by Andrew Goldman
What does it mean to be alive? Living things grow and reproduce; they adapt to change and maintain metabolic activity; they begin, and they end. In short, life takes energy and matter from its surroundings, processes them into something new, and then returns them from whence they came. Life is a cycle. Everyone understands this cycle when it comes to things like trees, squirrels, and earthworms, but somehow we seem to have forgotten that humans are a part of the community of life.
We must reconnect with the communities of all species on this planet.
People talk of “nature” as some pure, external entity of which we are no longer a part. “All Natural” products fill the shelves to quell the guilt of consumers. People flock to campgrounds and parks to “reconnect with nature”, as if their homes and offices are somehow “unnatural”. We think Homo sapiens, though evolved from “primitive species”, have transcended the process of natural evolution and become its master. We have labeled ourselves the pinnacle of evolution. We have prophesied ourselves the ‘end of creation’ then have set about fulfilling it.
By externalizing “nature”, we justify our perpetually expanding extraction of “wealth” to feed a continuously growing population. As the fields, once forests, erode into dust, we pump petrochemicals into the ground in an attempt to replicate millions of years of coevolution of soil microbes and species that sequester carbon and create fertility automatically. We fracture layers in Earth’s tectonic plates, extracting oil and natural gas to make plastic packaging that spends 6 hours in transit and 600,000 years in a landfill, slowly poisoning the rivers. To avoid the toxins in the streams we buy plastic water bottles, perpetuating the cycle.
However, a simple look at the dinner table reveals that we are not separate from nature. The food we eat becomes the cells in our body and fuels the movements of our muscles. Each breath inhaled, a gift of green plants past. And each breath exhaled, a gift returned. So long as we continue to view ourselves outside the system, as isolated individuals, as the end of creation, we will continue to extract endlessly, destroy ceaselessly, and grow cancerously, until the cycles that support our existence become so stretched they snap, leaving us unsupported above the void.
To save the human race, we must understand that it is not humanity and nature, it is humanity in nature. We must reconnect in intercourse with the communities of species on this planet and integrate all our systems back into self-supporting cycles of matter and energy. In a word: Permaculture. Erase the word “waste” from your vocabulary because the output of any element in the system is the input of some other element. Create stability through diversity and redundancy. Every element performs multiple functions, and every critical function is supported by multiple elements. Take the time to step back and observe how 4 billion years of evolution has created self-supporting systems that constantly recycle matter and energy, providing health for the individuals as a consequence—not at the expense—of the health of the overall system.
That oily pizza box, that moldy potato casserole in the back of the fridge, that limp salad, don’t put them in the landfill where they poison the water, compost them into fertile soil and use them to feed the plants that feed us. That ripped pair of jeans, use it to grow oyster mushrooms. Do not pile leaves at the curb in November, use them to create fertile topsoil. We can slowly convert the depleted fields into fruit and nut forests, grow mushrooms in the shade, plant berries, herbs, and vegetables in the margins. Let waterways, deep soil, and shade take care of irrigation. A healthy forest can provide human food, medicine, and building material all while increasing biodiversity and system stability.
When the physical, living infrastructure of the world we live in provides us with the necessities of existence and our daily activity consists of taking an active role in this cyclic process of life; when our conscious understanding of what it means to be alive embodies the integration of all that exists, of every gust of wind and ray of shine, every fallen leaf and trickle of dew; when the ‘self’ becomes the community, not just in theory, but in practice, then, and only then, will the problems of climate change and ecosystem collapse, of economic inequality and political instability, of emotional emptiness and disease epidemic all dissolve away, undermined by the newly connected community of life.
by Andrew Goldman
Andrew Goldman is a junior at Lehigh University. He studies materials science engineering, is community coordinator at EcoHouse, and is also president of the Green Action club.