What We Care About

oil bird 3In response to my Saturday post, reader Chaitanya sent me a quote from the late Stephen J. Gould:

We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well — for we will not fight to save what we do not love.
This is important. More than half of the nearly 7 billion humans on this planet now live in cities, in ecosystems that are disconnected from the resources and places and plants and animals that they depend on for food, water and energy. To that extent, cities are ‘artificial’ environments — they are not sustainable without resources that come entirely from outside them, ‘mysteriously’ (because the people in the city have no direct personal experience or knowledge of how their food, water and power gets to them). Children in cities can be excused for thinking food ‘comes’ from the grocery store, that water comes magically from the tap, and that electricity comes from the switch.
We cannot expect people to care about factory farmed animals’ misery, because to them it is invisible. It is no more ‘real’ than what they read about in story books. We cannot expect people to care about the end of oil or the end of water or the end of electricity or the end of telecommunication because they don’t see or know where these things come from, and their scarcity is a mere abstraction. I have spoken to people who lived through the Great Depression, and deliberately read first-hand accounts of the incredible suffering and deprivation that those people lived through, and their astonishment that things they had ‘taken for granted’ could disappear so quickly. But this is lost knowledge, and we cannot expect people to care about it now.
We cannot expect people to care about the loss of biodiversity, about species extinction, about the death of the oceans. This is too cerebral, probably even if you depend on hunting or fishing for your livelihood. We cannot expect people to care about global warming, despite Al Gore’s powerpoint slides. It’s the specific, the personal that we care about, not the broad, conceptual issues. As Frederick Barthelme says in his wonderful advice to writers wanting to engage their audience: “Apropos the big issues, note that parents don’t sit around getting heartbroken about abortion, they get heartbroken because they killed the baby.”
You can of course watch a National Geographic special that shows a baby animal dying of starvation because of human encroachment on their territory, or poisoned by some man-made toxin, but it is still abstract: You didn’t cause this, and besides, it’s a million miles away, and how do you know it was human encroachment or poisoning that caused it. Change that channel, fast! Who wants to see that stuff we can’t do anything about, and which wasn’t our fault anyway?
We cannot expect people to care about deforestation or strip mining or the atrocity of tar sands extraction. That kind of stuff happens someplace else. And the trees have to go to make room for houses eventually anyway, right?
The continuation and rapacity of our industrial economy, and the continuing exponential growth of human numbers, depend utterly on this disconnection, in lands that have been stripped of everything that made them natural places, and expecially our cities (including the suburbs, the exurbs, and the monoculture farm hinterlands that sprawl outwards at an ever-accelerating rate, until only the deserts, the arctic, the mountain tundra and other ‘natural wastelands’ unfit for human habitation are left.
Lawns and gardens and parks full of non-native species soaked in fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides are no substitute for natural places. We cannot expect people to “forge an emotional bond with nature” when this is what they think nature is. We can be backyard birdwatchers or zoo-goers or humane farmers or urban tree-planters or love our companion animals, and get some inkling of what nature is, but not long enough or deeply enough to form an emotional bond to it.
We can sense, from doing these things, or from watching March of the Penguins or from a weekend hike, that there is something important ‘out there’. But then we are brought back to our urban ‘reality’, and we have things that we must do, and when they’re done we’re too tired to do things that perhaps should be done.
We don’t care enough. And that’s perfectly understandable. How can we love what we do not see, feel, smell, hear, taste, know?
John Gray would tell us that it’s too late to change this. More and more of us, in proportionate and absolute terms, are now so disconnected from nature that we cannot care enough to bring about the huge changes that would be necessary, that are necessary. I have been at conferences full of brilliant, sensitive people who want to make the world a better place (mostly through technological invention) who, when I speak to them of the importance of having a deep connection with nature, look at me as if I’m from Mars. They want to make cities more livable. They want pets to be treated humanely. They want to find new resources and technologies to sustain the unsustainable lives they live now. They want to reduce violence and crime in their neighbourhoods.
When I was 21, fighting the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline proposal back in the early 1970s, I managed to get an audience with the Liberal federal minister of natural resources, and I explained how the proposed pipeline would destroy caribou migration routes and melt the fragile Arctic permafrost. He looked at me, amazed, and said simply “Who cares about the permafrost?”
I did not answer. I was too stunned. At that time, there were some people who cared about the permafrost, and we won a temporary victory. But this year, a generation later, the government is poised to approve the pipeline, because they need the clean energy to power the extraction of dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. Thanks to global warming, the permafrost is already melting, and the northern migration of swarms of insects has made life so miserable for the caribou that the herds are thinning. Like the polar bears who can no longer find firm ice to hunt from, they are wasting away and giving up. Soon they will all be gone, and we won’t have to care any more, the few of us who did.
So I continue to grieve for Gaia. But that does not prevent me from living a life of great joy, or from doing what I can to make the world a slightly better place. The emotional bond I have with nature is strong, and cannot be broken — in fact it grows stronger every day, as I learn more and strengthen my connection with all-life-on-Earth. I shall continue to fight for what I love, even though I know it is a losing cause. It is enough to try.
To those who understand, I offer my love, my sympathy, my silent nod of recognition and connection and appreciation. To those who do not, who can not, I offer my respect and understanding, and hope against hope that you will somehow come to re-discover what you are missing, and join us. We cannot care about what we do not know personally, and how can we know nature personally when we grow up in a world opposed to and disconnected from her?

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6 Responses to What We Care About

  1. janet says:

    Dave,This post is beautifully written. I’m one of the lucky ones who still can connect with nature on an intimate level. There is so much more we want to do to become self sufficient. Honestly.. if I dwell on the things I can not change it makes me sad to the point of not enjoying whats in front of me. I have little tolerance for those who’s foot print is knee deep.

  2. Beautiful post and I totally agree. We do not directly experience nature the way it was intended anymore, so how can anyone want to save something they’ve never seen. We can spend our time out in nature, enjoy it while it lasts, bark in its amazing glory, and know that it will be a temporary thing, but we can take all of our effort to sustain the areas around us so that we can hold on to this joy for a little while longer. Even if the joy is impermanent, at least we did our part to prolong this joy. Dave, I’m with you. Best environmental blog I’ve read thus far. Been a huge fan for over a year. Keep up the good work.

  3. Richard says:

    I enjoyed your post Dave. You are a gifted writer. I think that a bond with nature is important but not essential. I have never been to the Amazone forest nor the African nature reserves. Frankly, I might be still too ‘urbanized’ to appreciate them. Then again, how many of us I wonder would look forward to a air conditioned room and hot bath after only a few days in these inhospitable environements. And yet I understand that they are vital and precious and must be defended. My big problem is the issue of double standards. How in my heart can I be against deforstation of the amazone when we have and continue to do the same of our northern boreal or coastal forests in Canada. I don,t know except by living more militantly on a local level. Does this help the other places in the world? Perhpas not, but at least it gives credibility to what I say. All of us, must start acting in this way on an individual basis. Serve as examples, be ridiculed even, so others can possibly be influenced in some way. Especially children. But the sacrifices are difficult. In a consumers world, I like others have been conditioned to seek property and investment of time to secure a financial future. So a major shift in thinking and action is required. A lonely and mostly thankless battle. But is there any other way? To simply wait for legislation that forces us to do colelctively what we are not prepared to do individually is the sympton of slavery.Sorry for seeming so dark. Don’t mean to. Because in the end, I think you are right to see the good in the world. We need to love our home and our species to be willing to fight for them. And you can only love the earth if you create a bond with it. As for humans, we need to be forgiving. Beating up on ourselves has never been an efficient way of changing our ways.

  4. Paul Justus says:

    Dave,Thanks for a beautiful essay. I have had this discussion many times with my wife, a Ph.D. in stream ecology. I have been working my own ideas on how to save the world. The Environmental Revenue Shift (quit taxing the sustainable, and charge user fees on the unsustainable) is, I believe, an essential ingredient (and by no means the only ingredient) in saving the world. However, this “Green-Shift” will require public support and understanding — and, thus, it will require that at least a voting majority of people care about nature. I would propose that the Green Revenues collected from carbon taxes, pollution, non-renewable resource extraction, and land monopoly should be divided three ways. One part would pay for essential community services, one part would pay for an Earth Share for all planetary citizens, and one part would be used to provide undisturbed habitat for all our fellow living organisms.Best Regards,Paul80/80 by 2020 http://www.green-shift.org

  5. Terry says:

    Another great post. We have perfectly preserved little forest in the middle of our town (10 mins from downtown Montreal). I take the dog everyday there and we both bond with mother nature. On my deathbed one of my favorite memories will be the smell of the dewy earth in that forest and how the golden sunlight filters through the leaves late in the afternoon.

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