to the demands, dynamics, limits, lessons and blessings of nature”. Civilization is this vast construct that we are constantly creating together, and it is currently designed in ways – to use the language we are currently using – that make it not sustainable. We cannot continue doing the kinds of things that we are doing. So how do we go about creating new forms of civilization and constraining old forms of civilization so that we meet nature’s demands to say, “Don’t put too much into me that I can’t digest and don’t take too much out of me than I have to give.“
The Natural Step is a good example of dealing with nature’s demands using four different systemic principles that say, “If you want to align with nature, these are four things you need to attend to.”
“Natural dynamics” refers to the many kinds of feedback loops, not only feedback dynamics within our own civilization, our own social dynamics that mimic natural patterns that we have manipulated toward our desires, but also the dynamics of our actual embeddedness in the dynamics of nature. Nature – for example and fundamental to natural systems – uses what we now call recycling. In nature everything is food: waste is food for nature; there’s no such thing as waste. Natural systems create things which some parts of the natural systems can’t use, but then other parts of the natural system pick them up and use them. We are just getting back into recycling, although only a small part of what we produce actually gets recycled. But we can be conscious of that, taking our understanding of recycling and feeding it into – for example – the way we design our machines, like cars and electronics. Everything in there should be designed so it’s easily reused or recycled somewhere else in the system. Many initiatives are trying to do that kind of thing.
And, yes, we need to tailor civilization to the blessings of nature. There are moves afoot to privatize all the national parks in the US. This is the total colonization of the last little bits of true nature in the United States. To have those parks privatized for exploitation and for ownership, removes them from our commons (another pattern in this set), and is a total disrespect for nature and a misunderstanding of what our relationship with the natural world is. It is bad enough that we box off a piece of nature and say, “This is especially for nature.“ But then trying to take those over and squeeze them into our economic system as raw material is fundamentally stupid and foolish.
So saying this is our most fundamental wisdom, if we want to define wisdom as “taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit” – this taking into account the natural system’s demands and dynamics, etc., is the most fundamental thing we have to do because we are dependent on that totally.