Man vs. Nature: Coevolution of Social and Ecological Networks
By Stephen Lansing, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and the Santa Fe Institute
Since the Industrial Revolution, we've come to think of nature as the stage on which the human drama unfolds, separate from humanity. Cormac McCarthy's book brings us back to reality and opens the conversation at the Santa Fe Institute about the impact of humans on the environment.
As early as 1820, one observer wrote that truly "external" nature—nature apart from humanity—"exists nowhere except perhaps on a few isolated Australian coral atolls." Not only do humans directly alter many ecosystems through development and agriculture, we impact apparently untouched habitats in remote regions of the earth through pollution and climate change. Yet we depend on nature for "ecosystem services" such as water purification, pollination, fisheries and climate regulation. For better and for worse, humans are constantly coevolving with species and the environment. Many traditional societies have found creative ways to remind themselves of the critical interdependence of the human and natural worlds—consider the water temples of Bali, for example. Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the greatest anthropologist of our time, believed that this interdependence is fundamental to human thought.
According to Lévi-Strauss, when we think about nature we are always already thinking about ourselves.
In the past decade, scientific journals and the media have been filling up with reports of our changing relationship to nature. The most prominent example is climate change, but there are many others: the destruction of the world's tropical forests and reefs, the eutrophication of lakes and coastal zones, the beginning of a new age of mass extinction. In The Road, Cormac does not dwell on the scientific details of these catastrophes. Instead, he imagines a world that represents their logical outcome and asks us to imagine what that might feel like. What if there was a near-complete breakdown of the complex networks joining humans with one another and with other species? It's a question that stirs and troubles our sense of who we are.
"There was yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what? Beyond the open door the dead grass rasped dryly in the wind" (p. 120).
About the Author
J. Stephen Lansing is a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, with a joint appointment in ecology and evolutionary biology. He is also a professor at the Santa Fe Institute and director of Yayasan Somia Pretiwi, an Indonesian foundation promoting collaborative research on environmental problems in the tropics. Stephen chaired the anthropology department at the University of Southern California for five years and later became a professor in the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He has been a Fulbright fellow, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, a lecturer at Udayana University and a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
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