There is a disconnect, bordering on scorn, between modern life and Nature. We have erected huge cities, massive vertical structures out of manipulated materials that trace a boundary between urban centers and the rest of the world, as if we could, in our greed and vanity, designate such divisions with impunity.
We gather around cities by the millions, searching for the work that will sustain us and our families. Meanwhile, the land is out there, the far fields of the country, already transformed into objects of use, machined and churned up to serve us. Forests and mountains are the stuff of trips and vacation time, far away as if half dreamlike.
Historically, the rural exodus makes sense, as cities grew into trading centers, places to exchange and sell merchandise. Opportunities are in the city. Technology concentrates there. There’s vibrancy and excitement. And there are possibilities for professional growth, not to mention all the pleasures—the food, the arts, the intangible hidden surprises around a new corner.
It is no wonder that the average age in rural areas is substantially higher than in cities. In the US, a 2016 census found that the average age in rural areas was 43, and only 36 in urban centers. In Europe, 74.5 percent of the population lives in urban areas. In countries like Italy, Spain, and France, less than 30 percent live in predominantly rural regions, and a large percentage of the rural population is elderly.
Younger generations are forgetting their bonds to the land, a trend that has serious implications for the planet. And of course, their parents are no better, if they think that a trip to the zoo or the botanical gardens will bring their kids closer to nature. Such venues may serve as a portal, an appetizer to the real thing. But there is no substitute for the wild, as John Muir so beautifully wrote after encountering city tourists in Yosemite. There is hope in his words, speaking of its majesty as if it were spiritual:
“We saw another party of Yosemite tourists today. Somehow most of these travelers seem to care but little for the glorious objects about them, though enough to spend time and money and endure long rides to see the famous valley. And when they are fairly within the mighty walls of the temple and hear the psalms of the falls, they will forget themselves and become devout. Blessed, indeed, should be every pilgrim in these holy mountains!”
The disconnect has repercussions to the way we relate to natural resources. It is easy, from the comfort of a cozy apartment in a high rise, to forget where the energy comes from, the drinkable water, the sanitation, the fast links to the internet. Food is ready and packaged, appearing as if by magic on the shelves of supermarkets.
A moral obligation
All this is good, so long as people remain connected to the sources and huge amount of labor that allow for these comforts. And the link needs to be more than a simple acknowledgement; it needs to lead to a sense of moral obligation, an awareness of our absolute and complete dependence of our natural resources and, most importantly, of their fragility.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The disconnect is so deep that few pause to think about what truly holds the fabric of urban centers together. Yet if you cut the energy supply or disrupt the food distribution network, chaos is sure to follow real quickly.
Back to Muir. It’s a paradox to me that the enormous success of the national parks in the US and in most of Europe doesn’t play a bigger role in raising awareness. In the US alone, an estimated 331 million people visited national parks in 2017. Compare this to the US population of 327.2 million in 2018. Amazing, right? Yet, with few exceptions, the spectacular display of natural beauty that so many witness doesn’t seem to create many new converts to the importance of maintaining the purity and integrity of natural resources. I’m not talking about the short-term vision of corporate greed that turns a blind eye to the repercussions of their exploits—as if Earth were a bottomless pit of resources, forever renewable despite our blunt excesses. The disconnect is personal, cutting the line between nature “out there” and us “in here,” as if the two were separate.
But they aren’t. Despite our apparent self-sufficiency, with our machines and power plants, our technology and mechanized crops, we are massively dependent on natural resources and on the ecological balance that allows for life to thrive in the planet. As Muir beautifully wrote (often misquoted):
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
This is the connection we need to remember and celebrate. A cynic may dismiss all this as pure nonsense, attributing it to the soft musings of a nature romantic. Big mistake. There is integrity in the fabric of the world, and we can’t exclude ourselves from it with impunity.
The results of the disconnect are there for all to see—the ugly mountains of garbage accumulating in cities across the world, plastic floating in the oceans, the rampant deforestation across the planet, including the current horrifying rate of three football fields per minute of the Amazon jungle.
This needs to stop, and fast. Being an optimist, I have hope in the younger generation, especially those with the opportunities and means to make a difference and redefine the ways of the world. After all, soon they will inherit the Earth.
I imagine (or hope) they will understand that we can’t recreate the lived experience of walking through a pine forest with laboratory-made chemicals and virtual reality goggles. The day we fail to distinguish the two is the day our species is doomed.