Rio de Janeiro is a city of dense high rise buildings, of favelas and bustling streets and there is also ‘another’ Rio, the one that sits on its circumference domineeringly peering in on the city dwellers creating awe and amazement from below, its nature. I spent my days in Rio a city dweller peering up and occasionally venturing into the wilderness to peer down, this contrast between the urbanised world and the world within nature became more noticeable the longer I stayed and the more I saw. Sometimes the two merged together, a perfect co-existence of one world among the other, in Rio monkeys live in the street trees and act indifferently to gawking tourists. I thought back to the voluminous of cultures I’d encountered on my travel across South America, of those who were inextricably linked to nature they considered themselves to be nature, and those that see nature as ‘other’. I wondered what it takes to feel compassion for nature and then, who does care about nature?
As James Lovelock the scientist and author who coined the term ‘Gaia’ explained in his book ‘The Revenge of the Gaia’, not everybody cares about nature, not everybody has an affiliation to or a connection with nature. In a recent broadcasted interview between Barak Obama and David Attenborough, David profoundly said, “The united nations tells us that over 50% of the human population on the planet are urbanised which means that to some degree they are cut off from the natural world, if they don’t understand about the workings of the natural world they won’t take the trouble to protect it”. Lovelocks father would take him as a child to the countryside to study nature. David grew up in Leicestershire countryside with a healthy obsession with fossils he found in the surrounding woods. They were both exposed in childhood to nature, they are indebted to nature for many nurturing experiences and they grew up with a deep thirst to understand the natural world.
In her emotion churning speech ‘What separates us from chimpanzees?’ leading primatologist Jane Goodall explains, “I learnt everything I know about animal behaviour even before I got to Gombe and the chimps from my dog, Rusty, who was my childhood companion”. Like Lovelock and Attenborough, Goodall had exposure to nature and other sentient and sapient beings in childhood. She goes on to explain, “There are hundreds and hundreds of children in the developed world who never see nature because they’re growing up in concrete and all they know is virtual reality with no opportunity to go and lie in the sun or in the forest with the dappled sun specks coming down from the canopy above”. The world is responding, environmental topics in school curricula is increasing and many initiatives have been set up to facilitate the exposure of children to nature, creating a connection and respect that will continue into the future. The Obama initiative for example, ‘Let’s Get Every Kid in a Park’ offers a one year free admission pass for every 4th grader and their families in the United States. Obama believes that these changes are having an effect on youth as he quotes, “My daughters I find, Malia and Sasha, they are 13 and 16 now, they’re much more environmentally aware, they do not dispute for example the science around climate change”.
‘Roots and Shoots’ is an organisation that takes this idea to the next stage, they look to empower young people to take the initiative and make positive change in their world. They have three project types, ‘human community’, ‘animal community’ and ‘local environment’. Each group can take positive action within their project type, and there are groups across the world that can collaborate and share ideas. This approach teaches youth that they are not powerless and that the state of our health and the natural world is in everyday people’s hands. Attitudes towards nature, through empowerment of youth, have improved over the past two decades in some part due to independently catalysed projects. Such as The Green Bronx Machine, started by New York South Bronx teacher Stephen Ritz who in 2014 started an indoor veg patch in his science room. As the project caught on attendance in the “troubled” high school increased from 43% to 93%, Ritz explains, “The kids really believe that they are responsible for them…Students come to school to take care of their plants – they want to see them succeed.” Similar inspiring stories surfaced in San Francisco where people are deprived of healthy food in local stores, the ‘Edible City’ 2014 documentary shows us inspiring teachers taking over abandoned land and teaching people how to grow food on them. One teacher explained, “It’s a farm in the city, we got a little country in the city”. These teachers brought youth from urban San Francisco and showed them what they can do with a vegetable patch, it gave them fresh healthy food but also a sense of empowerment over their own diet and health. With the country to the city came the generation of youth empowerment and a respect for nature.
Across South America there is a clear monetary incentive when it comes to recycling, your coca cola and beer bottles can be exchanged in the shop for a few pennies which then get sold on to the beer and coca cola companies for re-use. Pockets of people across the continent, on permaculture farms and within certain native communities for example, look instead to the direct impacts of their actions on the environment, not for economic gain but because their actions will indirectly affect them, they are part of nature and they seek to understand it. James Lovelock in ‘Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth’ explains, “City wisdom became almost entirely centred on the problems of human relationships, in contrast to the wisdom of any natural tribal group, where relationships with the rest of the animate and inanimate world are still given due place.” Through exposure to nature, empowerment of youth and inspiring teachers we can look to dissolve the ‘other’ concept between us and the natural world in developed cultures and give nature its due place. If we look back through history we can see that every evil regime has been overcome by good. In this part of our world’s history the collective potential of the human brain, the resilience of nature and when ignited, the human spirit gives us great reason for positivity. We too can stop an evil regime, this time against nature. In the words of one of those inspiring teachers, Stephen Ritz, “When we teach children about nature, they learn to nurture. And when they learn to nurture, we as a society embrace our better nature. I like to call it our green graffiti”