Let’s reconnect. We honor nature throughout our lives, whether we mean to or not. Our homes are filled with natural motifs from flowers on a coffee cup to colors that recall wheat and grass, a brooding sky, or the happiness and warmth of the sun. We teach our children what animals say, examine leaves, discuss the seasons. They ask questions about nature all the time, are fascinated with bugs and frogs, sticks and streams, birds and dinosaurs, snow and thunder, and the way things work.
Even when we prefer the indoors – and love our technology – we depend on the natural world and have a tremendous influence on it. Too often, that fact only inspires guilt. But noticing and embracing the natural world, and taking our place within it, can bring joy and meaning into our everyday experience.
We must begin to notice it. Notice what all our activity is doing to the fragile systems that support life on Earth, including our own. Notice the glory and variety of that life – more abundance, creativity, beauty and serenity than any virtual reality programmer could ever invent. There are ways to encourage more of that abundance right in our own backyard for our own enjoyment, for richer family life, and to start our kids’ education in science and observation. There are ways to make shifts in our own behavior that bring more pleasure and less stress, and that in turn subtly turn our economy, commerce, and energy use away from destructiveness. This is our moment to make that turn, but we have to think about the design of our lives, products, and systems to help us do that.
When we think about our place in the natural world, our influence on it, and how the results of our activities – such as waste, pollution or development – affect the physical and biotic systems of Earth, we are visiting the realm of ecology.
The larger field of biology is the study of the living world – of the organisms of life (such as bacteria, plants, insects, and animals/humans) on many scales, from the molecular to ecosystems. Ecology is, at its essence, the study of the interconnectedness of life on Earth. Ecology encompasses questions of where species live and why, what they rely on to survive, how they compete with or depend on others, how they evolve, how they interact with their environment, and how they are extinguished, among many other things.
Nature no longer exists outside of human beings’ influence, which is an enormous responsibility. Everything we do affects everything else. If we plant or conserve habitat such as native trees or grasslands, we encourage many other species to thrive – species, like butterflies or bees, who in turn might help further our own food production. If we pollute by using too much electricity or fuel from coal or oil or natural gas, we heat the atmosphere and cause cascading negative effects, from drought to destructive storms to losses of forests and coral reefs.
It’s also an enormous opportunity – for thinking about what we want the world of the 21st century to look like, for cooperation within communities and across states and nations, for invention of new ways to live that are far lighter than what we do now, and to find meaning in cleaning up and valuing what we have been given on our blue planet.