Existential. It is the word of the hour and, like all trendy words, soon to be overused. But at this juncture somewhere between multiple threats to our well-being, let’s allow its use.
For as long as I can recall, warning signs have been popping up, as sort of Earth’s "breaking news" — slow down and stop hoarding our natural resources or pay the price. If you are a duck hunter, you have seen your takes lessen. If you fish, species became less plentiful. If you safari, the big game became more a search for your camera lens as they became endangered species.
Our wetlands became the place to dump old refrigerators and autos and our oceans, the gathering spot for immense loads of plastics. And underneath the planet’s top layers, the rush for black gold to fuel society with oil and gas has taken thousands of years of collected carbon and dumped it unfiltered back in our atmosphere.
We certainly noticed all of this along the way but always easily dug into the excuse that we had a God-given right to nature’s riches in order to grease our economic prowess. Enter the existential threat. If you were a forensic investigator, your clues to how the planet has been harmed would likely confirm the human fingerprint.
Think of Father Time checking in on Mother Earth and it would be all too obvious as to what our foolishness has wrought.
Ten years ago, I can remember telling family and friends that we were in danger of ending life as we know it by overtaxing the Earth’s capacity to keep up with our ambitions. At the time, the sign was over-pollination, with dwindling bee populations. Many jokes made the rounds about the silly bee warnings. Our reality then was easily detectable by a preponderance of sinus meds advertising that corresponded to a rise in respiratory issues.
While human suffocation began to unfold, noticeable levels of cancer were increasing around and near chemical plants and refineries of Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Where groundwater was contaminated, young people in schools were developing chronic illnesses. Within this corridor of health concerns, more global impacts were waiting in the wings of climate change, moving from human and animal species to the disruption of the natural order of things — weather, tides, and earth scorching, with tremors occurring near where fracking was introduced.
All of these blatant warning signs were there but ignored because we valued something more than our existence, and now we face an existential threat. It may be common sense to know that barrier island protection, beach re-nourishment, wetlands health and removal of artificial man-made barriers to allow nature more breathing room are important. Maybe we have just jettisoned environmental actions to lower priorities than building anywhere, drilling anywhere, and consuming everything imaginable to feel independent, controlling, and untethered to our universe. Maybe we didn’t want to be classified as a tree hugger, the place where politicians have cornered environmental discussions in this us vs. them world.
We are all Earth’s creatures and we now see that we are more connected than we have ever imagined to the future of our planet. Even the mere consideration that life is less important than the economy speaks volumes to how far we have ventured off course. And, so, we face a course correction and a moment of reckoning.
While we are locked in isolation, this may be the perfect opportunity to address what we can do to reorder our natural relationships. We need to quit deciding everything in political terms. Saving the Earth isn’t negotiable. Unbridled ecosystem degradation needs to be reconsidered. Environmental and health priorities need to come first because they are tied together. We no longer can afford to act the role of adolescents, hell-bent on doing whatever we want, no matter the consequences. We have soiled our playground and now everyone needs to play a part in cleaning up our game and getting right with Mother Earth.
Actually, we are the existential threat and only we have the means to do what is necessary to survive.
Valsin A. Marmillion is managing director of America’s Wetland Foundation.