Is nature sustainable?

Nowadays there is a drive towards sustainability, sustainable farming; sustainable energy; sustainable living; sustainable anything to make a buck. The assumption is that our current oil/coal driven society can’t sustain itself, this probably doesn’t need to be discussed, unless the reader has spent the last twenty years on Mars. Many people feel a need to move toward more environmentally friendly ways of existing, which probably isn’t a bad thing, but ultimately the question, “is nature sustainable?” Is bound to come up.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, all energy & matter within a sealed system, will become less useful, this is called entropy. We can then assume that unless there is more out there than the universe, then everything will eventually become useless. This probably isn’t an imminent danger. The question being posed here is far more specific, our planet isn’t a sealed system, & gains large amounts of energy from the sun, and, it could be argued, is not really subject to the second law of thermodynamics.

Whether you believe the world was created 6000 years ago in 6 days as a divine act of an almighty being, or whether you believe it came into existence 650 billion years ago by accident, or whatever range of possibilities in between, isn’t really an issue here. We can all acknowledge that nature (I shun using the term mother nature here as it assumes some form of nurture from something which quite possibly devours it’s young) has destroyed far more than the human race could ever dream of. The record of extinct animals held in fossils is enormous, & I know of no scientists who believe that this record is complete. Most people believe in a common ancestor of the higher apes & man, & any Bible fundamentalist would have to acknowledge that whatever swallowed Jonah (should his story be true) has disappeared without a trace. On top of this there are also billions of plant species; fungus & members of other kingdoms which have been eradicated somewhere along the line.

So the question is, if nature runs it’s various cycles of warming & freezing leaving more extinction & possibly more desertification along the way, would it not eventually lead to it’s own demise. As far as things go, it seems that parasites are thriving, we have more aggressive viruses like bird flu; swine flu; numerous viruses in animals that seem, in some cases, to baffle scientists. Of course we can’t deny the truth of our own parasitic nature. Will this trend towards more efficient parasites lead to the destruction of the current natural systems.

I chatted to a friend about this issue, she seemed to think that nature will be able to keep the processes working, even if the systems change. Perhaps new life forms will evolve (assuming that is what happens) to replace what is becoming extinct, perhaps people burning fossil fuels is a good thing, to a point. By releasing carbon into the air we recycle carbon otherwise useless to nature as long as it is bound up in fossil fuels. Carbon in the atmosphere facilitates plant growth which provides many other life forms with food, fossil fuels provide little or nothing with food, so we have a part to play in the natural cycles, & if we became extinct, volcanic activity would still play that role to a lesser extent, so we aren’t necessarily essential, but are any life forms, since nature is often destroying things that we would do our best to save if we could.

I accept this point of view, but it is speculative, as is my position that nature may not, in fact, be sustainable. We not only assume that nature is sustainable, but we also assume that we can’t improve on it, both of these are assumptions, & quite dangerous assumptions if we are wrong. I don’t for a moment believe that we don’t need to change the way we live into a far less parasitic condition, but we need to acknowledge that as intelligent beings who have the ability to shape & influence our environment, we may find that it is not only possible to find a better way of managing the way we live, but we could actually make a positive “unnatural” impact on the natural world, even if that involves causing the extinction of certain organisms in the process.

This is not a comprehensive discussion, but rather the starting point for one. We can keep looking at the world the same way, or we could explore the possibility of a better way of living, both for us & for the sustainability of our planet, but then we should examine all the possible issues, & this is one that seems to be neglected by environmentalists who generally assume that nature will always find the best way. Most people probably disagree with what I’m saying here, that’s fine, but the best thing to do is ask yourself why you disagree, or agree, comment & add to the discussion. At least we may be able to shed light on other yet unforeseen issues as we go along, so please join the discussion, have a voice.

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7 thoughts on “Is nature sustainable?”

  1. Well, as mentioned on Facebook, I can’t see how anything will last infinitely. Ultimately at some point our sun will die, the planet eventually be sucked into a supernova and anything that might still be around will be eradicated at this point.

    Okay, so we’ll forget that for a moment and work on a closed environment that is simply our planet and assume that all outside factors never change. I don’t see how nature won’t continue to spawn next generation after next generation of life. Mass extinctions have taken place, time and again with entire forks of life simply stopping. In some cases it’s been a natural disaster (okay so the planets survived outside forces) or plague? Virus? Why exactly did the dinosaurs die out? All that said and done, I believe that nature or what I consider the living planet to continue to support life in one way or another. No matter the number of changes that take place, life will continue with one form slowly replacing another. Then again, that might be a rapid change? We just don’t know but I honestly believe that no matter what life will find a way, it might just not be in the ways that we expect.

    1. Part of the point here wasn’t to get into an “evolution versus creation” debate, neither concepts are scientifically researchable, & both seem to contain logical anomalies, but this is the subject of a future discussion, one I’m sure you’ll be in on.

      Let’s assume evolution, for to assume Biblical creation at this stage would go nowhere, as Christ’s second coming, Biblically, is scheduled prior to us, or nature, destroying everything.

      Humans are the pinnacle of evolution, at least that’s how we see it, we have evolved to the point where we no longer need to evolve, that is, we alter our environment, & thus have little need to adapt to it. We are destroying the planet. If evolution is a natural process, it’s possible that it would always create such a being, & thus always lead to it’s own demise. Another interesting point on this is, are we really doing something that is unnatural, if nature created us the way we are? I pointed out on facebook that I believe human nature is just a way for people to justify there evils, & this line of thinking shows why.

      Secondly, mass extinctions have always occurred, as you pointed out, but what has replaced those creatures doesn’t always seem to be equal (I’m not assigning value here, so bear with me.) We no longer see enormous herbivours like diplodocus; stegasaurus or even mastodons roaming the earth. Likewise, we don’t see the larger predators which preyed on them (I find tyranosaurus’ classification as a predator dubious, but there were other large predators.) The lesson: if the food source is reduced, then larger creatures will battle to survive. So what happened to the plant food base that supported the large herbivours, that, in turn, supported the larger predators.

      Catastrophism could answer our question, but, that starts going back to biblical flood ideas & seems to have been abandoned by many of the pseudo scientists who study evolution. The point I’m really trying to make is, nature seems to be able to support far less than it used to, I think, despite human influence, rather than because of it. If this is the case, then the logical pattern would probably lead to no life at all.

      1. 100% I never mentioned evolution, you did.

        Moving on. We might be at a “pinnacle of evolution” however this doesn’t mean that it’s the most likely to survive infintely. What was previously mountains now lies under the sea and vices versa. It might just be that the last things left on the planet after all of the damage done will be those that can actually thrive in these conditions. Survival of the fittest or simply last man standing. Even the most insane conditions known to man can support life on this planet.

        Your point of nature not being able to support as much is what I was
        aruging with. Because I believe that no matter the impact man has on the planet, something will be left behind. Sure all vegitation might require acidic land to grow, only rodents survive… etc. But that’s a whole new equilibrium, just one we don’t yet know or can truly fathom without being there.

      2. I only mentioned evolution because it allowed a context for us to discuss nature. The point about people being the “pinnacle of evolution” was to point out that, if it’s just nature, & no supernatural forces are involved, then the possibility exists that nature will kepp producing destructive beings, that may eventually out compete everything else. This would ultimately result in the destruction of the pinnacle species.

        Consider this: I’m told that in the event of massive nuclear fallout, the only species to survive would be cockroaches. If this is true, one would have to acknowledge that the cockroaches may not out survive the food source (the dead matter left after the fallout.) The ones who did, would most likely only survive through adaptation (see, we don’t really need to use evolution) to cannibalism, in which case the possibility still exists for them to wipe themselves out.

        The disagreement that we have is only on the level that I’m trying to avoid the assumption that there will always be survivors, this was the premise all along, can we make this assumption?

      3. Well after all that assumption. I’d say that something will pretty much always remain. in the event of massive nuclear fallout there remains bacterial life that will continue in the depths of the ocean that will be unaffected. The next pinnacle species will quickly assert themselves. Even it it’s unlike anything we’ve really noticed/recorded or expected.

        The question “Is nature sustainable?” is defined as will carbon life be found on this rock until the demise of the rock. To which I’ll always answer yes. Because something will have to survive to pass on if nothing else, “the tale of how awesome I was”. 😉

  2. Nature as you descibe it moves in cycles, cycles of many differnt sizes, things ebb and flow, things, and processes act and react to various stimuli. In my view this continues ad infinitum if you exclude ourselves (humans) from this system. Over some time, it may not look the same as it does now, but it continues to ebb and flow, act and react. If sustainable in your definition is being able to continue without destroying resources, then you have to conclude that nature is not sustainable, however if you say that sustainable is being able to sustain (continue/proceed) yourself. then nature is sustainable. See it all depends on what your definition of the word sustainable is….

    1. First and foremost, the “ad infinitum” you talk about is what is in question here, that is the assumption under discussion, & thus should not be taken for granted. I’m willing to acknowledge I may be wrong, being right wasn’t the point, the point was to ask the question, & see if we could come to a conclusive answer.

      Secondly, you acknowledge that, by the idea of depletion of resources being unsustainable, then nature is unsustainable. I have two problems here. Firstly, resources are recycled, it’s the rate of recycling that is problematic, people going to fast, or nature going to slow, so a sustainable balance could be found somewhere should humans be willing to live with nature rather than above it. The second issue, if all the resources are depleted, who’s to say that new cycles will, or won’t, evolve, these are further assumptions neither of which can be taken for granted.

      The issue of definition is the last issue. Dictionary.com’s definition of sustain points to support and maintenance. You have pointed to the fact that support & maintenance of the current systems is probably not possible, & they are ever changing. Is it possible that the common factor through all time, changeability, is also unsustainable, can it keep changing without changing into something completely self destructive. Please look at the discussion with Robert as that seems to be where it is going.

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