Searching for a balance

In her cover story from the Amazon this week, staff writer Amanda Paulson offers a portrait of a place many of us will never see. From a remote camp deep in the rainforest, she tells a tale of army ants and howler monkeys, “hemiepiphytic” trees that grow from among the branches downward, and bioluminescent fungi that pixelate the forest floor with a dim glow at night.

But an important part of the story is Camp 41 itself, not just for the science that goes on there but for the role it plays in the broader environmental crusade worldwide. Camp 41 after all is just about the best advertisement ima­ginable for the need to protect the Amazon, and its founder has used it that way, wooing the rich and powerful to his cause with a few unforgettable nights.

But what is that crusade – and others like it around the world – really about? In some places, talk of saving spotted owls or combating climate change can easily become a matter of politics, encouraging us to take a side. Are we in favor of aggressively reining in greenhouse gases or supporting the coal industry? Do we want to save the rainforest or Brazilian farmers? In this view, environmentalism can slowly begin to meld with elitism.

But is saving the Amazon – or the spotted owl or anything in nature – really just about protecting some trees here and some species there? For some activists, perhaps. But behind each of these efforts is a larger question that begins to show that the partisan “us vs. them” narrative is full of false choices. The question is whether we can learn to live in balance with nature.

The Industrial Revolution, combined with the scientific advances of the Enlightenment, rewrote the history of our species and its relation to the Earth. Huge strides in human technology, wealth, and health were forged from humanity’s consumption of the Earth itself on a previously unimaginable scale. The concern is that we’ve made a devil’s bargain. To continue advancing – and to allow the developing world to advance, too – it seems as though we’ve consigned ourselves to chewing up the planet, with catastrophic consequences. 

At the very least, we risk not being very good neighbors to the life around us. In her story, Amanda talks of the intricate networks that underlie the Amazonian ecosystem. To thrive, must we threaten or destroy those networks? Is human health and wealth and natural health and wealth a zero-sum game, with one winning only at the expense of the other?

That equation aptly sums up the challenge ahead. If the Industrial Revolution put us out of balance with nature, then we need another revolution to set that balance right. Already there are glimpses of how that could happen – technologies, processes, and approaches that suggest human and natural prosperity can find a new balance point. Because ultimately we cannot choose between the climate or the coal miner. We must choose both.

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