Friday, May 9, 2014

We Are Nature: Ecological and Social Niches



Above is a chart I created to draw some parallels between nature and humanity defining niches within both the natural ecological community and the human social community. I separated nature and humanity to draw these parallels clearly, but I believe any idea of separation is but a belief not based in truth or reality. Let me provide some visuals to elaborate:


This is a local forest in late fall, with a non-native plant invasion of Honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). Honeysuckle was brought from Asia to America in the early 1900's for erosion control, and other functional and horticultural purposes. Because it had no recent evolutionary connection to our local ecosystem, it has no natural controls, and is now destroying the diversity of our ecological communities by unnaturally dominating different niches. This niche is within the understory of a forest, which should be home to many native shrubs and understory trees along with a beautiful display of wildflowers. Because honeysuckle is not from this community nor climate, it leafs out so early in the spring, and goes dormant so late in the fall, it prevents the native forest wildflowers, shrubs, and tree species from being able to have enough sunlight to reproduce and establish themselves. This ecosystem, with the unnatural introduction of honeysuckle and many other non-native species is now self-degrading and self-destructive. All of the different animals, fungi, and insects that depended on the diversity of our forests are hurt and displaced by this invasion. 


Let's say this child is suffering from depression. Just as a healthy ecosystem is not significantly self-degrading and self-destructive, healthy humans within healthy social environments and with healthy lifestyles typically aren't either. Perhaps this child lacks a stable home, this would be the equivalent of a temporarily open niche with the life of this teenager. What will she fill it with, what will she be influenced to fill it with? She has options of sports, mental and physical health hobbies such as meditation and exercise, but she also has access to harmful drugs and alcohol and a group of peers with the same choices. The disturbance in the niche of the stable home is often filled with negatives such as drug abuse or other associated behaviors described as "acting out", just as the disturbance of an urban forest is often filled with honeysuckle. The end results of both of these realities is self-destructive and self-degrading ecosystems, people, and cultures that not only harm themselves but harm the community that they are interconnected with at the same time.


Before we talk about options to improve ecological health or social health, first I'd like to show how humanity and nature are interconnected and interdependent. Above is an illustration for Climate Change effects on hydrology in California. As the climate changes due to our fossil fuel burning, water cycles, weather patterns, and climates that directly effect agriculture, energy use, and life styles not only are ecological niches extremely changed but so will social niches. Our social lifestyles, economics, hobbies and even some relationships are directly connected to energy, transit, food, and water availabilty. With climate change threatening to drastically change water cycles and weather patterns, due to our current energy and land use, the essentials of our societies within all countries will be profoundly effected. Our Agri "culture" is in part a product of our social environment. Our energy-culture is in part a product of our social environment as much as our social lifestyles including hobbies, consumption habits, and even our personal land management-all in part products of our social environment. Because of this interconnection, climate change has this potential for large social niche disturbance and transition.

In the same breath, as ecological niches are greatly interdependent on the physical environment, the changing of weather patterns and climate will change the foundation of what our modern state of ecology is currently adapted to. Prairie communities may have to abruptly transition to desert communities, savannas into prairies, forests into savannas, wetlands into forests and vice versa. 

In short, our climate change action or inaction will profoundly effect the earth socially and ecologically as we are interdependent, and interconnected. 


(Service Learning Project, led by Dr.Crail of Toledo University at Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve.)

With our introduction of non-native plants, insects, animals, and pathogens into our natural communities, without out our intervention the state of our ecology will remain self-degrading. Pictured above is a student group of Toledo University removing invasive buckthorn from Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve in route to rehabilitating the ecological niche, and strengthening the community. We can gather a group, join a group, or work with non-profits to coordinate with local park districts and preserves and make local impacts everywhere we are. This ecological work is no more or less valuable than the social work humanitarian focused organizations complete as it is all interconnected. 


("Feelings Free Throws" activity led by John Orr of Mindful Youth at the Museum Center )

The complexity of our social environments and niches call for adaptive tools to navigate life in a healthy manner just as the complexity and reliance of a plant in it's physical environment and niches requires many adaptive abilities to prosper. Children such as the previously referenced teen suffering from depression, and younger children experience their own challenges akin to the seedlings trying to establish themselves in the competitive eco-matrix of a forest. Our social environment causes their lives, and the lives of those close to them are often busy, chaotic, and challenging. Mindful Youth offers mindfulness as a path to successfully navigate these even changing moments of their lives. This is an example of the social work that helps empower individuals and communities to be able to thrive in their social niches as they process life happenings. Volunteering and supporting social health focused organizations is in the same way no more or less valuable as the environmentally focused work. All of these efforts are essential to progression and rehabilitation socially and environmentally as a society. Fundamentally there is no difference.


The health of the natural environment directly effects the viability of our society, and conversely the health of the human-social environment directly effects the viability of the natural environment. Can we cross-study a healthy self-sustaining ecosystem to draw inspiration for building healthy self-sustaining societies? I believe we can. Nature is very much a coded poem, requiring a high level of mindfulness and education for interpretation, but so is the psychology of humanity. Perhaps our brain is a comparable to a microcosm of an ecosystem within which we can nurture health and happiness or illness and chaos....honeysuckle or viburnums. If we were to label an invasive plant in an ecosystem that is ecologically destructive, can we call it kin to a social dilemma brewing rioting and wide distress in an society that is socially destructive? What can we extrapolate from the science of nature in balance to model a society in balance? What can we interpret from a healthy ecological niche to promote a healthy social niche? How many answers to questions of humanity, are laying untranslated in nature?

"But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."-Rachel Carson

"Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest re- corded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old."-Henery David Thoreau




Check out this blog post written by my colleague Brian Kinzie on this same topic from a different angle. Blog Titled: Relative Truth Blog