As a lecturer in geology, I often encounter the effects of changes in the balance of nature.
For me, the key to the question “How can we maintain a balance with nature?” is “what is the balance to be maintained?”
Is it to keep the world around us as it is — or even to return it to the Eden that it once was? Alas, that is no longer possible. Some changes are irreversible. The dodo and the Yangtze dolphin have gone forever, as have very many more species.
The wider changes unfolding around us seem to be large on a geological scale, as the landscape is refashioned, as cities grow, the world warms and the oceans acidify. Geologists call it the Anthropocene, the epoch in which geology itself is increasingly driven by humanity’s actions.
So, how can we sustain nature – and ourselves?
To a large extent, we will have to go with the flow. We cannot maintain pristine ecologies while the physical and chemical boundary conditions are changing within and around them.
There’s the nice concept of “ragamuffin ecosystems” (that is, ragged and untidy ecosystems), for instance, that spring up in the aftermath of cleared forests and abandoned factories. These are different from what went before, but they may now be as valuable in harbouring a variety of plants and animals as the beginnings of new, functional ecosystems.
Such orphans of human progress should be nurtured, along with what we find of nature reborn in ponds and allotments and untidy back yards, along highways and railway lines, and around derelict buildings.
Perhaps this phenomenon is not something to celebrate, exactly, for it is merely a shadow of the magnificence that went before. But maybe if these scruffy survivors are sufficiently cherished, and allowed to grow, then we might imagine how, eventually, the world could once more become a green and various place.
How can you use questions like this one in class? Find out more about a question-centered approach here.
Jan Zalasiewicz is Senior Lecturer in Geology at the University of Leicester, UK, and is the author of The Earth After Us: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks? (OUP).