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Returning to Nature

September 12, 2011

Last week I took a long-needed vacation.  With the exception of getting hit by a car, I hadn’t taken a break in over two years.  Grad school, consulting, conservation work, and blogging.

Watching the sun rise from a Florida beach, I remembered why I got into ocean work.  I remembered my first dive on a tropical coral reef.  I was awe-struck.  I thought, “Why had no one told me about this?”

My only answer was that many people hadn’t seen the ocean’s beauty either, and that – just maybe – others aren’t yet able to appreciate it.  To me, it was a place of rest and connection.  I started diving as a person overwhelmed.  Exhuming mass graves and witnessing a natural disaster in a poor country, I suppose, will do that to you.  I was able to step back and see that for all our human problems, we are all blessed to have the natural world.  And I thought that humanity, too, might be better off if it reconnected with the ecosystems that gave us life.

I think a lot about how we can better connect society to nature, as well as how we put the two in balance.  Though diving gave me some ideas, I honestly do not know.

It seems that the more we gain specialized knowledge of the environment, the less we live in contact with it.  It took thousands of years for us to settle on an accurate calendar of 364 ¼ days; before this calendars saw the regular flip-flopping of seasons as they were either too long or too short.  Yet people were very much in tune with the seasons thanks to the stars, moon, equinoxes, solstices, the falling of the leaves, and the first spring melt – something that certainly is not the case today.  We now can mass produce enormous amounts of food and catch fish on an industrial scale, yet how few people can now plant a garden or catch a fish themselves.  To learn about ecology, we now have to step away from the sun to stare into the electric glow of a computer.

And consider the irony of environmentalism, born and thriving in the gas-guzzling, ecosystem-depleted western world.

Worse still, we may never have known how to live in balance.  As Charles Mann suggests in his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, even the earliest societies actively burnt, cut, hunted, and ate away their environments.  You might say that no civilization has ever found true sustainability, but rather they ‘got away with it’ thanks to small numbers and favorable climate changes.

As the sun rose over my head, I looked around.  Like me, people had come from miles around to enjoy the sun and surf.  Most were pale and overweight, but seemingly quite happy to be feeling the ocean breeze once again.  When they left that evening, I found trash, tire tracks, and the occasional oil leak in the sand.

And though I would leave less of a mark on that beach, I too still leave a footprint greater than this planet can handle.

What is the way forward? I honestly do not know.

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