Why Humans Are a Non-Expendable Keystone Species

Carol Sanford
8 min readSep 23, 2022


Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

False Premise! Humans need nature to survive, but nature does not need humans.

This is a premise based on a mechanical, not a living systems, view of life — a clever sounding but false proposition that denies the core role humans play in fostering the vitality and viability of living systems, both as individual wholes themselves and as a collective whole. If we don’t stop spreading this erroneous message and promoting ignorance of our place as keystone species with the global whole ecosystem, we guarantee the de-evolution of life on Earth.

Indigenous elders (including my grandfather, the scion of a traditional tribal lineage) share an education with each generation that is based on their necessary contributions to the living systems they inhabit. In her book Tending The Wild, Kat Anderson provides an excellent roadmap to a different outcome than the one threatened by false premises. If the human species becomes extinct, nature will have been massively harmed, possibly irreparably. In the last ecological collapse, the vast majority of most higher species perished, but some plants, animals, and humans were able to survive and eventually thrive, recovering by working together.

I understand how well-intended people think the premise that nature doesn’t need people will help wake us up to the current climate disaster, promoting it as an urgent warning. But instead, it misses an essential point and diverts us away from what is true, genuinely urgent, and has the potential to make a crucial difference. Educating humans to the fact that we, ourselves, are natural beings, collectively a natural species, with essential, pressing work to do in our lifesheds and communities, is skipped completely in families, schools, religious institutions, and work places. Using the false premise as an alarm doesn’t get the job done; it only contributes to the threat of environmental collapse.

Life conducts itself in nested reciprocal systems, within which each life form plays a role that contributes to the working of the overall whole. The living, whole world or universe comprises a multitude of lifesheds, a term I coined to replace watershed, foodshed, airshed — all of which contribute to our misrepresentation of life as series of fragmented, mechanical, mostly functional processes. But even having this word, it is still extremely difficult to articulate the instinctive understanding of living wholes embedded in the human species in the form of ancient cultural and spiritual wisdom. The following paragraph will show how big the challenge is. Read my attempt and then try it yourself!

On Earth, A life-shed is a unique, discrete evolutionary, placed-sourced collaborative activity, occurring in an area between mountain ridges or other major geological features. In this place, rainfall and snowmelt run in channels to creeks, streams, and rivers, and eventually to outflow points, such as reservoirs, bays, and an ocean. As it flows, this water takes along with it nutrients that feed myriad water- and land-based species within grasslands, forests, and other native systems. When it percolates into soils, some of the water is drawn back uphill for use by many more individual life forms and species, which transport nutrients across the whole of the lifeshed. And at the same time, air is circulated and cleaned via weather systems and both wild plant systems and those farmed by human communities. Thus, all life forms within the life shed touch and are touched by uncountable others in the course of the working of the whole.

This paragraph is written as a way to create an image of the reciprocal exchanges that take place in the course of life at work. It falls far short of communicating the deep, complex nature of a living system in process. I again encourage you to write a better imageable paragraph and post it for us all to build on. No matter how far short we fall of the totality at work, we begin to get a sense of the roles and outcomes, all dependent on other roles, as a shared household, as Earth, our place, which we call home.

Another way to get at this understanding is to work with an idea created by Alfred Korzybski, the originator of general semantics. General semantics considers how a language points to and limits what its speakers can know of the world, as they must always speak through imageable metaphors. Whatever is in the metaphors is allowed into one’s interpretations and then into articulation. If something is missing in a person’s metaphoric mentation, it is missing in what they are able to consider. Try imaging the following set of ideas taken from general semantics.

In a lifeshed (for example, a forest is farming on a range between peaks), there are three roles that are necessary for its vitality and for a healthy evolution to unfold: energy-binding, space-binding, and time-binding.

Energy-binding is giving seemingly separate life elements ableness to be held together for reactions, interactions, and complementary work. To germinate and grow, a tree seed requires different sources of stored energy, such as minerals, proteins, and fiber, to come together, mix, integrate, and create a new form that can also draw on those energies. Energy-binding is a big subject in physical sciences, particularly chemistry. Korzybski states that this is the work of plant life, primarily, but plants are bound in place and cannot move themselves to spread energies to other places in their own lifeshed or across boundaries to neighboring lifesheds.

Space-binding is the work of mobile species, including most animals, which collect and transport energies bound in plants to other spaces, where they are used and further shared. Plants are dependent on these space-binders for propagation, the movement of elements in space that makes habitat building possible. Humans, in their space-binding role, can support the energy-binding work of plants across great distances through activities such as farming, forestry, herbology, and plant pharmacology. When people don’t understand energy-binding — the chemistry and biology of soil and plants — and the ways plants work, we make errors when we build products. Failure to understand energy- and space-binding is a primary human error, which can contribute to major living system failure. For example, plant systems depend on human understanding of energy-binding for their evolutionary biological health. Evidence of this is apparent in all our commercial and household choices, which can have deadly results for plants and for whole lifesheds.

Thus, in addition to their role as animals in energy-binding and space-binding aspects of living systems, the time-binding process of human knowledge is also required to ensure the vitality and evolution of lifesheds.

Time-binding is the characteristically human activity of transmitting experience from one generation to another, especially through the use of symbols, including language and mathematics. These enable us to pick up and build on passed-along knowledge. Korzybski missed a developable potential of time-binding. In my work we have proven that even one person or group in one lifetime can evolve an idea. Where Korzybski was thinking of later generations of individuals, it can happen in one lifetime. But we have to confront our attachments to previous certainties, deeply examine them, and evolve our personally understanding, going beyond what we are able to build on from previous periods in our life, to understand and generate our own original ideas. Then we are able to leapfrog every time we come personally to the previous, paused understanding we had reached. Groups can do this also. This offers a significantly different potential and outcomes of thinking of one person in one lifetime.

Time-binding is intertwined with and necessary to energy-binding and space-binding. Animals species other than humans have not yet been show to transmit ideas from one generation to another, and they have no means for building on others’ work, including that of other species. They are adept at mimicking but for the most part they cannot share discoveries until they have been made and observed many, many times by different individuals. (The hundredth monkey theory and research is helpful for understanding this.)

Time-binding is not superior to energy-binding and space-binding, except as humans incorrectly define it as such. We do this because we have become identified with it hierarchically, as our work, and the ego crowns it so. However, the time-binding role is important to a lifeshed’s healthy working because it is bound to the other roles, and thus humans are significant only insofar as they are integral to the whole. Basically, given that humans have co-evolved with other species, nested within Earth’s lifesheds, there is now no way they can be removed without degrading or de-evolving the planetary system as a whole. And this means that we must learn to understand and, along with all other species, play the energy-binding and space-binding roles, and above all that we must understand and develop wisdom to do the time-binding that is the primary characteristic of our species.

Thus, the purpose of time-binding work in our time is to deepen understanding of the working of life and living systems — inseparably bound ourselves within our living systems — in order to contribute to evolution of systems. Currently, we tend to use our time-binding capacity in a space-binding way, characterized by a faulty epistemology; we pass along previous knowledge, filling the next generation with static facts and figures, and test to ensure that it has been absorbed. We move knowledge around. Yet with the human species, nature has evolved a perfect instrument for building on and generating new ideas and discovering new, deeper understanding with each iteration and creating ever deeper layers.

A time-binding epistemology is directed at understanding life processes including how energy-binding works and the effect of space-binding. And here I will note that biomimicry is also an error. It proposes that humans should adopt energy-binding processes as their priority function and use space-binding process and knowledge metaphorically to supplant the time-binding role — using energy-bound knowledge which comes about by knowledge transfer across space and time. In this way of thinking, we give up the human work of self-examination, forward thinking, and the creation of integrative intellectual and physical technologies. It does required a lot of development of this capacity to make it available and we don’t have systems set up to do this work, leaving us failing at our system role repeatedly.

Keystone species — a concept introduced in 1969 by the zoologist Robert T. Paine — are those with disproportionately large effects on their natural environments, relative to their abundance. A keystone species plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of its community, affecting many other organisms and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species that inhabit the lifeshed. When a lifeshed loses its keystone species, it changes dramatically and may cease to exist altogether.

Unlike other keystone animals, humans have to be self-developed. We must acknowledge and learn how to play our role of time-binders, we must reintegrate ourselves into our lifesheds, or we will continue to degenerate the whole of life on Earth, not just ourselves.

Our task now is to develop the time-binding epistemology and create a new philosophy of education dedicated to it. Humanity’s real work today is to develop the higher powers of the time-binding capacity — to do our long-thought work — and to assume our keystone role intentionally and with full awareness. We won’t save nature by making ourselves extinct — we will simply leave behind lifesheds missing their keystone species, with their role never fulfilled.

Carol Sanford is the award winning author of six books covering the regenerative paradigm, business, and leadership. Learn more at her website.



Carol Sanford

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson |# 1 AmazonBest Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator