Ecosystems and Society

Preconditions for a Sustainable Thinking

Considerations on the plant world

Nowadays it is more and more common to come across the term sustainability as an outcome of increasing awareness of the environment and its close interrelationship with development. But what are the ways in which we need to conceive reality to make our thinking truly sustainable?

Adhering to a certain anthropocentric tendency, we are used to mentally representing a clear division between the human world and the natural world, but recent events have forced us to pay more attention to the (so controversial) relation between these two realities. 

A very interesting study on this subject has been conducted since the early 1990s by Suzanne Simard, a Canadian biologist who has spent her life observing the dynamics of the plant world.

It is based on her research that we will attempt to better understand the relationships which characterise the natural environment and to compare them with those of the human milieu, in order to show that it is not possible to draw a real difference between these two worlds.

The Symbiotic Network of Ecosystems

One of the fundamental dynamics underlying the regulation of relationships between micro-organisms is symbiosis, a relationship of mutual benefit. The clearest example is that of mycorrhizae, which are «symbiotic associations between fungi and plants, close in a physiological, ecological and reproductive relationship». 

After analysing the DNA of roots and tracing the movement of molecules through underground conduits, Simard understood that these “threads” of organisms connect all the elements of forest vegetation, even if they belong to different species. There is close interdependence between each plant, which gives and receives nourishment and information. 

It is common among scientists to consider this network of exchanges as the way in which trees express themselves to each other: «plants communicate through the mycorrhizal network in a similar way to thoughts travelling on the network of neurons in the brain».

This comparison is quite effective, since this reticular structure is endowed with a real cognitive activity, capable of learning, remembering and recognising what is different from itself. 

These mutualistic and cooperative interactions between different organisms are the basis of the functioning of ecosystems, which are thus formed by a network of relationships and mutual exchanges.

Such a discovery undermines the today widely accepted Darwinian conception of the natural world (based – at least apparently – on competition and the struggle for survival) and supplements it with a cooperative vision of nature. 

Nature/Society Opposition

Although Darwin’s thought and analyses are extremely complex, the mechanism that emerged from them was individualistic and fitted perfectly into the contemporary conception of reality: not a variation in terms of “population”, but of “units”.

This has led to thinking of the fundamental bond between living beings as a competitive relationship, juxtaposition between individuals that triggers a struggle for survival. If one accepts this “structure” of the world, one is necessarily led to accept a clear contrast between nature and society.

Initially, the dialogue between these two opposite poles was set up on the basis of an exploitative relationship: society, as a group of individuals totally different from nature, uses the environment for its own survival and progress. 

Of course, this is a trivialisation of what is actually the reality, but it explains the approach to sustainable thinking set out in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, in which environmental issues were seriously addressed for the first time. 

For example, in this document sustainable development is defined as «development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs». In the same report, environmental space is described as «the capacity of the environmental functions of the biosphere to support human economic activities». 

In these examples there is an obvious attempt to regulate sensitivity to the environment in which we live, but the mindset from which this ecological consciousness emerges is always informed by a basic opposition between nature and society. The attitude can be either exploitative or protective, but it is undeniable that men have placed themselves before nature as its masters and claim to administer it. 

New Sustainable Thinking

Of course, it is not possible to determine exactly how reality is actually structured, but the discovery of the organisation of the plant world in a mycorrhizal network of nodes certainly opens up another possibility. If the regulating principle of nature is no longer based on competition but on cooperation, then it is possible to dismantle the (aforementioned) current view of reality. 

Just as every tree no longer has to struggle to survive, but can rely on a shared network of nourishment, so man no longer has to think of himself as being in extreme competition with other individuals and can plan his life in correlation with others and the environment.

Genuine sustainable thinking should see men and society as immersed in nature in a relationship of total hybridity. It is no longer a question of abusing or paternalistically caring for a diverse environmental system, but of realising that we are part of the world and that we can and must cooperate with the living beings that occupy the nodes in the network alongside us by developing a relationship of true mutualistic symbiosis.

Reading Suggestions

  • Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees
  • Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

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