Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

Nature Answers the Questions We Pose

I have not read A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I know there is a point where a character asks what’s the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and receives a response of 42. The answer was certainly not what anyone was expecting, but it was an answer. Much of science is like the answer 42. We ask grand questions of nature and receive answers we didn’t quite expect and can’t always make sense of.
In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “Nature is like a genie that answers exactly the question we pose, not necessarily the one we intend to ask.” We learn by making observations about the world. We can make predictions about what we think will happen given certain conditions and we can develop and test hypotheses, but the answers we get may not be answers to the questions we intended to ask. I frequently listen to the Don’t Panic Geocast and the hosts often talk about scientific studies that go awry because of some unexpected interaction between lights, between an experimental set-up and the sun, or because an animal happened to have messed with equipment in the field. Real results are generated, but they don’t always mean what we think they do on first look. The hosts have a frequent line that, “any instrument can be a thermometer,” to note how subtle changes in temperature can cause misleading noise in the data.
Pearl’s quote is meant to demonstrate how challenging science can be and why so much of science has taken such a long time to develop. Humans have often thought they were receiving answers to the questions they were asking, only to find out that nature was answering a different question, not the one the scientists thought they had asked. Pearl states that randomness has been one of the ways that we have gotten past nature, but writes about how counter-intuitive randomized controlled trials were when first developed. No one realized that the right question had to be asked through experimental set-ups that involved randomness. On the benefits of randomness he writes, “first, it eliminates confounder bias (it asks Nature the right question). Second, it enables the researcher to quantify his uncertainty.”
In the book, Pearl takes observations and statistical methods combined with causal insights to a level that is honestly beyond my comprehension. What is important to note, however, is that nature is not obligated to answer the questions we intend to ask. It answers questions exactly as we pose them, influenced by seemingly irrelevant factors in our experimental design. The first answer we get may not be very reliable, but randomness and statistical methods, combined as Pearl would advocate, with a solid understanding of causality, can helps us better pose our questions to nature, to be more confident that the responses we get answer the questions we meant to ask.

Nature Walks

Quite a while back, I wrote about a study that Richard Wiseman shared in his book 59 Seconds. Our minds are greatly shaped by cues in our environment, even if we are not consciously aware of any cues. In the example that Wiseman shares, people are shown to be more greedy and less friendly when sitting in front of a computer with a dollar sign as the wall paper, and are more likely to be cleaner and more orderly when there is a slight scent of cleaning fluid in the air. Our environment can shape how we think and what we do, to the point where we pick up on seemingly meaningless details around us that we don’t consciously pay attention to.

 

In the book When Dan Pink shares another example of this. Pink is all for breaks due to their restorative power. They help us by allowing our brains to pause, to focus on something different for a moment, and to get out of any mental ruts into which which we have settled. Even tiny breaks where you close your eyes for a few beats while sitting at your computer can be helpful, but in the words of Pink, “Outside beats inside.”

 

Pink references academic work showing the benefits of getting outside during the workday for quick breaks, “Nature breaks may replenish us the most. Being close to trees, plants, rivers, and streams is a powerful mental restorative, one whose potency most of us don’t appreciate. For example, people who take short walks outdoors return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk indoors.”

 

Being around living green life helps get us away from the selfish, unfriendly, competitiveness that our dollar-sign-focused work environments often foster. Walks might seem like they are just an excuse to get away from work for a little bit, but they can actually be a tool to do better work. Nature breaks provide our mind with new cues, possibly reminding us that we live in a vast interconnected world with more important things to consider than just our salary and whether we make more money than Sally. Incorporating more breaks that harness the power of nature to restore ourselves is something we should build into our schedules. Companies and organizations should think about the ways they can create a work space that encourages green breaks, and should consider the parts of town where their offices are located, to try to allow employees to get outside on breaks, and to be able to walk in more nature connected places than just parking lots. Our brains notice more than we sometimes realize, and we can use that reality to make ourselves feel better.

Our Breath During Meditation

Any time I have worked on meditation, I have felt incredibly connected with the world. I have only ever done focus meditation, zeroing in on my breath and trying to keep my mind solely on the experience of air moving into and out of my body. Something about this focus on the air we breath has a natural feel that takes me away from the city in which I live (Reno, Nevada – its not too big and urbanized so imagining that I am in nature is not too hard to do) and helps me feel more natural.

 

This connection to nature seems apparent in how other people talk about meditation as well. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the way we should breath during meditation in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness by writing “Your breath should be light, even, and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand.” The connection to nature always feels calming for me. When I think about relaxation I often picture a vast water front, perhaps a beach along an ocean or a beautiful lake. When I think about calmness and pacificity, I often imagine solitary expanses of nature, open fields where I have gone running either in the mountains or in open valleys where I am not surrounded by other people and the hustle of every day life. Hanh equates our breath to a vision of calm nature, reinforcing the idea that meditation is something that should take away the complex, the urban, and the stressful in our lives and bring us to a simpler state of being that is more defined by the forces of nature that are non-human and beyond our control.

 

My descriptions above are my own experiences of meditation and how I have experienced the benefits of meditation. I don’t suspect that my experiences are universal or would be the best fit for everyone, but the connection to nature is something I have often seen in the way people speak about meditation. Focusing on our breath and remembering to keep our breath smooth and stable has physiological impacts on our body, relieving tension possibly reducing our blood pressure, and if we are taking full deep breaths hopefully helping improve the oxygen levels in our body. In a sense, this mastery of our breath is just an observation of a natural process that humans go through, and I think that is why metaphors and connections with idillic nature scenes are so strong.

Taking More Than Our Share

The desire to use the environment to maximize our personal benefit at the expense of other people’s use of the environment is known as the tragedy of the commons. Senator Cory Booker focuses on the idea behind the tragedy of the commons in his book United and examines what has taken place in his home state New Jersey. Summing up the idea, Booker wrote, “The impulse to take more than you share seems rational, but in reality the consequences can be catastrophic. The unchecked cumulative effect of selfish actions is the loss of the commons—which is, in turn, an immeasurable opportunity lost for generations to come.”

Two big challenges when thinking about our environment have to do with the time scale of the environment and the size of the environment. Our individual actions seem so insignificant in such large and open landscapes as mountain ranges and oceans, but when our actions are combined with the behaviors of millions and billions of people, the human impact is immense. Our environment also experiences changes on time scales in the thousands and millions of years, a time span so large it is difficult for humans to understand. Geological processes take a long time and occur at steady rates of small change. When we combine the vastness of nature with the time scale of geological change, our human minds end up failing to accurately understand, estimate, and predict the dangers of our actions, and that in part leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Our actions now, because the environment operates on such slow time scales, will have lasting impacts on the planet. This means that when we think of our decisions and our use of natural resources today, we must have in mind not just our own benefit, or the benefits of our children, but true impact of our decisions for generations to come. Humans can understand cycles, changes, and impacts that take place on a two to three generation scales, thinking about how our grandparents impact our lives, but it is hard to think more than 100 years down the road and to think about generations that could be impacted by our decisions 500 to 1,000 years from now. The land we use today and the things we put in our oceans today, could shape the lives and futures for people far out from where we are today.

Ultimately, when I think of Booker’s quote I don’t think of a blind conservation of all resources or thwarting capitalism to avoid damaging our planet. Instead, I try to think about my relation to nature. Do I try to take as much as I can in any given situation, even if it is not going to help me? There have been plenty of times that I have eaten more than I needed, only to regret my decisions as I waddled back to my car with a stomach ache. I have had an opportunity to have something for free, and I have taken far more than I needed or could even use, only to have the rest of what I took clutter my house and take up space.

From what I have seen, I don’t have to be a hippie or focus so much on conservationism that I lose all faith in capitalism to protect the planet. I can host a community clean-up and offer prizes for those who participate. I can drive in a more economic way, using less gas, saving my brakes and tires, and prolonging the life of my vehicle, saving money but still doing something that participates in the economy and uses resources. I can focus on recycling, and try to make purchases that limit my plastic use, and none of these decisions take away from my participating in capitalism or make me a stand-offish hippie. They are just small actions, but I know that when combined with the small actions of millions of others, make a large difference.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.

A Love of Nature

“I have felt the same thing hundreds of times. In cities I feel small and depressed in my insignificance but in the mountains I feel too much a part of nature to be scared. In nature I find an equilibrium.”
Allison Vesterfelt wrote this quote on what was for me page 103 in the Kindle version of her book Packing Light: How to Live Life with Less Baggage. This quote, more than almost any other quote by the author, makes me want to sit down and have a conversation with her.  She is from Portland which is interesting because it is a huge city, but backs right into the mountains, forests, and nature.  I have only visited and driven through a few times (always stopping for Voodoo Doughnuts) but from what I have heard Portlandians love their city because it can be both a city and a nature retreat in the same day (I still don’t think I could live there).
I live in Reno, a small town surrounded by mountains and hiking trails. In the city here I manage just fine, but drop me in L.A., San Francisco, or even show me the expansive skyline of New York, and I experience the same insignificance as Vesterfelt.  To be around so many people and so many buildings is a jarring feeling for me, and I feel as though there are too many people, too much action, and everyone with too many concerns and worries (not to mention my sustainability and secrete “green” conservationist mindset).  When I do step away from the city and spend time in nature with either a small group or on my own, I become a recharged and invigorated version of myself. I love running and exercising, and I feel a huge mental clarity and sense of calmness after a run along trials that wind through the hillside.
Nature is where I feel a real connection to the planet, much live Vesterfelt, and where I truly feel a spiritual connection to the world and the universe.