[re]thinking forward

Felipe Leonardo Santos Shibuya, MFA, PhD
Hyundai Biological Programs Fellow
Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab

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“It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.”1

This quote perfectly fits what the planet is going through right now: a global pandemic. Yet Sigmund Freud wrote these words more than a century ago, describing his feelings towards the devastation caused by World War I.

Like humanity, nature has always dealt with gains and losses. Mass extinction events are perhaps the most dramatic to date.2  Yet on a much smaller scale the same thing happens every day—and everywhere. Right now thousands of bacteria are being born and dying on the surface of your skin, gaining and losing. In an old growth forest, ancient trees are toppling, their roots exposed, even as seeds take root and raise their first leaves to the sun. Although this sounds dramatic, it is part of the dynamic rhythm of life on this planet, with gains and losses happening for the sole purpose of balancing natural systems—be it in your body or a forest.

But what is the relationship between the tragedy of war experienced by Freud, the current COVID-19 pandemic and the harmonic microbiological dynamics of our bodies? For the past year, we have been trying to understand the origin of the SARS CoV-2 virus.3 Amidst so much speculation, we even created metaphors that suggest humans are a victim of nature.

You may have heard or read phrases like: “We are in the middle of a war” or “This is a war against an invisible enemy.” The many losses from the pandemic cause us to reflect on other extremely difficult times—like wars. However, unlike wars, the current crisis unfolds in the context of the way our species looks at and treats nature. Our constant search for a “culprit” reflects an anthropocentric view of the world in which we as Homo sapiens elude our own conscience.

For centuries much of human civilization has been following the paradigm of autonomous societies, exploiting natural resources and paving over nature to build our cities. And from time to time, weary nature seems to charge us a steep toll—in the form of pandemics, extreme weather events and other crises, upending our notions of control.

But consciousness—the most eminent evolutionary trait of our species—may yet be the key to changing the direction in which we are heading. In recent decades, a new approach to how we can rethink our way of living has been emerging as we seek answers in the forms, processes and systems found in the natural world. Biomimicry has guided us along new paths, transforming our antiquated anthropocentric structures and cultures through more sustainable ways of living.4

With this fresh look, we begin to understand that every organism that is successful in surviving on this planet—from bacteria to redwood trees—has learned to optimize its structures, life history and interactions to suit its position in the interconnections of geography, climate and community. The pandemic has brought to light our fragility as a species, but if we embrace this new view and recognize that we are part of nature we have the opportunity to rethink our role within this ecological network. It is up to us to decide what we want to change, and it will be those decisions that determine what we are going to carry forward.

  1. Freud, S. (1916) On Transience. SE, vol. 14, pp. 305–307 
  2. McElwain, J. C., and Punyasena, S. W. (2007) Mass extinction events and the plant  fossil record. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol. 22, pp. 548–557
  3. Bloom, J. D., Chan, Y. A., Baric, R. S., Bjorkman, P. J., Cobey, S., Deverman, B. E., Fisman,  D. N., Gupta, R., Iwasaki, A., Lipsitch, M., Medzhitov, R., Neher, R. A., Nielsen, R.,  Patterson, N., Stearns, T., van Nimwegen, E., Worobey, M., and Relman, D. A. (2021)  Investigate the origins of COVID-19. Science, vol. 372, p. 694
  4. Benyus, J. M. (2009) Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature.
    Harper Collins, New York, USA