Ecologists find that less biodiversity leads to less productivity, less stability, and less resilience in the ecosystem. The analogy to human diversity in a city is less well understood, but has intriguing possibilities for understanding social systems that create thriving cities.
By Michael Lizotte, University Sustainability Officer, UNC Charlotte
Habitat is important for everyone – even humans.
The arts help us understand our relationship to our habitat. Artists can show us the reality we overlook or cannot experience. Over a century ago, elucidation by writers such as John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson and photographic artists such as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge led to the invention of the national park. Muir asked humanity to preserve natural areas because humans need nature. As a modern human in an industrialized society, he noted the material goods we extract from nature, but he also raised a radical notion: that humans should recognize that nature provides “places for rest, inspiration, and prayers.” To describe his feelings to city-bound readers, Muir often used the word “cathedral.” But just as often, he used allusions to “home.” The latter is much better at describing human habitat: We visit a cathedral, but live in a home.
Today there is a different way to consider Muir’s challenge, as the world continues to urbanize. In Muir’s time, only about 30 percent of Americans lived in cities, whereas today it is more than 80 percent. Globally, the percentage of people living in cities surpassed 50 percent around 2008, and the UN predicts that all future human population growth will be urban. The concern today is how to meet the needs of all people for a natural habitat, especially now that people mostly live in urban areas.
Parks, from local to national, are one approach, but there is growing recognition that they may not be enough. As Charlotte has experienced, parks are often too few and too dispersed for people to use daily. Only a wealthy minority owns land. The average American spends more than 90 percent of the day indoors, according to the Center for Disease Control. Opportunities for “rest, inspiration, and prayer” in nature may be rare. The current challenge includes both conserving habitat and providing people with places and time to experience it.
The habitat of Charlotte is forest and stream – in which we are building a city. We trade that natural habitat to create our buildings, byways, and playing fields. Those necessities only require a portion of our land area, yet our methods and preferences have resulted in the removal of most of Charlotte’s forest and damage to all our creeks. Some loss is by design, to meet priorities like safety, or to mimic another place, like grassland or sea. Some loss is due to common practices, like clearing trees off entire building sites. Our greatest failure may be in not repairing and restoring natural habitat as we build our city. We accept or demand substitutions, replacing a diverse native ecosystem with a few pet species of tree, flower, and lawn – ecologically foreign, but more responsive to our desires.
There are many trade-offs in building a city, but we rarely ask if a loss in habitat will create social troubles. If displacing or replacing nature is acceptable and even considered sensible, will we break from that mindset when addressing our social issues? Charlotte has a history of displacing and replacing people, neighborhoods, historic buildings. As we have built our city, destruction of our forests and creeks has preceded or occurred alongside social struggles. One root of Charlotte’s social ills may be found in our treatment of natural habitat and an unexamined correlation to our attitudes about people.
Appreciation of natural habitat could also suggest a way to appreciate human diversity. Converting habitat to human uses is described by ecologists as “simplification.” Species are eliminated, or their numbers are diminished, by loss of habitat, home, and food. Ecologists find that less biodiversity leads to less productivity, less stability, and less resilience in the ecosystem. The analogy to human diversity in a city is less well understood, but has intriguing possibilities for understanding social systems that create thriving cities. Perhaps a gentle way for us to better understand and value diversity in our human neighbors is for us to test our ability to respect and support biodiversity in the natural habitats we share. Cherishing and preserving a nature you don’t know may be a way to learn to cherish and preserve people you don’t know.
Artists allow us to see the world through different eyes, perhaps revealing some truth or beauty we might have missed. The arts also create a safe space for us to express wonder and awe. Wonder and awe open doors to respect; they set a humble path by which humans can consider nature and ourselves.
Artists have ways to show both what is and what may come to be, and their fictions can be more influential than the predictions of the scientist or the economist. Artists’ perceptions of the current world, as well as their revelatory dreams and nightmares, can affect the future we choose create.