By Jeannie Russell
We live our lives always together, never apart, in a world of connections.
The air, the water, the sunlight — flowing and cycling around us — nurture the garden bed that is our land, and replenish the living seas that surround it. All the life on our planet is a collective, endlessly complex interplay within these planetary constraints, and we can neither escape, nor avoid, nor insulate ourselves from our fellow beings in this living world — we are always connected and a part of nature, never apart from it.
Humane education brings together science that explores and illuminates connections to the co-inhabitants of our natural world, with an ethic of reverence and respect for all that can guide our acknowledgement of them. It helps us see these connections not in terms of competition or as paths for potential exploitation, but as opportunities for collaboration and mutual benefit.
How can we collaborate with our animal neighbors in our local natural spaces to increase the mutual benefit of our connections within both the human and non-human communities?
We share so many basic needs and interests with all other animals that, rather than seeing other species as competitors for resources or encroachers on our territories, we can celebrate our commonalities by making sure that these resources are abundant and healthy for all. Partnering with the non-human animals in our communities can mean allowing seasonally and regionally appropriate garden and native habitat areas to flourish throughout our human-built world, so that the borders between their worlds and ours soften into a mutually beneficial common ground. For some species, of course, the best way to be good neighbors is to allow them space that we do not trespass on, either by protecting existing wild areas from human uses, or “re-wilding” where possible to allow recovery of a balanced natural rhythm and replenished biodiversity.
How can we more deeply connect and collaborate at the systemic level with the dynamic processes of our natural world, from tiny micro-habitats like a tidal pool to regional and global ecospheres?
One exciting way to promote a form of nature stewardship grounded in mutuality is through the Rights of Nature movement. Rather than framing our relationship with natural spaces in terms of property rights — where people can “own” and use/exploit animals, plants, water, soil, and even the air of a natural space without concern for the consequences to others — the Rights of Nature movement seeks to designate habitats and ecological systems like rivers and their watersheds, lakes, and forests as legal “persons” with many of the basic rights to health, integrity, and protection from harm that international law extends to our fellow human beings. In this framework, members of the human communities that live near or within a natural ecosystem serve as stewards legally committed to maintaining its integrity for its own sake, not simply as a way of promoting human goals.
The Ecuadorian government — among other local communities, states, and sovereign Indigenous peoples — has included the Rights of Nature into its constitution with a central provision acknowledging that, “Nature or Pachamama (Mother Nature), where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain itself, and regenerate its own vital cycles, structure, functions, and its evolutionary processes.”
Despite these promising movements, generations of our youth have grown up within a natural world increasingly shadowed by threats: suffering the destabilizing effects of accelerating climate chaos, ever-accumulating environmental toxins, and unmanageable viral outbreaks with roots in poorly managed, cruel, and exploitative human/animal interfaces (bird flu/H5N1, swine flu/H1N1, Ebola, and of course, Covid-19 are just a few better-known recent examples of diseases that have spread from animals to humans due largely to human activity). The actions of a few of our species — driven by narrow power- and profit-seeking goals — have done incalculable damage to our living home and its inhabitants, and have darkened our children’s future.
We can begin to reclaim that future for and with our youth by coming together wherever we can to build a reimagined human infrastructure, both material and spiritual, that is rooted deeply in our shared world of connections — not set apart from the extraordinary richness of the other beings whose lives and collective movements sustain our home, but joined with them as partners and neighbors in the work ahead.