top of page
Schermafbeelding 2022-11-04 om 11.12.59.png

How I overcame my radical environmentalist nihilism

Plants and insects don’t have a problem when they’re on the verge of dying out. It’s us, people, who have a problem with this. Because we care about nature, we have a duty to do our best to protect it.

By Iida Ruishalme


As a preteen I wished that all humans would disappear from the planet so the beauty of nature could flourish. I imagined I had a big, red button and I could annihilate the human race with one push. I knew that would have been the right choice. The separation of ‘natural’ from ‘artificial’ or ‘man-made’, and their difference in value, were obvious to me.

Around that time, my favourite place on Earth was my grandparents’ cottage in the Finnish countryside. More specifically: the biggest bird cherry tree I have ever known grew in my grandmother’s forest. With five sizeable trunks, the friendly tree covered a house-sized portion of the slope, and served as a climbing course, swinging rope station, and hangout for all the grandchildren.

That is, until one devastating spring, when I arrived to find the tree under full-scale attack by bird-cherry ermine caterpillars. I looked up what these moths were doing. Here’s what I read: they ‘make an extensive weblike nest, and can eat a whole tree bare unhindered.’

When I was a preteen, my favourite place on Earth was my grandparents’ cottage in the Finnish countryside

These simple words, ‘extensive weblike nest’, fail miserably to convey the real life impression of this nightmarish scene. By now, I’ve seen whole glades of bird cherries that stand out against the greens of the forests, cocooned in their ghostly caterpillar housing. I have even read about a whole graveyard resembling a scene from a horror movie thanks to the bird-cherry ermine.

That’s what this beloved place had become – a graveyard for part of my childhood.

I entered a state of martial law. Something had to be done. I was about to try and draw hundreds of metres of garden hose through the forest to spray the tree clean of the pesky little creepers when my grandpa stopped me with that look physicians have when they break news to terminal patients. I dragged one little bucket of water to the tree before I realised the futility of the splash it made on the base of one of the trunks.

There was a burial march singing in my soul as I saw the leafless canopy draped in a web of death, and the white and yellow creepers wriggling along on the silk-covered trunks, teeming in voluminous hanging pouches of concentrated caterpillar flesh. Our tree never recovered from that attack. Within a few years, all five of its formidable trunks, each named and well loved, lay rotting on the ground.

This experience helped me understand that I had perhaps put the wonders of nature on a somewhat too narrow pedestal. Nature wasn’t solely a thing of utopian beauty. Attaching a holy-like aura to its manifestations was perhaps a tad simplified way of looking at things. At times, nature could also be a silver-webbed harbinger of Armageddon.

Our very successful group of human organisms is getting so numerous and impactful that it is causing problems for many of the other self-replicators

It took me a while to develop a complicated appreciation of humanity as well as of nature, and to realise that ‘nature’ made little distinction between humans, pathogens, rainbows, machines, rocks, primal slime, snakes, rhinos or soil. We are all just different contributors to the myriad manifestations of matter in the natural world.

Certainly, I acknowledge there is something special in the way some of that matter has picked up the quirk of self-replication, and something worrisome in that, in our time, the intricate relationships within the networks of self-replicating organisms are becoming unbalanced.

Our very successful group of human organisms is getting so numerous and impactful that it is causing problems for many of the other self-replicators. ‘We cause problems for other organisms’ – this expression includes such a subtle human aspect of thinking that I had never even thought of questioning it. Ecosystems are in trouble. Right?

Plants don’t have problems, my biology teacher once told me, and it gave me pause.

Let me elaborate: it is not a problem for a plant to be eaten, ripped up by the roots, or even to disappear as a species, any more than it is a problem for it not to have any disturbances at all. The plant simply responds in different ways to different circumstances. It is still here thanks to some serendipitous changes that have allowed it to react to many circumstances in a way that still permits it and its seeds to grow and multiply. Not managing that feat was not problematic for those plants that didn’t, and as a result died out.

Not a problem.

Strictly speaking, ecosystems are not in trouble. They are just in one state or another

Having a problem is a human concept. We may assign a purpose to the plant – assert that it wants to grow and proliferate. We may value the plant for its own sake, because, well, we like things to be green and flourishing. We may view something that comes in the way of that purpose as being problematic.

But the plants themselves? They assign no such attributes.

This is part of the beauty of us humans. A plant would not ‘object’ to its own destruction, not even the wiping of all its kind from the face of the Earth. I would. That is sentimental of me. I like to hang on to that sentiment, because I value our human characteristic of appreciating nature.

Strictly speaking, ecosystems are not in trouble. They are just in one state or another. If something happens to disturb the conditions that help sustain them, they may collapse. Species and biological eras come and go. No plant or insect comes out to protest. Most organisms don’t have a problem with any of this.

But now that we are here, the human species, when an ecosystem may collapse, we have a problem with that. We care.

My love of nature got married to my wish to understand, and a passion for science was the fruit of that union

And so, as I found something valuable about humans after all, I overcame my radical environmentalist nihilism.

Still, I have not stopped appreciating nature. I feel dread when I realise how little wilderness there is left in Europe. I still think a forest is the best place for a person to be. I’d also like my children to grow up knowing there are still tigers and rhinos and polar bears in their natural habitats somewhere on this Earth. As fascinating an aspect of nature as humans are, I’m hoping we won’t eat up all the other flora and fauna on our way.

This is why it is important to me to make thoughtful choices about the way I live. These include the efforts I put into recording what I’ve learned about the environmental aspects of areas such as farming and energy production.

My love of nature got married to my wish to understand, and a passion for science was the fruit of that union. Why science? Put bluntly, science is the effort of sincerely wanting to find something out, combined with the humility of insight about our cognitive failings (like bias, jumping to conclusions and cherry-picking). Science is a way to avoid fooling ourselves.

Even better, science helps us appreciate how amazing the stuff is that we didn’t even know was going on in nature.

Sometimes people may be afraid that evidence would somehow negate their values. I wish they wouldn’t be. Our values are more robust than that

In order to have the impact on the world we would like, we need knowledge. To focus the conversation about our role in nature, it is important to put our feelings through some thoughtful reflection.

After all, feelings have been pretty useful to us in the course of evolution. They have helped us be wary of anything new and different, to take the conservative choice, just to be sure. There’s also the feeling that’s helped define our species in so many ways – curiosity.

Science puts both of these to good use. It applies curiosity to how the world works in order to overcome our preconceived notions. It’s wary of anything new until it has been tested, re-tested, and tested again to eliminate bias and make sure we aren’t fooling ourselves.

Want to help maintain biodiversity? Save the whales? Feed the hungry? The starting point is: evidence.

And so we need to learn about the hierarchy of evidence. After all, this study says one thing, this says another, so how can we figure out how to value the findings? It’s vital to put into perspective what weight different kinds of evidence carry. (If you’re interested, here is what I wrote about this earlier.)

In short, we should learn to look at the big picture and evaluate the evidence in context of the body of scientific literature, within the scope of all the reviews and meta-analyses.

But it doesn’t stop there. We should also make it clear to ourselves what part of our thinking is about values, and what part is evidence. Sometimes people may be afraid that evidence would somehow negate their values. I wish they wouldn’t be. Our values are more robust than that.

Faced with the undeniable evidence of thousands of crawling bird-cherry ermine caterpillars destroying my tree, I did not stop valuing nature. I just gained a more nuanced understanding of its essence.

I don’t want grand ideas and ethically superior assertions. I want pragmatic suggestions with evidence of feasibility that can really make a difference

Science has made me change my mind on a number of occasions, and my values have only become better defined, not dictated by vague fears or attached to simple labels.

Let’s get specific. I used to buy organic because I wanted to support environmentally friendly farming. And while it may be a natural assumption to make, I found out, by looking at the science, that unfortunately, organic agriculture is not exactly the champion of the environment. (I wrote about this here and here.) Yet my heart is still heavily set on fighting for the well-being of nature and animals. Hopefully, now, I can do so with more fruitful results.

Also, I always thought genetic engineering was simply a tool, neither good nor bad in itself, and I was pretty sure it might have some unintended harmful effects. However, the scientific literature has taught me that this tool actually comes with several environmental benefits. So let’s get on with offering those benefits where we can to help the land and the animals.

As a last example, I used to think nuclear power was dreadful. Now, by looking at the science, I’ve learned it’s much safer than most people think, and together with wind and solar, it’s a vital part of the solution for cutting carbon emissions.

Please bring on new and better technologies to do what we realistically can to increase biodiversity and slow down global warming. I don’t want grand ideas and ethically superior assertions. I want pragmatic suggestions with evidence of feasibility that can really make a difference.

My bird cherry may be dead, but I have found a new favourite place in the world – a state of mind that is open to understanding and compassionate about the world around us. It’s a place that invites us to apply critical thinking to the important issues we need to deal with.

If we don’t value evidence, we may come to undermine everything else that we value. For the sake of nature, let’s science it up.


Iida Ruishalme is a biologist specialising in biomedical research, with several scientific papers in the fields of insulin cell signalling and immunology. Born in Finland, with a Master’s degree from Sweden, she now lives in Switzerland with her husband and two children. She writes fiction and blogs at Thoughtscapism.


Comments


bottom of page