This essay was one of five finalists in The Nation‘s Third Annual Student Writing Contest.
Reflecting on the problems before him, Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have made as a result of a level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.”
Perhaps this is even more true today, when we face issues like the faltering economy, the endless war in Iraq and a $2 trillion healthcare crisis. While there is no doubt that these issues will challenge the next president, Bill McKibben’s writings remind us of the only one that will be visible from outer space. Our planet is the only one we know of that can support this beautiful abundance of life. This is a reality we often forget as we commute in our gas-powered cars, inhabit our climate-controlled homes and watch the rest of the world from our television sets. Isolating ourselves from these modern conveniences and exploring the wilderness that surrounds us can offer valuable insight on matters of greater magnitude, something I gained on a recent camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota.
My experience in the Boundary Waters encouraged a new dimension of sustainable thinking, a way of thinking that would be valuable to an international leader in a period when we are facing global issues like peak oil, climate change, the food crisis and an increasing demand for freshwater. Out there, miles away from any form of civilization, I realized how little we need to be happy in life. The significance of this insight was that, when it comes to conserving our natural resources, we are capable of so much more. As we propose sustainable policies, let us not forget that we can preserve these finite resources by tapping the most valuable resource of them all: the human intellect.
The problems we face today are the effects of a failed paradigm. It is a system of thinking that has resulted from our increasingly objective view of nature; we enjoy its aesthetic beauty in photographs, study its characteristics under a microscope and conquer it with the latest technological innovations. As I paddled down the South Kawishiwi River, it became clear to me that many of us have lost the ability to understand the connection we have with nature. Humans have evolved as an integrated part of this ecological system, and our failure to admit this could ultimately determine the fate of life on this pale blue dot. Only after we are able to understand this will we be able to propose policies that truly are “a gesture of responsibility and an acknowledgment of an essential condition of ethical action,” as Elizabeth Kolbert put it in a commentary for The New Yorker.
In his book OneWorld: the Ethics of Globalization, Peter Singer writes, “There can be no clearer illustration of the need for human beings to act globally than the issues raised by the impact of human activity on our atmospheres.” Singer’s message reflects another lesson I brought home from the wild. A reflection of myself and the big sky above me in the sparkling waters of the Kawishiwi River allowed me to see myself as an interdependent member of the world. The United States can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines as other nation-states desperately discuss sustainable policies. It is our president’s obligation–as it is ours–to play an active role in this process.
The most important insight that I gained during my three-day encounter near the border of Canada and Minnesota was that as members of our environment we are able to survive only through active participation. My survival was vitally dependent on my ability to adapt to the remote wilderness that surrounded me. Correspondingly, the success of the new president will largely depend on his ability to acknowledge the imminent challenges before us, join the international movement for sustainability and initiate a transition from our postindustrial society into a new era of ecological civilization. As we await this new era, perhaps the rest of us can act on the words of Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”