These days it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the immensity of environmental problems like climate change, species extinction or toxic pollution. It’s far easier to think these issues are too immense for an individual to solve, and ignore them. But aside from feeling helpless and insignificant, there’s something else preventing us from acting. It is the way we see ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the world.
Throughout all of human history, people have understood that we are deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on the natural world. Even today, if you listen to the stories, songs and prayers of traditional and aboriginal people, you will realize that they celebrate their relationship with nature, give thanks for her generosity and abundance, acknowledge that we have responsibilities, and promise to act properly to keep it all going. All over the world, that’s been our understanding.
But at the very time that humanity has dramatically increased its impact on nature because of our greater numbers, technological muscle power, and consumptive and economic demand, we have lost the understanding that nature is still the source of our well-being.
Today we are transforming the biological, chemical and physical features of the planet on a geological scale. But we no longer see the repercussions. Somehow, we seem to think that our intelligence, science, technology and economy have enabled us to escape the limits of nature. More and more of us are moving into large cities, where we are even more estranged from nature. As well, the explosion in information means that we are assaulted by sensational reports of celebrity, violence, sex and money, information that shapes the perceptual lenses through which we discern the world into a shattered mosaic of disconnected bits and pieces. Taken all together, it means that we can no longer recognize the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything on Earth.
Until very recently, we were a tribal species and never worried much beyond what folks in the next valley were doing. But now we need a shift in how we think and consider the collective impact of all people on the planet. It’s not the economy but nature that is the source of the clean air, clean water, clean soil that gives us our food and clean energy from the sun. In a shattered world, we no longer see causal relationships - if I do this, this might happen; if I don’t do that, something else may result. We then feel no sense of responsibility because we become blind to the ways we are affecting the rest of the world.
I was struck by the consequences of that disconnection when I decided to do a film about asthma. When I was growing up, asthma was a rare disease unknown to most people. Today, it’s common to go into an elementary school class and find children with puffers. Asthma is a modern epidemic. On the day of a smog alert, we took a camera crew to the emergency ward of the Toronto General Hospital and found it jammed with old people and children having severe respiratory crises. They were brought by people worried sick about the health of their loved ones, yet many drove up in SUVs! Even though they would have done anything to protect their parents or children, they failed to see that their super-polluting vehicles were part of the problem.
For hundreds of thousands of years, humanity has successfully responded to crisis; it’s a skill that got us here. We’ve just begun to focus our attention and efforts on climate change. As we work on this challenge, many solutions become obvious that will, in turn, affect more than climate. They will move us toward a sustainable future. Numerous individuals, companies, organizations and governments are changing direction, and in doing so they shatter the myth that protecting nature means you have to do without. It means doing better with what we have. Purchasing an energy-efficient refrigerator, for example, will save money, protect air quality, and still keep lettuce crisp. Hybrid cars both reduce pollution and save at the pump.
What kind of world do we want to leave for future generations? Imagine a world with cleaner air, water and soil, where wildlife thrives and resources are cared for to last indefinitely. In this future we’d drive cars that would emit water, pure enough to drink, instead of harmful greenhouse gases. We’d live in homes heated by inexpensive renewable energy sources and go to work in office buildings made of sustainably harvested materials. This vision of a future doesn’t have to be science fiction – we can make it happen using technology available today.
By living this way, we can very well reconnect ourselves to the natural world, from which we are so estranged now. We have the chance to live in a way that makes our human ingenuity part of a living whole rather than a destructive aberration.
The best way to achieve real change is to live and practice your values every day. Look for concrete examples of what can be done. Support organizations that are doing the right thing and vote for public servants who value the environment. By inspiring friends and family to incorporate environmental values into their daily decisions, we expand the protection of nature instead of its destruction. To achieve sustainability, we don’t have to sacrifice or reduce our quality of life. We will, in fact, improve it.