Fact or myth: is ‘Nature’ really suffering?

Another puzzle for you to pontificate on: is it really true that ‘Nature’ is suffering?

For decades now, you will be hard-pressed to read a whole newspaper or magazine without someone complaining about how badly ‘Nature’ is doing. The melting glaciers, the disappearing Siberian tiger, the extinct Tasmanian one, the demise of any fish large enough to be eaten, the diminishing rain forest, the advent of mono-cultures, acidification of the ocean, etc. To most people it must be a no-brainer that in this age of global warming and increased consumption of an increasing human population, ‘Nature’ must be on the ropes.

But is this really true? Surely we cannot just think of ‘Nature’ as whatever existed in 1800 and hence by definition say every change is bad! Nature is surely a dynamic thing capable of actually getting better over time, not just worse. The key to whether ‘Nature’ is thus doing well or doing badly is some notion as to what it is you mean by Nature.

So what do you have to assume about what ‘Nature’ is to really say it is in a bad shape? Can you think of reasonable definitions of ‘Nature’ such that it is, in fact, in great shape?

Once again, I invite all to speak their minds about this factoid on the comment thread and will give you my best guess on Monday.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

11 thoughts on “Fact or myth: is ‘Nature’ really suffering?”

  1. The term nature is a social construction which only serves to separate people from their surroundings. It is enshrined in Christian culture through the beluef that we are special and not like nature. The dichotimomy natural/aetifixial is a result of this construxt.

    Strictly speaking we are part of nature. Nothing is artificiak, everything is natural. Many creatures shape the envirinment. Elephants are known to destroy large section iof bushland and many millions iof years ago certain microbes polluted the whole planet bt releasing oxygen, causing mass extinction of anaerobic life.

    But from this it does not follow that destruction of nature is allowable. Any species can cause its own extinction and we are a species that le verages its impact on nature through technology. Critiquing the definition of ‘nature’ does not negate the danger to humanity. Maybe not as a species, but as a society.


  2. If you wanted something more measurable you could go for “bio-diversity” as a shortcut for nature, say the amount of variation in the DNA of a large representative sample of living things, (weighted towards larger, more complex living things – sure there might be a lot of variation in bacteria but who wants to live on a planet with just bacteria, no matter how diverse). But by that definition ‘nature’ is surely taking a hammering.

    Honestly. I can’t really think of a definition of ‘nature’ that puts us in the ‘getting better’ basket, that doesn’t come up seeming all ‘manicured english garden’. The best I can come up with is that we’re learning, and may be less bad than we were when we shot dodos in the face because we could.


  3. There’s not so much talk about nature suffering, but predictions that nature will suffer later in the century if current trends continue.


  4. currently emphasized components within nature e.g. CO2 levels may well be cyclical. Ice cores frm Antartica show past levels of CO2 greater than those prevailing now. Similarly temperatures may be cyclical. In September 2011 three different groups of scientists presented papers at a conference in New Mexico.Woking form three differnent hypotheses and three diffenrent sets of data they arrived at the same conclusion. The frquency and intensity of solar flares will be reduced soon. this condition is known as a minimum..and its duration could vary from 40 to 90 years. Some minima were severe..e.g. you could walk across the Baltic sea or trees exploded in England.But maybe we are and will be witnessing cycles consisting of the bunching of stochstic events around an upwrd risin temperature trend.


    1. Which ice core data has CO2 greater than now? I can’t find any that goes above 300, and we’re at 390 now.


  5. Clearly a boundary issue, if we are part of Nature, then some parts of nature are doing much better, at the expense of others. Can the “winners” compensate the “losers” (i.e. Kaldor- Hicks) I think not


  6. Humans are obviously a part of nature. The part of humanity that is not a part of nature is called culture.


  7. I’m afraid a little too much hubris is involved in posing the question. Putting aside the construct of “nature” there is a mind boggling amount of facts we don’t know about life on the planet as it is now. Just as well NASA didn’t go ahead with their plans to blow up the moon in the sixties. No doubt you will applaud something as equally stupid under the guise of geo-engineering.


  8. I think by pretty much any metric of value, nature is clearly suffering. It is probably also simplistic to imply (as I think you have) that those who advocate for environmental protection are necessarily comparing our current situation to the 1800s or any other historical time point. The concept of “planetary boundaries” is hard to argue with, if you’re looking for an anthropocentric measure of whether we have pushed Nature’s dynamism too far.


    To endeavour to find a narrowly-defined circumstance under which Nature is not suffering seems like a desperate attempt to assauge the conscience of a civilisation that is in the process of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

    No nature = no ecosystem services = no civilisation. Lets not split hairs or try to find silver linings.


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