In judging my relationship to the environment around me, I have often found myself in a state of awe and wonder about the myriad of processes that must have occurred to make the natural world the way that it is. I can look at a section of trees in a forest, pondering how long they must have stood, silent witnesses to the world moving and developing around them. I can gaze at a meandering river, tracing the route through solid rock that it took perhaps millions of years to cut through. I can spot an elephant in the savannah, suddenly sensitive to the hundreds of generations of elephants that have come previously. All of this is to say that my beliefs about the environment around me are grounded in perceptions of the past, and, unfortunately, anxiety for the future: those trees that have stood for so long, respected and cherished by defenders for their ancient wisdom, just as an elder is by their community, are now being felled by the acre every single minute; those rivers are now shells of their former selves, with some now completely dried up and gone, or hopelessly polluted; that elephant now finds its native habitat destroyed in the name of development, and its brilliant ivory tusks, so prized in the capitalist marketplace, now driving the species to the brink of extinction.
The natural world all around us is truly full of beautiful and awe-inspiring things. Whenever I take a moment to pause and appreciate, meditate even, at the world around, I try to place myself within the storylines of the past, in a point in time where nature was valued and abundantly cared for; however, it is all too easy to remember my current place in time, in an era of unprecedented environmental destruction.
In reading the “Tiny Cobs” chapter in Charles Mann’s 1491, I find that I return to somewhat to my state of wonder for the natural world. The tiny kernels of maize, both humankind’s best friend and worst enemy for millennia, a central dietary staple around the world, now are the key to eliminating global hunger. It can be said that we humans as a species are inherently hardwired to want to find solutions to problems, to set goals and do all that we can to strive as far beyond them as we can. The increasingly limitless power and potential of technology is making this much easier than ever before. No longer do we have to rely on simple cross-pollination to yield more sturdy crops, we now can genetically modify plants to create super crops that produce such a high yield that no one in the world should go hungry. But our insatiable drive to demand more and more from our environment will certainly soon come to be our downfall. We refuse to look at the environment that surrounds us for what it is, but for what it can be. In western development philosophy, our beliefs about the environment consistently circle around potentiality and egocentrism: what can this thing do for me and how do I make that happen? Even from the first yields of the super maize that eventually inspired the worldwide usage of the techniques from the Green Revolution, it all initially began with the tiny seedlings, themselves silent witnesses in the grand scheme for what they will become.
With the powerful changes that tiny seedlings can bring to the lives of so many people across the globe, so too, I hope, can these seedlings force the realization that our planet’s natural systems are vulnerable and strained like never before—that conservation and preservation is not, as some would say, a fool’s errand, but rather, the true way forward towards a more sustainable and equitable future for all of humanity.