Let’s Bring the Biosphere Home

A critical omission in Observation and Ecology was in not citing Mitch Thomashow’s excellent book, Bringing the Biosphere Home (MIT Press, 2002).  It has certainly been influential on my thinking and earlier drafts contained whole sections in which I cited the book, but those—for better and for worse—ended up on the cutting room floor, along with the citation of this inspirational book.

Many of the themes we cover in Observation and Ecology are dealt with directly, or hinted at in a surprisingly prescient manner in Bringing the Biosphere Home.  For example, back in the early 2000’s when he was writing, Mitch waxes dreamily about a “barefoot global change science” in which citizens from all over record and share their localized observations over the internet and data are shared and discussed with scientists to develop a global understanding of change. He chides himself for this “naïve” view, but most of what he envisioned has come to pass. The rise of citizen science, of which he had documented a few nascent examples and has now diversified into many activities and websites, including “Project Noah” and the National Phenology Network’s “Nature’s Notebook”, walk “barefoot” along the path Mitch foresaw.  Even his dream that in the future every “computer is sold with built in geographic information system software” has been realized with smart phones and tablets and Google Earth.

It is interesting to me that Mitch took a very technophilic view at a time when most naturalists were content to just grumble about technology’s erosion of nature.  While the book is very cognizant of the dangers of technology, it is one of the first to celebrate technology’s vast potential for expanding our vision, a theme we take up heartily—10 years later—in Observation and Ecology.

What’s timeless about this book is the very personal approach that Mitch takes in presenting his work.  It is personal from the author’s point of view—chapters and sections often start with Mitch’s immediate sensory experiences or memories imprinted by early memories–but also in the sense that he offers very personal advice about how to make a practice of observation in our own lives.

Among my favorite direction imparted by the book is to “take a morning reading”—to start each day with an intentional appraisal of what is going on outside.  Even living as I do, surrounded by the desert and awoken nearly every day by a blinding white sun, I often forget to take this measure.  Re-reading Bringing the Biosphere Home gave me new impetus to take a moment to really experience my surroundings, and this in turn seems to set off a catalytic process that carries momentum for observation and connection throughout the day.

Mitch was kind enough to say good things on the jacket Observation and Ecology despite our omission of his work, but I really want to thank him not for his kind review, but for his contribution of wise and practical advice on how to be more integrated with the biosphere—both because of, and despite of, it’s rapidly changing nature.


About Rafe

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, March 2012) and Observation and Ecology (Island Press, July 2012), which show how nature observation--when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles and University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
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