"The earth is Our Mother. What befalls the earth befalls all sons of the earth. The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth." Squamish chief Seattle ,1855
Smart humans in the 20th century made astounding advances in earth sciences. The images of the earth from the moon moved and informed everyone who saw them. The earth as a small, bluish planet circling the sun offered a new understanding of the human predicament. Since the Apollo flights to the moon, satellites have proliferated, telescopes have become sophisticated monitors of the universe and god’s view is available to all who are interested. The scientific exploration of the earth has probed every environment. The explosion of knowledge about planet earth and her creatures inspires those who know and care. The humans who do not know and do not care remain locked in their group identities and anachronistic beliefs.
One essence of being human is that you are an adaptable and nomadic creature. Your innate preferences are layered like layers in sedimentary rock that allows geologists to read the history of a place over millions of years. Your deepest feelings come from the oldest parts of your brain that still recognize features of an environment that appealed to early mammals and perhaps to more ancient creatures such as reptiles and dinosaurs.
The finest of homes to this day display rock, wood and fire. Civilized humans still cook meat over fires in kitchens, backyards and fires improvised on beaches, feeling more peaceful and authentic on a camping trip when they are closer to their wilder nature. When you go to a beach, you will collect stones and shells and sometimes pieces of wood that have been sculpted by waves. You don’t really know why you find these natural objects so attractive. You cannot recall how your distant ancestors collected stones to make tools that were vital to their survival and used stones to make houses, mark places, and create monuments for deceased members of the clan.
The environment is much more than air, rocks and water. The entire planet is occupied with living creatures large and small. Life is the most important part of the environment for humans who are animals among animals. Humans live or die depending on the stability and endurance of the biosphere. Humans derive meaning from other life forms and the smartest, kindest humans study the biosphere , bond with and protect other animals.
Humans Change and Often Destroy Environments
In an ideal world, everyone would seek personal health and well-being, but at the same time would strive to restore planet health. Smart people realize that no personal benefit will survive long in a world that is ailing, polluted and careening toward more man-made disasters. The really sad part of our current predicament is that all the right ideas have been around for decades and have been clearly articulated in many forms by a host of intelligent people. The right ideas involve unselfish and compassionate behavior. The right ideas involve long-term planning, conservation and a deep commitment to preserving the natural world. Without a healthy natural environment, there will be few or no healthy humans.
The term “ecosystem” refers to living creatures interacting with each other and with the physical features of the planet. Almost every student learns the basics of ecosystems and can tell you that we need clean air, clean water and food to sustain human populations. Some of these students will take the lessons seriously and act more responsibly toward their local environments. Most students, like most adult citizens, treat knowledge of ecosystems as an abstract exercise and will consume, pollute and ignore the negative environmental consequences of their actions. This is not to argue that these are irresponsible or bad people. It is to argue that book knowledge is too abstract and that humans only respond to locally perceived environmental conditions.
Humans adapt easily to deteriorating conditions and will persist in following daily routines even when air pollution is severe, traffic is congested, water and food supplies are at risk, and social order is unstable. The tolerance for environmental destruction is ancient and human history is littered with civilizations that failed because humans indiscriminately exploited natural resources and spoiled their own nest. The human tendency is to plunder and pillage nature and to move on when resources are depleted. The solution to this tendency requires strong leadership by smart, well-educated, compassionate humans who understand nature is divine and understand that human survival depends on healthy ecosystems.
My bias is strong and clear. I am on the side of Nature. When I was five years old, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I was never a hunter, but I was a participant, a fellow creature among friends. I climbed trees. I discovered peace in the natural environment. I could also ride my bicycle, just a few miles and arrive at farms with horses, cows and fields of corn and hay. My family went for drives in the country on Sunday afternoon and sometimes stopped at roadside stalls to buy fresh vegetables from a farmer’s wife. My idea of a perfect world involved preserving this relationship of city to country with natural environments remaining in the interstices.