Friday, July 9, 2010


Call it the click response. The grotesque images we’ve been seeing for the past two months, of sea birds gripped in carapaces of toxic oil and dolphins expelling black muck from their blowholes, are so hard to look at that we want to click immediately to a different website, turn the page of the paper, or switch the channel.

Yet those reactions of horror, revulsion, and pity actually indicate that we have a healthy capacity for compassion. Compassion means, literally, to feel with another. When that other is suffering, the compassion response that arises in us is painful, so we seek relief by turning away. And it’s hard to convince ourselves when we see the effects of BP’s non-stop gusher that those creatures aren’t suffering.

Some relatives of the eleven men who were killed when the Deep Water Horizon rig exploded on April 20 have complained that the media is focusing too much attention on the environmental impact of the accident, while ignoring the human victims. Said L.D. Manuel, the father of one of the men killed, “Everyone talks about the birds and the damage to the Gulf and everything, but they never talk about the guys that got hurt. That really bothers me.”

It is unquestionably tragic that innocent people died while simply doing their jobs; they were the first casualties of this calamity. We feel compassion for their loved ones, as well as for the many residents of the Gulf Coast whose lives and livelihoods may be changed irrevocably as a result of this spill. But we also feel sorrow about the destruction of the animals and fish, the wetlands, and the ocean itself. And that sorrow is not only for the natural world, it is also for our human relationship with it.

Frequently, those who express regret about the loss, or potential loss, of some wild place or species are accused of caring more about nature than about people. Someone who objects that proposed industry or development in a place will adversely affect an owl, a snaildarter, or an ash tree is criticized for “anthropomorphizing.” Afraid of being thought over-sensitive or “soft,” the ecologically incriminated hasten to excuse themselves (as I just did above) and try to temper their concern about the natural world with hearty assurances that, no, no, they really do care about people, too.

It’s time to accept that, as sophisticated beings capable of compassion, we humans are touched and saddened not only by assaults on people but by those on nature as well. It’s time to acknowledge that regretting loss in nature does not mean that we are indifferent to people. It is time, finally, stop apologizing for loving the natural world.

Nature—the rocks, waters, plants, fish, birds, and animals that surround us, or environ us—preceded us humans onto the planet. They are, quite literally, our ancestors and they have been a constant presence throughout our entire evolving existence. The biologist E.O. Wilson speculates that the propensity our prehistoric ancestors developed to get along comfortably in nature eventually evolved into a genetic trait Wilson calls “biophilia,” or “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.”

The ways humans love nature are infinite and individual. A hunter sitting in a deer blind on a cold fall morning, a skier skimming down powdery slopes, a biologist peering at microbes through a microscope, and a backpacker trekking through remote Alaskan wilderness are all absorbed in and by that partly familiar, yet always somewhat unknowable presence we call nature. Nature inspires us with its resilience, gives us solace when we’re sad, mirrors our joy, and lifts our hearts in unexpected and surprising ways, when, for example, we look up from work into a blazing sunset or hear a robin singing in the pre-dawn darkness. Nature fascinates, in our own backyard, at the far side of a scenic overlook on the highway, and as we imagine it in remote places. An estimated 100 million Americans watched the eleven-part TV documentary, "Planet Earth" last year. Nature gets along fine without us humans, yet it is often in trouble because of us.

And so our hearts break when we see these Gulf Coast birds and animals dying of oil, because we know that an ineffable source of meaning, beauty, and inspiration is being destroyed in us as well. That is heartbreaking. Knowing and accepting so makes us human.

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