Updated: Jun 3, 2021
On 5 June, we celebrate World Environment Day. As we are encouraged to appreciate and protect our ecosystems this year, it is worth reflecting back on lessons we learnt in our primary school years. Yes, back to those very simple lessons.
Remembering lessons on ecosystems and interdependence
Think back to those Elementary Science textbooks, which taught us about our environment. We learnt that we need oxygen to breathe, and trees are a major source of oxygen. We were taught about the importance of clean water, an element necessary for the survival of plants, humans as well as non-human animals. We were told that the transpiration of trees creates rain, and that the roots of trees play the important role of holding our soils together.
Gradually, we were introduced to bigger words, such as ecosystems and interdependence. We learnt that all “living things” on this planet are interconnected and depend on each other for survival. We learnt about different life forms and how they interact with each other to create and maintain healthy environments. Some of us will fondly remember acing those exams that sought to test our knowledge of these important concepts and processes.
This was a time in our lives when we actually believed in these foundational lessons of survival. It was when we were genuinely fascinated by our natural environment. It was when we felt at home in nature. And it was, probably, before playgrounds were replaced by more classroom-time if you happened to attend an academics-oriented school.
Our disconnection from our environment
Why should you recall these primary school lessons now? Well, somewhere along the way, those basic lessons became distant memories for many of us. Thinking about the functions and health of our planet became the business of those who chose to build a career around it, or environmental activists, and maybe those hippy tree huggers.
Many of us got busy in establishing pride-worthy careers in the corporate, legal and medical (etc) fields in an increasingly exploitative and profit-driven world. At the same time as being confronted by unhealthy levels of stress in our working lives, we have also been dedicated to our relationships and family responsibilities. We’ve had homes to build and relationships to nurture. How else are we supposed to prepare our children for the same rat race we find ourselves trapped in?
These are, of course, all important parts of our journey in a complex world. Their importance to our inner fulfillment should not be undermined. The problem arises when we become so far removed from our natural environment that we forget or disregard our dependence on other living beings. What complicates things more is our self-serving and misguided fallacy of human supremacy. It’s true that humans have far-superior cognitive abilities than other animals (debatable in many respects but let’s leave that discussion for another day). But unless we use our intelligence to create healthy environments and ecosystems, we are setting ourselves up for self-destruction.
Fun fact: humans are at the mercy of creepy crawlies
We’re not as special as we have conveniently told ourselves to be. Consider this. Humans actually account for a very small percentage of the world’s animal population. By conservative estimates, a whopping 97% of the animal kingdom is made up of invertebrates (animals without a backbone). If these animals die, our human species will be wiped out within days. If humans mysteriously disappear one day, the invertebrates carry on and probably won’t feel a thing!
The more we reflect on our place on Earth, the more we realise that those primary school lessons have not lost their relevance. Perhaps, they’ve never been more relevant in our lifetimes. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you would have heard, again and again, alarmed scientists, politicians, activists and even health bodies scream about the need to halt the destruction of our beloved blue planet (and will somebody think of the children!)
Insignificant contributions will lead to big solutions
Naturally, the scale of the problem now feels overwhelming. The extent of environmental degradation has become so huge that it will surely feel like we need large, complex solutions for our environmental woes. What part could we play, even if we wanted to, when we don’t have the expertise or resources for it at an individual level?
The good news is that, like in every thriving ecosystem, everyone has a role to play. We are living on an interconnected, interdependent planet. Every little bit counts.
The question is not whether we, as individuals, can solve the world’s greatest problems. The question is what we, as individuals, can contribute to the collective solutions. We are not expected to come up with state-of-the-art solutions on our own. But we can do what is within our capacity and knowledge. After some inspiration? Just go back to your primary school lessons (or ask the children; they’re learning about some wonderful and clever solutions!)
It takes time to change our habits, so we shouldn’t expect to become a pro at being green overnight. But we must start somewhere, and then keep going.
Individually, our efforts may feel insignificant in the bigger scheme of things. But we need to trust that we are a part of the bigger solution. And we never know who we might inspire with our own behavioural and attitudinal changes.
Slowly, we will see results that would not have materialised without our individual efforts. Through our individual and modest efforts, we will collectively shape our systems, institutions and policies for the better. Together, we can reimagine, recreate and restore.
Saturday 5 June is World Environment Day. Accept Mother Nature’s invitation and step outside the four walls that the mind's limited perception may consider home. Go outside for a stroll or just sit on a bench. And think about your relationship with nature. We will only protect the things we love or that are meaningful to us. What does the environment you live in mean to you?