As much as anyone or anything else, I was raised by the tall pines, granite boulders and waving dry grasses found at the end of a dirt road in New Hampshire. With parents who both respected and received inspiration from the natural world, our days were spent outside. We darted barefoot over golden pine needles. We climbed over crumbling stone walls, splashed across sparkling brooks and rolled down grassy hillsides. When it rained, we got wet. When it snowed, we built forts or crawled under a canopy of hemlock branches, making a perfect hideaway as they hung laden with snow.
The seasonal changes, the daily arc of the sun across the sky, the neverending cycle of water’s journey from cloud to ground to cloud again, these rhythms wound themselves between my cells, making me who I am just as much as lessons in geometry, time spent with friends, or my love of music.
When I first began to learn about climate change, yes, I was scared for my own future and the future of my children. At the same time, a great ache began to spread through me. I ached for the many incredible living things on this earth who did nothing to create this problem but who will suffer its consequences right alongside (and in many cases more harshly than) humans. I knew that any true, lasting solution to the climate crisis must include the whole system of life on this planet, not just the human race.
My work on climate change has been inspired, therefore, by my love of the natural world. After the births of my two children, my concern about climate change increased, absolutely. But my fears, grief, and hopes are not for their future alone. They are for the future of that beautiful world that nourished me from my earliest childhood memories. And as I watch my children explore and fall in love with the natural world, our interconnection with that world is more apparent to me than ever.
Is a strong, positive connection with the natural world an imperative component of impactful action on climate change?
To address climate change, we must address the fundamental attitudes that created the situation in the first place. With the rise of urban, industrial living, human society became increasingly disconnected from the nonhuman natural world. With that disconnect came the loss of important knowledge about that world. The spreading disconnect also led to a shift in how we view that world and our relationship to it – a shift fed and perpetuated by how we, as humans of the modern, industrial world, are encouraged to think to “succeed”.
In the modern world-view, we see our relationship with nonhuman nature as one characterized by supply and demand and most of us seem to presume that the supply will never dry up. We take with abandon and produce waste with no limits. And, perhaps most dangerously of all, we have placed all our faith, creative thinking and problem-solving into the hands of technology alone. Many approach the climate crisis with a focus on slapping enough technological bandaids onto the current consumption-driven economic system with the goal of reducing “enough” carbon while not disrupting business-as-usual.
The source of the problem, the source of the solution
Here’s the thing. As long as we continue to attempt to “save the planet” alongside business-as-usual, we fail to question the parameters of our relationship with the rest of the natural world (and with each other). As long as our efforts to address the climate crisis are grounded only in concern for the future of humanity, we are making a grave error that just might cost us success. We are failing to address the issue that got us into this mess to begin with: a perverse relationship with the rest of the natural world and with each other. Because this relationship is the source of the problem, it must also play an integral role in any solution.
The solar panels and electric vehicles are essential pieces of the solution, yes. But they are only pieces. They are not enough. Despite the rapid growth of renewable energy production,carbon emissions reached a historic high in 2017, due to the continued climb of our energy demands. The same was true for 2018, with an even greater increase.
And while conservation of the remaining wild places is critical, that conservation is also no longer enough. Richard Louv said it perfectly in a 2011 essay adapted from his book The Nature Principle, Human Restoration and the End of Nature Deficit Disorder:
• Sustainability alone is not sustainable. Though we don’t have a better word to replace it, the word sustain suggests stasis. Fairly or not, much of the public views energy conservation and the development of alternative energy sources as essential but ultimately technical goals. We need more than stasis; we need to produce human energy (health, intelligence, creativity, joy) through nature.
• Conservation is not enough. Now we need to “create” nature. Even if we conserve every square foot of remaining wilderness, and we should, it won’t be enough to guarantee the biodiverse habitats that humans and other organisms will require to thrive. In addition to conservation, we must now restore or create natural habitats on our farms and ranches, in our cities, neighborhoods, commercial buildings, yards, and on our roofs. We’ll need the true greening of America and the rest of the world.Seven Reasons for a New Nature Movement, by Richard Louv
We cannot adequately address the climate crisis while supporting business-as-usual. We must reclaim a relationship with the rest of nature that is characterized by respect and even reverence. We must look to that natural world for the wisdom and solutions we desperately need. We must prioritize the preservation and rebuilding of ecological diversity. We must relearn and institute systems of reciprocity.
We must recognize that we are dependent on the rest of the natural world and the intricate systems and balance therein. We must harness that recognition to question our current definitions of growth and success, developing new understandings of both that align with respect for all of life.
We must start within ourselves, reorienting our own relationship with nature, while also raising a generation that is deeply grounded in the natural world. As Louv highlights in his work, numerous studies have already demonstrated a strong link between early, positive experiences in nature and future environmental behavior (Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books. 150-151). Furthermore, studies focused on what is known as HNC – human-nature connection – have consistently demonstrated that pro-envionmental choices and behaviors are driven by values and beliefs that correspond with a strong human-nature connection. These studies also consistently demonstrate that such a connection is nurtured by direct interaction with the natural world and that when a strong connection is formed early in life, it is remarkably stable throughout a lifetime. These findings further support the importance of young people spending time in nature in a manner that fosters that kind of deep and lasting connection.
We need the citizens of the world to be just that – citizens of the ENTIRE world. This citizen will grasp the importance of reconceptualizing our current understandings of growth and success and will be able to do the work needed to develop a new, regenerative way of living, one that is aligned with the natural world. If we are to shift away from G.D.P-driven society (and shift we must), we desperately need the leadership of this type of citizen.