Biounderstanding is understanding of the story of life on Earth, the human place in nature, the biology of civilisation and the health needs and interdependencies of humans and the natural environment.
Biounderstanding leads naturally to:
- a profound respect for the processes of life
- appreciation that the survival of civilisation will require a shift to a society that is truly in tune with, and sensitive to, the processes of life – that is, in tune with our own biology and with the living world, the biology of civilisation and the health needs of people and of the rest of the biosphere. We call this a biosensitive society.
Shared biounderstanding among all people is a prerequisite for the transition to a biosensitive society and therefore for the survival of civilisation.
Biosensitive is the word we use to describe a way of life that satisfies the health needs both of people and of the ecosystems on which we depend and of which we are a part.
The expression ‘ecologically sustainable’, or simply ‘sustainable’, has come to be used widely in recent years. Of course, society must be ecologically sustainable – otherwise in the long term it cannot continue to exist.
But ecological sustainability is surely the bottom line. We must aim for something better than mere sustainability. We must aim for a society that is not only sustainable, but that also really promotes the health of the entire biosphere, including its human fragment.
Biosensitivity will be the guiding principle in all spheres of human activity – individual and collective.
BIOSENSITIVITY – A DISCUSSION
Biosensitivity may variously be expressed as:
- A set of attitudes and values that frames human actions within an understanding of the human place in nature so we act in tune with and respectful of the processes of life which underpin our existence, and promote health in the ecosystems of the biosphere and all sections of the human community. The outcome of a biosensitive approach is social and ecological sustainability.
- Understanding and acceptance of the fact that all bio-organisms, including humans, are dependent on their nurturing environments, without which their wellbeing is critically endangered.
- To be sensitive to the biological processes of life, and to understand that all life on Earth, including human society, depends on the health of these biological processes.
- A set of values and attitudes that will lead humans to a healthy life by for themselves and for the earth we live on, to a future for life where healthy people on a healthy planet is a reality.
Adopting a biosensitive ‘worldview’—a way of looking at the world, as well as a way of living within it — is essential for the long-term health of life on the planet as we know it. In such a worldview equal emphasis is placed on the health of the environment as on the health of humans, with a goal of achieving ‘healthy humans on a healthy planet’. In a biosensitive society people consider every decision they make with this in mind and live ‘in tune’ with the natural environment.
Biosensitivity includes an understanding that people, as well as human society in all its complexity, are an integral part of the environment, and should not be seen as separate from it. Just as a termite mound, bird’s nest, or spider’s web is a part of the environment, so are houses, roads and fences. When we look at ecosystems, such as a valley, mountain range, forest, or estuary, we need to consider every living and nonliving component, and that includes humans and their built environment.
At the heart of this approach is a clear appreciation of the interconnectedness of all living things with the biological and physical processes that support life. Examples of these processes include the food web, where nutrients cycle through a range of different organisms; the carbon cycle, where carbon is absorbed and stored in plant material by photosynthesis, and later released into the atmosphere; the climate system in which moisture evaporates from the land and sea, forms as clouds and returns as rain or snow; and the vast ocean current system in which water cycles between the depths and the shallows, between the north and south poles, across oceans and around continents.
The principles underlying biosensitivity are not new: many individuals, communities and whole societies live their lives fully mindful of the need to care for the natural environment around them. But these are in the minority. The massive growth of the human population and the increasing use of resources and energy by human society requires a global response. In this age of the Anthropocene, a term we use to
describe how humans have become a significant force in the biosphere, we need a new way of thinking. Why do we need to develop this new way of thinking? First we need to understand our impact as a species. We need to acknowledge that some of these biological processes of life are already changing – possibly irreversibly. Human activity has put the equilibrium of the system of life on the planet out of balance. This might sound alarmist, but the evidence is clear: land, sea and air pollution on a global scale; loss of species and increasing numbers of threatened species; damage to wildlife and ecosystems through loss of habitat and invasive species; loss of forest cover on every continent, and increasing greenhouse gases causing disruption to the global climate systems. In other words, damage to virtually every aspect of the system supporting life on Earth.
But the picture is worse than just the damage that we have already caused. Our second challenge is to recognise that human society as a whole is now operating without a clear understanding of the limits of ecosystems that we are now pushing up against.
The way many environmental terms and phrases are used shows our lack of clarity and understanding in this area. For example, the term ‘sustainable development’ is widely used, yet many people now see this as an unrealistic aspiration, with development symbolizing continuous growth, a state that is not attainable in a truly sustainable system. Other phrases in common use, such as ‘protect the environment’; ‘save nature’, and even ‘ecosystem services’, exemplify the separation of humans from nature and the environment. These simple facets of language show how we see ourselves in relation to ‘nature’ and are one indication of a lack of real understanding of our place in the natural environment, the predicament we face as a species, and what we need to do to shift from our currently destructive path.
This is one reason that the term 'biosensitive' has been introduced, to describe a state in which humans understand the interdependence of the health of ecosystems and those that live within them, and live in a way that actively promotes this health. We see biosensitivity as a broader and richer concept than ecological sustainability.
Towards a biosensitive society
The biosensitivity triangle depicts the equal emphasis on human health and ecosystem health that is achieved in a biosensitive society, and the fact that human health is dependent on ecosystem health. All decisions in a biosensitive society consider human health and ecosystem health equally.
There are many clear and quite obvious examples of biosensitivity in human decision-making, such as choosing renewable energy over fossil fuels, mandating solar passive design of suburbs and houses, and protecting wildlife in a variety of different habitats. But these alone do not make a biosensitive society. What is needed is a deep understanding throughout society, of the essence of biosensitivity, such that this becomes an integral guide of human behaviour at societal and individual levels, and every single decision is made intuitively using biosensitive principles.
Biosensitivity is many things: it is a way of thinking, a guiding philosophy, and a way of life. It is a belief system, a way of sharing and a way of making decisions. It is not merely a check list of attributes, rather it is awareness and a decision-making process, based on biounderstanding, which considers the health of humans integrated with the health of the environment as a basis for each decision. In such a society children are raised understanding their place in nature, how food is grown, how nutrient cycles work, and their own part in these cycles.
In a biosensitive society, every member of a community, whether it is a company, organization, community, family or individual, evaluates each decision from a biosensitive perspective. In a biosensitive society the daily news is not dominated by headlines about economics and people. It gives as much importance and airtime to environmental news, in recognition that people are the dominant species and that in this age of the Anthropocene, it is humans who must take on their responsibility for environmental health [or stewarding the environment]. In a biosensitive society people understand the limits to growth: of the human population, of the economic system and of the use of natural resources. A commitment to reducing consumption, reducing waste, and increasing recycling are important biosensitive attributes.
Stages in moving towards a biosensitive society
1. understanding of our place in nature and the need for healthy biological processes
2. awareness of our impact on the system of biological support processes
3. recognition that we can change our attitudes and how we use resources so that we can do it biosensitively
4. changes to individual and community actions to make these biosensitive, supported / complemented by
5. changes to institutional arrangements, such as building guidelines, protocols, societal norms, laws, and the economic system
Of course, activities in all these stages are already taking place around the world. But we need a much bigger and more focused transition across all sections of human culture and society. A biosensitive approach enables this new approach to the transformation.
A biosensitive society will be characterised by biosensitive lifestyles, governments, technologies, cities, buildings, farming practices and economic systems.
A biosensitive society will mean healthier people and a healthier and much safer planet.