Sitting at my desk, I gaze out my window, fascinated by a fairly large spider that had taken up residence on the outer sill. I had been watching it for days as it meticulously crafted its web, weaving silk threads into an orb like design. The spider and its web were convenient distractions from what was my task at hand – writing an essay on the current political and economic themes of climate change and global warming, which was proving to be a daunting task indeed. I found my attention would continually drift back to the resourceful spider and its both beautiful and practical web. The spider had picked an ideal location. It could barely keep up with the steady influx of insects that found themselves trapped in its intricate web. I only wished my mind could do as efficient a job with snaring my elusive thoughts.
This arachnid had found its niche in the eco-system. The snaring of insects not only kept the spider well fed and allowed it to reproduce but it also, unbeknownst to itself, played a much larger role within its community and the ecosystem as a whole. Without this spider and others like it, the insect population may increase dramatically upsetting the balance of nature. While the insect population would most definitely be happy with its absense, others within the eco-system would unfortunately suffer. In a grand scale, vegetation and crops (among other things) could be detrimentally affected without the spiders around to keep the insects in check, as would the humans and other members of the biosphere that relied on these crops for survival. Could one compare this scenario with today’s global environment? Had I finally snared my prey?
An ecosystem is comprised of many different food chains which are, in turn, comprised of many different producers and consumers. These chains are intricately linked together to form a food web through which energy is continuously passed. The economy works in a similar fashion with goods, services and currency flowing through the system. As globalization continues to grow, so will the links amongst both communities bound by natural or political borders, and the individual consumers themselves. Decisions, choices and crises may even reverberate through the web possibly causing unforeseen consequences that to our perspectives may simply go undetected. Such intricacy will require us to better understand our roles or what niche we fill within the global economy as global citizens. In essense, our decisions on our consumption habits can affect what other countries produce, thereby directly affecting the lives of those who are dependent on that production for survival. Furthermore, conflict and political instability may disrupt the flow of inter-state goods resulting in an adverse effect on both the home country and those reliant on its exports. In short, individual knowledge of this interconnectedness may help the system work more harmoniously and in turn prevent unnecessary negative repercussions. This ability is a luxury the spider lacks.
As my gaze drifts once again to the arachnid, I ponder over this difference that separates us from other species. While we are all part of the same ecosystem, we alone have the ability to realize it. Unlike other life forms our reasoning can over-ride our instinct. One can argue that this leads to a good many of us to see ourselves as above or even superior to nature and its inhabitants. Moreover, I touched on earlier how such ignorance of ones role in an intricate global economy, can lead to otherwise avoidable negative side effects. Arguably, this view should be extrapolated beyond looking at merely our economy. Our economic system is only a small yet important sub system within the ecosystem. There are a multitude of ways we could govern ourselves and our society, but there is only one earth which of course can not be replaced.
Interestingly, as a species we have the ability to see and attempt to understand our relationship with the earth’s ecosystem, yet we rarely act accordingly – this is especially so in regards to climate change. We continue to cut down trees, drive gas guzzling SUV’s and eat meat at a rate that is unsustainable: in truth, we are most likely responsible for a significant portion of the current rise in the earth’s average temperature. Regardless of the warning signs around us and the slowly building scientific body of evidence supporting the theory of human induced climate change, we have been consistently slow to act.
So what is preventing us from acting faster?
I would argue that part of the problem is our mindset. We see ourselves as separate and above nature. Our unique abilities amongst the animal kingdom leave us with the impression that we are not actually animals ourselves. Such a view of our place in the scheme of things can lead to environmental abuses in the name of social progression. Highways, golf courses, and box malls go up in the name of convenience with little regard to their effects on the eco-system and its other inhabitants, never mind us.
While an environmental consensus is building and pressure is being leveraged on policy makers to a certain extent, it is as of yet not enough. Most of this consensus seems also to be based on what’s in our best interest and that of future generations. If we can change our mindsets and how we see our relationship with nature then we would most likely be more inclined to protect it and act faster to relieve the pressures we put upon it. Most importantly, though, we would not necessarily be acting in only our own best interests but acting in the best interest of the eco-system as a whole, which perhaps fittingly is one and the same. There is still a lot we don’t know about the connections and inner workings of our brains and bodies, and our grasp of the ecosystem is arguably even more futile. Sadly, we may be causing great and irreversible damage to subtle workings within the ecosystem beyond the visible global warming and beyond our own field of vision.
The spider on my sill is one of those evil looking types with the bulbous back end. I have always had a fear of spiders. I am the type that will squash any little arachnid that dares to cross my comfort zone. Fortunately my ability to rationalize gives me the opportunity to overcome what is now an illogical fear. At one point in our evolutionary path, nature was more of a threat and a lot of our fears, including that of spiders, were sensible enough. Most of our predators, though, have been either vanquished or marginalized. We now need to stop seeing nature as something to conquer, squash even, and instead appreciate the ecosystem and our place within it. I am not saying that such a change in mindset will be easy – I know old habits die hard. Still, I take comfort in having made the small but conscious effort not to kill spiders that have done nothing except have the misfortune of crossing my path. My first reaction is still to squash and ask questions later. But now I try and fight that initial response and grant these creatures a reprieve. Oddly, this effort has not been easy. But I can do it. Just like human society in general can make a conscious effort to understand and respect the complex web of relations within the ecosystem and how our respective niche fits in. We must focus on how our actions may reverberate throughout the tangled web of life whether it be the economy, society or the biosphere. Like the spider web that sits upon my window sill, it’s all intricately connected and the sooner we realize it the better.
(Electron microscopy image of a Jumping Spider, courtesy of Dr. Elaine Humphreys, UBC BioImaging Facility)