Fact or myth: is ‘Nature’ really suffering?

Another puzzle for you to pontificate on: is it really true that ‘Nature’ is suffering?

For decades now, you will be hard-pressed to read a whole newspaper or magazine without someone complaining about how badly ‘Nature’ is doing. The melting glaciers, the disappearing Siberian tiger, the extinct Tasmanian one, the demise of any fish large enough to be eaten, the diminishing rain forest, the advent of mono-cultures, acidification of the ocean, etc. To most people it must be a no-brainer that in this age of global warming and increased consumption of an increasing human population, ‘Nature’ must be on the ropes.

But is this really true? Surely we cannot just think of ‘Nature’ as whatever existed in 1800 and hence by definition say every change is bad! Nature is surely a dynamic thing capable of actually getting better over time, not just worse. The key to whether ‘Nature’ is thus doing well or doing badly is some notion as to what it is you mean by Nature.

So what do you have to assume about what ‘Nature’ is to really say it is in a bad shape? Can you think of reasonable definitions of ‘Nature’ such that it is, in fact, in great shape?

Once again, I invite all to speak their minds about this factoid on the comment thread and will give you my best guess on Monday.

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20 Responses to Fact or myth: is ‘Nature’ really suffering?

  1. murph the surf. says:

    It will outlast us.

  2. PSC says:

    However you do it, you need to measure some property of the natural environment over tens or hundreds of millions of years, and then determine if there has been a large change to this property in the last few hundred years.

    There have been 5 big mass extinction events in the last 600 million years – estimates are that the current extinction rate is at or exceeding one of these big events.

    So if you use as your definition of “Nature” “that which has existed for the last 50 million years since the K-T event”, then yes, Nature is showing signs of stress.

    If you use a broader definition – I guess if you ignore the living stuff and focus on the inanimate stuff – Nature is probably doing ok. But I think you need to expand your definition of “Nature” so as to ignore living things.



  3. Chris says:

    Perhaps when someone refers to “nature”, it’s shorthand for the environment and the complex interactions that make the planet habitable. Why can’t I help thinking that being pedantic about this is more shorthand for “just keep ripping the guts out of the planet without a damn for intergenerational equity.

    • GrueBleen says:

      We (homo sapiens) are an inalienable part of nature, and we’re doing fine: population increasing rapidly, lifestyle improving over large parts of our domain.

      So, is that an adequate definition of nature such that we can righfully say “nature is doing fine” ?

  4. Tel says:

    There’s a glib saying amongst us Atheists: I don’t mind God , It’s His fanclub I can’t stand.

    I can’t help thinking the same applies to Gaia. Not that I’m ever glib, as you all well know.

  5. conrad says:

    I agree with PSC on the extinction stuff, although most of that happened without warming. The oceans are also screwed — I think in this case it is actually reasonable to compare to, say, 1800, because what it basically shows is that most fisheries have been entirely mismanaged, and there are only a tiny amount of fish compared to what the area could actually support if people just stopped fishing for a while (or implemented smart controls). Again, most of that happened without warming. So if you take animals on the land and at sea, it seems pretty bad, although land animals have been largely replaced by different species, so if you only cared about animal mass, I imagine this wouldn’t matter. You could also take a trip Asia if you just want to see in-your-face environmental degredation (versus just desertification etc.). .

  6. Avi Waksberg says:

    There is an empirical answer to this question. Best guess seems to be yes, nature is suffering.

  7. john r walker says:

    Paul ‘nature’ is tough,life has survived much worse than we can dish out. A better question is- are humans, a clever but fragile small twig in the huge bush of life, collectively heading for a Darwin Award?

    The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event was the mother of all mass extinctions , about 90% of all lifeforms went extinct. The boundary is marked world wide, in marine sediments by a layer of deposits of sulfate rich rock and on land by a layer of rocks that suggest massive sheet erosion on continental scales . Both the marine sediments and the land deposits are consistent with a runaway ‘chain reaction’ greenhouse event causing very anaerobic conditions in the oceans, hence the sulfurous sediments and massive death of plant cover on land , hence the massive sheet erosion deposits.

  8. mary jenkins says:

    Of course the environment is suffering and nature is the victim of all the polluters since the industrial revolution. This has esculated since the multinational greedy chemical and mining industries have raped the land in almost every country. They have dug it up shipped it out processed it without any move to restore the land, sea and air that they pollute. In the end we all suffer not only nature.

  9. Jennifer McCulloch says:

    I know so little about the environment and environmental policy that I probably should pontificate, but your question got me thinking about another one.
    When did the environment become a good cause?
    I can engage with interest in environmental issues when the environment is ‘changing’ but when it ‘suffers’ I get huffy and want to strangle the messenger.

    • mary jenkins says:

      The environment began to suffer when it started weeping and crying out for some good stewardship and love instead of being exploited all the time. Nature and us humans are the ultimate victims of the exploitation since the industrial revolution.

  10. David Walker says:

    In the search for facts, the Wikipedia entry on biodiversity is not a bad place to start:

    I’d concentrate on the section relating to habitat destruction. Climate change may be a hard problem, but habitat destruction remains the planet’s worst environmental problem.

  11. PSC says:

    So what do you have to assume about what ‘Nature’ is to really say it is in a bad shape?

    I guess: the number of distinct species in existence is a measure of the quality of nature.

    The problem is that there aren’t too many metrics we have that extend back over 100million years which measure the quality of nature.

    I don’t know that anyone is claiming that the results of climate change are a major problem today, I think the claim is more that if we raise CO2 levels to those not seen since the Eocene (700ppm+, as opposed to ~400 and rising at 2ppm/year today), then we’ll move the climate to a very different state than it has enjoyed for the last 30 million-odd years. And if you define “nature” as “that which has existed for the last 30 million years”, then it’s reasonable to conclude that nature will suffer.

    Can you think of reasonable definitions of ‘Nature’ such that it is, in fact, in great shape?

    Thinking some more, here’s some more alternatives:

    * Exclude living things/planet Earth
    * Take the baseline as a pre-Cambrian state ~ 1bn years ago, which consisted as a lot of bacterial slime
    * Look at a few small isolated ecosystems without looking at the earth in toto

    under these definitions nature is doing ok/pretty well.

  12. Colin says:

    A comic that answers this question simply and exactly:

  13. Julie Thomas says:

    Paul you put the word ‘nature’ in quotes, did you mean this term to refer to ‘the environment that humans live in’? How can we know what nature is without knowing what the ‘other’ is. What is ‘un-nature’?

    Or is it art – stuff made by humans – that is the un-nature?

    Words are so very important as this quote clearly indicates:

    “I can engage with interest in environmental issues when the environment is ‘changing’ but when it ‘suffers’ I get huffy and want to strangle the messenger.”

    Suffering is determined by the experiences/prejudices of the beholder?

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I agree, words are important and putting Nature in quotes was done to signify all the problems with that term you mention.
      For most people the state of ‘Nature’ would intuitively be about living things, plant or animal or otherwise. Still, you want something like the word ‘system’ in there as well for otherwise you cant include habitats made of rocks and waterfalls. So to some extent it is not just about living things but also about their form of expression and their potential. It quickly becomes a metaphysical question that is for philosophers to ponder.
      As usual for an economist, the question relevant for policy and open debates is the metric of Nature so that one can compare it over time and talk about goals and tradeoffs. That metric would have to intuitively accords with the things we humans want ‘Nature’ to have, i.e. the metaphysical notion of Nature.

  14. hc says:

    The surge in world population along with markedly higher consumption standards and the massive destruction of the world’s environment that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution may mark that event as the most perilous in the history of the human species. The only other event with comparably destructive implications was the development of commercial agriculture 10,000 years ago – but this is benign relative to the destructiveness of the past 250 years.

    The destruction of biodiversity, the destruction of the global atmosphere and of the oceans suggests that from any perspective other than the gung ho philistinism of modern economics, nature is indeed suffering.

  15. murph the surf. says:

    I feel all the answers are way too anthropocentric.
    Nature is what we choose to define it as- it has no self awareness and no power to react other than by the changes wrought upon it by the elements which mix in the crucible of being.
    There shouldn’t be any doubt that the natural world around us is changing and that mankind has made a contribution to those more volatile components largely through burning fossil fuels.But there will always be change and the rate of change may accelerate markedly in the near future.
    Nature will just adapt – we might be gone but so what?
    In a million years the Earth could again be Garden of Eden…..
    The forces of the chemical and physical world are immune to consciousness and will just continue to react as the laws of the energy continuum dictate.

  16. hc says:

    Murph, We need to change the way we think about nature and the way we live in our environment. Our view is too anthropocentric in the sense that we view nature simply as a resource – often as a material resource but also as an aesthetic resource. You can see the latter in the arguments for opening up the lowsy, small, limited areas we reserve as wilderness for tourism. The argument is – if we don’t use it why have it?

    But I think you are dead wrong in saying that any change is irrelevant because it will eventually be corrected by the laws of chemistry and physics. We need to be pro-all forms of life and adopt a caring attitude generally toward the physical environment. Not because it necessarily benefits us but because, as a principle, we should respect the obvious values of things that have evolved over millions of years and which represent a real source of wealth rather than a raw material input for the next IPhone. The irony is that this enlightened principle-based view may benefit us either because it helps the human species to survive or because living as part of nature rather than being its all-conquering destroyer may provide fitness advantages for humans. But that is a “might” – it is not another argument for anthropcentric instrumenalism.

  17. wilful says:

    Surely we cannot just think of ‘Nature’ as whatever existed in 1800 and hence by definition say every change is bad! Nature is surely a dynamic thing capable of actually getting better over time, not just worse. The key to whether ‘Nature’ is thus doing well or doing badly is some notion as to what it is you mean by Nature.

    This question really risks being seen as a glib attempt to use semantics to wish away a crisis that is plain to all professional ecologists. Nature in the sense you are talking about is commonly and well understood to mean biodiversity. Species, genes, ecosystems, relationships.

    There is unarguably a mass extinction currently occurring, it started well before the impacts of climate change but climate change will amplify and reinforce the issue. Biodiversity is quite simply being lost. There are many many scholarly links (in journals such as Science, PNAS and Nature) to the existence of this mass extinction, I wont bother linking to them because you already know they exist. But here’s a popularising summary: http://www.mysterium.com/extinction.html

    I cannot think of a way in which nature could be defined (without tortuous attacks on english) as improving at the moment. Everythign we do is at the edges, it is just an attempt to save remnants and salve our selves.

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