Perspectives from the Nature Lab on What is Forward?

Jennifer Bissonnette
Interim Director
Edna W. Lawrence Nature Lab

The Great Pause, for many, has been a time to confront who we are, and who we might like to be. Reflections on an individual level, as well as among nations and societies globally, seem to abound.
    While many of us stayed at home, indoors, isolated, news found us of the heroic efforts of healthcare workers working staggering shifts; the bravery of minimum-wage grocery store and delivery workers keeping the nation fed; people mourning losses of livelihoods and loved ones; wildlife wandering into vacated city streets; commuting hours and air pollution dwindling in parallel; the same virus simultaneously taking the life of a former ambassador in India, a toddler in Brazil, a mother-daughter pair of meat packers in the US. Millions have died. 
    And amidst this maelstrom: deadly wildfires, hurricanes, typhoons and floods; species extinctions; sharp political divides; polemics rising to violence; the ongoing crisis of racial injustice in the US; police brutality; the wrongful deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others.
    We have collectively known fear, grief and pain, but also generosity, heroism and wonder. This is the human experience, heightened now. And in this time of crisis that asks of all of us who we are and who we might like to be, I cannot help but see a common thread in our choices. Can we recognize ourselves in the other? Do we see ourselves as the Northern White Rhino, the acres and ecosystems of California, Australia, Indonesia, the Amazon and Pantanal burning? Do we see ourselves in those fighting to breathe; dying without the nearness of a loved one, even in those whose opinions and life experiences and choices differ from ours? Do we recognize them as being just as real as we are, their values and concerns and aspirations, their need for compassion and support just as real as it would be for us in their circumstances?
    American author, psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach speaks to the “unreal othering”1 we often resort to as a coping mechanism during times of fear and stress. In social and behavioral sciences, it’s known as the “ingroup/outgroup effect”2, where we oversimplify and depersonalize the other, making it easier to disparage and disregard those we don’t see as akin to us. 
    But let’s think about what it means to be kin. The eukaryotic cells found in our bodies as well as in plants, fungi and all animals, evolved from a common ancestor at least 1.2 billion years ago. We share DNA in common with every living creature on this planet: 99.9% the same as every other person, and 99% the same as our closest non-human relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos.3 Some sources also claim that we’re 84% the same as our cat, and 47% the same as a fruit fly—not to mention 24% the same as the grape the fly is sitting on.4
    Beyond recognizing our commonalities, what if we also acknowledge that we need each other—in all of our diversity? That we live in a complex and inextricably intertwined system: our survival depends on recognizing others not only as real and having the right to live well on this planet, but also that we and they are interdependent. We depend on the richness and health of diverse ecosystems to provide us with irreplaceable benefits such as climate regulation, water purification, waste degradation, nutrients and food, not to mention beauty and mental as well as physical health. Similarly, the diversity of perspectives, opinions, wisdom and ways of being among humans offers a richness and resilience that can lead us to new—and better—ways of being on this planet.   
    The essays that follow from Nature Lab staff members Felipe Shibuya and Dora Mugerwa explore what it means to embrace our connections and what we might learn from others, both in the natural world and in human societies. As you read, I ask you to consider again: Who do we want to be? And consider the “we” that embraces all of these “others” as real, important in their own right, and important to the fate of us all.

{re}thinking forward

by Felipe Leonardo Santos Shibuya, MFA, PhD

Futures: Carrying Forward More than One World
by Dora Mugerwa

  1. Brach, T. (2018) Evolving Beyond Unreal Othering.
    Accessed 9 June 2012
  2. Billig, M. & Tajfel, H. (1973) Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behavior. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3, 27-52
  3. Gibbons, A. (2012) Bonobos Join Chimps as Our Closest Living Relatives. Science. url: Accessed 9 June 2021
  4. Stegmaier, A. (2019). Genes are Us.  And Them. National Geographic.
    url: Accessed 9 June 2021