Reconnecting the human species with the rest of the world is the great work of the twenty-first century.

(Eco-theologian Thomas Berry)

Nature is an invaluable teacher. It can be moody, harsh, violent, and cruel. But what other teacher has gained the knowledge of 3.5 billion years of trial and error?

We, humans, are freshmen in nature's living university if we study it at all. We have survived so far, but neither we nor millions of other species will continue surviving if we don't better understand life on Earth.

As we stand on the threshold of riding rocket-propelled school buses into space, we would be wise to get our own house in order. Let's be honest: We Earthlings are very unfinished business. Compared to our apparent potential, we are primitives. We are intensely tribal, narrow-minded, warlike, short-sighted, ecopathic and selfish, clever but careless. We consume like locusts. Our morals are corruptible, and our appetites insatiable. We teeter on the brink of self-annihilation by button-push, without the common sense to back away. This is the worst of us, of course, but we should measure our species' maturity by its worst qualities as well as its best.

We are talking about inhabiting other planets. Some of us envision a future of cyborgs and artificial intelligence that greatly exceed our organic abilities. But if we have proven anything so far, it's that we are very good at unintended consequences.

So, before we follow Buzz Lightyear into infinity and beyond, we have serious work to do. We might begin by shedding the illusion that we are the smartest living thing on Earth. That may be our potential, but it is demonstrably not the case so far. On the other hand, nature is profoundly intelligent. It may not be apparent to the typical American and European who spends 90% of their time in hermetically sealed buildings with engineered environments, breathing five times more pollution than in the air outdoors.

Since April 12, 1961, when the first human broke the space barrier, our heroes have not been biologists searching for new insights about life by studying the behaviors of ants or researchers defining the limits of the planet's tolerance for our appetites and behaviors. Instead, they've been men and women who "slip the surly bonds of Earth" and venture into space, the "next frontier."

The value of Aha moments

We have just witnessed a breakthrough in space travel. Four regular people spent three days orbiting the Earth. Years ago, when Astronauts looked like they wore fat suits and the world saw the first picture of the Earth from space, there were high expectations that human consciousness would never be the same. We would experience a mass epiphany that Earth is a singular oasis in the cold and barren cosmos. We would realize that the planet's 8 billion humans and 9 billion species are passengers on the same fragile spaceship. But photos were not enough. Perhaps seeing will be believing as more of us experience the sight first-hand.

Yet nature offers us the same perspective at ground level if we pay attention. Its biota is a complex interconnected array of busybody life forms. For example, a tree inhales the carbon dioxide we exhale and stores it, doing its part in the planet's carbon cycle. It exhales the oxygen we inhale to stay alive. The more we learn about trees, the more we understand how much we have in common with them. We've recently discovered they communicate through an underground fungal network, sharing resources and warning each other about danger.

But given our aspirations, their most important lesson might be this: The higher trees reach toward heaven, the deeper they sink their roots. That's what gives them stability. Likewise, the more we transcend our biological limits, the deeper our self-understanding should be. And the higher we venture into the cosmos, the deeper our understanding should be about life on Earth.

Cycles and spheres

We already know some things, of course. For example, we have identified seven operational spheres on the planet1 and nine boundaries we should not cross2. When there were fewer of us and our technologies were less powerful, we didn't have to worry about boundaries. Now we do.

But what we know is dwarfed by what we don't. If we want a new frontier, the oceans are waiting. They cover 70% of the planet's surface but remain 80% unexplored. Understanding and protecting them is a more immediate priority than understanding Mars. More than 870 million people worldwide depend on oceans for their livelihoods and sustenance. All of us rely on them to keep global warming in check; Oceans are the planet's biggest carbon sink, absorbing and storing vast amounts of the pollution most responsible for global warming.

Nevertheless, human activity is putting oceans in danger. Pollution has created dead zones. Dissolved carbon makes oceans more acidic, making it difficult for corals and shellfish to form skeletons and shells. As oceans warm with the rest of the Earth's surface and polar ice melts, their currents change and alter climate patterns. These changes threaten us. Rising seas invade cities. Coastal storms gain strength from warmer water as they move toward land, putting 40% of the world's population at risk.

Yet U.S. government budgets for exploring space far exceed spending for ocean exploration. In 2013, the government's budget for space exploration was $3.8 billion, 160 times the $23.7 million allocated to ocean research and climate forecasting. President Biden has asked the U.S. Congress to boost NASA's science funding to $24.8 billion, the most ever. Biden proposed a record budget for the agency in charge of ocean studies, too, but at $7 billion, it is still a fraction of the money spent on space.

Beyond oceans, our inattention to nature, in general, is self-defeating. In 2014, ecological economist Robert Costanza and his team estimated ecosystems provide us with a multitude of services worth as much as $125 trillion annually. Yet, with ignorance and negligence, we degrade and destroy them. Costanza found that land-use changes like deforestation are destroying services worth as much as $20 trillion annually. Humans have changed more than 70% of the planet's land surface so far. Among other things, this has led to a loss of biodiversity far beyond the natural pace of species extinction.

Nature's mysterious effects

Science notwithstanding, we can experience personal proof of our deep connections to the rest of life. An article published by the American Psychological Association describes how humans enjoy cognitive and health benefits when they spend time in nature—benefits like those many of us felt when we emerged outdoors from lengthy Covid quarantines. We don't have to search for wilderness. Empirical research shows a walk through an urban park, and even the mere view of a river or ocean can improve attention, lower stress, brighten mood, increase empathy and cooperation, and reduce the risk of psychiatric disorders.

Marine biologist Wallace Nichols wired himself to a monitor and spent time in the ocean to prove the experience enhances our sense of well-being. He calls this effect the "blue mind." On the other hand, biologist Rachel Carson believed science can't measure the mystery of the oceans. "Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an unease sense of communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp," she observed. "The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit, we approach the ultimate mystery of life itself."

What is that mystery? Can we replicate it in cyborgs and with artificial intelligence? Dare we try, given that propensity for unintended consequences?

Because we know so little about so much, our Innernauts and Terranauts deserve at least as much support as our Astronauts. They are the extraordinary people, past and present, who have dedicated their lives to understanding the home planet and its species, including ours. In recent history, they include biologist Rachel Carson, ecological theologian Thomas Berry, biologist E.O. Wilson, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, ecologist and tree planter Wangari Maathai, primate expert Jane Goodall, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and zoologist Dian Fossey.

People like these make us better prepared to go safely to new technologies and other planets. Our own eco-awareness helps. Remember those trees, for example. Before we reach too high, we should root ourselves with a much more profound understanding of life on Earth.


1 The biosphere (life), hydrosphere (water), atmosphere (air), geosphere or lithosphere (the planet's land and crust), cryosphere (ice). Some scientists include the technosphere (human technology), magnetosphere (the Earth's magnetic field), mesosphere (the planet's core and mantle), and several others.
2 Besides climate change, they are ocean acidification, ozone depletion, the biochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, freshwater consumption, deforestation and other land-use changes, biodiversity loss, atmospheric particle pollution, and chemical pollution. Researchers at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have determined we are at high risk of exceeding "safe operating spaces" for biochemical flows and biodiversity and at growing risk of unsafe land-use alterations and climate change.