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B.L. Turner describes the human world

People and nature are intimately intertwined. Many people have said that. But the modern code for that is the “coupled human-environment system.” We’re now beginning to look at the history of the biophysical system and the social system as one of a coupled system …

People and nature are intimately intertwined. Many people have said that. But the modern code for that is the “coupled human-environment system.” We’re now beginning to look at the history of the biophysical system and the social system as one of a coupled system. And that could be anything from the co-evolution of landscapes to the degree to which humans have transformed the biosphere.

The last 100 years has been 100 years of humankind’s manipulating the Earth and treating the biophysical part of the coupled system as a giant resource. I think that, in the next 100 years, we are going to be treating the biophysical sphere not simply as a resource but as an entity in and of itself, with its
structure and function critical to our well being. You see that in code words like “ecosystem services.” When you speak of ecosystems services, you don’t just mean that nature is a resource. You mean that nature has structure and function, and it can provide things to us only if that structure and function are maintained.

So what I’m saying is we’ve shifted from the classic economic view of nature – nature as a resource – to a very different view of nature in which our well being and access to nature’s resources are intertwined with how well the structure and function of Earth’s system operates.

Here’s the critical point. It’s not whether you believe in sustainable development. It’s not whether you like the turtles and trees over people and more cars. That’s not the issue. The issue is that regardless of which of those economic stances you wish to take, or values that you have about nature, the value you hold for nature is beginning to change. Or let me rephrase. It’s not just a question of values. It’s a question of whether or not the Earth’s systems can deliver the base needs that society demands of nature. Up to this point, we’ve basically assumed that those services that nature provides for us are simply going to be there, for free. Clean air will always be there. There will always be those large aquifers with water in them and so forth. What’s really changed is that we realize that we can move some of those services that nature provides to a tipping point, and then it becomes a terribly expensive technological endeavor to substitute or replace.

And so it’s not a question of certain societies or indigenous groups valuing nature more than someone else. It’s not a question of capitalism not valuing nature. It’s a realization on a global, cross-cultural, cross-economic, cross-everything level that we’re in the big life boat together. And how we interact, how this coupled system is going to play out over the next 100 years is going to have profound social, economic and governmental consequences for everyone.

Professor B. L. Turner II received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1974 and joined Clark University in 1980, subsequently serving as Director of the Graduate School of Geography (1983-88, 1997-98, and 2004-2008) and the George Perkins Marsh Institute (1991-1997). He currently is the Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Arizona State University. He continues to serve as the principal advisor and committee member for graduate students in the geography program at Clark.

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