Dr. Hildur Palsdottir
Modern humans like to mark the passage of time and the overculture now celebrates 2023 years. Meanwhile, geobiologists split the timeline for our 4.6- billion-year-old planet into distinct Eons, Eras, Periods, Epochs and Ages. Roughly 2.1 billion years ago, in the Great Oxygenation Event, ancient bacteria completely changed the atmospheric conditions to spark the evolution of aerobic and complex life.
And we humans can celebrate at least 300,000 years in this current form. Like bacteria, we shape our surroundings with our behaviors. From ancient cave drawings to planting a flag on the moon, humans seem driven to leave a lasting impression. In fact, the Anthropocene Working Group proposes that by the mid-20th century a new geologic Epoch began, or the Age of Humans (Anthropocene).
Rewind to the onset of the Holocene (11,700 years ago) when a few million people roamed the planet. Before agriculture and farming, humans made up a mere 1% of mammals. With hunting, destruction of habitats, and domestication of animals we’ve dramatically flipped this ratio for wild mammals now to comprise less than 4%, while we (36%) dominate with our livestock (60%).
While occupying a humble 0.01% of living organisms on Earth by biomass, we’ve had a dramatic impact on the biosphere. Especially in the last 70 years, we’ve not just mechanically sculpted landscapes for agriculture and farming, fracking and mining, but changed the chemical composition of sediments as well as the atmospheric composition.
Plastics, forever chemicals and other pollutants, fossil fuel emissions, and deposits from chemical and nuclear warfare, compromise Earth’s capacity to sustain us. And we’ve caused the sixth mass extinction of life, with irrecoverable losses throughout the taxonomic kingdoms.
Neoliberal economics drives the mass production of non-recyclables fueled by non-renewables motivated by an obsessive quest for growth. This ecological insanity is rooted in the false and dangerous assumption that we are independent of the biophysical reality that sustains us. We are not just destroying ecosystems, but generating waste that’s accumulating. We can’t afford to run the economy as if it were independent from our biological environment.
Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. Nature and climate are inseparable, and so are we from the rest of life on Earth. Climate recovery is dependent on our ability to support nature. This December a powerful pledge to protect nature was made at the United Nation Biodiversity Conference with the promise to reverse extinction by 2030 by means of conservation and habitat restoration of at least 30% of land and ocean ecosystems. Currently, 17 percent of terrestrial and 8 percent of marine areas are under protection.
The greatest natural resource in need of protection is the relationship between humans and nature. We still have wisdom keepers among us who have maintained an unbroken, regenerative connection to land and sea. Our world’s 370 million indigenous people protect more than 80% of global biodiversity in territories under their control. And indigenous people continue to be under attack. It is vital we protect them and their culture.
We have so much to learn from indigenous people who for thousands of years have lived in reciprocity with nature and exercised what Potawatomi botanist Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as honorable harvest in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Here on Long Island we can donate to the Niamuck Land Trust (https://niamucklandtrust.org), the Shinnecock nation’s effort to reclaim and protect their sacred burial grounds. The Peconic Land Trust supports this effort with The Shinnecock Land Acquisition and Stewardship Fund.
Regrettably, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently vetoed the Unmarked Burial Site Protection Act (S5701/A6724), a step in the wrong direction. The Legislature had passed the bill with near unanimous support. Forty seven states have now legalized the protection of the remains of indigenous people, but New York State governance is far from repairing this sacred relationship with original peoples. Join me in demanding that this bill to protect unmarked, ancient burial sites across New York be reconsidered.
Protection of indigenous people and their rights is a prerequisite to address biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. In order to cure the climate, we must protect the primary guardians of nature. We must rediscover our kinship with the wild world, repair our relationships with nature and each other. We must recover ecological sanity by making decisions every day that sustain life and honor those who came before us.
We can choose repair over despair. For that we must slow down (consumption) and keep in mind that investment in renewable energy isn’t going to cure the climate crisis if we continue to destroy ecosystems and hurt indigenous people in order to harvest rare earth materials. The fabric of life may be torn, but we are the ones who can stitch it back together.