Today, we change nature, whether we want to or not.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We make terrible assaults on
nature. How, we wonder, can we get back to a
constant world -- one that we don't force into
irreversible change? How can we live side by side
with nature? How can we let it sustain its own
equilibrium? The answer's a surprise. That option,
it seems, was never open to us in the first place.
Most of us imagine that nature gently oscillates --
that when a forest fire disturbs a region, the
wound will heal over. Trees will grow and the
region will once more be as it was. If we stay out
of the way, won't nature ride out disturbances and
find the way back to its optimum state?
Modern ecologists tell us it will not. Nature never
recovers its former state. Disturb nature, and it
may recover; but it will not be the same. They've
also found that we're part of nature's equation,
like it or not.
Take the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania. It's a high
savannah, teeming with wildlife -- an unspoiled
Garden of Eden. We're aghast when we find that that
paradise was shaped by man. Once, long ago, people
burned the forests off the Serengeti Plain. What
grew back was not a forest, but an animal habitat.
Human intervention left it forever changed, maybe
for the better.
Not all change leaves things in such nice
condition. The constant dumping of carbon dioxide
(and worse) has seriously damaged our atmosphere.
Poor land use is causing the Sahara Desert to
spread and drive Africans out of once fertile
So we are a part of nature. The question is not
whether we'll change it, but how we'll change it.
And that's a tough question, indeed. Before we
walked the earth, species rose and species died
out. That goes on today, but we've sped it up.
Permanent change is the way of the world. Yet as we
heap change on change, we can't see where change is
taking us. Some people offer apocalyptic visions of
technological change. The trouble with too many of
those visions is that we cannot dispute them.
The upshot is, our responsibility is far greater
than we once thought. Once we thought that care for
the environment meant getting out of nature's way
-- not interfering. Suddenly we're obliged to
shoulder the awesome burden of shaping nature. If
our incomplete science doesn't rise very quickly to
that challenge, we could face apocalypse after all.
And so stewardship of the earth, and of our
survival, puts huge demands on our minds as well as
on our hearts. I can only hope we have hearts and
minds that will rise to meet those demands.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds