Improvements in transportation and communication have changed the world we live in so much that we are now a global community. If one lives in a metropolitan area in the United States, even in mid-winter, fresh cut flowers from Africa, strawberries from South America, and lemongrass from Asia can be procured right around the corner.
The availability of clean, natural gas for heating and cooking is widely available, and every community enjoys a steady, reliable supply of water. All one has to do is pay the bill.
Not terribly long ago, to live a comfortable life one needed to settle in an area close to a water supply, accessible to electricity (after it was invented) and could only rely on the food, herbs and flowers the surrounding land could sustain.
Why is it important to know the natural world?
When we outsource the work inherent in providing our goods and services, we do not necessarily know its quality or at what cost it is being provided.
Let’s take water as an example.
- Where does the water flowing from the kitchen faucet actually come from?
- How was it treated to make it safe enough for drinking?
- Is it depleting the water table at its source and affecting the nearby ecosystem?
- Will the decision to use this water source impact affect future generations?
When the financial crisis hit Detroit and the City of Flint, Michigan was compelled to seek an alternate water source, the water coming from their taps was discolored, foul-smelling and contained high levels of coliform bacteria.
The city’s subsequent efforts to disinfect the water produced a byproduct known to cause cancer. Then higher lead levels showed up in the water, prompting an investigation that revealed previous improper treatment that had corroded the pipes. Knowing the quality of the source of the water, how it is treated and transported is critical to well being.
What about cooking?
Think a moment about turning the gas dial on the stove to prepare the evening meal. Where did the natural gas come from?
Was it pumped up from the earth, after the core of shale was dynamited, and the local economy turned into a garbage-strewn boom town with tractor-trailer trucks delivering water for the process harrumphing their engines 24/7, local wells contaminated and then piped hundreds of miles across the country, through national forests, devastating fragile ecosystems and often costing lives in the building of the pipeline as well as the aberrant explosions from the high pressure?
Or plastic items we buy?
Think of a simple purchase. When one buys a plastic action figure, what is it actually made of? A recent study revealed that 15% percent of children’s toys sold in America contain toxic substances.
Recently, an environmental group went shopping at popular department stores, using a hand-held device called an X-ray fluorescence analyzer, which performs a chemical analysis of an item. They analyzed jewelry, toys and accessories. They found cadmium, cobalt and lead in a surprising number of products. Some governments ban certain toxic substances in toys and other children’s products. Yet as a practical matter, no government has the resources to test all imports.
And think a moment further. Does this purchase contribute to the smog in Beijing compelling the citizens there to wear air masks just to breathe? Does it add to the profit of a company that employs unsafe practices, risking the health of its employees?
Food on our table?
As for food, what is the carbon footprint of buying strawberries from Argentina rather than growing them locally hydroponically or waiting until they are in season? What about food grown or bought locally? What is seeping into the water table providing water to grow the plants? Does the pesticide a farmer applies two miles away impact the crop?
Learning from our own mistakes
Taking action, however slight, without knowing what plants are native to an area and what is not can have incredible repercussions. When Americans wanted to share native grapevines with Europeans, they took not only the native grapevine, but also a tiny pest living in the soil called the phylloxera.
The phylloxera proceeded to eat the roots of the European vines at a rapid pace. In fact they devoured the roots at such an alarming pace that it wasn’t long until almost every vineyard in Europe was destroyed. Though many of the vineyards were hundreds of years old, the grapevines could not withstand the American-borne phylloxera.
Conversely, the Japanese beetle was brought to America where it had no natural predators and now causes million and millions of dollars of damage to grass and crops. Driving along the interstate in the eastern part of the US one can see the kudzu vine choking trees from Virginia to Florida. These were brought from Asia as an ornamental plant for someone’s yard.
Indigenous knowledge makes our lives healthier
Without interference, nature sustains a balance of prey and predators, not only in the visible animal and insect kingdoms, but at a microbial level as well. What grows in a tropical climate will not grow in subzero temperatures. What is indigenous, however will flourish without the need for chemicals to kill fungicides and pests.
Humans adapt to their environment as well. Studies have shown that honey from local hives will bolster the immune system of humans suffering allergies. No one is quite certain why, but the prevailing theory is that like vaccines and homeopathic medicines, a dose of the antagonist boosts the immune system to act naturally to resist the adverse reaction.
Look closely. Nature will provide the solution to an imbalance if it can. Cattails, with an inherent quality of filtering grow in swampy areas. There they work to cleanse the water, so there will not be a resultant problem of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Some communities have even started using cattails to clean their wastewater naturally, detoxifying it of toxins that remain after solid waste has been removed.
We are a global community. We are interconnected. Our decisions, even casual decisions affect others. We can make a difference in solving problems that patently appear remote, but in truth are often the natural consequence of our own decisions.