Are you rich or poor? At first glance, you might answer that question based on your economic situation at the moment. With a little more thought, you might conclude that the best things in life aren’t things, and that you are rich in the family/friends category even if your checkbook balance might not reflect that wealth.
I’ve come to realize that all of us who live at this particular time in history are poor in a way that is largely invisible. All of us, even the wealthiest of us, now live on an ecologically degraded planet. Compared to the riches of our deep ancestors (the hunter-gatherers of prehistory), we are poor indeed.
We do not know what it is like to simply be able to get a drink of clean water from an uncontaminated stream. We don’t know a world of abundant and diverse wildlife where lobsters grow to over a meter long, salmon run thick in Atlantic rivers every season, and brightly colored parakeets nest in the trees of the American south. We don’t know a world without bits of plastic litter everywhere (even in seemingly remote “wilderness” areas). We can barely imagine the ancient thick forests that covered most of Europe, or undisturbed grasslands of Asia and North America with massive grazing herds numbering into the millions.
We are poor indeed.
We don’t even have a cultural memory of such a world.
The poorest among us live surrounded by concrete and steel. They see only a glimpse of greenery as they struggle through their daily lives. A weed in the sidewalk, perhaps. Or maybe a pesticide saturated landscaped lawn. Or a potted plant. If they are lucky, they can find a tiny slice of diminished and fractured Nature in a park somewhere. It’s not much, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Slightly better off than these paupers are those who reside in suburbia. Here, you might find a few species of songbirds. Or the occasional raccoon and deer. The trees are skinny, the flowers are tame, the bees rare. But it’s a step up from concrete alone.
The richest among us, those incredibly lucky folk, live near what is left of the remnants of the wild. Maybe there’s a nature preserve or national park nearby. Maybe there’s a forested area that the developers haven’t bothered to carve up yet. Compared to the skyscraper serfs, they are wealthy. But compared to the ancestors, they are still quite poor.
We can never recover the riches our ancestors enjoyed. The Earth has changed, and we (humanity) have been the agents of that change for better or worse. We have to make the best of what we have. I’m sure the world of today would have been as unimaginable to our ancestors as their world is to us.
One thing about being poor is that you tend to appreciate what you do have. If you are out of work and the bills are piling up, an inheritance from your rich Aunt Ethel is greatly appreciated. If you are already wealthy, that same inheritance might be met with indifference and apathy.
When we recognize our ecological poverty, we start to realize just how precious the remaining bits and fragments of the natural world really are. We might not have much, but what we do have is priceless. Is it enough? It has to be.
I might not see eagles flying overhead from my backyard. But I can observe the antics of the sparrows that remain. I might not see any rare wildflowers, but I can walk my local nature trail, and see the Earth growing green again as spring returns. I can pick up the plastic litter. I can gaze at the moon. I can dig the loamy soil of my garden. I can treasure what remains.
Poor as it is, it is enough because it has to be. It is all we have left.
Photo Credit: flickr user michaelmelrose on www.creativecommons.org