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Nature And Its Importance Essay

  • Yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world that it is easy—and often convenient—to forget that nature remains as giving as ever, even as it vanishes bit-by-bit.
  • The rise of technology and industry may have distanced us superficially from nature, but it has not changed our reliance on the natural world: most of what we use and consume on a daily basis remains the product of multitudes of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled.
  • Beyond such physical goods, the natural world provides less tangible, but just as important, gifts in terms of beauty, art, and spirituality.


Rainforest leaves in Uganda. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

To read last year’s Earth Day article: World failing on every environmental issue: an op-ed for Earth Day.

There is no question that Earth has been a giving planet. Everything humans have needed to survive, and thrive, was provided by the natural world around us: food, water, medicine, materials for shelter, and even natural cycles such as climate and nutrients. Scientists have come to term such gifts ‘ecosystem services’, however the recognition of such services goes back thousands of years, and perhaps even farther if one accepts the caves paintings at Lascaux as evidence. Yet we have so disconnected ourselves from the natural world that it is easy—and often convenient—to forget that nature remains as giving as ever, even as it vanishes bit-by-bit. The rise of technology and industry may have distanced us superficially from nature, but it has not changed our reliance on the natural world: most of what we use and consume on a daily basis remains the product of multitudes of interactions within nature, and many of those interactions are imperiled. Beyond such physical goods, the natural world provides less tangible, but just as important, gifts in terms of beauty, art, and spirituality.

Earth Day seems as good a day as any to remind ourselves what nature gives us free-of-charge. Here then is a selective sampling of nature’s importance to our lives:


Tad lo waterfall in Laos. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Fresh water: There is no physical substance humans require more than freshwater: without water we can only survive a few hellish days. While pollution and overuse has threatened many of the world’s drinking water sources, nature has an old-fashioned solution, at least, to pollution. Healthy freshwater ecosystems—watersheds, wetlands, and forests—naturally clean pollution and toxins from water. Soils, microorganisms, and plant roots all play a role in filtering and recycling out pollutants with a price far cheaper than building a water filtration plant. According to research, the more biodiverse the ecosystem, the faster and more efficiently water is purified.

Pollination: Imagine trying to pollinate every apple blossom in an orchard: this is what nature does for us. Insects, birds, and even some mammals, pollinate the world’s plants, including much of human agriculture. Around 80% of the world’s plants require a different species to act as pollinator.

In agriculture, pollinators are required for everything from tomatoes to cocoa, and almonds to buckwheat, among hundreds of other crops. Globally, agricultural pollination has been estimated to be worth around $216 billion a year. However large such monetary estimates don’t include pollination for crops consumed by livestock, biofuels, ornamental flowers, or the massive importance of wild plant pollination.

Seed dispersal: Much like pollination, many of the world’s plants require other species to move their seeds from the parent plant to new sprouting ground. Seeds are dispersed by an incredibly wide-variety of players: birds, bats, rodents, megafauna like elephants and tapir, and even, researchers have recently discovered, fish. Seed dispersal is especially important for tropical forests where a majority of plants depend on animals to move.

Pest control: A recent study found that bats save US agriculture billions of dollars a year simply by doing what they do naturally: eating insects, many of which are potentially harmful to US crops.

Almost all agricultural pests have natural enemies, along with bats, these include birds, spiders, parasitic wasps and flies, fungi, and viral diseases. The loss, or even decline, of such pest-eating predators can have massive impacts on agriculture and ecosystems.


The world’s dung beetles have a dirty job, but someone has to do it: feeding exclusively on feces dung beetles play a big role in nutrient and soil recycling. This beetle was photographed in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Soil health: The ground under our feet matters more than we often admit. Healthy fertile soil provides optimal homes for plants, while participating in a number of natural cycles: from recycling nutrients to purifying water. Although soil is renewable, it is also sensitive to overuse and degradation often due to industrial agriculture, pollution, and fertilizers. Natural vegetation and quality soil also mitigates excessive erosion, which can have dramatic impacts from loss of agricultural land to coastlines simply disappearing into the sea.

Medicine: Nature is our greatest medicine cabinet: to date it has provided humankind with a multitude of life-saving medicines from quinine to aspirin, and from morphine to numerous cancer and HIV-fighting drugs. There is no question that additionally important medications—perhaps even miracle cures—lie untapped in the world’s ecosystems. In fact, researchers estimate that less than 1% of the world’s known species have been fully examined for their medicinal value. However the ecosystems that have yielded some of the world’s most important and promising drugs—such as rainforests, peat swamps, and coral reefs—are also among the most endangered. Preserving ecosystems and species today may benefit, or even save, millions of lives tomorrow.

Fisheries: Humankind has turned to the rivers and seas for food for at least 40,000 years but probably even longer. Today, amid concern of a global fishery collapse, more than a billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein, many of them among the global poor. Fisheries also provide livelihoods, both directly and indirectly, for around half a billion. Coral reefs, mangroves, and seagrass ecosystems provide nurseries for the world’s fisheries, while the open ocean is used for migrating routes and hunting.

Even with the direct importance of the world’s fisheries for food, stewardship has been lacking, allowing many populations to drop precipitously and still permitting ecologically destructive fishing. While the world’s fisheries are primarily threatened by overfishing, including bycatch, marine pollution is also a major problem.


In the hugely imperiled tropical rainforests of Sumatra, diverse species of butterflies feed on ground nutrients. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Biodiversity and wildlife abundance: The argument to save the world’s wildlife has often come from an aesthetic point of view. Many conservationists have fought to save species simply because they like a particular species. This is often why more popularly known animals—tigers, elephants, rhinos—receive far more attention than less popular (although just as endangered) wildlife—for example, the redbelly egg frog, the smokey bat, or the bastard quiver tree. But beyond making the world a less lonely, less boring, and less beautiful place—admirable reasons in themselves—many of the services provided by biodiversity are similar to those provided by all of nature. Biodiversity produces food, fibers, wood products; it cleans water, controls agricultural pests, pollinates and dispersers the world plants; and provides recreation, such as birdwatching, gardening, diving, and ecotourism.

In the discussion of biodiversity, however, bioabundance is often ignored. A loss in bioabundance means that species are not just important for their diversity, but for their numbers. While Asian elephants may not go extinct any time soon, their depletion in forests means that the ecosystems lose the elephants’ special ecological talents such as spreading seeds and engineering micro-habitats. The drop in salmon populations in the US has caused the entire freshwater ecosystem to receive less nutrients every year (researchers estimate a nutrient-drop of over 90 percent); this means less food for people, less salmon for predators, and a less rich river overall. Declining nutrients also makes it impossible for the salmon to rebound to optimal populations, creating a vicious circle of bio-decline.

Climate regulation: The natural world helps regulate the Earth’s climate. Ecosystems such as rainforests, peatlands, and mangroves store significant amounts of carbon, while the ocean captures massive amounts of carbon through phytoplankton. While regulating greenhouse gases are imperative in the age of climate change, new research is showing that the world’s ecosystems may also play a role in weather. A recent study found that the Amazon rainforest acted as its own ‘bioreactor’, producing clouds and precipitation through the abundance of plant materials in the forest.

Economy: In the common tension viewed between the economy and the environment—e.g. do we clear-cut a forest or conserve it?—one fact is often neglected: the environment underpins the entire global economy. Without fertile soils, clean drinking water, healthy forests, and a stable climate, the world’s economy would face disaster. By imperiling our environment, we imperil the economy. According to research published in Science, the global worth of total ecosystem services could run between $40-60 trillion a year.

Health: Recent research has found what nature-lovers have long expected: spending time in a green space, such as a park, provides benefits for one’s mental and physical health. Exercising in a park, instead of inside a gym, has shown to provide mental health benefits as a greater sense of well-being. Walking for 20 minutes in a green space has been proven to help children with ADHD improve their concentration, even working as well, or better, than medication. People who live in more natural settings have better overall health, even when research has taken into account economic differences.


Mosaic artwork of wildlife in Buddhist temple in Laos. Nature has inspired both art and religion around the world. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Art: Imagine poetry without flowers, painting without landscapes, or film without scenery. Imagine if Shakespeare had no rose to compare Juliet to, or if William Blake had no Tyger to set alight. Imagine if Van Gogh lacked crows to paint or Durer a rhinoceros to cut. What would the Jungle Book be without Baloo or the Wind in the Willows without Mr. Badger? Imagine My Antonia without the red grass of the American prairie or Wuthering Heights without the bleak moors. How would The Lord of the Rings film series appear without the stunning mountain ranges of New Zealand, or Lawrence of Arabia without the desert of North Africa? There is no question that the natural world has provided global arts with some of its greatest subjects. What we lose in nature, we also lose in art.

Spiritual: While some of what nature provides us is measurable, most of what nature gives us is simply beyond measure. Economic measurements are useful; but as with most of what happens in the world, economics is simply incapable of capturing true worth. Science is also a useful measurement regarding the importance of nature, but once again cannot measure what nature means—practically and aesthetically—to each individual.

Perhaps the most difficult gift of nature’s to measure is its ingrained connection to human spirituality. In most of the world’s religions the natural world is rightly revered. In Christianity, Earthly paradise existed in a garden, while Noah, the original conservationist, is commanded by God to save every species. Buddhists believe all life—from the smallest fly to the blue whale—is sacred and worthy of compassion. For Hindus every bit of the natural world is infused with divinity. Muslims believe the natural world was created by Allah and only given to humans as gift to be held in trust. Indigenous cultures worldwide celebrate the natural world as their ‘mother’.

But one need not be religious to understand the importance of nature to the human spirit: one only need spend time alone in a shadowy forest, sit on a forgotten beach, touch the spine of a living frog, or watch the quarter moon swing behind mountain silhouettes.


A church rests in the shadows of mountains in Madagascar’s Tsaranoro Valley. Photo by: Rhett Butler.

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“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.”  The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement.  But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?

One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.”  When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower.  Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty.  So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:

the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves

Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.

Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.”  As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:

The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.

The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:

At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice?  Here is a new scene, a new experience.  Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.

MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library

So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way.  Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive.  In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made.  More generally, he writes:  “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”.  He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology.  Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty.  So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry.  And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful.  This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.”  In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.

Nothing is quite beautiful alone:  nothing but is beautiful in the whole.

All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.

MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect.  He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.”  In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought.  Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell.  Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade.  This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.

There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception.  If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways.  And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay.  Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure.  Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature.  We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.

So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful.  Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:

He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good:  and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle

This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us.  And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful.  These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.

Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.”  Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.


Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at mpopejoy@fas.harvard.edu. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’,  and  ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.