Like many conservationists, Enric Sala loved our world before he thought about saving it. “I loved the natural world before I could understand it. In fact, I was interested in understanding it because I loved it,” Sala writes in his book, “The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild.”

Sala is a scientist, conservationist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence. Formerly a university professor who became tired of “writing the obituary of ocean life,” Sala founded National Geographic Pristine Seas, a project that explores the wildest seas on our planet to convince national leaders to protect these biodiversity hotspots. “The Nature of Nature” is a compilation of Sala’s experiences in a lengthy career of protecting marine areas in an effort to save our planet. 

“The Nature of Nature” is perfect for anyone who feels a pull to our Earth but struggles to understand its complexities. Sala’s goal is to give us a comprehensive understanding of ecology and the entangled relationships that make up our world. The initial chapters are a crash course in ecology: Readers learn about ecological succession, predator-prey relationships, keystone species. For those already familiar with ecology, the first half of the novel is a little dull. However, if ecology isn’t your forte, these chapters are succinct and valuable. 

But it’s worth pushing through these initial chapters to arrive at the heart of Sala’s argument. In it, he examines the intersection of the Anthropocene and the environment to make a compelling case to preserve the last wild areas on our planet for the benefit of all species — including us. There is both an economic imperative and moral responsibility to do so. 

A scientist by training, Sala uses multiple lines of argument to arrive at this conclusion.

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The Historical Imperative

Our current attitudes toward the Earth are shaped by the actions of our past. Since the industrial era, the Western world has had a one-way relationship with the Earth — taking and giving little in return. “The energy we extract from the natural world around us flows in one direction: toward us and our built environment,” Sala writes. This approach is the exact opposite of what many indigenous groups around the world employ. Living in harmony with the Earth requires respect and gratitude — nurturing in return for taking. 

Sala powerfully shows us that humans are different from other species for one novel reason (hint: it’s not our superior intellect). We take advantage of the ancient compounded, dead layers of our Earth by mining for fossil fuels. “We use energy from the past to subsidize our looting of the present,” Sala writes. 

This approach is as unconscionable as it is unsustainable. Areas of the world that haven’t been damaged by extraction are more biodiverse with secure boundaries against the industrial world. Most zoonotic viruses, viral agents that are transmitted from a non-human animal to a human, including COVID-19, have roots in disturbing ecosystem boundaries. 

The Economic Imperative  

Many believe that countering the damage we’ve done to our planet would cost an exorbitant amount. Sala reveals that it does, but only in the short term. “The long-term benefits of restoring our degraded ecosystems and protecting the wild left on our planet far exceed the short-term benefits under a status quo that continues to destroy our natural world,” Sala writes.

Sala’s life-work involves convincing world leaders that natural areas are worth protecting. This means keeping forests free of deforestation and marine reserves free of fishing. The cost of doing so pays off in the long-run: Protecting marine reserves increases local biodiversity that spills over to nearby waters where fishing is permitted, giving fisheries an economic boom. Sala’s unique work gives readers a valuable vantage point on the economic benefits of conservation. 

The Moral Imperative 

As a species on the top of the food chain, Sala argues humans have a moral responsibility to care for the Earth. “The planetary ethic moves humans away from a self-proclaimed center of the world and into a humble and respectful membership in the greater biosphere. It moves us from a position over the natural world to a place within it,” Sala says. This shift in perspective is a critical step to begin to care for our planet. 

Sala’s compelling message has been echoed by conservationists and indigenous groups alike. Indigenous peoples around the world are fighting to grant personhood to what the Western world considers “non-living,” such as lakes, mountains and coral reefs. Maori tribes in New Zealand have succeeded in giving the Whanganui River the same rights as a person, recognizing its sacred character and the consequences if it’s polluted or destroyed. 

“It is essential for our future that humans experience that transcendent overview effect and begin to treat the biosphere like a living thing instead of something to ignore or abuse,” Sala writes.

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Where does this leave us? Sala masterfully lays down the logic of why it makes historical, economic and moral sense to give back to our planet. 

Yet, “The Nature of Nature” misses one important point. How can we as individuals make change? Without this essential link, Sala’s book gives us the same sense of helplessness that we feel as we watch the world crumble, from fires to hurricanes to droughts. 

Sala gives us the ideas that would save our planet — protecting wild areas, rewilding those that aren’t, ending deforestation, transitioning to a circular, low-waste economy — but doesn’t give us the tools to advocate for these changes on an individual scale.  

Even so, “The Nature of Nature” is worth a read to understand our place within our tremendous planet. This awareness is ultimately the first step to instill an ethical pull for conservation in all of us. 

“The wild is here in all its baroque glory because it’s what has worked throughout the history of life on our planet,” Sala writes. 

Who are we to destroy it? 

Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at trpal@umich.edu



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