When developing our view of the environment it is a good idea to first ask ourselves what is life. We should do this because the environment is all about life, and life is shaped by the environment -- a fact easily forgotten in a modern culture that isolates so many from reality.
Life is energy, and much of life as we know it comes from the sun. It is expressed in its many forms through the combination of solar energy with the various forms of matter. The ancients who worshipped the sun had it right, though they may not have understood all of the details of the connection. For most, if not all, living things on Earth, the sun is the source of life. And, all living things are dependent upon one another for survival, each one taking what is necessary to survive from some while providing it to others.
The foundation of survival is the organisms that have the ability to take sunlight and turn it into nutrients. Take many plants, for example, that use photosynthesis, a process that employs solar energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates like starch and sugar, and as part of the process, give off the oxygen that we breathe. By converting solar energy to a form that animals can use, these plants form the base of the food chain upon which animal life depends. Some animals get their solar energy second hand or more by eating other animals instead of plants. In turn animals, through death and decay, and excretion, provide nutrients to plants to be converted by solar energy back into carbohydrates once more.
This is the planet's cycle of life, everything working together to distribute solar energy. How it is balanced in any one form determines what kind of living conditions there are, and what forms can survive in them. Each balance has a level of sustainability which limits how much any part can be exploited without changing it. If something takes more from one or more parts to the point that the part cannot replenish itself to meet demand, the balance becomes unsustainable.
Take fish in our current time for just one of many examples. We have taken so many trees from the forest, and so crudely, that the watersheds have changed, reducing the spawning success of salmon. In addition we have damned many rivers, also reducing their ability to support salmon. To top it off we are polluting the ocean and overfishing not only salmon but the small fish that salmon feed on. In turn we have fewer salmon to support us, and the forest has lost much of the nutrients that salmon provided it. And the connections go further to many other plants and animals on land and in the sea. The same story, sadly, can be applied to many other species of plants and animals.
The life of any one living thing or group of things is dependent on the state of all other things, and as this state changes so does the kind of life that is possible. As we change our environment we change the type of future that awaits us and our descendants and the nature of the planet itself.
Many of us in our minds are totally disconnected from this reality, seeing only those things that immediately affect us without any understanding of how we fit into the bigger picture. This is an ignorant view that has shaped our society for ages, leading us to strive to fill immediate desires without any real concern for the full consequences of our actions. The result has been that we have and are seriously depleting the ability of the ecosystem to sustain us in any manner remotely like the one to which most of us in the developed world have become accustomed.
If we hope to have any decent future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren, we will have to change now the way that we live. The naturalist John Muir said "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." If we do not take this idea to heart and redesign our society to be in accord with it, nature will take a course our descendants may find most unpleasant.
Jerry West is the publisher, editor and janitor for The Record, an independent, progressive regional publication for Nootka Sound and Canada's West Coast.
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