All That Nature Holds
In Zen Buddhism, a 'koan' is a surprising and often perplexing phrase that makes us think twice. One of the most familiar koans is the simple question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
An answer lies unexpectedly in the book, The Hidden Lives of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, that draws on ground-breaking scientific discoveries about how trees are aware of one another and how they communicate and provide help to each other. Only now are we starting to understand how trees do better in a community, through sophisticated ‘wood-wide web’ networks above and below ground. Science has discovered an answer to this ancient koan and the answer is, "Yes! A falling tree does make a sound because other trees are listening."
This deep interconnectedness extends beyond trees to the entire web of life. Nature is in crisis because the current extinction of species are not isolated events and they are causing harmful ripple effects across ecosystems, big and small. We don’t really know what impact the loss of all these species will have, but activist Duane Elgin offers the following metaphor:
“Our extermination of other species has been compared to popping rivets out of the wings of an airplane in flight. How many rivets can the plane lose before it begins to fall apart catastrophically? How many species can our planet lose before we cross a critical threshold where the integrity of the web of life is so compromised that it begins to come apart, like an airplane that loses too many rivets?”
A study by scientists at London’s Natural History Museum in 2021 revealed that the UK has lost nearly half of its biodiversity – the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms that make up our natural world – since the industrial revolution. Alarmingly, Britain has lost more of its natural biodiversity than any other G7 nation and is in the worst 10% of nature-depleted countries globally.
Together, the different plants, animals and microorganisms that nature holds and that we term ‘biodiversity’ provides our basis for life. Ensuring we have clean air and water. Producing fertile soils and all of our food. Making the raw materials for our clothing and medicines. Maintaining wider ecosystems that supply these benefits as well as other irreplaceable services. By destroying this biodiversity, we impoverish ourselves and threaten our entire way of life.
One of the historical reasons for the grim decline in biodiversity in this country is that the agricultural and industrial revolutions started here, and the damaging impact on nature has been longer than elsewhere. According to the Royal Society, the main direct cause of biodiversity loss has been land use changes, primarily for large-scale food production (which drives an estimated 30% of biodiversity decline globally). Second is overexploitation – such as overharvesting and overfishing – which destroys a further 20%.
Compounding these deliberate activities is the climate crisis and the part it also plays in upsetting the delicate balance of life. Together with pollution, climate change is the third most significant cause, accounting for 14% of losses and predicted to have a much greater impact as our climate changes. Here too, the lag between policy ambition and tangible progress has a damaging impact, with our country off course in meeting its emissions reduction targets (greenhouse gases actually increased by 4% in 2021 compared with 2020).
We cannot reduce the drastic loss of biodiversity without mitigating climate change and reducing UK emissions. At the same time, the web of life is fundamental to natural solutions for absorbing greenhouse gases, such as photosynthesis by green plants. And so, perhaps with a renewed appreciation of our interconnectedness, we cannot mitigate climate change either unless we halt the decimation of species in the UK.
Climate change and natural biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. Although both crises are wicked problems, we know what the desired destination should look like for each one (and better still, we also know how to get there). For climate change, we are striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, and in many local areas across the UK this means net zero by 2030.
Carbon neutral living means we don’t burn things to generate power and we no longer stoke up demand for endless extraction of natural resources or excessive consumption. Travelling in ways that do not cause air pollution, switching to renewables, rediscovering nature-based solutions, regenerating green spaces, farming with nature, repairing and reusing stuff, are all kinder ways of living that help mitigate the impact of climate change and also have a direct, positive impact on nature.
In parallel with the UN Climate Convention’s net-zero emissions goal, the global goal for nature is to be nature positive by 2030 – taking urgent action now to halt the irreversible loss of more species. Our desired destination for biodiversity is clear: we need to halt and reverse nature loss measured from a baseline of 2020 so that by 2030 nature is visibly and measurably on the path of recovery. And we get there by increasing the health, abundance, diversity and resilience of species.
How can we do this? The People’s Plan for Nature is the UK’s biggest ever conversation about the future of nature. It’s a unique and exciting plan that has involved a People’s Assembly for Nature and is powered by WWF, the RSPB and the National Trust.
The plan recommends the actions that we can all take to protect and restore nature – to become nature positive by 2030 – including the role of government (local and national), food and farming businesses, communities and individuals in helping nature in the UK to thrive.
At the start of 2023, Carbon Copy published 23 Community Actions as a UK guide for a community-powered response to the climate and biodiversity crises. In measurable ways, implementing these 23 initiatives can also boost local economies, create jobs locally, improve people’s health and wellbeing. Doing what is good for nature and also doing what is good for the community; enlightened self-interest prevails.
Currently, the UK’s Environment Act only offers to halt the decline of nature by 2030 rather than restore our shared natural world. However, there is a proposed new Ecology Bill that would commit to reversing the destruction of nature by 2030. If enacted, it would help to make good the government’s pledge to deliver a net positive future and set a nature target alongside our net zero goal. This proposed Bill needs your support too!
Nature is in crisis, and all that nature holds is at risk. However, we are far from helpless and there are clearly things that we can do now that will make a difference. And so, back to the puzzling koan at the beginning of this post. Koans may be statements for Zen Buddhists to meditate on, but they can also help us ask better questions...
If no one is around when a tree falls in the forest, when birdsong no longer fills the air, when buzzing insects fall silent, the question we should ask ourselves is not about the sound but if we still hear nature’s message.
Photo credit: Jan Meeus