How Metaphors Have Influenced My Relationship with Nature
Comprehension goes beyond knowing a particular concept or idea. It goes beyond one’s ability to understand metaphors. More than anything else, it is about evoking one’s feelings and emotions. For example, the meaning of the word poverty can be easily defined by anybody. But for somebody who was able to experience how was it to be poor, the word would mean much more. It will not just be about the physical absence of some basic necessities, but its meaning will stir one’s emotions: How does it feel to be hungry and deprived of in life. Thus, the meaning of the word will encompass one’s whole being.
Similarly, how we comprehend the metaphors that we have studied about nature does not only depend on whether we have understood concepts and theories, but also on how well, if at all, we relate with nature or the environment. Biodiversity is much more understandable if you have experienced the outdoors and saw with your own two eyes that a pond harbors a variety of living organisms and not just lilies and toads. We can also take the case of how people who directly relate with nature understand concepts such as climate change based on their close relationship with the environment. Specifically, we can cite the case of the Inuivaluits, native people on Banks Island in Canada’s High Arctic, who were the subject of a study done by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). In their final report, Ashford and Castleden (2001) described how these people understand what climate change does to their environment:
As they travel over the tundra or harvest fish from the sea, they notice even the smallest changes in their environment. Recently, the changes have been significant and troubling. The climate has become unpredictable; the landscape unfamiliar. Autumn freeze-up occurs up to a month later than usual and the spring thaw seems earlier each year. The multi-year sea-ice is smaller and now drifts far from the community in the summer, taking with it the seals upon which the community relies for food. In the winter the sea ice is thin and broken, making travel dangerous for even the most experienced hunters. In the fall, storms have become frequent and severe, making boating difficult. Thunder and lightning have been seen for the first time. Hot weather in the summer is melting the permafrost and causing large-scale slumping on the coastline and along the shores of inland lakes. The melting has already caused one inland lake to drain into the ocean, killing the freshwater fish. In the town of Sachs Harbour, building foundations are shifting from the melting. New species of birds such as barn swallows and robins are arriving on the island. In the nearby waters, salmon have been caught for the first time. On the land, an influx of flies and mosquitoes are making life difficult for humans and animals. These changes tell local people that the climate is warming. . .
Due to their direct experience with the changes in their environment, the Inuivaluits were able to describe in detail what climate change does to them. Their comprehension on climate change goes beyond book definition. This brings us to the importance of knowing very well a subject matter in order to present facts accurately, and in the process persuade or convince effectively. Thus, it is important for authors and writers to have the necessary credentials to back up their claims as they tackle a specific subject matter.
Edward O. Wilson in his book “The Diversity of Life” is the most persuasive among the authors or writers whose work we had discussed. Through his persuasive writing style, he has the ability to to trigger the target readers’ emotions, making them read the book from beginning to end.
Wilson’s way to persuade his readers is by using a prose style in writing. Through vivid and poetic words in a very simple narrative style, he is able to carry his readers’ interest even to the point of understanding scientific terms. We quote below excerpts taken from the website www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring99/diversity.htm to see how he is effective as a writer-storyteller:
Human demographic success has brought the world to this crisis of biodiversity…. Our species appropriates between 20 and 40 percent of the solar energy captured in organic material by land plants. There is no way we can draw upon the resources of the planet to such a degree without drastically reducing the state of most other species. (p. 272)
In the next thirty years, the world would lose not only half its forest cover but nearly half of the forest species. (p. 278)
So we should try to expand reserves from 4.3 percent to 10 percent of the land surface, to include many of the undisturbed habitats as possible with priority given to the world’s hot spots. (p. 337)
Because scientists have yet to put names on most kinds of organisms, and because they entertain only a vague idea of how ecosystems work, it is reckless to suppose that biodiversity can be diminished indefinitely without threatening humanity itself. Field studies show that as biodiversity is reduced, so is the services provided by ecosystems…. These services are important to human welfare. (p. 347-48)
Only in the last moment of human history has the delusion arisen that people can flourish apart from the rest of the living world. (p. 349)
Wilson targets the general public whose understanding of the scientific processes that go with biodiversity could be very limited. By using a prose style in presenting scientific facts, the readers can comprehend and bond with him as he describes what he saw when he walked into the woods or as he climbed mountains. Similar experiences with his readers made comprehension becomes easier.
Climb into the tangle of fallen vegetation, tear away pieces of rotting bark, roll over logs, and you will see these creatures teeming everywhere. As the pioneer vegetation grows denser, the deepening shade and the higher humidity again favor old forest species, and their saplings sprout and grow. Within a hundred years the gap specialists will be phased out by competition for light, and the tall storied forest will close completely over. . . (p. 11)
If it is granted that biodiversity is at high risk, what is to be done? The solution will require cooperation among professions long separated by academic and practical tradition. (p. 312)
Because of Wilson’s writing style that can be embraced by his readers, his book earned outstanding reviews from critics as cited in the Internet (www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring99/diversity.htm) as follows:
A superb blend of lyrical description, sweeping historical writing, lucid scientific explanation, and dire warnings. . . Boston Globe
Engaging and nontechnical prose. . . . Prodigious erudition. . . . Original and fascinating insights.” — John Terborgh, New York Review of Books
Eloquent. . . . A profound and enduring contribution.” — Alan Burdick, Audubon
While Wilson’s book is for popular reading, other authors whose writing style is much more formal like that of James Hansen (Target: Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?) is intended for a very particular group of readers, in his case, leading experts and scientist in the whole world. It is a paper that has to be presented that way – where each claim has to be backed up mathematically. The general public would never have the patient to read it, much more comprehend it from beginning to end. But scientists will for they have to because of a certain purpose, and that is to scientifically prove that Earth is really getting warmer at an alarming rate. Obviously, a high-level of expertise is required in order for one to be able to comprehend, much more prepare such paper. In fact, the paper was done by a multidisciplinary group of experts headed by Dr. James Hansen. To emphasize, we can cite an excerpt as follows:
Paleoclimate data show that climate sensitivity is ~3°C for doubled CO2, including only fast feedback processes. Equilibrium sensitivity, including slower surface albedo feedbacks, is ~6°C for doubled CO2 for the range of climate states between glacial conditions and icefree Antarctica. Decreasing CO2 was the main cause of a cooling trend that began 50 million years ago, large scale glaciation occurring when CO2 fell to 425±75 ppm, a level that will be exceeded within decades, barring prompt policy changes. If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects. (Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf on May 15, 2009)
Both Wilson and Hansen are effective writers, their respective works geared for the understanding of different readers: Wilson for anybody who would be interested in the study of biodiversity or current environmental issues and Hansen for the scientists who have to check on each and every detail quantitatively. Both authors are persuasive in their own way and for a specific purpose.
As I have mentioned earlier, how we comprehend the metaphors that we have studied about nature does not only depend on whether we have understood concepts and theories but also on how well we relate with nature or the environment.
Our relationship with nature depends on our environmental ethic, which is largely based on our personal experiences. Ethics, it is said, is the discipline that deals with what is good or bad, right or wrong. It deals with moral duty and obligation. It deals with the rules or norms of conduct, or code of morals, whichever term you prefer. So, environmental ethic is our behavior towards the environment and its resources.
For example, the habit of maximizing the use of a material by practicing reuse and recycling could be an acquired practice at home. While growing up, our parents could have inculcated in us the value of limited resources, and so resource conservation has become part of our nature. The habit is coming from the heart and not because we have read it somewhere or we have understood the metaphors that we have discussed in class. However, we tend to strengthen our environmental ethic as we learn concepts and theories from school and from our readings or day-to-day encounter with the mass media.
Like us, Wilson and Hansen were largely influenced by their own environmental ethics – one’s personal values. We take the case of Wilson, as follows:
A childhood accident claimed the sight in his right eye. In adolescence, he lost part of his hearing. He struggled with math and a mild form of dyslexia. Any one of these imperfections might have blocked the road to a scientific career. But nothing could stop Ed Wilson’s curiosity of the natural world. So, he decided to focus on the tiny creatures he could pick up and bring close to his remaining good eye. (Retrieved from www.answers.com/topic/edward-osborne-wilson on May 15, 2009)
On the other hand, Hansen’s environmental ethic had been largely influenced by his work as a scientist of NASA that led him to study changes in Earth’s climate as a result of anthropogenic activities.
It is also environmental ethics that drive some people to advocacy work, such as Hollywood Stars who are campaigning for zero use of coal or Green Peace advocates who lobby against the use of incinerators.
As I read excerpts from the works of Wilson and Hansen, my knowledge of the various metaphors, concepts and theories and my life experiences have made me comprehend what their studies are all about. But my understanding of their signifance to myself and humanity is influenced by my environmental ethic. Thus, it is my mind and my heart that drive my behavior and how I do my functions as a living organism in the biggest ecosystem that is called Earth.
Ashford, Graham, and Jennifer Castleden. “Inuit Observation on Climate Change Final Report.” June 2001. International Institute on Sustainable Development. Retrieved from www.iisd.orgpdf.inuit_final_report_pdf on May 15, 2009.
“Edward O. Wilson.” Retrieved from www.answers.com/topic/edward-osborne-wilson on May 15, 2009.
Hansen, James, et al. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”
Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf. on May 13, 2009)
Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. Excerpts. Retrieved from www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring99/diversity.htm on May 15, 2009.