When looking at issues involving nature and the environment, one cannot consider different aspects in isolation. Rather, a holistic approach is required, one that takes into account the flow of energy and material between the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere, and how information is fed back between these. Added to this is the sphere of human culture, which interacts with all of the other four.
This holistic evaluation is informed by three important considerations: the continuation of the human species, the ability of life to adapt and the effects of global climate change. When we are considering the first of these, the continuation of the human species, we are talking about issues such as food, people and security. In terms of the adaptability of life, we are focusing on the need to understand how life works. If these discussions are reduced to purely economic terms — to hard cash — we lose sight of the fundamental core of the issues and how they behave.
When the human factor is added, two additional elements are introduced: money and votes. These additions in turn inform the way human creativity is brought to bear. However, we also need to be aware that when conflict arises between the way mankind has done things and laws of nature, the latter should take precedence.
Faced with the ever-increasing urgency of the threat from global climate change, complicated by cumbersome legislative processes ill-equipped to devise an efficient response, more flexibility is called for.
How is global climate change actually going to affect us? How will the presence of greenhouse gases change the nature of our coastlines and our wetlands? These are important questions, very much deserving of debate.
For example, when seawater hits freshwater tidal zones, aquatic plants living in the coastal shallows die. Sea water would, however, provide plentiful sulfur, meaning coastal wetlands would produce less methane — a greenhouse gas — than freshwater wetlands do at the moment.
There is therefore a cost/benefit situation involved here, although we cannot be sure exactly at which point equilibrium will be established. All we can do for now is to study changes to the natural world as they happen. We need to know when to stop cutting down trees or plundering the resources of nature if we want to secure a sustainable future for the world and all life on it.
At the moment, we are calculating these issues in terms of money and continuing the plunder, unchecked by reason. If we carry on in this way, more and more of our resources will be exhausted. If Mother Nature brings creative force and vitality to the table, we must bring human ingenuity and strength of will.
We have a variety of tools at our disposal: conservation, restoration, formal education, mass education and awareness through the arts. With these, we can explore ways to work with nature and ensure the continued existence of the human species.
Chen Chang-po is a former research fellow in the Academia Sinica’s Biodiversity Center.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER