Editor's note: Publisher Henry Holt and Co. conducted the following interview with the book author.
Publisher: Why is our world “unnatural”?
Carl Safina: In one sense everything is natural. But if you think of natural as what happens outside of human influence, then so much of the world is affected by us — populations of animals, the numbers of fish in all the world’s oceans, forests and polar systems and coral reefs, the heat balance of the atmosphere and the acidity of the seas — that it’s a human-dominated world.
What is so dangerous about the fact that civilization’s values remain rooted in philosophies, religious traditions and ethical frameworks devised centuries ago?
Our philosophical sense of our place in the world, our religions, and our economy are the main lenses for our values and the ways we run civilization and conduct our lives. And all of them were fully devised hundreds or thousands of years ago — before anyone knew the world was round, before anyone knew the world can change, and certainly before anyone suspected we would be able to change the world in major ways. Only in the last century or so has science understood how the world really works. But our institutional lenses don’t correspond. They’re so out of sync with the way the world is that they’re essentially irrational. That’s why, for instance, coal can be priced cheaply or it can make “economic sense” to destroy vast forest tracks or ocean fish that could produce in perpetuity if we understood how to value them. You wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor from the Middle Ages, but we run our world with the equivalent of economic alchemy that is stuck in a time we are centuries past. With the exception of science itself, which does change according to new understanding, we run the world with institutions that are insistent on flying blind, so we don’t detect the dangers and we keep making damaging choices.
What political issues in the news today are addressed in your book?
Things like poverty and peace, overfishing, corporate overreaching and money in American politics, climate and energy, of course. But the thing in my book that’s new, I think, is a way of showing how they all tie together, how cutting down forests and educating girls are part of the same issue — how nature, human dignity and our prospects for peace and security are all tied together pretty directly.
Your book seems in part about the process of nature. What is humanity’s role in that process?
Humans are part of nature but we also affect and alter natural systems at rates and scales previously accomplished only by forces of geology and climate. We are altering the planet’s heat balance; we have enormous effects on the distribution and size of forests, grasslands, coral reefs and animal populations; we are affecting sea level, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the distribution of phosphorus. We have globally distributed long-lasting chemicals that did not exist prior to 1940 and plastics that will drift the oceans in increasing densities for centuries. There’s hardly anything in the living world that does not feel our presence, especially among the living things we most value and admire; we seem to most hurt the things we love.
What do osprey nests tell us about the human overpopulation problem?
In good years for fish, ospreys can raise three or four chicks. In poor years, one or two. Some pairs may fail. There can never be more ospreys than the sea can support, and they can never catch fish faster than the fish can reproduce. That’s the difference between ospreys and us.
What do most economists miss when discussing the environment?
They miss the environment, actually. They call the environment an “externality.” That means they consider the costs of pollution to be outside their little realm of prices and interest rates. It’s similar to the way the health costs that families and society pay for lung cancer are not priced into a pack of cigarettes. Economists consider lung cancer “external” to cigarette pricing. Coal is “cheap” because its price doesn’t include the costs of dealing with the mercury it puts into fish, the fact that burning it is destabilizing the heat balance of the planet while killing corals and shellfish by acidifying the seas, raising sea levels, dislocating people from low-lying coasts and islands, and so on. Coal is the most expensive thing we’ve ever put a match to, but economists have no idea.
What do past thinkers have to say about man’s relationship to nature?
Mainly that the whole idea of civilization was to conquer nature. And in earlier times, that was pretty much the task. Nature was dangerous. It hurt us but we couldn’t hurt it. The tables have turned. We’ve way overshot success, so much so that we are destabilizing whole natural systems, gnawing away vast forests, emptying the seas and driving down wildlife populations, and overpumping groundwater at planetary scales. This overshoot threatens the peace and stability of billions of people. By overdoing it, the human enterprise has become its own worst threat.
What’s wrong with the animal rights movement?
Its focus on compassion to animals is good, within reason (though some animals in zoos would rather be fed than be freed, for instance). But animal rights philosophy can’t solve our big problems because it doesn’t comprehend nature. It is too narrowly focused on suffering. According to animal rights, it’s worse to hurt a cow than to cut down a thousand-year-old tree (which, because it’s not an animal, isn’t really on the movement’s radar).
Further, in its adamant objection to all hunting and fishing it imagines a peaceful kingdom that simply doesn’t exist. For instance, fish eat other fish. Nature involves a lot of danger and violence. I’m not pro-hunting, but the real problems facing wild animals and facing people are much better addressed by conservation than by animal rights. Conservation resonates much more broadly with the way the world truly is and with our really serious challenges.
What does the environmental movement have in common with the struggle for democracy and the civil rights and women’s movements?
The environmental movement recognizes the need for human rights in a broad sense because people cannot be equal if their endowment is unequal, and generations cannot be equal if one generation uses more than its fair share and robs the next. The environmental movement is several things, and one of them is a broad rights movement.
Your book is as much about time as it is about place. What do we learn from the cycles of nature, the seasons, and our current place in time?
Life is constant change. That is a basic condition, and it often enriches us. But in nature the change creates a larger constancy. And that larger constancy changes slowly and deliberately. It doesn’t erode options in the long term, and it doesn’t suddenly pull the rug out from under other creatures, other people, other generations. Nature is the system that slowly made humans possible, and we will only remain possible if we change our conditions slowly and deliberately, not rapidly and thoughtlessly.
Is your book gloomy or optimistic?
That’s for readers to consider. I’m both. The problems are big, but the solutions are available. It’s easy to see how things could be much better, and that’s my definition of hope.
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To learn more about Safina's views, watch this video of the author describing the creation of the book: