As a scientist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how every living thing on Earth is part of an incredible, complex, beautiful system.
We ecologists devote our lives to the study of interdependent biophysical cycles that make life possible, yet we’ve only just begun to understand the connections, causes, and effects of changes in various parts of that system. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that it took billions of years for this system to evolve, with the only constant being change.
There are a few things scientists do know, however, beyond all reasonable doubt: humans are causing dramatic changes to Earth’s climate; we have accelerated biodiversity loss to about 1,000 times the “background” (natural) extinction rate; and we are contaminating and disrupting many other planetary processes by releasing nitrates, phosphates, plastic particles, and chemicals of so many kinds into the environment and atmosphere. Although preliminary research indicates that modern humans have already caused a startling degree of destruction, it is impossible to predict exactly how these changes will compound over time—let alone how they will impact the social, political, cultural, and economic systems that govern the human experience.
"Our dominion is nothing more than an illusion, and there is no separation between humans and nature. "
So we should be very, very careful. We must take immediate and bold action to reduce the likelihood of the worst-case scenario. What might this scenario look like? What some scientists fear is a kind of “multiple system collapse”: interconnected events that fuel runaway climate change, such as moderate warming leading to the thaw of permafrost, which would release methane (a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide) that has been locked in the frozen northern soils for millennia; the continued loss of forests and other biodiverse habitats, resulting in the decreased resilience of the biosphere; and escalating ocean warming and contamination that could disrupt entire food webs.
Humans in many parts of the world—including a good portion of the global elite—have developed an attitude of dominion over the natural world. Our cities, our homes, our supermarkets filled with products from unknown origins, our engrossing technology (especially those little screens), and our rapid personal transport are all part of a vast artificial environment that enables us to live most of our days without realizing that we too are part of, and completely depend upon, nature.
Yet, our dominion is nothing more than an illusion, and there is no separation between humans and nature. Every breath we take depends on the health of Earth’s natural systems. Today, because of our “success” as a species, we humans must face the stark reality that the stability of these systems now depends upon our ability to radically change our relationship with this extraordinary and very rare blue planet.
Earth Day is an important reminder for us all to do just that. To succeed, however, we’ve got to apply this Earth Day consciousness to our everyday lives so that this awareness of interdependence infuses all of our choices and actions.
How might we begin? Here are three simple suggestions.
- Reflect on nature. Take a few calm and quiet minutes each day, ideally early in the day, to reconnect with the non-human world. Walk in a park or garden, enjoy a view across a landscape as you commute, or scrutinize the elaborate beauty of a flower or leaf, or even the biomechanical marvel of a family pet.
- Give something back to nature. This can be as simple as making an extra effort to compost and recycle, reducing your energy or water usage, collecting trash on public grounds, or eating chicken instead of beef—or even braving vegetarianism for a whole day. Start with small steps to reduce your ecological footprint. Tread a little more lightly. Consume less.
- Learn more about nature. Read or watch an environmental news story, find environmental groups in your neighborhood, or volunteer at your community garden. If there isn’t one, start one with your neighbors. Talk to friends, family members, and co-workers about what you learn. And most importantly: do something daily, no matter how small, to make a difference. Creative, constructive action is one of the best traits of our species, and one that we absolutely must harness at this critical moment for our planet.
I know from experience that taking these small, simple steps and then building upon them will give more meaning to your life. Cultivating your connection to nature reduces stress, improves one’s health, and strengthen the awareness of interdependence. After a while, you may find yourself called to devote more time and energy to restoring nature—as many of my wonderful colleagues have. On this Earth Day, I ask: What could be more rewarding than working to secure a better future for generations to come?