How are we to survive?
By learning from nature’s biodiversity.
Adapting to Climate Change
Within the earth's biosphere, our human choices affect billions of species. Micro-organisms not only strengthen our immune system and digest our food but affect all life on earth. We will not win a war against microbes. We must learn from them how to adapt to nature’s biodiversity. To survive the ecological crisis we have created, biologist Rob Dunn tells us, we must learn to “value the rest of life and the insights that arise from an understanding of that life.” We must understand the evolving nature of the earth’s biosphere and the healthy biodiversity of our bodies, homes, yards, parks, rivers, seas, and even the water we drink and the air we breathe.
Has your community documented bird deaths due to collisions with buildings? In 2021, 226 dead birds were found at the World Trade Center one morning. Most were killed by colliding with the building’s many glass facades. Ornithologists report that most daytime bird collisions occur in the lowest 250 feet of buildings, largely due to the reflections of vegetation and the sky in glass windows and facades. At night, migrating birds flying at higher altitudes may be forced to descend because of stormy weather. “Searching for celestial clues to aid in wayfinding, these birds frequently encircle illuminated cities and fall victim to disorientation, predation, or collisions with backlit windows.
Dandelions are, quite possibly, the most successful plants that exist, as they are masters of survival worldwide. Herbicides used on lawns to kill dandelions take a terrible toll on wildlife. More than seven million wild birds are estimated to die annually due to the use of lawn pesticides. Lawns make up thirty million acres of the United States, and Americans use an estimated 80 million pounds of pesticides on them annually. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that “homeowners use up to ten times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops.”
Dao of Nature
In ancient Chinese literature, which shaped East Asian cultures, being a good person means conforming to the way of Dao, which is understood as the way of nature. Although Daoist and Confucian perceptions of Dao differ, each school of thought embraces this teaching. Can virtue be learned? Both the Dao De Jing and the Analects of Confucius agree that it can. Confucius spent his life traveling and teaching others how to live a virtuous life. The Analects affirm that living the Dao is the best way to govern. “Do not worry about holding high position,” Confucius taught. “Worry rather about playing your proper role.”
In the Central Valley of California, Herminia Ibarra is known in her community as a “raitera,” a neighbor who gives rides to those in need. Three mornings each week she goes to the main office of Green Raiteros, the community ride-sharing in Huron, California. She drives the available EV and picks up two retired farmworkers, her regular clients, taking them twenty miles to their dialysis appointments. The Green Raiteros ride-sharing program was created by Rey León, Huron’s mayor, through the Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy Institute, a nonprofit founded by Mr. León. He is the son of a migrant worker who came into the U.S. through the Bracero worker program, that provided agricultural workers from 1942-1964.
Why is it important to take climate action? Electric bus driver Ken Gratlin says, "I do it for the future. I have three kids and I want to be part of the solution. I want to show my kids that it's not difficult to take that extra step. Once you make it part of your routine, it’s easy. I talk to my family about things like how important it is that the greasy circle in the bottom of a pizza box doesn’t go in the recycling bin, as food waste in the landfill creates methane. When the neighbors see us separating it out, we talk about it, and now they know to separate it too. We also have been working to buy more of our food fresh from local farms.”
Gift for the Earth
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard gave away his outdoor-apparel company to help combat the environmental crisis. The company, reportedly valued at $3 billion, is now owned by a nonprofit trust created to protect the company’s ecological values. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” he says. “100% of the company’s voting stock transfers to the Patagonia Purpose Trust and 100% of the nonvoting stock has been given to the Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.” Charles Conn, chairman of the board for the trust, asserts: “Companies that create the next model of capitalism through deep commitment to purpose will attract more investment, better employees, and deeper customer loyalty.”
Daphne Miller, clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco explains: “Most viruses around us are benign; some are even lifesaving.” She successfully treated a patient with an infection antibiotics could not cure using a virus able to destroy the bacteria. “While antibiotics offer fewer than two dozen mechanisms for killing bacteria,” Miller says, viruses known as “phages have vastly more. There are thousands of types of phages that can infect each bacterial species, making it nearly impossible to resist all of them. And even when the phage treatment does not kill the bacteria, it can force an ‘evolutionary trade-off’ that often makes it more vulnerable to antibiotics.”
Hummingbirds in Winter
While many species are migratory, some who stick around all winter—a daunting prospect for the animal with the fastest metabolism in the vertebrate world. You can support them during the lean times until warm weather returns. It is not true that hummingbirds remain during the winter because you provide sugar water in a feeder. Feeders do not determine whether or not a hummingbird migrates. The birds have an internal clock that tracks the length of the days and the angle of the sun in the sky. Feeders can be left out. in the cold of winter, however, it’s likely especially at nigh, that the water in the feeder will freeze. There are several ways one can prevent this.
Immunity in Nature
Our bodies’ immune systems have evolved to capture and kill bacteria that pose a threat to our health. Trying to kill bacteria with antibiotics will inevitably generate bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics, so this is not a successful strategy. How can we strengthen our immunity system? Researcher Ming Kuo says: “One way to understand the relationship between nature, health, and the immune system is that exposure to nature switches the body into ‘rest and digest’ mode, which is the opposite of the ‘fight or flight’ mode. When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes–growing, reproducing, and building the immune system.”
The organization Population Matters asserts that “a sustainable future for all” requires protecting insect populations as well as stabilizing human population. It suggests we plant local native flowers where we live, making sure the range of plants benefits different kinds of insects, not just pollinators. And in the autumn, that we leave leaf litter on the soil rather than raking it up, as leaf litter provides vital habitat and food for insects and other invertebrates like worms. For example, butterfly and moth caterpillars spend the winter in leaf litter, pupating there before emerging in the spring. (Leaves also form a natural mulch that suppresses weeds and fertilizes the soil).
There’s an urgent need to replace nitrogen-based fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides with more regenerative alternatives. Beneficial microbes are present in every environment, but these fragile microbes typically die before they can be used as fertilizer. Ivu Biologics, founded by Augustine Zvinavashe, a graduate of MIT who grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, has developed a “technology that will accelerate the uptake of microbe fertilizers as a substitute for chemical fertilizers, resulting in healthier soils and lower carbon emissions. Expanding distribution of this microbe fertilizer has the potential to improve crop productivity in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, closing yield gaps and impacting billions of people.”