On the scale of the universe surrounding us, humans are inconsequential
Mariners had painstakingly mapped the coastlines of the continents. Geographers had translated these findings into charts and globes. Photographs of tiny patches of the Earth had been obtained first by balloons and aircraft, then by rockets in brief ballistic flight, and at last by orbiting spacecraft—giving a perspective like the one you achieve by positioning your eyeball about an inch above a large globe. While almost everyone is taught that the Earth is a sphere with all of us somehow glued to it by gravity, the reality of our circumstance did not really begin to sink in until the famous frame-filling Apollo photograph of the whole Earth—the one taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on the last journey of humans to the Moon (1).
It has become a kind of icon of our age. There's Antarctica at what Americans and Europeans so readily regard as the bottom, and then all of Africa stretching up above it: You can see Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, where the earliest humans lived. At top right are Saudi Arabia and what Europeans call the Near East. Just barely peeking out at the top is the Mediterranean Sea, around which so much of our global civilization emerged. You can make out the blue of the ocean, the yellow-red of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, the brown-green of forest and grassland.
And yet there is no sign of humans in this picture, not our reworking of the Earth's surface, not our machines, not ourselves: We are too small and our statecraft is too feeble to be seen by a spacecraft between the Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, our obsession with nationalism is nowhere in evidence. The Apollo pictures of the whole Earth conveyed to multitudes something well known to astronomers: On the scale of worlds—to say nothing of stars or galaxies—humans are inconsequential, a thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal.
It's the idea that people living close to nature tend to be noble. It's seeing all those sunsets that does it. You can't watch a sunset and then go off and set fire to your neighbor's tepee. Living close to nature is wonderful for your mental health.
But we can easily extend this hypothesis [that nature has beneficial effects on the physical, cognitive and emotional well-being of individuals] to the conservation of biodiversity. [Ecologists] refer to the extinction of the experience of nature, which they have mainly applied in urban areas. The idea is as follows: from generation to generation, young people live less and less in contact with nature (because there are fewer of them and because their lifestyles limit such contact), at the very moment they are building their identity. The part of their identity that integrates their intimate relationships with their natural environment would therefore diminish from generation to generation. Not because of a lack of education, but mainly because of a decline in opportunities and desires to experience nature without constraint, freely and in their own personal way.
The consequences of this decrease appear in adulthood: with a weaker environmental identity, they are less in demand for nature in their daily lives, they integrate it less in their actions. (...) But if we do not collectively take biodiversity into consideration in our lifestyles, then we will suffer.
An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it.
It was the quietness of life in a medieval English village that would most strike a visitor from today—no planes overhead, no swish or rumble from traffic. Stop reading this book a minute. Can you hear something? Some machine turning? A waterpipe running? A distant radio or a pneumatic drill digging up the road? Of all the varieties of modern pollution, noise is the most insidious.
Yet in the year 1000 the hedgerows actually had a sound. You could hear baby birds chirping in their nests, and the only mechanical noise you would hear came from the wheezing of the blacksmith’s bellows. In some villages you might have heard the bell in the church tower, or the creaking and clunking of the wooden cogs in one of the water-mills that had been constructed in the last 200 years, and if you lived near one of England’s dozen or so cathedrals, you would have heard the heavy metal cascadings of sound from the copper windpipes of one of the recently imported church organs. But that was all. As bees buzzed and wood pigeons cooed, you could listen to God’s creation and take pleasure in its subtle variety.