What can we learn from nature’s experience of catastrophes? | Aeon Essays – Ruth DeFries

source:

What can we learn from nature’s experience of catastrophes? | Aeon Essays

Nature’s playbook

From termite queens to the carbon cycle, nature knows how to avoid network collapse. Human designers should pay heed

Photo by Kristian Bell/Getty.

Ruth DeFries

is Denning Family Professor of Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. Her most recent book is What Would Nature Do? A Guide for Our Uncertain Times (2021). She lives in New York.

3,500 words

Edited by Sally Davies

Nature is famously, gloriously complex. But it wasn’t always so. When the Earth was young, physics ruled. Steam spewed from prodigious volcanoes and seeped through the cracked surface, transforming our planet into an ocean-covered mass, circling in the darkness. The physics that governs a phase change from steam to water in the oceans is as true today as it was 4.5 billion years ago. Gas would turn to liquid on any planet at any time, so long as the temperature and air pressure oblige. Then, as now, the laws of physics were predictable and straightforward.

But the history of life that followed from that fateful phase change didn’t proceed along such a simple trajectory. Its evolution over billions of years defies simple rules and predictable outcomes. Nature became a complex system, a tangled web of invisible connections. As nature’s intricacy ramped up, it brought with it opportunities for expansion, but also possibilities for annihilation. Fortunately, with each problem that arose, a strategy evolved to overcome it.

continues in source:

What can we learn from nature’s experience of catastrophes? | Aeon Essays