Ways beyond words – Lessons from nature about strength and vulnerability

29 Aug

I heard a programme on Radio 4 on Saturday 24th August 2013 (The Forum 11.00am on FM) in which the concepts of strength and fragility (and their crucial co-existence) were discussed by a group of contributors including, Barbara Kingsolver, an American novelist who in her latest work contemplates vulnerability in butterflies and humans; a bumble bee expert and a bioengineer who studies strength and weakness on a molecular level.

I probably only understood about a third of the science but what came through loud and clear is that it is more and more evident in studying the natural world, that natural systems at a certain level automatically incorporate failure in their functioning. That is, the failure is already present and is accommodated. Systems in nature uncorrupted by humans therefore, evolve in ways that limit the impact of their progress on the more fragile areas of the system. Strength and fragility co-exist and are co-dependent.

There was discussion of the processes involved in developed hard materials e.g. steel, aircraft technology…in which it is much more challenging, even dangerous, to accommodate the possibility of failure and yet it is clear that strength and fragility also co-exist in these processes.

One analogy explored was the possibility of removing rivets one by one from an aircraft, for example. Initially the impact on the aircraft as a whole would be negligible. Eventually though, a critical mass would be reached causing, say, a wing to fall off resulting in disaster.

Consider the impact humans are having on the natural world and the potential is clear. Do we know enough or care enough to ensure that critical mass is never reached in our impact on the natural world? Have we already reached it and gone beyond it? Current thinking on climate change seems to say so.

Leaving aside the technical challenges in the world of materials, I am profoundly moved and inspired by the template that the natural world seems to offer human society in dealing with the balance between strength and fragility, progress and failure, power and vulnerability

Picture this:

a society that acknowledges and takes compassionate account of fragility in individuals and human systems. In particular the fact that strength and progress can only exis in relationship to failure and fragility

The society I envisage would not mean complacency about the weakness of individuals and human systems, naivety about the oppressions and injustices which underpin much failure or reluctance to robustly challenge such inequities. Quite the reverse in fact! It would offer a challenge to our arrogant and self-serving tendencies towards growth and profit by recognising that the impact of these tendencies will inevitably cause harm and limit the potential for well-being and even survival. We see examples of this every day.In order to limit our worst excesses and ultimately secure our longevity as a species, we need the humility and strength balanced with failure that the natural world demonstrates.

As someone who has been much preoccupied in recent years by the search to understand and respond to human vulnerability, including my own, listening to this radio programme has made me see that the natural world has known all along how to respond. The created order, the Creation of which we are an intrinsic and potentially valuable part,is laid before us as a template and we repeatedly ignore or abuse it.

Why is it that people feel at home and healed in the natural environment? Perhaps it is because their ‘failures’ are never judged there but absorbed and redeemed by the earth which is our only home.