Our Place in This Place

Recently, I have been engaging in some interesting discussions about climate change and the role that human beings play in the environment.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, a beautiful book about Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the relationships between human beings and the rest of the natural world, author Robin Wall Kimmerer describes an exercise in which she asks her students to think about the negative impacts that human beings have on the environment. Predictably, the students—most of whom are passionate young scientists—have many examples ready at hand. As I read, I imagined the laundry list of existential horrors these students could probably readily call up: the blue ocean event, ocean acidification, the destruction of the Amazon. But when asked to think of positive impacts, the answers are less readily available.

I am in the process of reading Braiding Sweetgrass for the first time as part of a program for early career scientists. I discussed what positive impact humans have on the environment with a number of other young scientists I have met who are from the Western scientific tradition, all of whom are extremely knowledgeable, thoughtful ecological thinkers respected in their disciplines. I also discussed this with some activist friends I have worked with in places around the country who have devoted their lives to saving the planet. Their answers were the same: they could not come up with any positive impacts. It is easy to think of the benefits that beavers, opossums, or wolves bring to the table. But why not humans? What ecological niche do humans occupy? What benefits come with us as a species?

Many people who know a lot about environmentalism think of it as a depressing subject. It’s a huge part of the reason why most people don’t ever want to think about it at all. Those who know often resign the species and the planet to doom and sink into a day-by-day sort of nihilism, while some deny it altogether. It is part of the reason I wanted to write this blog, to shed light on some of the moments of hope. I will admit that just like everyone else, I have on occasion succumbed to doom and gloom. It is easy to do.

There are those who will extrapolate this depressing subject to an even darker place: specifically, that the only real way for human beings to help the planet is by not existing or, at the very least, not existing in such great numbers. There are all sorts of reasons why this idea is nonsense. For one thing, it’s eco-fascism, rooted in the extrapolation of certain core Western philosophies about what human nature is, as if the only way to live on this planet is to be as extractive as possible. Following this idea down its rabbit hole leads you very quickly to racist, classist notions of who exactly should be having fewer babies (I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the suburban United States). Second, it’s not really based in scientific or mathematical reality: the rate of population growth is slowing and has been since the 1980s, while over-consumption of resources and environmental degradation has continued at its same grim pace. But it makes a lot of sense why people are so ready to cling to this anti-human answer to large problems like climate change. If we don’t see ourselves as part of a possible solution, then the only real solution is the elimination of us as a problem. This is an idea that has caught on with disturbing popularity outside of scientific circles, and our inability to meaningfully provide hope and positive counterexamples is not helping.

But what is the alternative? How do you get people to care about these problems without bombarding them with so much information that they resign us all to climate destruction? How do we repair the relationship between human beings and the planet?

There are many ways to describe how Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the world in Braiding Sweetgrass: respectful, knowledgeable, passionate, familial. But the one that comes to mind most is loving. There is a deep love for the non-human relatives and a loving value placed on those relationships in her prose. It is the same love that I have felt traipsing about on the paths that run alongside the Wolf River or stopping to gaze up at an eagle or watching butterflies dance on the summer breeze. It is the same love that brought me to tears the first time I learned what the fate of the Menominee River might be over time if there is an open pit sulfide mine built there. And it is the same love that brought a friend sitting with me to sense my grief and rest a hand on my shoulder in comfort.

As a human being, when you love something, you fight for it.

If there is a special talent of human beings, it is our ability to love and to remain resilient in the face of incredible adversity. The answer then, I think, is that the rest of the world needs to fall in love with nature again. We need to rebuild our relationships with the ground beneath our feet, the berries we pick, the water in which we swim. We need to speak of the things that are going away not as tragedies to be itemized in some grand score sheet of “humans versus nature,” but things that are beautiful and that make life worth living and which need to be protected and celebrated. We need to fill the offices of lawmakers with those who understand—not just on a scientific or economic basis, but on a human one—the value of the world that cannot be measured in currency. We need to re-cultivate wonder and delight in the ivory towers of academia. We need to work to recognize our place in this world as a species and our responsibilities that come with that. And as the future leaders of the world, as students, it starts with us.

Decolonizing our fields is not just about protocol, or what questions we do and don’t ask. It is also about reintroducing joy, love, and respect. It is about making our presence—not just in universities but on this planet—a positive, reciprocal experience.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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