“We Are Ecological Creatures”

Patrick M. Lydon in Yes Magazine tells us that until the Covid-19 crisis disrupted our lives, many of us seem to have forgotten that we are not separate from nature, but rather we are integrated into the ecology we live in.

As I watch the increasing number of people standing under trees, next to streams, or sitting on rocks watching herons, I can’t help but think that many of us are using this time to connect with a part of ourselves that we had been neglecting for a long time.

Covid-19 reminded us of our connection to the environment with a vengence. Some of the reminders are pleasant. Lydon points out that with shelter in place keeping us from many of our usual recreations like restaurants, gyms, and movies, many of us are heading to parks and other “natural” locations. I have seen this myself. There is a park near me with some very nice, hilly trails. I have been running there for about 20 years. Right after the shelter in place started, visitors to the park started asking me where the trails went. One man commented that he lived in the area for 20 years, but that this was the first time he had been to this park.

Our technological world has given us a new malady “Nature Deficit Disorder” Richard Louv wrote about how we growing disconnected from the natural world in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” . He describes the evolution of three American “frontiers”. The first frontier, the real one, where Americans carved their homes, their farms and their new cities out of nature. The second frontier, which is a “Disneyfied” and romanticized version of the first, and new frontier:

Not yet fully formed or explored, this new frontier is characterized by at least five trends: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban/suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form. Most characteristics of the third frontier can be found in other technologically advanced countries, but these changes are particularly evident in the United States (if only because of the contrast with our frontier self-image). At first glance, these characteristics may not seem to fit together logically, but revolutionary times are seldom logical or linear.

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (p. 19). Algonquin Books. Kindle Edition.

Louv makes note of Daniel Beard, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts of America. For the past decade, I have volunteered with the BSA. I was Scoutmaster of my son’s troop, and then I became the founding Scoutmaster for one of the first Scouts BSA troops for girls.

It has been my mission to bring young people int the wilderness and get them familiar with and comfortable with nature. To get young people to feel and understand their connection to nature.

I believe that connection goes deep.

THERE’S a term biologists and economists use these days — ecosystem services — which refers to the many ways nature supports the human endeavor. Forests filter the water we drink, for example, and birds and bees pollinate crops, both of which have substantial economic as well as biological value.

If we fail to understand and take care of the natural world, it can cause a breakdown of these systems and come back to haunt us in ways we know little about.

Researchers are working in a field that they call “Ecopsychology“, the connection between our technological selves and our totemic, or natural selves.

The connection is built in on a microbial level

Did you know that there’s a natural antidepressant in soil? It’s true. Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has indeed been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress.

We are part of nature and our current crisis is a vivid reminder of this connection. The combination of climate change, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, and the encroachment of human activity into the wilderness has resulted in a rapid increase of emergent infectous diseases.

The majority (60.3%) of EID events are caused by zoonotic
pathogens (defined here as those which have a non-human animal
source), which is consistent with previous analyses of human
Furthermore, 71.8% of these zoonotic EID events were caused by
pathogens with a wildlife origin

The pathways of zoonotic infectious disease from wildlife to human is varied and complex. There is a new field of study looking at these issues called “the ecology of disease:

“Any emerging disease in the last 30 or 40 years has come about as a result of encroachment into wild lands and changes in demography,” says Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and the president of EcoHealth.

“When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role,” Dr. Ostfeld told me. “There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play reservoir roles.”

While we encroach further and further into wildlands. climate change forces many species to migrate out of their existing habitats, and in many cases move closer and closer to humans. Those that can survive that change, such as rats and bats, also tend to be the ones that most successfully host diseases we are vulnerable to.

The Covid-19 Pandemic is occupying all our attention right now, but this pandemic is a symptom, and it will eventually pass. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not we are willing to work on the underlying causes. Are we willing to accept our connections to the natural world, and change our behaviors? Janis Petzel at Common Dreams asks us to listen to what Covid-19 is telling us about Climate Change.

Going forward, let’s invest our time, resources and energy into creating the safe, healthy future that all people deserve.  Let’s stop tolerating the irresponsible dumping of pollutants into our air and our water. Let’s get the Environmental Protection Agency back to its mission of protecting human health and the environment, instead of suspending enforcement of environmental laws during a public health crisis. Additionally, we also need to stop handing over billions in taxpayer dollars to oil, gas, and coal companies. 

We can spend more on green infrastructure and less on military machinery. We can have the moral courage to allow the price of things we buy to reflect the true cost to the environment, our health, and to the well-being of the people making those things; while at the same time, making sure that all of us have access to our basic needs for food, shelter, medical care and meaningful work. 

While we’re at it—this is a hard one– we can admit that it’s not just the fossil fuel industry that is the problem. We buy what they sell, an action with moral and physical consequences. These months with COVID-19 have taught us we are capable of making healthier choices when our lives depend upon it.

Let’s pay attention to what COVID-19 is trying to tell us about climate change. It’s pointing us to a healthier and more resilient world if we chose to listen. We have no time to lose.

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