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Can Nature help us make sense of our times?

For many of us June, 2020 will forever be etched in our minds as a month of stress, uncertainty and even fear. We’re seeing leaders reacting in ways that are both good and bad while public health, economic, and civil crises swirl around us. It can be incredibly challenging to try to find meaning in […]

For many of us June, 2020 will forever be etched in our minds as a month of stress, uncertainty and even fear. We’re seeing leaders reacting in ways that are both good and bad while public health, economic, and civil crises swirl around us.

It can be incredibly challenging to try to find meaning in the events of the past few months, from a virus outbreak that seems to be out of control, to the senseless killing of a man here in my state of Minnesota, to the polarized political climate we find ourselves in.

This is where Nature can help. Pardon the pun, but Nature can actually provide a birds-eye view of everything going on right now. This view helps us see some of the patterns emerging that can help us not only find meaning, but also develop strategies to evolve and adapt as we move forward. Viewed through Nature’s lens, today’s complex challenges could be seen as part of a dynamic, interdependent living system. If we apply the design of nature to our current situation several themes begin to emerge that may be helpful.

The Butterfly Effect

In an interdependent system one small event – like that of a butterfly’s wings flapping – can cause worldwide impacts. These worldwide protests are examples of how one man’s death combined with a certain context can create an enormous wave. That context includes system racism, years of disparity, lack of trust, a lack of movement on injustice, and the patterns of inequities in our social system amplified by the pandemic and job loss. Mr. Floyd’s death was like a lighted match dropped on a tinderbox of inequities, creating a huge impace – or Butterfly Effect.

Resilience

Nature defines resilience as a term describing systems that can absorb disturbance and still maintain function. COVID-19 has shown us that some systems in our society are not as resilient as others.  This lens asks us to look at existing systems and determine whether they are resilient, or whether they are failing. Many communities are looking at their police force through this lens, and so they should.

Thresholds

Nature’s definition of this term is that of a boundary that when crossed, can change the whole system. For example, when a freshwater system starts to be invaded by saltwater, there can be a tipping point or threshold that shifts the system into a saltwater system. When that happens, all the life that existed in the freshwater catchment is not supported in a saltwater ecosystem. With the pandemic, civil unrest and all the other disruptiosn current happening, we need to determine if we have already crossed a threshold that has changed our lives and our communities forever.

Feedback Loops

Nature listens naturally and responds instinctively when a form no longer serves to support future life. This is also how it avoids excess within the system. Unfortunately, humans often use their ideology and world views to selectively tune out feedback that they do not want to hear, resulting in excess and also polarization. If we learn from nature, we will listen, see, and respect feedback so we can adapt and evolve as a human race in partnership with the natural world.

Embracing Diversity

Nature banks on diversity for its ability to create conditions conducive to future life. Old growth forests and other complex environments need diversity to continue to grow. As these environments become more diverse, they naturally become more cooperative, generous, and resilient. Lack of diversity often means the environment is ripe for disruption. It’s quite easy to draw parallels between this example of nature, and what’s happening in our human communities.

Viewing our situation through the lens of Nature, we have only two choices. We can either double down on our biases, or we can learn from nature to see the loss we are creating by not designing systems that unleash and embrace the diversity of our communities. As systems evolve, they distribute the benefits and burdens widely throughout the system. 

Nature does not shift burdens to the poor or people of color. Nature sees diversity as enriching the evolution of the whole system.

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