Nature: things or process?

Are humans part of the ecosystem? Is nature a collection of things, or a place, or is it also process?

Though the ecosystem processes of nature became a subject of serious study in the 1950s, there is constant reinforcement to see nature as things or territory:

Science and training. Most of our biological science is still concerned with (and organized around) the things or products of the ecosystem: genes, proteins, organisms, species, plant communities, and environments such as tundra or rainforest. Identification of a plant or animal often takes precedence over understanding its function or behavior.

The way we live. For many people, nature is a place they visit, different from where they live. Summer camps, vacation homes, designated wilderness areas and parks, and signs such as "Please don't feed the animals" reinforce our perceptions of nature as a place, different from civilization. Very little ecological research takes place in cities or on farms.

How the ecosystem works

In addition to all living things, the world's ecosystem includes the sun as source of energy, the earth's rocks and soil, the water, and the atmosphere.

All life (biodiversity) depends on the earth's ecosystem. Water, atmosphere, and land are finite. How well the ecosystem can sustain and enhance human life as well as the rest of biodiversity depends on how well it functions. For convenience and understanding we divide this function into four: the water cycle, mineral or nutrient cycles, solar energy flow, and ecological succession or community dynamics. But as will become clear with experience, these are not separate functions, but different aspects or views of a complex and interconnected whole.

Each function unites living organisms and nonliving elements such as sunlight, rock, water, and air. However, it is the biological side of these functions that does most to sustain and enhance biodiversity and human life, providing food, fiber, fuel, waste recycling, water and air purification, moderation of flooding, soil stability, and spiritual values such as companionship with other living beings and the sense of belonging.

It is also on the quality and effectiveness of these biological processes that human management has the most influence -- from the backyard on up -- and the most promise. For an example of this kind of management applied to 160 acres of forest land, see This is a profile of two partners who understood ecosystem function and were willing to work with it rather than against it. They have achieved high levels of biodiversity, long-term productivity, and emotional satisfaction.

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