I’m not sure this is the right way of thinking about it–appealing to emotions rather than reason–but the good reasons for preserving our environment hasn’t had the impact hoped for. Perhaps it is time to appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”
We live in a world almost entirely disconnected from the image above, not because wires and concrete dominate our skyline, but because we’ve stopped seeing ourselves as part of this world. It doesn’t really matter where it started or which philosophy or religion is to blame. Blame will not reconnect us to the truth, and every moment we spend divorced from reality is a moment wasted. What matters, now, is that we end this fallacy of alienation.
We’ve been surrounded by our living family all along, unaware that our neglect endangers them because the scope of our actions does not take their well-being into account. Like a clumsy child, we’ve damaged the world of our surroundings. And what’s worse: We’re putting ourselves in danger, degrading an essential part of our humanity. We ought to learn to live with grace.
This will be obvious to anyone who has owned pets; other living beings are worthy of our love and care. Anyone who has looked into the eyes of another–no matter the species–has seen a mind reflected back, full of needs and desires and fears. In those eyes, we can see the stories of a million lives that came before this moment and exist today. If you haven’t seen yourself reflected in the eyes of another, then I pray you try it and never close yourself to that experience. In that moment we come to realize that there are bonds that bind all things together, and our minds will seldom conceive of harm or distance.
I have heard stories of such moments of contact with other species–dolphins, manta rays, and chimpanzees–and I know that this faculty for self-identification does not lie solely within our species, brains packed with mirror neurons in a complex neocortex. Every animal that values community and cooperation, sociability, recognizes themselves in others. They may not always react with love and compassion, but they know enough to hypothesize there is a mind beyond those eyes that could do to them as they would do onto others.
This should be enough to convince us. We are not alone in this world, we are not the only thinking beings, we are not the only ones deserving of love and compassion. Once you come to that conclusion, love should become the lens through which you experience reality. You are bound to each life-form on Earth, even the microscopic and not very interesting ones. This bond is evolutionary, chemical and mental. What you breathe is either the product of their lives or the very same air they need; the cells within you operate in much the same way, with DNA that is remarkably similar and shared across species. We each hope and fear, lash out in anger or merely preservation, and can sometimes recognize our kinship.
Our place in this world isn’t about growth or prosperity. As bearers of some of the most advanced nervous systems on the planet, we are capable of altering the environment on a massive and fundamental scale. We’re doing it right now, and as a consequence, we might push millions of species into extinction. But that is the growing pain of a species–I hope–that may soon master itself and walk with grace among its living brethren.