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Biosensitivity: what is different about it?

On World Environment Day back in 1991 Stephen Boyden gave a talk at Questacon. That talk so impressed some members of the audience that they got together afterwards – and that was the origin of the Nature and Society Forum.

What made this talk so different from your usual environmental lecture was that Stephen talked about what we humans actually need to live a satisfactory life. We do not need large quantities of possessions, luxurious foods, great personal mobility. What we need is sufficient nutritious food and shelter from the weather, reasonable protection from predators, some vigorous exercise balanced by quiet and relaxation. The exercise can be obtained in the course of our ordinary lives, whether hunting as in the hunter–gatherer lifestyle, or working in the garden or fields, or walking over to visit friends or to the local shops. Social interaction with compatible people is very important, as is a feeling of purpose in life. Story-telling, music and dance all have a part to play in our well-being. And, significantly, all of these needs can be provided in societies at very different levels of development, they are not the prerogative of the rich or the powerful.

In other words, we do not need great wealth, or the burning of fossil fuels, or most of the things that are now assumed to be essential to our well-being. This message resonated well with what many of us had already decided for ourselves. What is more, it is a message that could enable humans to be satisfied with their own lives without having the increasingly destructive effect that our species has been having on most of the natural world around us.

It was these ideas, and the realisation that our species absolutely has to change the way we view the world, that led us to the concept of 'biosensitivity'. We need to realise that we are not the only precious creatures on the Earth. There is a world of life out there – not only the beautiful charismatic animals which many people appreciate, along with the lofty trees, flowers, and the mountains, rivers and oceans which almost all can see, but a host of smaller, less obvious lives, all of which are significant in their own right. The loss of these lives impoverishes us, and weakens the entire system of life on Earth.

Zoologists and botanists have studied these myriad living organisms, and the more they study them the more they find that they are all enmeshed in the web of life. Ecologists have been teasing apart many of these relationships, and they realise that if one part of the web is torn the whole begins to unravel. The web can carry on with some parts gone, but destroy too much and the web will become unrecognisable and unworkable.

We now know that for the Earth to continue to be a relatively benign home for our species, we need myriads of microbes of various types, plants, marine life and land-living creatures, from corals and fish to reptiles, insects, birds and mammals, all functioning and getting on with their own lifestyles to keep us in the manner to which we have been accustomed. In other words, if we are to continue to have clean water, healthy air, food and waste disposal, all those things we call services, we actually need healthy living ecosystems surrounding us.

This realisation has been lost on modern humans, as it has seemed that science and industrialisation can provide everything we need. But it is scientists themselves who have warned us that we are treading too close to a precipice. As we expand and take more for ourselves, we push nature to the brink.

Until our society recognises our dependence on natural systems for our continuing healthy and satisfying lives, we will teeter on the edge of sustainability or, more likely, fall off it. The concept of biosensitivity reminds us that we are creatures of the natural world, related to all the others, and that our continued existence is dependent on the survival of the rest of the living world. It is not them or us, but them and us.


Jenny Wanless