Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Choice

Humans are the main transformative force on the planet at the time; we can make of it what we wish to a large extent. If we wanted a world full of a diversity of life, we could make that a priority and bring that about. If we wanted a world largely denuded of life, we could bring that about, too. For those who do not consider morality to be objective, there is no right or wrong, only what a given culture at a given time in history deems, usually by majority, to be better or worse; one way could not be considered "wrong" and the other way "right," they would just be two ways to live with different priorities.

Two very different potential futures for our planet.

Earth as a planet racing through space doesn't have the capacity to care which way we choose; it doesn't need us to "save" it because it has and will continue to go through cycles of more life and less life, indifferently continuing in its orbit until it is eventually engulfed in a dying sun. Besides humans, other species of life on the earth don't have (as far as we know) the capacity on an individual level to consciously care if there is more or less diversity or life; they are driven by instinct and completely preoccupied with survival (food, reproduction) and reactions to immediate stimuli. As humans we are uniquely able to learn what the earth was like in the past and care about what the world will be like in the future. We have the capacity to consider the earth from a global perspective and understand the factors that contribute to more life or less, as well as the power to take conscious actions to bring about planned outcomes based on what kind of future we choose for the planet.

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin (Taken by dalbera on Flickr)

There are plenty of people out there who aren't interested in plants (yet) and who apparently don't care much about the natural environment or its future (yet). I can still remember when one of my friends in college said he never really liked being outdoors and how much of a shock that was to me. Unlike my friend, I love spending time in natural spaces like gardens and parks, which I see as havens and retreats, but there are plenty of others who would rather use that space to develop houses, factories, shops, and expansive lawns. If a "silent spring" were indeed to happen, with all birds vanishing, I think there would be quite a few people who wouldn't notice or care. Perhaps they'd remark one day that they hadn't seen or heard a bird in a while, then just shrug their shoulders and carry on.

Our children would then see a world without birds as the norm, with stories of a world filled with thousands of kinds of colorful winged singing creatures seeming much like how stories of the dinosaurs are to us. The same could be said for plants. Even if the world were nearly completely void of plants, something akin to Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine, and everything humans need is synthesized, those born into that world wouldn't miss plants because they never knew them. Perhaps there would not even be an interest in having them around at all - there would be much more interest in the technological advances that have been made. If anyone did happen to be interested in plants, there would be plenty of maintenance-free artificial trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and grasses for people to have installed. Nature would be regarded as primitive, dangerous, and chaotic; something not to be desired back. Besides, if people ever wanted to immerse themselves in "nature," they'd have virtual reality experiences available to simulate activities such as hiking or mountain biking through any type of landscape, and that would be considered close enough to, or perhaps even better than, the real thing. It's not too absurd to think the world could become a nature-less technologically advanced dystopia similar to what some authors and film makers imagine...

From 'Equilibrium'.

From Spielberg's 'A.I.'

Machine City from 'The Matrix'.

Although I studied ethnobotany in the strict sense of the term in college and appreciate greatly the benefits plants provide people, I think a rationale for protecting and conserving nature based completely on utilitarian arguments is imperfect. For one, I think that, largely thanks to the building blocks plants have given us, we will be able to synthesize all that we need without their help (we're already synthesizing beef in laboratories!). Secondly, there are a lot of creatures out there that have no direct use for us, and so are "expendable" using utilitarian logic. Acknowledging those two points, I think the ultimate rationale for protecting and conserving nature is beauty. Even if miniature seahorses and orchids provide me with nothing tangibly useful in my life, I still want very much to have them around for many generations to come so that others could marvel at their beauty as I have, and these creatures could continue to function in ecosystems, which I also consider to be beautiful because of their complexity and function.

Negligible utilitarian value for humans, priceless beauty and ecological value.

As another example, why would it be tragic if all Bach compositions (or those of your favorite music producer) and all their renditions were destroyed? After all, everyone born henceforth would never know them and so they wouldn't miss them. However, those who had been alive to experience them would find it tragic that there would be people who would never be able to experience the unique, powerful, and emotional beauty of that music, and would consider the world has suffered a great loss, not because the music had been useful in a utilitarian sense but because it had been beautiful.

Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Cello Suite No.1 Prelude

While I certainly want you to learn how plants have been and continue to be useful to us as humans, and so come to a greater appreciation for them, I want much more to spark curiosity and wonder in your mind and spirit for the incredible incarnations of life on earth, of which plants are a large part. I want to help you hone your senses of observation to see all the little and big miracles that surround us until you are constantly going around with "oh wow! oh wow!" in your mind and realize that the value of each living creature is not based principally in what products it could offer for our use, but in its own magnificent and beautiful nature that would be tragic if the world were without. Then when you understand that each of these creatures needs healthy ecosystems to survive and thrive, you'll wonder what you can do to ensure the health of those ecosystems (a subject for another post), and so ensure a life-filled planet for generations to come.

Such a future can become a reality if we choose it. I personally would rather have a world filled with as many miraculously beautiful incarnations of life as possible, even if that requires what at first seem like sacrifices on my part. If we made the choice to exploit the natural world to the point of denudation so that we could have more money and more "things," how ironic would it be if we'd give all that money and those possessions to once more live amongst the beauty that was sacrificed in the name of what was mistakenly valued as profit and thought to be progress. May we ever more fully know the priceless, irreplaceable beauty that surrounds us and live diligently to protect and nurture it.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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