When American aid worker-turned essayist William Powers went to Bolivia, he found the Chiquitano indigenous people didn’t share our concept of “the environment.” How could a people living in one of the most pristine tropical forests in the world fail to grasp this?
To us, the environment stands in contrast with the manmade, built world. There are homes and offices, roads and bridges, cars, trucks, warehouses — all manmade — and then there’s “the environment.”
And for anyone raised here, that requires no explanation. The environment encompasses our air, water, soil, and living things from the tiniest microbes to the largest blue whale. The environment is made by nature, not people.
For many people in other countries, there’s no such contrast. Everything needed for life — food, building materials, cordage, thatching, and even toys and musical instruments — come directly from nature. They would no sooner destroy “the environment” than an American would bulldoze her local grocery store or drive his car into a lake.
For them, an abstract concept of an environment distinct from the manmade world makes no sense.
When I first began traveling to far-flung places like the Amazon, the intimate knowledge the locals possessed about how to use everything around them struck me. Here in America, I go hiking all the time, yet I could not even name any of the plants I walked past, let alone find any use for them.
On the shore of Lake Titicaca, I got sick from my malaria medicine one morning. My host, an Aymara man, grabbed a local plant and promptly made me a cup of tea with it. In western Kenya, the friends I stayed with were busy gathering materials to thatch their new house, which they were making from wood and mud.
If nature provided such incredible bounty all over the world, I thought, perhaps the environment in my home did so too. And, it turns out, it does.
To find out, I asked the best experts I could think of: Native Americans. With their guidance, I learned that the scrubby vegetation of arid California provides for food, medicine, basketry, and more.
In truth, everything in our lives comes from “the environment” too — only our system is set up to obscure that fact. Look at the items around you. Your computer, your clothes, the carpet on the floor, the paint on your walls — where are they from? And if there was an environmental catastrophe, would you still have them?
Despite the occasional hiccups to the market, like the looming Velveeta Shortage of 2014, we’re pretty well equipped to get what we want, when we want it. If a hurricane takes out the banana crop in one country, we’ll get our bananas from somewhere else.
Have you ever seen an ingredient label list something like “soybean oil or canola oil or sunflower oil”? You don’t even know which one was used to make your tortilla chips, but the chips taste the same anyway.
If soybean prices go up, then the manufacturer uses a different oil instead. As the consumer, you’re none the wiser.
But somehow, somewhere, everything in our lives comes from nature, including Velveeta. Despite all appearances to the contrary, we’re hardly different from the Amazonians or rural Kenyans, who live so close to nature that they instantly feel the impact of one dry season or one flood.
We’d do well to realize that there is no such thing as “the environment” as a separate and distinct realm. We live in it and we owe everything in our lives to it. If we squander it, we’ll feel the impact sooner or later — and it won’t be pretty.
OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. OtherWords.org