WEB OF LIFE
Essay by Ania Molenda
Everything we humans know is an exception, and most of it is a mystery. Ninety-five per cent of the universe consists of dark energy and dark matter, which we know very little about. Life on Earth is merely a fraction of the remaining five per cent. Not only is life as we know it a tiny share of the universe, but that it exists at all is close to unthinkable. In 1999, American physicist Lee Smolin estimated that the probability of life existing in the universe equals 1 in 10229.
It’s difficult to make sense of a chance that small. To make it more tangible, I recalled Powers of Ten, a short film directed by Ray and Charles Eames depicting the relative scale of the universe. It takes us on a journey from the boundaries of the observable universe to the limits of detectable particles in the depths of matter. The film starts with an aerial scene of a couple on a one-by-one-metre picnic blanket, and every second zooms out ten times, to bring us to the 24th power of ten a hundred million light-years away from the start. This marked the limit of cosmic vision in 1977, when the film was made. Currently the size of the observable universe is estimated at 46.5 billion light-years, or 4.40 times 1026 metres. The view then zooms in to the quark level of an atom, at 10-16 from the first scene. The Eames take us through a mere forty powers of ten, nowhere close to 229. One could say that the relative scale of the possibility of our very existence is more than five times greater than the limits of space and atomic science together.
Whilst life in the universe is so incredible, in our limited worldview life-forms are so plentiful and diverse that we tend to take them for granted. Although we inhabit worlds made possible by countless living organisms and inorganic matter, they are often seen as resources or a backdrop for human activities rather than precious life-givers. In the hierarchy of living things, humans are not at the top or even the centre; they are one of the many organisms that form populations, but then so do trees and other forms of life. For some reason, however, we have historically devoted little space to our relationships with other-than-human forms of life—at least not beyond the animal world—in our philosophical (let alone spatial) considerations.
We have also not thought much about the cosmic dimension of our life in forms other than scientific, imperial, escapist or extractive. Perhaps this cosmic dimension of life vested in the common sense of space could offer us a new perspective on our relationship with and within the web of life. I wonder if that would allow us to see space not as something that just is, but as something that is continuously shaped by more-than-human relationships and requiring continuous maintenance and care to exist. Could that shift in perception lead to new forms of architecture as a way of designing and organising forms of living? It is interesting that many thinkers who discuss the web of life and the human position within it bring our attention to a problem homo sapiens has with seeing. What is it that we can see—or, more importantly, what is it that we cannot see? In his book The Web of Life, physicist Fritjof Capra gives this problem a name. He says we are suffering from a crisis of perception. All the different forms of crisis we have been experiencing—health, social, humanitarian, climate, ecological and economic—are in fact not separate from one another, but are a manifestation of a single crisis, with the way we perceive life at its core. The worldview dominated by Western thought and shaped by conventionally understood science based on part-whole theory, which tells us that we can understand a whole through closely studying its parts, is blind to life’s real principles. This is also reflected in how we stubbornly keep splitting our systems of knowledge production (and institutions that support it) into seemingly disconnected disciplines. Capra suggests that this scientific and disciplinary short-sightedness does not allow us to see the greater collaborative web of life we are a part of. It’s quite difficult to transform our ways of being into more sustainable ones if we are not aware of what life-processes we are part of. If we don’t understand them, we don’t know how to sustain them. To do that, he says, we need a shift of a Copernican magnitude.
A crisis of
Perhaps one place to start this cosmic seeing revolution, which could pave the way to multi-species justice, is to find a cure for what is called plant blindness. In their essay Rooted, Dalia Nassar and Margaret M. Barbour lead readers through a series of subtle yet powerful thought provocations that let us see trees not as immobile, passive beings lacking self-determination, but as environmental engineers that are capable of not only adjusting to or shaping environments, but—most importantly—creating them. By showing how smartly, dynamically, and plastically trees form relationships with each other, with other species and with environmental factors, they pose an important question: where does an organism end, and an environment begin? Trees are not only powerful engineers of the environment—they are also its history. And from this history we are now starting to learn about our own position and impact on the environment.
Italian philosopher Emanuele Coccia also challenges us to take an important step in shifting our attention towards plants, both as the creators of life and as cosmic mediators that connect environments and spaces. Plants grow both deep into the earth and far away from it, and embody the ultimate connection between soil and air. By contemplating plants as the creators of the atmosphere, Coccia draws our attention to the mundane act of breathing, a state of being in the atmosphere and containing it at the same time. He describes it as a mutual act of penetration between the container and the contained. In this picture, life is always cosmic. It is not divided into niches, parts or singular environments. Hence, the relationship between life and the environment that plants reveal to us is always inclusive.
Of course, this way of seeing is not only relevant to plants; other species are also ecosystem engineers. Ultimately, we are all interconnected within the web of life. Travelling again from far out to deep inwards, we can see similar relationships within the human microbiome. I wonder if we pay any more attention to microbes than we do to trees, while more than a trillion microbes inhabit the human body and shape our health and social behaviour. They are both within us and contain us. Yet again, we can ask: where does an organism end and an environment begin?