Romantic Naturalism is a daydream that threatens sustainability

Isn’t life incredible?

To sit and watch the busy life move to and from the sprinkle of light drifting in through the canopy, all with purpose, all in balance.

The amazing mutualism relationships between certain ants and Lycaenidae and Riodinidae caterpillars, where the larvae provide payment in food secretion in exchange in exchange for protection.

Exposed to expose danger!

The selfless acts of altruism displayed by some bird species and meerkats who risk their own lives to watch and defend the group from predators, leaves a warm feeling within the observer.

Oh and the vast colonies of ants, termites, naked mole-rats or bees who work as a team, side by side, for the good of all, is societal perfection in action.

The natural is obviously the grand expression of how our species, were it wise enough, ought to live in perfect harmony.

Unfortunately, this is complete nonsense. Well, not that life is incredible, which of course it is, but rather this notion of how life works.

I mentioned in my previous article the “romantic naturalist”, which would be able to, with tear in either eye, produce heartfelt sentiments far more poetic as the few above. It’s an outdated notion of the natural world, restricted to groups effectively divorced from critical review of what we know of ecology and from the personal experience restricted nowadays to a few people still deeply reliant on ecosystems.

That’s no to say that there is something wrong with a love of the natural world. Anyone who has read my work over the past two years knows well enough my own emotional connection with biodiversity and the cause for protection.

Equally, it’s not to suggest that we have nothing to learn from the natural models being played out around us for application to our own societies.

I’m merely suggesting that that the romantic ideals are fundamentally flawed and like ideologies of utopian ages ahead, do us more damage than good in that they lead us to think, incorrectly, that the grass is somehow greener on the other side. We need to get real on the problems, critically review the options available and thoroughly apply ourselves to those goals. Firstly, I’d like to clear up a few of the misconceptions in the romantic ideals I waxed on about above.

Nature is not stable, balanced and unchanging. If it were, then the creationists may have a point, but more likely, life would lack the adaptive potential that is essential for persistence and ultimately, this earth would be as barren as Mars.

Nature is also apathetic. If the larvae did not provide the reward, and it was itself, edible, it would be the reward. The caterpillar is unable to survive without the assistance of the ants, now so specialised in its way of life that without the ants, mortality rates would be far greater. Some of the relationships between Lycaenidae and Riodinidae caterpillars and ants are even parasitic, entirely at the expense of the ant hosts!

Sure, altruism is a special thing, but anyone who has watched Meerkat Manor, for instance, would know it’s not a friendly life and can be unfair to the unlucky family member. Like all such communities and colonies, genetics is a big player into why individuals live like this. Together, they stand a better chance of survival and working in closely related family groups means that the family lineage has a greater rate of persistence.

Worker bees, ants and termites don’t forgo producing their own offspring and being slaughtered on the frontline due to some patriotic love for the queen and colony, but simply because they are programmed to within a species that has evolved this survival technique.

We are the only species to have such details philosophies and what we tend to do is poetically personify the natural world. No other species are people. There are some very sophisticated species out there, don’t get me wrong. The great apes, many oceanic mammals, cephalopods and bird species have demonstrated brilliant problem solving skills and indeed communication abilities, but we still don’t know their thoughts and philosophies (whether or not they actually have any).

As an undergraduate, I completed a detailed behavioural study on two allodapine bee species native to the Dandenong ranges in Victoria; Inquilina excavata and the host species Exoneura angophorae.

Host species?

Female E. angophorae seen through a dissecting microscope... Yeah, they're that small!

Yes. It is common for allopadine bees to live in simple nests of a few sisters, sharing the work of tending to their young (all together; awwww). These species typically have a specific parasitic species that somehow muscles its way into the nest and demands food. It’s the “somehow” that is an interesting and ongoing research topic, which I assisted in with my study.

What I observed with I. excavata and E. angophorae is that I. excavata would utilise its stinger as an anchor and “inchworm” its way down the long slender nest, threatening to crush and host who stood in its way. Once it found itself between the host and their young, it would set up home, becoming a permanent barrier to the hosts and their young. If they wished to feed their young, they would have to give the food to the parasite who would then feed some of this to the young.

Effectively, they had established themselves as a “middleman” (something, the romantic thinks is only a parasitic career within our societies, go figure).

No matter where you look, each niche is wonderful and all too often disturbing to our over-thinking minds. The romantic notion of the perfect society in nature is washes away when you’re not all misty eyed.

Ecology (rather than naturalism) is a fascinating field, which we are only beginning to learn about at the eleventh hour. The Gastric brooding frog is a classic example, who showed up to science, provided some tantalising observations and then… gone. So many questions that can never be answered. This is the real tragedy.

On the other hand, nature sets up an excellent model for long term sustainability. The two keys here are adaptive work potential and cyclic resource use.

In nature, no species persists forever, but those who spread their genes down the ages do so through having the adaptive potential for niche exploration. To utilise something like this within the human society model would be referred to as “innovation”. Wherever there is waste, there is potential for an unexploited niche. Wherever there is a process that is slow and tedious, there is potential for an unexploited niche. Wherever you have unemployment, you have the potential for new work.

It’s laziness to produce genuine waste (very little can really be called waste in nature as it’s generally another species treasure) and detrimental to ignore the potential for work. Sure, I know this stirs up a lot of criticism, that I may not understand the economy etc, but I return to that wonderful word, “innovation”.

We don’t have the best answers possible. Environmental factors are always changing. To think we can ignore the desperate and ongoing need for innovation just doesn’t cut it (and, as I said in the previous article, going backwards isn’t the option either).

Part of that will include stopping waste production. No ecosystem has a tip, which is buried over and left (in some parts, unchanged) for millennia. Likewise, this is a perfect example of how we can reflect natural processes in our own activities. In this way, items don’t depreciate in social value over its lifespan, but remain valuable in a following process (that is a real example of equality). Keeping materials within the system will require greater work, will produce extra wealth (or maintain wealth in the removal of depreciating goods – again stable state economy) and improve our sustainability.

Innovation yet again!

Innovation is our adaptive potential and is our best expression of the real natural world.

We don’t need lofty impressions of a make-believe garden to inspire us towards some utopia. It will not happen and we will not find greener pastures. We need to be sensible, practical and accepting that work is fundamental to any system. No ecosystem is exempt from this nor any human system. Of course, it’s difficult to see how neo-liberal capitalism could play a role in such a system. It is akin to cancer or species with high invasive potential in the new range. Innovation again must answer this question and not dreamy ideals.


2 thoughts on “Romantic Naturalism is a daydream that threatens sustainability

  1. Moth, Very true. While mutualism plays an enormous role in nature, nature has no shortage of aggression, predation, parasitism, chemical weaponry, enslavement, deceit, treachery, and outright warfare. Yet ecosystems that survive seem to work things out on the whole, i.e. systemically. Such systems are resilient. While one species may perish, others will survive. The ecosystems in place today are those systems which have mechanisms that contribute to their resilience — the ability to absorb and recover from shocks and adapt to external changes.

    In my research I study the attributes that contribute to resilience. Many of these attributes might teach us how to transform our own fragile economic systems. If you look at the failures of our globalized economy, you will see that these systems lack many of the features of enduring ecosystems. Consider; monocultures, monopolistic oligarchs, failure to restore infrastructure, hemorrhaging of capital from local economies, over reliance on growth bubbles, etc. Also, an economic paradigm that considers efficiency from the standpoint of an individual enterprise only without considering (a) systems efficiency (b) the importance of natural capital and free services is not one that will contribute to resilience.

    For further discussion and to see why students at Harvard University in the U.S. walked out of their introductory economics course go to the second article at:


    1. The split between Darwinian reasoning and the romantic naturalist of the say era is still rampant among the community.

      I think I invested a little too much interest and passion into a debate I landed myself in recently and so this and yesterday’s articles were my venting.
      “hemorrhaging of capital” is, as I see it, the worst part of our system. I make a point about the depreciating value of material goods, but as you included, a “failure to restore infrastructure” is another good example. By cutting, to get a bigger piece of the pie (ie. profits), we lose a lot of the filling. This includes downsizing workforce, disparity etc.

      Thanks for the link and excellent comments, Hank!


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