Skip to content

On the Wondrousness of the Natural World, and How It Might Help Us Live Sustainably


(With apologies to those US friends who just got through one of the worst snowstorms ever.) Last week, we had one of those wonderful snowstorms. There was enough snow to spread a white blanket across the ground, yet not too much to swamp our capacity to keep our roads passable. The snow itself was fluffy, light, and a bit sticky so that it highlighted every branch and twig on the trees with a frosting of sparkling white. And the weather has remained cold and crisp, with plenty of sunshine since. The trees are still frosted, and, this not being the city, the snow is still white almost to the edges of the now clear and dry roadways. Today, my tree-lined road was an avenue of sparkling white in the sunlight that would far and away surpass the beauty of any avenue of lighted trees in Paris or New York around Christmas time. And as I drove into town, I passed one stretch of trees where the sun was shining through from behind, lighting up every snow-traced branch in a wonderful warm glow.

snow scene Jan 2016

winter road scene Jan 2016

That got me thinking. If snow was a grayish green in color, sort of like phlegm when you have a really bad cold, and if that snow also coated the branches of trees in a glurpy slime that glistened metallic green in the sunlight, would I find it equally beautiful? Or, to get to the real point I want to make, what is it about the natural world that makes it so often beautiful, and why is our appreciation of the beauty of natural landscapes almost universal? In asking these questions, I am asking what it is about us that causes so much of nature to be seen as attractive, and why there is so much agreement among us about the beauty that we see? Our appreciation of nature seems to fly in the face of the old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Now I know that people who have grown up in the prairies may feel a bit hemmed in in a more forested landscape, while people used to forested topography may feel vaguely exposed and vulnerable on a prairie. But I also know that most of us can appreciate the beauty of a wide prairie sky as well as the glorious exhilaration of a tall, forest grove. What we do not seem to see as beautiful is the damaged landscape, whether ravaged by a storm or by strip mining. I am not denying that there can be beautiful cityscapes (and what makes them beautiful is worth analysis), but I also suggest that there are many cityscapes that are far from beautiful. To me, beauty seems far more widely present in natural environments, including in rural, extensively managed and altered farming environments.

forest and prairie
This Japanese old-growth forest glade, and this prairie sunset are very different landscapes, yet each is strangely beautiful. Photos © R. Iida and © sassaputzin/ respectively.

Not limited to landscapes

Our appreciation of beauty in the natural world is not limited to landscapes. The plants, animals and other creatures that populate this planet also offer lots of beauty. Something about form and color wedded to function seems to underlie our esthetic appreciation, although there are certainly some quite ugly creatures out there. Again, we mostly agree on what are the ugly ones. The camera and later the microscope (light, transmission electron, scanning electron and even newer ones) have progressively opened our eyes to the beauty in form and function at various spatial scales in nature. Again, we seem largely to agree on which photos are the most beautiful, and those images seem usually to be of organisms, or their parts, in functional form and condition.

leptocephalus & nudibranchTwo outstanding underwater portraits, leptocephalus eel larva on left and nudibranch on right reveal beauty in form and color. Photos © L Ruda and S Scortegagna respectively featured in the 2015 Ocean Art Underwater Photography competition.

I’m of the opinion that our appreciation of the beauty in nature may be tied to the fact of our own origins in nature, and may be related to the fact that we recognize the life in other creatures. We may even feel an affinity for those other examples of life on this planet. Surely the passion, over-exuberant though it may be, of the avid member of PETA is driven by more than a left-brain, strictly rational, code of morality. Surely it is at least partly driven by a right-brain, subjective sense of one-ness with other living species.

Beauty in the organization of a coral reef

As one learns more about the natural world, one comes to appreciate the beauty in design, the functionality, the incredible appropriateness that mark natural systems. I do not know if this appreciation of nature is driven by the same forces that guide our appreciation of its visual beauty, but, even if not, this appreciation seems to be widespread also. Take the incredible complexity of the coral reef. As any diver quickly appreciates once he or she has dived the same location several times, the individual creatures that live there are at home, and likely to be present at virtually the same locations on each dive. Just how at home they are can be astonishing.

I first saw her in August of 1977. She was quite distinctive and attractive, with a blue diamond on her forehead. Otherwise, she was a pale yellow fish, about 6 cm long, with the official name of Pomacentrus amboinensis. She did not have a less formal name although a number of years later some wise ichthyologist decided she had always been the Ambon damselfish. Quite ridiculous really – nobody except a few ichthyologists had ever called her that; but then, few people called her Pomacentrus amboinensis either. And I doubt very much that she used either name. Anyway, this lady was unusual because of that blue diamond. It was actually an aberration, a deformity, a patch of pigment-free skin that allowed the dark color of the dura mater covering her brain to shine through her transluscent skull. I’ve never seen another fish, of any species, like her.


pomacentrus-amboinensisNot my lady Ambon with the blue diamond, but another Pomacentrus amboinensis.
Photo © John Sear.

In 1977 I was beginning a research project that required me to visit a number of small patch reefs distributed in a shallow lagoon and carefully search out, identify and record all the fishes present. I would do this three times, over about two weeks for all of a set of 20 patch reefs ranging in size from barely a meter across to four meters across, and typically supporting about 130 fish belonging to about 20 different species. The project then required that I return every 2-5 months, so that I visited each patch reef three times, on each of three occasions per year, for a decade. (There was a real scientific question to be asked – this was not simply a time-wasting device used to justify diving on a coral reef every few months!) My lady Ambon damsel was living on one of the smaller patch reefs, scarcely 1.2 meters in length, about 0.8 meters wide and perhaps 0.6 meters high. It was a few meters away from any other corals on the sandy lagoon floor in water about 4 meters deep at low tide.

I am telling you all this because that little fish was present on every one of my visits to that patch reef over 10 years! She was a young adult when I first saw her and an old, but not an ancient adult the last time we met. Knowing whether individual fish were present on multiple visits was not one of the questions I was asking, however, it was often the case that fish of particular species were usually present on particular patch reefs over many visits, and there were a few other distinctive individuals that were definitely seen repeatedly. A trio of Dascyllus trimaculatus, all fully grown adults 15 cm in length, and occupying an impossibly small patch of coral, comes to mind. They were the only members of this species across all 20 patch reefs and all visits, and they were present on that pin cushion of a coral head right through my study.

The fact that these fish were present repeatedly did not surprise me. I had been working on coral reefs long enough to know that the great majority of reef fishes are homebodies. However, that some individuals of rather small species were living on the same small patch reef for 10 years did come as a bit of a surprise. However, I now believe that being homebodies, and being potentially quite long-lived is quite common across reef fish species. Just think what this means about the organization of a coral reef. My little lady Ambon damsel must have known her coral patch like the back of her fin. She would have known every nook and cranny, every sheltered space, every tunnel through to the other side. She would also have known every other creature living there. In most cases as an individual neighbor. Now, I have no idea how fuzzy her awareness was, but I am certain awareness was there. I also do not doubt that she learned to recognize me as a rather large occasional visitor, mostly dark in color but with some sparkly bits, and noisy beyond belief – all those air bubbles. I’d appear, nose about for 10 minutes or so and swim away.

Why do I think she was aware, even if more dimly than we are? There is a lot of evidence. Release a fish, previously caught somewhere nearby and held in a plastic bag, and it will make a beeline for the nearest shelter, and lots of resident fish of its own and of other species will chase it, nip at it, drive it away. Release it carefully, close to shelter, so it does not have to make a mad but conspicuous dash to safety; the residents still realize quickly that a fish that does not belong in the neighborhood is present, and it gets chased. Or simply watch the behavior of smaller fish around larger predator fishes. All is calm until the predator starts to hunt. Then the behavior of the potential prey changes quickly. Better yet, get into the water with a small microspear, intent on capturing one of these small fish. Even though they may have never seen a diver with a microspear before, they behave totally differently to when you drift by with a clipboard. (At least, that was always my excuse for my relatively poor performance in the fish harvesting stakes.)

cleaner & batfish hm-mb-ocean-art-2015-lynn-wu-1200_0Another amazing photo from the Ocean Art photography competition showing the cleaner, Labroides dimidiatus entering the gill chamber of a batfish cleanee at an Indonesian cleaning station.
Photo © Lynn Wu

Perhaps the best evidence that reef fish are aware of the other fish, of many species, around them, and respond to them appropriately comes by observing the behavior of fishes at a cleaning station. The cleaner fish, Labroides dimidiatus, is bite-sized, colorful, and dancing conspicuously. The potential cleanees assemble nearby, behaving quite passively toward each other despite including larger fish predators and smaller juicy potential prey. They move forward in an orderly way, quite unlike a crowd crashing through the doors of the electronics super store at 12:01 am Black Friday. As each fish gets its turn to be serviced, it moves toward the cleaner, spreading fins and opercula, opening its mouth, ready to be cleaned. And then many of these fish come back later that day, or the next, for more cleaning. Cleaners are so ‘respected’ by the cleanee species that there are several species of blenny that mimic cleaner fish in color, form and behavior, in order to get close enough to take a nip of flesh from a fin or shoulder before darting away. Never mind how this orderly cleaning station behavior evolved (although that is also a fascinating question); how is it maintained, day by day. To say it is simply instinctive is a cop-out although I do not doubt there is a sizeable inbuilt component to the behavior of all the players (including those pesky mimics). But there is also learning about place, about players, about the correct behavior to display when waiting there. Every one of those fish started life either as an egg adrift on the ocean, or as a newly hatched larva which swam rapidly toward the surface and out to see. Most of them did not really experience a coral reef until they were a month old. Yet they queue patiently at cleaning stations.  (For an earlier comment about cleaners go here.)

If we turn to the other animals on the reef, I become a bit more uncomfortable giving them awareness. The octopus is obviously pretty bright and definitely aware. The lobster or crab, continuously wiggling all those little mouth parts (that all have official names I have long since forgotten)….. possibly. I’m sure the fish recognize them as living members of the community, but while I can more or less imagine what it might be like to be a fish, that is a lot harder for these more distantly related species. Remember the lobster is wearing its skeleton on the outside, has eyes on little stalks, has several pairs of antennae bearing receptors I can only dream about and far too many legs to keep track of, and occasionally exits through a slit in the top of its skeleton, pulling every tiny leg out of its sheath, and then sits all deliciously soft and vulnerable waiting for the new skeleton to harden. What on earth does that feel like? With all that going on, does it have much time left to be aware of its surroundings? Actually, I suspect it does but I’m less comfortable making that claim. Clams and snails are more difficult still, and starfishes or their relatives the sea cucumbers, forget it. And yet, I’m pretty sure my fish recognizes each of these as living beings, and likely knows that particular individuals live nearby.

lobster twagnerskier1 flickr 7677878584_cb9a49e9f5_bThis Caribean spiny lobster looks alert. How aware is it? I suspect it knows what is going on.
Photo © twagnerskier1 via Flickr

The real point of this discussion is just that the way the many different species of animal are assembled on a coral reef includes a considerable amount of interspecific, even cross-phylum, social interaction among individuals that are known to each other. I can remember, back in the 1970s, when ecologists and behavioral biologists studying elephants finally recognized that they lived in matrilineal family groups, and that when poachers had killed older members of an elephant group the remaining animals were traumatized and suffering grief. Sometimes the social group collapsed, unable to go on without its leaders. We discovered much the same thing about social groups of chimpanzees, gorillas, and other primates in the 1960s. Now I find it strange that it took us so long to realize this, or that we should still be resisting the idea that lots of species are capable of the dimmer awareness I am suggesting for reef fishes. How else is it that reef fishes learn what a cleaner looks like (their oceanic larval lives ensure that they do not learn this from mimicking their parents), or that groupers can learn to co-opt the help of a moray eel whilst hunting? Does not this fact that animal social systems, including ones that include many different species, are substantially organized by social interactions among aware neighbors, make the natural world more amazing, more wonderful, than it might have been?

And the more general point is that we can look at the physiological, the developmental, the behavioral, the cellular, or the genetic aspects of how the natural world is put together and see amazingly complex, beautiful patterns of organization as well. For example, if the DNA double helix that forms a chromosome was untangled and straightened out, but allowed to retain its double helix form, and if the 46 chromosomes in a single human cell were laid end to end, the DNA strand for that single cell would be about two meters long. Somehow that 2 m of impossibly thin double helix gets folded up and packed into the cell nucleus, typically only 0.001 mm in diameter, without getting broken or tied in a knot, and, as we know, once in the nucleus it does not just rest silently but has to play its metabolic role, and be ready to replicate at every cell division. As we learn more details about the natural world, its wondrousness only grows. At least, it grows for me, and for people I know from many different backgrounds – I hope our ability to be inspired by the natural world is indeed universal.

We’ve done a lot to our world

Humans have done substantial damage to the natural world in recent years. While it has been said many times, we need to keep reminding ourselves that it is not only climate change that we need to attend to. Our numbers and our power are now so immense that there are many ways in which, going about our human business, we are impacting our planet in seriously harmful ways. Changing climate, acidifying oceans, contamination of every environment with novel chemicals with unexplored consequences once dumped out there, over-use and mismanagement of fresh water, both surface and aquifer, deforestation, topsoil destruction, desertification, overfishing, destruction of continental shelf topography via trawling and other means, redistribution of species intentionally or accidentally, decimation and extinction of species, paving of land surfaces, damming of rivers, it’s a very long list. I have talked about planetary limits before, and am in the middle of reading the latest book by Johan Rockström, the Swedish environmental scientist who has played a major role in developing the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that we should operate within, if we are to avoid sudden and unpleasant changes in the future. If we transgress these boundaries we run the real risk of moving the earth system towards one or another tipping point, a threshold beyond which positive feedback mechanisms kick in to accelerate the changes that the planet had been resisting up until then. One example is the possibility that if we cause too much more warming, the glaciers of Greenland and the smaller, western part of Antarctica may melt sufficiently to bring into play natural processes (i.e. outside our control) that will accelerate the melting, until all the ice is gone and the seas are many meters higher than today.

In his new book, Big World, Small Planet, Rockström has teamed with the nature photographer Mattias Klum to produce an account that is scientifically up-to-date and supported by numerous evocative images of our fast-disappearing natural world. I’ve not yet got to the concluding section, but advertising claims that they set out a convincing and hopeful thesis:

“By embracing a deep mind-shift, humanity can reconnect to Earth, discover universal values, and take on the essential role of planetary steward. With eloquence and profound optimism, Rockström and Klum envision a future of abundance within planetary boundaries—a revolutionary future that is at once necessary, possible, and sustainable for coming generations.”

In Rockström’s view, the nine planetary boundaries are guard rails that can keep us from moving into bad ‘places’ while leaving us plenty of ‘space’ in which to use our ingenuity and creativity to create a positive future on this planet. I hope he is right in his conviction that we can remain within the safe zone. And this brings me to my final point.

Considering just climate and ignoring all the other problems for a moment, we have an immense task ahead of us if we are to succeed in keeping the warming to under 2oC. It is a task that people are only now beginning to comprehend. I do not think we will achieve it without a radical realignment of our attitudes to the natural world. Putting it bluntly, the national commitments on emissions that were accepted at the Paris climate conference, as revolutionary as they were, are only a small beginning – the first baby step. How are we going to walk further?

The need for emissions reductions beyond Paris

The think tank, Climate Interactive, analyzed the INDCs (Independent, Nationally Determined Contributions – i.e. totally voluntary) submitted by countries participating in the Paris meeting, back in November, and showed that, if fully enacted, they would reduce our likely warming at 2100 to about 3.5oC, compared to about 4.5oC if we continued present policies. They subsequently looked at what would be required to get from Paris to a 2oC increase at 2100.

Andrew Jones and three colleagues described what they call the Ratchet Success Pathway for getting from Paris to +2oC. The difference between the ratchet path and the one we will be on if Paris commitments are all kept, but nothing further is done, is quite stark.


temp trends after Paris
The likely trends in mean global temperature to 2100 assuming Paris promises are not kept (blue), are kept (red), or are substantially improved upon in subsequent recommitments (green).
Graph © Climate Interactive.


emissions trends after Paris
The likely trend in global greenhouse gas emissions per year with no effort to reduce them (blue), with the promises made in Paris (red) and with additional future commitments (green).
Figure © Climate Interactive

For Canadians, the trend graphs are eerily similar to those graphs that the Harper government used to use to claim Canada was ‘half-way to our goal’ when we were moving in the wrong direction! The world has a very great deal more to do after Paris. What is going to be required in those future commitments is set out in the next table. (One very positive aspect of the Paris accord is that it provides explicitly for reporting progress and modifying commitments every five years beginning in 2018.)

Table from Climate Interactive
Table showing the current INDCs for selected countries or groups, the improvement needed in those initial commitments, and the further improvement needed between 2030 and 2050.
Table © Climate Interactive

While the task for the EU is initially relatively modest, those for other regions are substantial. The US has pledged to reduce emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, but needs to increase this to a 45% reduction by 2030 – a level matched more or less by all developed countries. China and other developing countries will need to peak their emissions 3-5 years earlier than committed to in Paris and then reduce them at 2% per year to 2040 and then at 4% per year thereafter. The downloadable report provides more detail on what is needed. For Canada, the INDC promise of a reduction of 2.1% per year between 2015 and 2030, needs to become 3.7% per year, rising to 5.1% per year every year from 2030 to 2100. For Australia, the promised 3.2% per year needs to be bumped to 5.2% per year 2015 to 2030, and kept at 5.1% per year thereafter. China’s INDC pledge is effectively to slow growth in emissions to the equivalent of 1.3% per year between 2015 and 2030. China will need to limit that to just 0.1% per year to 2030 and then convert to a reduction averaging 3.2% per year between 2030 and 2050, and a further reduction to 4.0% per year for the rest of the century. (Those readers familiar with the workings of compound interest, will recognize that these are substantial overall reductions in emissions.) To make clear how substantial these changes are, the report provides the following figure:


trends for diff countries after Paris
Total greenhouse gas emissions in gigatonnes per year CO2 for six countries or groups through to 2100 under three scenarios – no action on Paris commitments, implementing those commitments but going no further, and adopting a path that leads to a global temperature increase less than 2oC by 2100. Image © Climate Interactive.

One very important point to notice in this figure – and one we all need to keep in mind – no country is going to be emitting much if any greenhouse gases by 2100 if we are going to be successful in keeping climate warming to a maximum of 2oC. There will be plenty of people out there urging us to continue to exploit fossil fuels, go slow, delay reductions. For success, there will have to be some very strong reasons for bringing emissions down.

We need to deepen our individual connections to the natural world

Very strong reasons are needed. That is why I have been thinking about the inherent beauty in nature, the architectural, chemical, behavioral, organizational beauty in nature. We are never going to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and profligate lifestyles unless we rebuild a deep respect for nature. We need to love nature so much that it will be inconceivable that we would wittingly harm it.

Some of us may find spiritual reasons for building a new respect for nature, and Pope Francis has already provided some strong arguments that bolster that perspective. Some of us may rediscover deep cultural reasons for respecting, even revering nature. Many cultures had such views and some retain them to today. But still others of us may find reason to treasure nature by recognizing the uniqueness and the utter unexpectedness of its complex multifaceted beauty. The 2nd law of thermodynamics tells us that the universe is steadily moving towards a state of total entropy. I believe time is supposed to end once total entropy is achieved, although the idea of time ending is a bit beyond my primate brain. Given the existence of the 2nd law, the fact that Earth exists as a life-filled planet, and has done so for several billion years, is wonderful enough by itself. But it has not just kept entropy at bay, it has provided a richly baroque, if ultimately futile, denial of the need to march steadily towards entropy. Regardless of the frame from which we approach it, the more we learn about this amazing place and its amazing life-forms, the more intricately complex, and absolutely improbable it seems to be. I think, frankly, that it is wonderful to be permitted to be one small part of this defiant little struggle to keep entropy at bay for a time. And perhaps, just perhaps, that perspective can help some others of us embrace the idea that our only home, our tiny blue marble with its living, enveloping biosphere, has to be respected and cared for, and that such respect and care should be a prime mover of our lives. I hope so.


sardine run 3rd-mlb-ocean-art-2015-greg-lecoeur-1200
One more photo from the 2015 Ocean Art competition – a wonderful record of how one species, such as the Cape Gannets, can learn to take advantage of the hunting by a quite different species, the dolphins, and also how well organized the school of sardine prey remains as it tries to avoid capture. Photo off South Africa © Greg LeCoeur.

2 thoughts on “On the Wondrousness of the Natural World, and How It Might Help Us Live Sustainably”

  1. Very eloquent and well written, Peter. My own love and interest of corals began with the amazing symmetry and yet astounding complexity that corals and their reefs achieve in their beauty. Have you considered sending this to a major popular publication, e.g. Atlantic, New Yorker, even the Economist or some equally prestigious Canadian publication/ I really think it needs a larger audience, but you may need to simplify the entropy section a bit for the non-initiated.

    Look forward to seeing you again in Abu Dhabi again if John can pull another conference together. If not, perhaps at the ICRS in Honolulu in June.


Comments are closed.