Sometimes I think that almost everything I’ve written in my long career here as a writer on Cape Cod has been an attempt to answer one crucial underlying question, namely, “Why do we need nature?”
A seemingly simple enough question, but a difficult one to answer honestly. The late great nature writer John Hay once gave the best short answer to that question that I’ve ever heard. When asked why we need nature, he replied, “I don’t know – why do we need people?”
Of course, John didn’t need a reason to need nature. It was always the heart and soul of his being. But for most of us, it’s not so simple a question. On one hand, the answer seems obvious, even trivial. Our very existence depends on the health and preservation of the earth’s ecosystems, for which most of us use the shortcut term, “nature.” It is a fact that has been felt for most of humanity’s tenure on earth – that is until the industrial revolution and contemporary technological innovations gave us the tools to create the illusion that we didn’t need nature, or at best, that nature was an inexhaustible source of energy and resources that we used to benefit us.
The rise of an environmental awareness over the past half century has, on an intellectual level at least, disabused us of that illusion. Most of us now at least pay lip service to the truth that we not only need nature in the most fundamental of ways, but that we are, literally and irrevocably, a part of nature.
So why do these statements sound like dry old, clichés, robbed of any power to motivate us to make the fundamental cultural, economic and behavioral changes we know we need to protect and preserve our only home?
One of the most cogent explanations I heard recently was in an interview with Jeff Goodell, the author of a new book called “The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World.” The book focuses on South Florida, perhaps the part of the U.S. most vulnerable to global warming and accelerating sea level rise. Yet, as Goodell points out, the real estate market in South Florida has been booming in the past several years. Why is this so?
Goodell believes it is because most buyers there are retirees who are not asking fundamental questions about the long range future of this coastline. Instead, they’re asking, how will things be over the next five to ten years? Will I still be able to get in a good game of golf? Stay in my ground floor condo? Drive to my favorite restaurant? Hang out at the club?
This is not to put the blame for our current lack of environmental action on the older generation, of which I am a reluctant member. But it is perhaps the most obvious example of short-term environmental thinking in the developed world. Even in the face of undeniable evidence of degradation of our natural systems, most of us are not motivated to do more than recycle our garbage and rail against the short-sighted political and corporate interests. Sadly, we do not feel deeply enough the need for nature and what its loss would bring in order to work for the fundamental societal and political changes we know are needed.
But I see that I’ve been avoiding my own thoughts on the matter here. So next week I’ll give you a couple of my own non-utilitarian answers to the deceptively simple but crucial question of why we need nature.