The world works in mysterious ways. Consider the following:
Anecdote #1: Dirt Cure
River blindness was once prevalent in Uganda, where small black flies that bred along swift-flowing rivers would bite the locals, transmitting a parasitic worm. Increasingly severe symptoms followed: sensitive skin and lesions, an itching so severe it has reportedly led to suicide, and finally, blindness in both eyes. In the late 1980s, the disease spread so widely that children in some communities assumed these were symptoms not of a preventable disease, but of adolescence.
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In 1988 the global pharmaceutical manufacturer Merck released an antibiotic powerful enough to suppress, and even reverse, symptoms with a single annual dose. It is taken by tablet and no refrigeration is necessary. Ivermectin has since helped approximately 18 million lives. This antibody was found in the ground after Merck dug hopefully for a few days on a Japanese golf course. The miracle came from the dirt.
Anecdote #2: Brilliant Pinheads
The Traveling Salesman Problem is a deceptively complex math problem about distance optimization: If a salesman has 40 cities to visit, it behooves him to know the shortest single route, with only one stop in each city. Turns out, this is not a simple problem to solve. It takes supercomputers hours upon hours of number-crunching to find the optimal route.
A bee has a brain literally the size of a pinhead, or a grass seed. Looking for nectar, he exits the hive and explores fields in bloom. Turns out, after only a few flyovers of hundreds of productive flowers, bees are able to find the single, optimal route.
Designers of circuit boards — Intel, for example — are intrigued by the computational power of such a tiny circuit.
These two anecdotes prompt a simple question (or perhaps more an exclamation): isn’t the natural world amazing? There is also a slightly more complicated and infinitely more relevant question that we should ask: what should we, the human species, do about all of these amazing natural phenomena?
This question plays out in a tension between idealists and pragmatists. Idealists, notably informed through scientific insight, interpret such natural wonder with a language of the sacred. The “genius” of the bee serves to highlight and further distinguish the elegance of nature from the ungainly engineering of humans. Such discoveries are a testament to the respect we should hold for the wonders of our world.
The other extreme are those pure pragmatists who interpret natural functions and resources as presents waiting to be unwrapped, as if all goods are fungible or reducible to two low denominators: human application and cash money.
Though caricature, these distant anchors do form the boundaries of a spectrum, and within it, endless but important debate takes place. It is a debate about degrees: how much to extract, how much to respect, and must these priorities always be at odds? Fossil fuel is the most obvious example, in which the stores of time have built up tremendous amounts of readily harnessed energy. But is this energy worth, for example, the destruction of mountains, valleys, rivers? On what terms can we and do we justify the costs of extracting value with the value of that extraction? Disregarding the debate on climate change, such ethical questions are only gaining importance as resources upon which we rely are — whether through natural limits or political protectionism — dwindling, and in diverging equity with rapidly accelerating technological innovation. Meanwhile, population continues to grow, and with it, demand for raw material and land — and the pressure to take without thinking develops an immensely strong gravity. Although the question of whether or not we should sample dirt or learn from bees is simple, even absurd, this line of thinking needs to be applied across a broader spectrum of resource concerns.
Or perhaps, were we bright as pinheads, the answer would simply emerge from such overwhelming complexity.
Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.