More than 30 years ago, I was working as a young naturalist for the Clinton County Conservation Board in Iowa. In the winter, I would often go into the schools and teach the children about nature. It was something I really enjoyed. I usually had all kinds of animal parts with me, from wings to beaks to animal fur. Sometimes I even had a live animal to use as a teaching tool.
At the conclusion of one of my teaching days, I had begun to haul my resources back to the van when I met a bus driver in the hallway. He looked at me and, seeing the stuffed animal that I was carrying out to the van, asked, “What good is it?” He didn’t say it with an inquisitive, kindly tone. He said it with a great deal of sarcasm.
I turned to him, and my response was immediate. I gave him a steely look similar to what I would give a misbehaving child and said, “What good are you?” Our conversation, if you can call it that, ended abruptly. He went his way. I went mine.
In retrospect, this was a teachable moment that was missed. I should have asked, “Why would you say that?” His comment, “What good is it?”, cut to the very core of my strong conviction that we are part of — not separate from — the wild things with which we share this planet. I internalized this belief very early in my life. Somehow, through parents, friends, teachers, and outdoor experiences, it became inherent in the way I think about our natural world.
In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold states,
“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little is known about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
John Muir, in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
Over the last 150 years, our resource extraction has been on unprecedented speed dial. There were 1 billion people on this planet in the early 1800s. Now there are more than 7 billion. The buffalo numbered in the tens of millions in the early 1800s. It is estimated there are now 5,000 genetically pure buffalo. The passenger pigeons that once blanketed the skies are now extinct. We knew DDT killed mosquitoes, but we had very little idea how it would impact the health on this planet. Our lack of understanding nearly caused the extinction of the iconic bald eagle.
We continue to mine the farm like we have never before. The rate at which our soil, water, and associated nutrients are moving off the land to the oceans is unparalleled in human history. The remnant prairie and all the wildlife associated with it barely exist. The remaining wetlands are in peril. World population continues to grow. The ocean is rising and the climate is warming. The real argument is, “How fast?”
The questions for all of us are many. What can we do as a human species to make our planet healthier for all who inhabit it? How can we live more lightly on the planet? How do we use less energy and reduce the need for extractive resources? How do we keep the soil where it is born and the water where it lands? How do we feed the people without destroying the farm? How do we protect the last remaining wild places and the wild ones that live there? As Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Recently, my wife Nancy and I welcomed our first grandchild. I was sitting, rocking Payton Ann, and as she was sleeping, her tiny fingers clutched my index finger. It was a very special moment. It also internalized for me how important it is for all of us to act for future generations.
First and foremost, we the people, every last one of us on this planet, must have the absolute will and resolve to make a difference. The earth is a “spaceship” and it is the only one we have. There is only so much food, water, space, and shelter on it. In the early 1970s, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act were passed in the United States. It happened because more than 1 million people marched in Washington, DC, on the first Earth day in 1970. And we were emphatic that we needed to do things differently.
Second, the education of all people is imperative. I firmly believe that we need a Planet 101 course required for all people. It would provide the framework and the foundation for all of us to understand our biological and earthly connections and how to live in a more sustainable manner. I have heard many times, “If we don’t know, we won’t care.” We need to care by knowing. We must have the absolute will and the resolve to know so that we can and will act intelligently to ensure the well-being of the planet and all of its travelers. Everything is connected to everything else.