Earth as we know it is an incredibly complex and fragile network of interconnected systems that have developed slowly over the last 4.5 billion years or so. From the ashes of the Big Bang this planet emerged as a mass of energy and elements. From that newly born mass of energy and elements evolved structured, dynamic systems of solids, liquids, and gases. The evolution of this planet continued to unfold over billions of years in such a unique way that eventually conditions arose with the ability to foster life.
From the smallest microorganisms to the largest animals, all life on Earth has a common ancestor. Everything is connected to everything. So how is it that our species has come to dominate the landscape in such a short period of time? Furthermore, what gives us the right to do so? In 3.5 billion years of life on Earth everything has followed a natural course of evolution. However, our rapid success as a species has begun to affect this natural order. With our population at seven billion and climbing, we have played a tremendous role in the disruption of the Earth’s natural systems. As we continue to grow and have a greater impact on the Earth’s systems, it is imperative that we address our role and relationship with nature.
The ability of humans to manipulate the landscape and recognize the consequences of doing so puts us in a peculiar position. As a species we are assigned the duty to provide and proliferate. Our goal is to achieve stability for ourselves and our kin. However we also have an obligation to maintain the environment, as we depend on the resources and services it provides. The question then becomes: what is our role in nature? Do we have the right to manipulate the land, factory farm animals, and pollute waterways? Or do we have an obligation to reduce our numbers and merely subsist? In order to answer these questions we must rely on our knowledge of Earth, evolution, and our influence on the environment.
Our relationship with nature has historically been one of imbalance and overuse. Nearly every step in human history has unfortunately been accompanied with a leap in environmental degradation. At first, humans were incredibly in-tune with their surroundings. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes used to roam the lands, following the ebb and flow of the seasons. These tribes had a measurable impact on the environment, but their influence was relatively manageable due to their population size. With advancements in technology and agriculture though, humans began to find more efficient ways of sustaining themselves. These advancements allowed for more permanent settlements, which led to rapid population growth and a distancing from nature.
As society evolved, populations grew and more and more resources were required to fuel the expansion. With breakthroughs in agriculture, settlements became more permanent and cities began to take shape. This shift to city life inadvertently led to a distancing from nature. While many people were still in-tune with nature on a subsistent level, the need for more and more resources began to change our regard for nature.
Although our distancing from nature began several thousand years ago with advancements in agriculture and social order, it is the age of industry to which we owe our modern regard for nature. The growth of cities allowed for a separation between people and nature and our obsession with convenience and efficiency beckoned a new perspective on the environment. With technological advancements, nature became something we were no longer apart of and entirely subject to, but something that we could control and profit off of. The growth of industry enabled humans to truly dominate the landscape and disrupt the natural systems that have been in place for billions of years.
As we have removed ourselves further and further from nature, we have developed a willing ignorance of our role and relationship within it. With the growth of cities and trade we have moved from a subsistent, sustainable economy to one of greed and exploitation. Humans have always had an impact on the environment, but with the age of industry that impact has been ultra-magnified. Population growth has been exponentiated, cities have become the primary place of residence, and the majority of the world is now out of touch with the workings of nature.
Although every species plays a unique role in the biosphere and inherently has its own impact, not every species has the cognitive ability to measure their influence or the capacity to change it. Humans are unique in that respect, which is the root of the problem. We are capable of understanding our influence over nature, but we tend to ignore the Earth’s reaction to our presence. I am not arguing that we purposefully degrade nature, but that environmental degradation is an inherent trait of our population’s perpetual progression. We know we are crippling the environment. We have the ability to do something about it. Therefore, we should make change where change is necessary.
The size of our population and its incessant desire to expand has an obvious impact on the environment. However, that impact is magnified with the demands of industry and capitalism. In his book, Regarding Nature, Andrew McLaughlin identifies industrialism and the capitalist mindset as being especially influential on our regard for nature: “The economic systems that we construct and live within are, I suggest, the primary immediate causes of our relations between society and the rest of nature” (Regarding Nature, P. 12). Further causing a perceived division from nature is the economic structure we have allowed to infect most of the world.
Capitalism is an especially destructive force in our regard for nature as it encourages a monetary-driven social hierarchy based on the encroaching exploitation of our world’s resources. Our relationship with nature has now become purely economic. We do not associate ourselves as a part of nature because we use it for profit. Forests are cut down for the profits of the lumber industry and to make room for livestock. Animals that we are undoubtedly related to, that have senses and the ability to socialize are slaughtered by the billions to feed an increasingly carnivorous population. Resources such as oil and food are all unevenly distributed throughout the world and therefore used as a platform for profit. All the while the environment bears the grunt of our greed.
We not only encourage a division amongst ourselves through the commoditization of the world’s resources, we encourage a division between man and nature. In order to reconstruct our views of nature and understand our place within it, it is important to reconsider our relationship with each other and our surroundings. As Aldo Leopold puts it, man “…has not learned to think like a mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, P. 11). We have to consider ourselves as part of a bigger picture. Industry and capitalism rely heavily on ignorance and individualism. However, the reality is that we are all dependent upon each other in one way or another.
IV. Time for Change
Humans play a vital role in nature just like everything else. What separates us from nature though, is the ability to understand our place within it. This cognitive capacity of ours has historically been the cause of a perceived division between man and nature. However, in order to achieve a sustainable future in which humans assume a more natural role and have less of an impact it is imperative that we reconsider our role and relationship with nature. A change in the way we regard nature has obvious political, economic, and social repercussions, but our cognitive ability obliges us to reevaluate our position in the world rather than continue to degrade it.
There are a number of ways in which we can begin to reconsider our relationship with nature, but all of which require an enormous effort. Through a universal education curriculum, it is possible to encourage people everywhere to consider themselves as part of a larger picture. By teaching people about the environment, evolution, and ecology, we can provide them with the tools for change. Lewis Mumford imagined a social revolution brought about by a change in values through educational reform: “The humanizing of technology and the protection of diversity were both contingent on a fundamental change in values” (Minding Nature, P.219). In order to bring about necessary change it is critical that people take action. Through a universal environmental education program it is possible to galvanize people into forming new ideas and opinions of the world and to understand their place within it.
A universal education program would go a long way in encouraging change in how we view each other and our environment. Changing attitudes are a primary component in achieving a sustainable future – one in which nature is allowed to run its course without human intervention. Gregg Easterbrook discusses a similar future in his The Ecorealist Manifesto: “…the long-term purview of nature might be combined with the short-term insights of the genus Homo in ways that allow people, machines, and nature to work together for each other’s mutual benefit” (The Ecorealist Manifesto, P. 1). In order for the Earth to retain its balance, it is important that we not overstep our bounds as a species. This requires a universal effort to reevaluate our relationship with nature and make adjustments as needed.
After thousands of years of societal evolution, we find ourselves at the peak of technology and pollution. We are already seeing the effects of our industrial ways through the extinction of species, the melting of glaciers, and the destruction of the landscape. As we continue to disturb the world’s natural systems we are recognizing a rippling of consequences. Our recognition of these effects suggests that our role in nature is far more influential than it should be. Therefore it is necessary that we make major changes and that we make them soon.
Our role within nature should be one of subsistence rather than commercialization. We have exploited the world for too long and the consequences of doing so are everywhere. As everything is related to everything, we have no right to infringe on the livelihood of any other species. In fact, our cognitive ability and understanding of nature obliges us to maintain the integrity of the environment. So we must change how we influence the land. We must respect the natural order of things and find a way to live accordingly.
Although a change in attitudes would require a complete overhaul of our current economic and political structures, it is something that must be done. As history shows, if we continue to encourage expansion and development it is very likely that we will see major effects in climate and ecology. We have seen the destructive nature of industrialism and capitalism. We can predict and measure the effects of our actions on the environment. We know we are headed in the wrong direction and we are expecting major consequences. So why don’t we do something about it?
- McLaughlin, Andrew. Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. Print.
- Leopold, Aldo, Charles Walsh Schwartz, and Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
- Macauley, David. Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology. New York: Guilford, 1996. Print.
- Easterbrook, Gregg. “The Ecorealist Manifesto.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 1995. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.
Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race. —H.G. Wells
Fast, efficient and individualistic, the bicycle is no ordinary mode of transport. It’s a church, a gym, a community creator, a cash printer, a protest placard, a dopamine generator, a mechanical expression of self-determination, an icon of hope. It is touchable, attainable freedom.
It is also a tool for nature conservation and one that the City of Cape Town—indeed, any city—stands to benefit from.
My father is a boisterous character, half-man half-bicycle. Last month, he cracked two ribs after tumbling over his handlebars. I profited from his misfortune by taking his place in the world’s largest individually-timed cycle race, the Cape Argus. Egged on by minstrel bands and reels of cheering supporters, some donning fancy dress, I joined over 30,000 competitors to pedal 110 km around the breath-taking Cape Peninsula. The race is a magnificent celebration of sport, healthy living, unity and nature. It physically exposes and connects people to the region’s awe-inspiring natural beauty. The organizers are well aware of this, having furnished all finishing medals with images of iconic local species and the words, “Our Natural Heritage”.
The experience left me wondering whether bicycles could meaningfully contribute to nature conservation in a broader sense. The answer appears to be multifarious.
1. More bikes = more connectivity, awareness, compassion, and innovation
Exposure to nature nourishes the soul and fosters compassion for wildlife (and for fellow humans), especially in children. Urban citizens who never encounter wildlife, who never marvel at the complexity and fragility of nature, may feel indifferent to its plight.
By liberating green space and enhancing mobility, bicycles can reconnect people to nature and to each other. On a bicycle, one cannot turn up the music, wind up the windows, lock the doors and adopt tunnel vision. On a bicycle, one is exposed and alert to their surroundings. One is manoeuvrable, approachable and distractible. One can divert, slow and stop to examine oddities, follow intriguing scents, chat to curious strangers, explore unchartered streets, or just quietly observe wildlife.
With eyes and ears on the ground, cyclists feel a greater sense of place and a stronger connection to their neighbourhoods. Such interaction may ignite compassion for a city, its nature and people; inspire innovations for improving urban liveability; and instil the motivation to set about doing so. Certainly, cycling can render us happier, healthier, wealthier and calmer with more time and money to spare for community-centred activities including nature conservation.
- A community of cyclists, proactively interested in their city, its nature and its people.
- The ideas they will devise, develop and share, aimed at improving their city.
2. More bicycles = more space for nature
I recently visited a suburb of Johannesburg. Ecologically dull, aesthetically grim, traffic congested, socially segregated, it is dominated by roads, car parks and shopping complexes—a superb example of bad urban planning, a suburb designed for cars not people. Yet it resembles much of the modern world—a world that is rapidly transforming through low-density car-infatuated urban sprawl.
A bicycle consumes only a slither of the space that a car does, both in terms of lane width and storage/parking area.
- The potential for reducing traffic congestion by converting car drivers into cyclists.
- The projected urban sprawl that could be averted and the natural habitats that could be saved.
- The area of concrete and tarmac that could be reclaimed, liberated and transformed into ecologically-vibrant, socially-inclusive multifunctional public space.
3. More bicycles = less pollution, more resources
The life-cycle of vehicles and the road infrastructure that they necessitate is resource-ravenous and waste-flatulent. At the point of sale, a new car has already inflicted ecological damage globally not least through the extractive industries that support its manufacture. Regardless of manufacturing, conventional cars are woefully inefficient. Why do we need vehicles that are typically 25 times heavier than our own bodies? What a waste of natural resources! What needless environmental degradation!
Even if distant impacts are “out of sight, out of mind” then surely local impacts elicit concern. Vehicle emissions contribute to urban smog, impart respiratory illnesses and stain our lungs grey. Hydrocarbons, break fluids and other chemicals leak from cars poisoning our waterways. Noise pollution from traffic and road construction shakes the ground, awakens the sleeping and stresses the awake.
An average bicycle, on the other hand, produces comparatively negligible pollution. It weighs around one-sixth of our body weight and less than one-hundredth of an average car. It moves in silence, causing little disturbance to wildlife. Its full life-cycle impacts are dwarfed by those of a car.
- The potential reduction in air, noise and water pollution by converting car drivers into cyclists.
- The consequent enhancement of a city’s resource-efficiency and the reduction of its ecological footprint.
- The water, mineral and energy resources that could be saved.
4. More bikes = more environmental justice
Green infrastructure generates multiple ecosystem services that support human wellbeing including education, recreation, spiritual fulfilment, storm water absorption, climate regulation, and food production. In an increasingly urbanized world, maintaining direct access to such benefits is challenging. Communities may suffer ‘nature deficit disorder’ which hinders child-development and induces psychological ailments. You are not alone if you can identify the logos of obscure commercial brands better than common bird or tree species. Affordable, safe public transport is not always available for carless families wanting to visit green spaces beyond walking distance.
Bicycles can address such environmental injustice: (1) by alleviating road traffic to allow for the establishment of additional green space; and (2) by extending one’s radius of accessible area to encompass otherwise inaccessible ecosystem services.
- Establishing more equitably-distributed green space.
- Enhancing the mobility of carless citizens to enhance the accessibility of ecosystem services.
Love is a dangerous game
Despite the enormous enthusiasm for cycling, so palpable at the Cape Argus, only a tiny, albeit increasing, proportion of Cape Town’s inhabitants dare to cycle on a regular basis. Their reasons appear multifarious yet rooted in fear: fear of colliding with reckless drivers (taxis deserve a special mention here for frequently endangering the lives of cyclists); fear of exposure to violent crime; fear of inhaling noxious traffic fumes; fear of arriving sweaty at work; and fear of being stigmatized.
These fears are legitimate, but all can be overcome. Local movements like the monthly Moonlight Mass and the annual Naked Bike Ride are helping to raise awareness of cycling in the city. For over a decade, NGOs like the Bicycle Empowerment Network have been addressing poverty and mobility through the promotion of cycling in low-income communities. However, the keys to a more bicycle-friendly city that reaps the aforementioned social and ecological benefits, lie primarily in the hands of the local government.
The City of Cape Town will become the 2014 World Design Capital presenting unprecedented opportunities to support urban initiatives fostering social and environmental progress; an opportunity to deploy the bicycle as an agent of urban transformation and as a catalyst for nature conservation.
To achieve this, the local government must:
- Strengthen the protection of cyclists, better inform drivers, and enforce road safety;
- Expand the network of formal cycle lanes and allow bicycles on board public transport;
- Improve street lighting and tighten security to reduce crime;
- Improve air quality by taking meaningful measures to reduce traffic congestion;
- Launch a well-framed public campaign to promote cycling;
- Incentivize employers to provide showers in the work place;
- Identify and pedestrianize priority roads (e.g. Long Street and sections of Main Road).
By embracing the bicycle and its associated benefits, Cape Town will truly stand apart as a forward-looking, innovative city designed not for its cars, but for its people and the nature that underpins their wellbeing and prosperity.
About the Writer:
Russell Galt is a Scottish environmentalist with academic degrees in science and law. He has spent the past 8 years working internationally on sustainability matters.