There was a time when every man, woman and child was at heart an environmentalist. Their lives directly depended on rivers for water, land for food, animals and the sea for meat, forests for fuel and building material, and so on. Our ancestors were not perfect; many overexploited resources as we do today, sometimes resulting in the collapse of entire societies, e.g. Easter Island. This is a clear example of failing to estimate the long-term effects of consuming natural resources – typical of our species on a global scale in modern times. But hunters and gatherers had and still have a closeness to the environment that meant they understood just how greatly they depended on it, unlike the majority of the world today.
We simply couldn’t exist without a healthy environment, so shouldn’t we all be environmentalists? These kids have the right idea – plant some trees!
The industrialisation of agriculture has led to a fundamental disconnect between the production of essential goods like food, water and fuel, and the consumption of them. The average person no longer appreciates or even acknowledges the role of the environment in their life, since a small fraction of society produces the sustenance for everyone else. Most of us are ignorant to the intricacies of generating consumable calories from the soil, as the supermarket is our first contact with food. And we’re similarly oblivious to the chain of events leading to electrical outputs that power most of our activities. So it is no wonder that environmentalists are rare; the average person has little respect, understanding and appreciation for the natural world, which, quite literally, provides every requirement for our lives.
To put it as plainly as possible, energy comes from the sun and is harnessed by plants and microorganisms in the sea. We rely on plants to convert the sun’s energy into a form that we can eat, or we eat animals that have converted and concentrated it into more usable calories. To power our technologies and industry we burn fossilised stores of organic matter; dead trees that were buried and put under immense pressure over millions of years, turning them into coal, gas and oil. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see the link between turning our washing machines on, driving our cars, buying meat and vegetables from a shop or heating up/cooling down our homes, and the negative environmental effects of these actions. Hence why it is so difficult for people to change their behaviour in order to lessen their impact, as they don’t clearly see or understand the relationship between what they consume and the environment.
We’ve become scarily distanced from the environment by living in our concrete urban areas and gathering dinner from shelves; food that’s biotic origins are often hard to determine. This means that great effort must be made to encourage environmentalist attitudes in current and future generations, since our present lifestyles and eating habits fail to promote a green conscience.
If we want to move forward into a greener world we need to start by teaching our kids about where food really comes from, and about the importance of complex ecosystems and forests in maintaining a healthy, liveable climate. One of the best ways to do this is to simply get them outside and enjoying what nature has to offer. The great outdoors is where our species has been educating its children for millions of years, before we started mass-destruction of the planet’s wilderness, so perhaps we’d do well to try to recreate this method of learning. There’s also good evidence that quality of life and happiness improves with increased connection to our wild, ancestral homes.
Why should we be environmentalists?
We’re threatening our planet and our only home by driving climate change, deforestation and mass species extinctions. These are all tough, pressing problems that we are responsible for and which require immediate and effective action. We’re poorly equipped to combat these problems because most of us lack the attitudes of an environmentalist – we don’t value the very thing we depend on to survive. Only by actively encouraging these attitudes do we stand a chance of saving our planet.
Inspiration for this post came from ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals’ by Michael Pollen, which investigates the true costs of industrial-scale agriculture on society. I highly recommend it.