Power, not Force

Never underestimate a butterfly, nor disregard an earthworm.

As humans, our technology has served from the beginning to control our environment, to shape the world around us, to provide shelter from the elements of nature that made our ancestors huddle together in fear.

We have been hugely successful in our efforts, over time, and so when nature intervenes to remind us of our place in the Earth story, it often takes a catastrophe to get our attention. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, typhoons – all these things demonstrate the force with which our defences and our very civilization can be hammered and even destroyed by the force of what lurks in Nature.

As humans, we unfortunately also have an short attention span. Our eyes (and our mind’s eye in particular) focus on the close at hand, the immediate, the latest bauble that happens to glitter by. Have a conversation about the power of Nature, and you will not hear much talk of butterflies and earthworms.

Yet we should. Our fixation with the force that Nature can exert robs us of the vision to see the true power of Nature, and so we remain dissociated, despite our best efforts, from the essence of the world around us.

Nature’s power has nothing to do with what we recognize as force. Life-change goes on all around us. We merely don’t see it, because of our fixation with the large scale and the forceful.

The earth moves under our feet every day. It just takes an earthquake to get our attention. Any time we stop to actually look at the earth, it is overwhelming on a small scale beyond anything we could even attempt to mimic with our own models and constructions.

The evidence has always been there for those with the wisdom and the eyes to see it. There has been a split since the early days of the Scientific Revolution, when human eyes were turned to the heavens and their movements became the subject of telescopic investigations and mathematical calculations – and the discovery of physical laws of motion in nature. So the roll of heroes includes Galileo, and Kepler and Newton, Copernicus and others of their like – and then as physics and chemistry unfolded, the discovery of simple reactions and physical relations led to changes in everything from metallurgy to manufacturing.

But along with the discovery of power, whether in the form of water, coal or steam, there were other players in the wings, whose initial discoveries were made at the same time as the telescope revealed the heavens.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope at much the same time as Galileo turned his telescope to the heavens. Robert Boyle delighted his 17th century audience at the Royal Society with his mechanisms, just as its curator of experiments, Robert Hooke, published Micrographia, with its pictures of the world invisible to the eye that the microscope allowed us to explore.

Physics and chemistry dealt in terms of atomism and mechanism, the laws of physical nature, the mechanical mimicry of natural motions. Motions and trajectories could be calculated and predicted, giving tangible evidence of how well we understood how the universe worked.

Science dealing with life, however, still faced the mystery of what made something alive – a problem no amount of anatomical dissection could solve. Organisms could be observed, from the outside, but not explained.

Then came the discovery of electricity, followed closely by electromagnetic theory, and the secret that tied life to matter was solved, at least in the popular imagination. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (who was, in the book, the scientist and not the monster), illustrated both the fascination and fear of what the mystery of life might be.

So, against the power of Nature, we asserted our own. We have changed the planet by design, used its material resources at the whim of our inexhaustible need, and have lost sight of where the real power lies.

The damage we do, and where the struggle for sustainability ultimately will take place, is in the majority of the biosphere we cannot see. We need to reassert the balance that has been lost – but even now, when we are able to see some of the complexities of living systems, we lack the tools to manage them.

I think the problem is not in our tools, but in ourselves, however. If technology is in our heads rather than in our hands (as I have argued elsewhere), we need to look for other ways of understanding both the problem and its solution than we have right now.

One of the first issues is language. On all sides, we talk about the human impact on the environment, focusing on the metrics of our ecological footprint, when much of that impact is unseen and unmeasurable — except after the fact when it is also irreversible.

We can’t repair the damage – there is more than a world of difference between repairing and healing, after all. We might attempt the first, but know little about how the Earth does the second.

Instead, we need to envision relations with the Earth in other terms than impact, with all its implied force — force that seems too often no more than another hammer blow.

The second issue is one of separation. We are not separate from the Earth, nor are the buildings we construct. Such separation is illusory. Put two people in a room together and we can calculate mathematically how long it will take for atoms from the innermost part of one person to travel to the innermost parts of the other. There can be no more intimate relation than this – but we pretend it does not happen.

At a microscopic level, we cannot continue to live without the microorganisms that literally recreate us from the inside out, every day. Yet we do not know they exist, or even what they are – and when the wrong ones take control, we use antibiotic weapons of mass destruction to wipe out everything within range.

New values and new possibilities emerge from viewing our bodies in terms of relation, not separation, from the Earth.

Natural systems include us, shaping our lives with the same power that enables a trickle of water to change mountains over the course of time. We need to align ourselves and what we do with the power of Nature, not merely contend against its force.

A sustainable world requires us to understand sustainability in ways that include all life on (and in) the planet, not just our own. But there are no computer systems able to replicate the complexity of the web of life, nor will we ever create mechanisms as tools that would enable us to manage that complexity.

We need new ideas, new words, new approaches – perhaps that result in new tools, but not tools by themselves – to enable our civilization to make better choices toward a sustainable future.

Our wisdom needs to respect the butterfly and appreciate the earthworm — and not mistake their lack of force as evidence of their lack of power.

That wisdom, to find the power in subtleties, to live with the Earth and not against it, resonates with many dimensions of our cultural heritage that the metrics of industrial economies have tended to ignore.

We do not need to discover new words and ideas. We need to integrate what humans have learned over thousands of years into a new synthesis with what science and technology have learned about the universe and how it works.

We live, after all, in a universe of relations, not an environment of connections…