By Gary Ferguson and Mary M. Clare
For all of human history, big events - whether good or bad – have left people feeling as though they were living in extraordinary times. Prolonged drought. A breakthrough cure for a terrible disease. War, or the fall of a government, or the first moon landing.
Right now, on a lot of days, things can seem every bit as extraordinary as anything that’s come before. From the perils of climate change, to the Covid-19 pandemic, to a long-overdue deep dive into the realities of racism, the ground is shifting under our feet. It’s exactly in such times, when the changes and the challenges are big, that it’s worth asking what might at first seem like an odd question: What would nature do?
The story of life on Earth, after all, is a tale of creatures not avoiding disruption, but rather figuring out how to thrive in the new conditions those disruptions create. A beaver lodge is washed away by spring flood waters, so the animals rebuild in a slightly different location. Ground is paved over, but the seeds of the dandelion manage to thrive in the cracks. It’s easy to see how such adaptation could work for us in the face of climate change, or even wildlife-related viral pandemics. Each of those problems, after all, carries a clear, strong prompt for us to come up with ways of living that more fully respect the undeniable fact of our interdependence.
As it happens, nature also has something to teach us about racism and oppression. Ecologists have known for decades that the best predictor of resiliency in a living system is the amount of diversity it holds. Plain and simple, the more variety in the players, the longer and stronger the game. The air we breathe, the nutrients we consume, even the water we drink are the result of cycles that rest in extraordinarily high levels of diversity. Living on this planet is a team sport, requiring an enormous variety of participants.
We sometimes forget that humans are nature, too – the product of eons of life being nudged and tweaked and fine-tuned. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that social science is confirming that human endeavors – from solving challenges in the board room, to making important scientific discoveries – are very much influenced by the level of diversity in the group tackling the problem. Indeed, if we really want to see where that much-admired goal of being able to “think outside the box” can take us, we’d do well to make sure the process is driven by people from all manner of backgrounds and life experiences.
Structuring human society with systems that oppress entire groups of people – for the sake of wealth or comfort or power – has of course caused extraordinary suffering. At the same time, those social structures have denied society its full range of essential voices and perspectives, leaving us far less well equipped to meet the challenges of our times. So yes, on one hand, the disruptions we’re seeing right now are inviting us to acknowledge that we humans are completely interdependent with the rest of life. But we can also see this moment as a chance to find our deepest strength – strength we desperately need – by fully embracing the power of our diversity.
Nature writer Gary Ferguson and social scientist Dr. Mary M. Clare are the founders of Full Ecology, devoted to the work of people reclaiming their human nature. Find out more at www.fullecology.com. Ferguson’s latest book is The Eight Master Lessons of Nature: What Nature Teaches Us About Living Well in the World.