Noah’s New Ark
Environmental Catastrophe and the Power of Love
Posted March 13, 2020
The images were both painful and uplifting.
Young people biking through scorched and burning forests to bring water and food to suffering animals; koalas climbing onto human laps to reach the bottles; the “carers,” as the NGO Animals Australia calls the compassionate people “who have lost everything but who are heading out with only the clothes on their backs to help injured and burned animals…” We marveled at these demonstrations of human kindness.
In time, the transitory rains arrived, the fires receded as a virus spread, and those powerful images inevitably began to fade from public consciousness. What will it take to move our species to act on climate disruption, biodiversity collapse and the threat of mass extinctions? A reliance on facts and logic is clearly not enough. We need at least two additional ways to make the case.
The first is love – deep emotional attachment to the nature around us. The second element is imaginative hope – our ability to describe a future worth creating.
In his new book, Earth Emotions, the Australian eco-philosopher Glenn Albrecht argues that only “a shift in the baseline of emotions and values has worked” to transform facts into action in other areas, such as feminism, same sex marriage and racial inequities. The reason why these causes have made some progress in his and other countries is because “they revolved around the issue of love.” This is why the images of suffering animals and human heroism in Australia are so important. They remind us, at least for a while, that we belong to a larger family, one worth loving.
Our species loneliness
Such an appeal should have growing resonance. The medical community is increasingly concerned about what some call the epidemic of loneliness. Human social isolation may soon outrank obesity as a cause of early death, not only because of suicide but because of the diseases associated with loneliness. The coronavirus epidemic, and the self-isolation that comes with it, reminds us of how much we need each other.
We also need the others. Our loneliness is exacerbated by technology, poorly designed cities, and political tribalism. But we also suffer from species loneliness. Moving away from nature, we separate from each other.
We humans are desperate to not feel alone in the universe. And we are not. All around us, we can hear the constant song of life communicating with itself. If we pay attention.
Though risks do exist, including zoonotic diseases, a substantial and growing body of research suggests that direct bonding with the natural world can enhance physical, emotional, physical and social health. Recognizing this, some physicians now write prescriptions for nature time. Animal-assisted therapy is one of the fastest-growing trends in health care. As the positive effects on cognitive development become more widely known we see a rapid increase in the number of nature-based preschools, natural schoolyards, and other green learning environments. Meanwhile, biophilic architects are weaving natural elements into workplaces — not only because of aesthetics, but for increased productivity, better employee turnover, reduced use of sick time. What if whole cities could be designed or refurbished through biophilic principles?
And yet, so often, when asked to conjure images of a far future, the first images people mention look a lot like “Blade Runner” or “Mad Max,” a post-apocalyptic future stripped of nature, where love is a diminishing resource. Martin Luther King warned that any movement, any culture will fail if it can no longer paint a picture of a beautiful future.
More than ever, we need hope -- not blind hope, but imaginative hope.
New images of a nature-rich future could arise from the very threats we face: climate disruption, biodiversity collapse, mass extinctions and the human loneliness. Together, they comprise a single existential threat, one with shared, potential solutions. Trees offer one example. Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson, Eric Dinerstein, director of the Biodiversity and Wildlife Solutions Program at the nonprofit, RESOLVE, propose setting aside half of the terrestrial area of Earth for natural habitat and wild animals, including the invertebrates and microorganisms on which the planet’s ecosystems depend.
The primary focus of this plan is on biodiversity and habitat restoration. But planting vast new multi-species forests would also absorb a substantial amount of CO2 and, to a degree, help slow or reduce global warming.
Other plans are afoot. In the UK, London is reimagining itself as the world's first National Park City. Sir David Attenborough and The Wildlife Trusts are working to create a Nature Recovery Network, a plan to protect the wildest places in the UK, make connections between them (through hedges, ponds, and meadows) to make it easier for wildlife to move through the landscape; and to encourage nature-friendly development and regenerative farming.
University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy argues in his new book, "Nature’s Best Hope," that if we really care about biodiversity collapse and climate change, we should plant native plants in our yards, gardens, schoolyards, and on urban green roofs and every available urban space. This would help restore populations of migratory birds, bees, and other insects that support the food chain. It would create a new kind of wildlife corridor on private land, one that would eventually lace throughout our cities and beyond. Tallamy imagines the creation of a crowd-sourced Homegrown National Park. Why limit this to one nation? Why not create a Worldwide Homegrown Park?
Here would be Noah’s New Ark. In these safe zones, large and small, biodiversity stabilizes and CO2 is absorbed. On this canvas, we can begin to imagine cities that simultaneously serve as carbon sinks, as biodiversity incubators, as healthy communities for the children of all animals.
Perhaps such thinking is unrealistic, too idealistic. But if we assume it's too late to conjure a new set of images of a nature-rich future, then surely we will experience the apocalyptic. Even now we can awaken from our dystopian trance, partly self-imposed, but also encouraged by those who profit financially or politically from our despair. As Glenn Albrecht writes, “It is time for love of our land and our own children to prevail over the forces of death.”
Richard Louv is the author of “Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives – and Save Theirs” and “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” He is a cofounder of the Children & Nature Network.
Australian organizations helping animals survive the fires:
WIRES (New South Wales)
Fauna Rescue (South Australia)
Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
Marc Bekoff's review of "Our Wild Calling."
and his interview with Glenn Albrecht