"Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children." - Ancient Native American Proverb
This past weekend I fled the city and headed to one of Holland’s most beautiful places – Ameland. Ameland is one of Holland’s Wadden islands, a series of 5 small islands that lie 15 to 90 minutes by ferry off of Holland’s northern coast.
Ameland is characterized by its 15 km long North Sea beach, its beautiful dunes, marshes and bird life. On nearby sandbanks one can also see a large seal community. Quite a great place for some rest, relaxation and communing with nature. While communing with nature one evening I felt refreshingly divorced from politics, elections, wars and the rest of the news.
Saturday evening I went for a long walk through the dunes by my hotel and was treated to a gorgeously colorful sunset. As I watched the sun disappear under the horizon the sky became bathed in hues of red. With a sense of wonder
I took in the dunes and the sea, the grasslands and shrubs and felt the stiff breeze in my face.
My eye caught a large flock of migrating birds and my sense of wonder turned to awe. These little creatures were possibly making their way from northern or eastern Europe to some location in either southern Europe or north Africa. Amazing. They had no hand-held GPS, no maps or charts yet they were about to impeccably navigate their way to some lake, forest or plain thousands of kilometers away. The day before, I couldn't find the local pharmacy without a map, my mobile and a little help from the locals.
What a magical world we live in. In such a setting I can’t help but think of our place in the scheme of things. At that moment, the complexity, intricacy and interdependence of all I saw was clearly apparent. Our tendency as human beings is to consider ourselves as somehow separate or even above all that which I saw around me.
As all species do, we too have our own, in some ways unique, place in this grand tapestry of nature. Thanks to some evolutionary quirks - our ability to stand upright, our unique thumbs that give us abilities to use tools, our vocal chords that provide an ability for advanced forms of communication and our extremely advanced ability to develop and use technology - we have climbed to what we consider the top of the evolutionary pyramid.
We share with many species the ability to interact with and manipulate our environment. The beaver builds a dam. Bees build hives. Ants build underground colonies. We build cities complete with transportation networks, sewer systems and the rest. However, we are unique among all the species in our drive to exploit our technology to the point of reaching what I would call a boomerang effect – that point where continued exploitation of a certain technology reduces the benefit for which the technology was created. And we can reach that point with amazing speed. Let me illustrate with two short examples.
Less than 100 years ago the mass production of automobiles kicked off a period of incredible growth and change, giving us the gift of mobility. It changed how we lived and how we worked. Today, pay a visit to any large or even medium sized city anywhere on Earth and consider how this technology of mobility has grown to be the very bane of urban mobility. Some businesses are moving back to the suburbs where the people live. Some people move to be closer to their work and some telecommute. In many cities, old-fashioned bicycle technology again provides more mobility than automobile technology. That’s quite a circle we have traveled.
A more striking example has played itself out in only 60 years. In the early 1940’s anti-biotics were first used and mass produced bringing cures for diseases and infections we can no longer conceive of as having once been life threatening. However, our use of anti-biotics, in the extremely short time frame of 60 years, has caused a major evolution in the planet’s bacteria. We are now faced with superbacteria infections in hospitals, superbacteria entering our food chain and for example a dangerous resurgence of treatment-resistant tuberculosis. That’s also quite a circle we have traveled in 60 short years.
And I won’t even delve into the whole problem of global warming, the depletion of fish stocks, the destruction of the rainforests or other examples of the dangerous two-edged nature of our technological imagination and abilities.
What amazed me the most, humbly standing there in the middle of Ameland’s beautiful nature, was not so much that we are the only species with these unique claims to fame. What really amazed me is that it has taken us so long to begin thinking and acting with the realization that we are a part of this ecosystem. Not above it. Not immune to it. Not master of it. But just as much, or as little, a part of it as those migrating birds I saw.
And of course, the most urgent question then came to mind. Are we going to develop the ability and willingness to live within the limits of our environment quickly enough to avert a near certain disaster of our own making?
We are unquestionably the most technologically advanced species on the planet but that hasn't yet made us the smartest.