We talk a lot – rightly – about the importance of preventing climate change in order to avoid an environmental catastrophe. Less discussed is nature – the need to protect and preserve it but also its ability to teach us.
Alexandra Matthews: We’ve discussed before how nature was a huge comfort to so many people during the pandemic, particularly lockdowns – there was something comforting about life going on, despite us all being stuck in our homes. I think we also noticed nature more too – for example, there are beautiful trees in our garden and I was much more in tune with how they were changing over the year, and the wildlife that lives in and around them. Obviously there is a big focus (although probably not big enough) on climate change at the moment and what humans need to do to prevent a catastrophe – but we don’t actually talk very much about nature itself – the very thing we are protecting. Does nature need to be a key plank of the New Ism?
Mel Young. Yes, definitely. If I am honest, before the pandemic, nature wasn’t one of the main issues in my list of what we need to include in The New Ism. I was always rushing around being very busy and concerned with important matters! But during the pandemic, as I no longer had the ability to ‘rush around’, I started to notice the nature all around where I lived. I started to see birds flying about which had always been there but had been beyond my previous horizons and I looked at trees and saw how they changed as the seasons wore on. It was fascinating and therapeutic at the same time. Like many others, I began to appreciate nature much more and was aware of what was in front of my own eyes. So, I think nature has to be a central plank of any new ism.
AM: What I find the most interesting about nature as part of a new ism is that it’s not only something we have to protect: it’s also something we can learn from. It’s no secret that modern farming practices are ruinous for the environment and for soil quality, for example; I think I read somewhere that we’ve only got about 60 harvests left. But there is an interesting subset of farming that learns from nature, about how to regenerate soil, plant plants that nurture one another in close proximity… I don’t know an awful lot about it, but I think it’s fascinating and I want to find out more. If farmers can learn from nature, then I’m sure there are lots of other areas in which we could benefit from observing nature too.
MY: People have been going on about this for a long time but not many people have been listening. That’s the challenge, I think. We can learn so much from nature but we think we know better but I am not convinced that we do. Nature can point the way to a sustainable lifestyle. We don’t have to go back to living in caves to understand nature and we can create a sustainable planet with nature at its core. But we need to protect it and respect it and then, of course, nurture it. It’s a partnership if you like. If we don’t partner with nature then we are actually killing ourselves off, so we have to engage in an effective way with nature which makes the planet live well.
AM: I like the idea of a partnership – something that is productive, collaborative and mutually beneficial. At the moment, it’s very one-sided – nature gives and we take. You’re right that we need to protect, respect and nurture it – I really think it should be at the heart of a new ism. There are some really interesting initiatives I’ve heard of which are, in effect, learning from nature in order to protect the planet. There’s a shopping centre in Kenya that has a cooling system modelled on an anthill or termite’s nest, so that they didn’t need to use air conditioning. I love that idea – it’s so simple and makes so much sense.
It’s a cliche but if we look after nature then it will look after us. Forests, for example, play an incredibly important role in reducing carbon in the atmosphere – but obviously they can only do that if we don’t chop trees down. There are so many more examples.
The question is: how do we improve society’s relationship with nature, in order to mend the relationship? How can we encourage people to value what nature gives to us? We seem to have lost touch with how much we rely on nature – we’re removed from it, especially in cities.
MY: Well, I guess we can look at ways of creating new measures or indicators which have higher importance than, say, GDP – but we have talked about that before. New measurements just have to be integral to a new system. I think education is a key component here. We seem to have lost our connection with nature and it is almost like we have to re-learn it. When I have visited very poor farmers, I have been so impressed about how much they understand what is going on in the land. They can read things and predict what will happen with their crop yield way ahead of any science just by seeing when certain flowers bloom and so on. They are actually very knowledgeable people and their knowledge has been handed down through generations. They also most need to be our new teachers or professors. Maybe I am being naive, but somehow we need to reconnect with nature in order to create a system for a sustainable planet.
AM: I think that is a brilliant idea – learning from the people who already understand how we can best work in partnership with nature. Nature must one of the major planks of The New Ism, and we must urgently identify how to make that happen. We had a great conversation with a young Italian man this morning who is exploring these issues – we’re really looking forward to releasing that conversation, as well as many others, on the podcast very soon!