Environmental issues such as conservation and biodiversity are often seen as peripheral to our lives or the problems we face, but nothing could be further than the truth. This world is habitable because of the weathering of rocks and the death and recycling of organisms, because of the filtration, oxygenation, and water capturing functions that plants carry out, because of consumers’ roles in suppressing the populations of plants and other animals and producers’ conversion of solar energy to chemical energy. All of that happens within the Earth’s ecosphere and the ecosystems that comprise it, and all of it is self-sustaining and self-maintaining. Or, at least, it is until we start interfering with it.
We always will have an effect on the Earth, and that’s to be expected, since we’re part of the system; there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem has been that we don’t really consider the long-term effects of our actions on our descendants, other organisms, or the Earth, and we’re just beginning to get the bill for all the damage we’ve done. Some say that nothing is happening, but they are wrong. Even if climate change is a complete hoax (extremely unlikely, given how hard it is to get scientists to come to a consensus on something this controversial), looking at the fossil record, the current rate of biodiversity loss is serious enough to qualify as a mass extinction event. If both problems are happening at the same time, I find that far more troubling. If these problems aren’t enough to give us pause, nothing is. Consider this- if we change our ways and nothing happens, we pay a price by decreasing our consumption but benefit in terms of increased efficiency, better quality of life, and decreased need to replicate “ecosystem services” such as water filtration, erosion control, climate moderation, and the like. If we change and the worst does happen, the changes we carry out might just save us from the worst effects of a changing world.
Conservation of mass and energy are not just quaint suggestions; they’re the law, and the human population is finally becoming large enough to push against those laws on a planetary scale. They won’t give- we will, and we won’t like it if we have to find that out the hard way. “Victory shines upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur.” We have an opportunity if we’re willing to lead the change to a sustainable world. If we’re not willing, then I’m sure that there are plenty of other parties willing to do so, even if they lack the resources that we have at our disposal.
Everything is interconnected, and, as Miyamoto Musashi might point out, we need to learn to see the great in the small as well as the small in the great, and we need to cultivate the skills that we will need, not only those that we do need. We also need to learn to appreciate the flower for being a flower and a magnificent example of biology, chemistry, and physics, rather than needing to find a bottom line. Sometimes, that bottom line is extremely thin and we don’t notice it until it is too late. The price currently being paid by nature in the coin of extinct species is one that can never be reversed; we owe it to Nature and ourselves to minimize that cost.
Space exploration and, indeed exploration of extreme environments in general, may be seen as an unnecessary luxury, but such could not be further from the truth. To the extent that such exploration expands our scientific knowledge, it also holds the potential to enhance our technological base, as well. While one may be able to scuba dive, the requirements to do so, to temporarily push back our human limitations, are significantly less than the requirements to successfully dwell in an underwater environment. To dwell in an environment not only requires an understanding of that environment, but of ourselves and our relationship to our native environment, as well. Take the International Space Station, for instance. One of the major challenges of living in the ISS is the perpetual maintenance required to keep it functioning and providing a life-sustaining environment for its occupants; the Earth does this for free through natural processes that, as simple as they may seem at first glance, elegantly provide critical “ecosystem services” day in and day out. Just as something absent is often something better appreciated, having to artificially mimic or replace our natural environment can help us to better understand and appreciate our own.
Such exploration is not simply a matter of short-term scientific or technological gains. Such gains form the foundation of tomorrow’s science and technology, just as today’s great minds in science and technology stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. I want our descendants to have the choice to explore space or the oceans, to improve upon what we have accomplished so far. If they’re to be able to do that, then we need to establish a foundation for them to build upon. If we want ourselves to have greater knowledge and capability fifty years from now, we need to put in place today the policies, research the disciplines and technologies, and nurture the minds that will accomplish that. A not insignificant part of that challenge is the need to change the public perception of education from a field “for those who can’t do” to a field for those who can, but choose to serve instead. That may well require an increase in compensation in order to attract talent, but, speaking for myself, monetary gain has never been all that significant a motivation. I think a far more significant attractor is a coherent vision and the access to the tools and the means to make it a reality.