Environment – The beauty and the beast

This year’s storm and cyclone disasters have ramped up ecological anxiety for many of us worried about the state of the finite, fragile blue and green planet Earth. You don’t have to be directly affected to be impacted. The stress is extra for those who are still unable to access their homes and have had to leave precious pets and belongings behind in the wake of the storms.

Technology reaches new heights – literally, while the wonders and limits of nature seem more profound. Space X strings lights across the heavens providing internet access to the most remote places, while aurora Australis drapes red, yellow and green for many to see. Bioluminescence on beaches looks like living magic, but microplastics and forever chemicals are found in the smallest of lives, including our own.

I’ve sat in my kayak over summer (what summer? you might ask), afloat in peaceful places like the Marlborough Sounds and the Mahurangi Harbour, crying amidst the beauty, at the existential limits of biodiversity and climate. I am overwhelmed by the wonder and richness of nature, as well as by the reality of its destruction at the hands of (some) humans.

That ecological anxiety has a name – solastalgia. It’s melancholia or homesickness caused by separation from a loved home, even while you’re still there. It’s that feeling of loss from change to places and times you know and love.

The ‘great acceleration’ is the term for the massive, dramatic expansion of human technological advancement and environmental damage that’s occurred since the mid-twentieth century. In a few generations, humans have ‘conquered’ the far reaches of the earth and sea, reducing teeming species to a few fragments. Wildlife is now only an estimated 4.2% of the world’s biomass – the rest is humans and farmed animals. Scientists say the world has never seen change at the scale and rate of the great acceleration, and never will again – Earth just can’t sustain it.

Every year, Earth Overshoot Day shows how many resources each country uses beyond the planet’s carrying capacity. For New Zealand, this year it’s April 19. After that we are living beyond our means.

Technology got us into this mess but can technology save us? Some people pin their hopes on techno-fixes, from methane inhibitors to prevent climate change emissions from cow burps to space colonies. But we don’t have much time, tech fixes are magic bullets which are no substitute for stopping the damage now.

Some people pray to God to save us from ourselves. Some say the rapid recent rise of artificial intelligence could be our saviour. Some say, de-growth and vegan anarchism (home and community gardens) are the key to a smaller human footprint.

We can’t use the same system that caused this mess to get us out of it. But there’s no blueprint for the future. It’s up to us to imagine and devise. So when I am in my kayak, I’ll try to imagine a better future pathway, to appreciate the beauty, and not to cry.