Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course Environmental Sustainability.
When picturing what we refer to as the natural world, a bright and fresh image comes to mind: a sprawling landscape with graceful mountains in the distance and patches of dense forest in sight, animals grazing the landscape—complete peace. At this point in human history, that particular image of an untouched environment feels alien and otherworldly.
Today, nature has been left tainted by human encroachment. We have left no rock, river or blade of grass alone to partake in its natural system. Countless suburbs, mines, and industrial complexes pollute and disturb the once pristine wilderness.
It is evident that the health of the Earth was not always disregarded. Groups of native peoples understood the inherent beauty and value of nature, working alongside it rather than above it. I remember being in middle school, learning about how Native Americans were especially conscious of the natural world and used resources efficiently and respectfully. I remember being astounded by their relationship with nature. Our inability to embrace this idea has had terrible consequences. What would the world look like right now if we still held those views?
Over time, our developing societies’ acceptance of competition and carelessness has caused deeply rooted problems for humans and nature alike. We have permitted our thirst for resource extraction compromise our own health and the environment’s. By allowing toxic substances into natural habitats and assuming that we do not have to worry about taking too much. The state of the world has magnified into an unrepairable state fueled by a natural tendency to contend with one another and give in to greed. This linear model of society is centered around development—the bigger, the better.
Our relationship with nature is comparable to a child taking a cookie out of a large jar that is sitting high up on a counter. He cannot see how many cookies are in the jar, so he assumes there will always be more when he comes back—though there is undoubtedly a finite number of cookies. The child knows this, yet continues to eat the cookies because the immediate benefit is what matters.
However, like the child, our jar will inevitably be left with nothing but crumbs. The bottom line is that the Earth is not an unlimited reserve. We cannot continue to expand and expect endless resources.
Our perception of the word “development” seems to be backward. We define the word with a positive connotation, suggesting a state of growth and advancement. To better our relationship with the natural world, a new definition of development is crucial. This is ironic when taking into consideration just how much damage our supposed development has caused and the true direction it has thrown us in, especially through technology. With each new innovation, we step farther away from the nature that we truly need to connect with. We need to simplify society back to basic natural functions, take only what we need and preserve the rest responsibly. To truly advance, we need to stop treating the world like a cookie jar.
Human life at its core is nature. We have evolved out of nature and created everything that we know with its help. Without the ability of the natural world to provide, civilization as we know it would not exist. It seems that a lesson we have failed to maintain along the way is respect and selfless compassion. There is an allurement to natural things. It is beautiful and unexplainable, unlike the predictable human-made world. We have withdrawn and created things we can grasp. The human concept we now know—roads, buildings, clothing, synthetically-made anything, plastic wrapped everything—is a separation from nature. We choose to isolate ourselves with technology and non-natural environments. Falling into materialism, we remove ourselves from our natural state of being. We try to mimic nature rather than embrace nature. We fill our houses with potted plants and plant new trees in the neighborhoods that entire forests were cleared to develop.
Environmentalism as a movement has revived the idea of compassion in a small but growing percentage of people. Many efforts have been taken, such as government regulation, grassroots movements, and policy implementation, to alter the current linear trend of damaging development.
It is incredible to see that the movement is gaining momentum; however, to truly turn around the fate of the natural environment society would have to accept a type of compassion that has been absent for a very long time. Yes, compassion exists. There is always a light that shines through the darkness in the world. However, the compassion we need is a selfless one. Much of nature has become a great unknown because over time society has withdrawn from nature and created things we could grasp. I believe that the human race must open up and come to terms with the fact that it is okay to deeply and fully care about something unfamiliar and distant. We can fall within the bounds of nature if we choose to see it that way, we are not indefinitely separate.