2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Vice President of Research & Collections, Denver Museum of Nature & Science; Dinosaur paleontologist and science communicator; Author, Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life
Chief Curator, Utah Museum of Natural History; Associate Professor, University of Utah; Host, Dinosaur Planet TV series

A New, Environmentally Sustainable Worldview

Given the current array of critical environmental woes—global warming, habitat loss, and species extinctions, among others—one might assume that there is little room for optimism.  Nevertheless, I am optimistic, albeit cautiously so, about a profound shift in human attitudes toward the environment. 

The current worldview in the Western world is a reductionist perspective that has been dominant for over 300 years.  Founded by scientists such as Descartes, Newton, Galileo, and Bacon, reductionism regards the natural world as a series of machines best understood by ever-more detailed examination of constituent parts.  This mechanistic approach has generated a plethora of scientific breakthroughs—quantum theory, genetics, high-speed computers, and the germ theory of disease, to name a few—with each intoxicating success fueling ever-more intense investigation of nature's components.  Yet it has also fostered a fundamental division between humans and the natural world, with the former envisioned as dominating the latter.

Moreover, the Cartesian perspective on nature has proven to have severe limitations within science.  In particular, because of a myopic focus on the parts, little attention has been given to connections and relationships, let alone wholes.  In response to this perceived gap in understanding, many disciplines have recently turned to a 'systems' approach that often unites once separate disciplines.  Thus, there has been an ever-growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research, with, for example, geobiology and biocomplexity becoming legitimate fields of study.  Simultaneously, many educators have begun to direct their efforts toward revealing the "web of life," including the myriad connections that link the living and non-living aspects of nature. 

The underlying themes of the outdated, mechanistic perspective are isolation and permanence, with objects perceived as relatively permanent and distinct from one another.  In contrast, the new worldview celebrates the opposite concepts: connections and change.  And once again there is a firm grounding in science, which has demonstrated that natural systems are inextricably interconnected and continually undergoing change (particularly if one's perspective includes deep time). 

Thanks in part to a global economy and the World Wide Web, the mantra of this new movement—"It is all connected"—has even made its way into the popular media.  At a slow but increasing pace, people are becoming aware that their everyday decisions can have far-reaching, even global, effects.  Surely there is hope and optimism to be found in the many recent movements toward sustainability, even if most of these efforts remain on a small scale. 

Nevertheless, any optimism with regard to a growing environmental consciousness must be tempered with a double dose of reality.  First, environmental changes are occurring at rates that are entirely unknown in human experience.  To give just one case in point, the rate of species extinctions is about 1000 times greater than has been typical in earth history.  Indeed the current human-induced mass extinction is on track to obliterate on the order of one half of all species on earth by the close of this century, with unpredictable (and perhaps unimaginable) ecological consequences.  Thus, we have little time to make this transformational leap.  The next few decades will be pivotal. 

Second, the transition to a sustainable worldview will not occur simply through a sufficiently heightened fear of environmental collapse.  No, such a fundamental shift will require no less than a transformation of our educational system, not only K-12 but higher education as well.  We must equip parents and educators with the tools to be effective not only in communicating the science of natural systems, but also in fostering passion for nature ("biophilia", to use E. O. Wilson's term).  By necessity, this process will involve getting children outdoors early and often, so that they have a chance to forge bonds with nature.  First and foremost, education should be aimed at teaching children and adults how to live well in the world.  Ultimately, in order for this pressing venture to be successful, scientists must become directly involved, communicating science to a broad audience at unprecedented levels.  In other words, "Third Culture" must step up and take on a major role in this endeavor.