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From Overconsumption to Reciprocity: Our Way Forward on Earth

02 Jul 2021

The Anthropocene

A few years ago, I attended a stunning exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. The AGO is a beautiful art space tucked away in the middle of the city that plays host to international artists and creators and often uses the various exhibits to highlight moments of cultural inflection and socio-political causes. What is art if not a cultural pulse check for its generation? That particular evening a few friends and I attended The Anthropocene Project exhibit. This particular project is a multi-disciplinary exhibit that mixes various art mediums to illustrate the visceral human impact on the environment. The purpose of the exhibit is to leave an impression on the visitor and to shift consciousness towards change as we often do not realize the weight of our actions until the impact is visually discernible.  

The images in the exhibit were haunting to say the least, and the message vividly clear: humans were destroying the planet at an alarming rate—it was a frightening sight to behold. The displays of landfills, piles of plastic in our oceans, and waste caused by human activity were astounding—we did, and were doing, all of THAT?

That evening was one of many times in my life when I walked away from a climate discussion feeling an immense sense of urgency to DO something, while simultaneously feeling the weight of what we were facing. How was it possible that people were single handedly affecting the environment more than anything else on the planet—the proof of this so evident—yet as a collective we were clearly doing nothing, or not nearly enough, to fix it. Our beautiful planet is facing destruction, becoming increasingly disfigured and distorted, all because of us.

Human impact on the environment

Climate research and a number of recent studies have shown that human damage to the environment is so outrageous that it is outpacing the rate at which the environment can heal itself and recover. For example, after analyzing over 2,500 rivers around the world, researchers found that only 14% of rivers were spared major damage to their fish and marine wildlife.

If we take a deeper look at the human impact on biodiversity, in the past 40 years alone we have seen over 60% of animal species decline as a result of human activity. Similarly, we know deforestation, a catastrophic human activity, is a leading cause of climate change. In the last 50 years over 20% of the rainforest has been damaged and reduced because of it. Deforestation does more damage than tree logging, it also harms the animals and wildlife and puts local Indigenous communities in harm’s way, in danger of losing their land and sustenance.  

There are a number of causes we can blame for the current climate crisis, but the root of our negative impact stems from two very specific, toxic human behaviors: exploitation and overconsumption.

Establishing reciprocity

“All powers have two sides, the power to create and the power to destroy. We must recognize them both, but invest our gifts on the side of creation.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Overconsumption has harmed us in many ways, and we need look no further than our individual habits to see how it overshadows and taints everything we do. So many of our hobbies, pastimes, and social activities are centered around buying or consuming things. As a society, we consume so much media, content, fast fashion, food... The core foundation of our cultural identity has become consumption.

Consumption is meant to be mindless, a robotic habit. This in turn means we are persuaded to buy and consume without considering the source. When was the last time you practiced conscious consumption? The last time you took a step back, reevaluated your intentions, and questioned why you were consuming or buying the thing? Or how the thing you are purchasing came to be: what land nurtured it, whose hands made it, and who is profiting from it? I ask these questions because in a culture that encourages us to consume mindlessly, eco-consciousness or conscious consumption begins to feel like a radical act.

Examining our patterns of consumption highlights the underlying causes of our toxic habits of exploitation of the land and natural resources, but it also helps us see where as individuals we went wrong and how we can change. Overconsumption is driven by a toxic relationship with the planet; we see ourselves as separate from nature, and nature as OUR thing to consume and have. Since the 1970s, the US population has increased by 60% but our consumption has increased by over 400%. 

This sudden shift can be halted and reversed, and it starts with rethinking our relationship with the earth. Indigenous knowledge is our key to healing our relationship with nature and building a better way forward. Indigenous tradition teaches us that humans are a part of nature, not separate from it. They believe in reciprocal and “kincentric” relationships with nature, “in which caring for the natural world is a form of caring for family, who in turn help people to feed their human families.” This helps establish a beautiful synergy and relationship born out of mutual love and respect and balance—we only take what we need, give as much as we take, and feel connected to and see ourselves as a part of nature. [For more on spiritual ecology, watch Beautiful People with Willow Defebaugh.]

If we felt less entitled to the Earth and her beautiful treasures, would we exploit her as we do? If we saw the Earth as a gift, would we hesitate taking as much as we do? If we saw ourselves as a part of a complex natural ecosystem, would we give back as much as we receive? We still have time to reverse the effects of human toxicity towards the planet, but the seeds of change lie in how we view nature and how we nurture our relationship with the environment. Nothing will change until we love the Earth as much as we love ourselves: she is our only home and our forever home. 

Imagine a world where healing and reciprocity were the core of our relationship with the planet instead of consumption and exploitation. Imagine a world where we tended to and replenished the earth as much as she nurtured us, one where we sowed seeds for future generations, and a healthy planet was actually promised.

“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”

― Robin Wall Kimmerer, from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Written by Sabaah Choudhary for Youth To The People

To better understand our place in our ecosystem, our relationship with the Earth, check out the links below.

[PODCAST] To The People
Episode: Decay + Regrowth
Episode: How To Vibe with Nature Wherever You Are

[VIDEO] Beautiful People
With Willow Defebaugh, Editor-in-Chief of Atmos Magazine

Earth Wisdom
More from Alphabets
On climate justice
Meet the muse: Earth
Self care is caring for the planet
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