In the early new millennium, when hypertextuality was a novel, decentralizing, labyrinthine phenomenon, I remember thinking to myself that it was the closest that anyone had ever been—save the early Modernist writers and their streams-of consciousness—to replicating the human mind. Many may be more gifted or focused than I, but I cannot follow a thought through to its conclusion without frequent diversions, detours, changes-of-plans, tangents, trap doors, and rabbit holes named “Alice.” The simple act of writing this post, if I could record and represent my cerebral activity, would evidence this fact. Looking anything up on the web—on Wikipedia, for example—becomes a lark and a plunge, and I don’t know that I’ll end if another obligation doesn’t shake my focus. It’s a fascinating, challenging thought experiment, and I’ve come to believe that it is inherently unnatural for me (others?) to proceed without disruption. Or rather, I believe that we natural diverge from the path because all possible routes are part of the path—a much broader matrix that comprises our thoughts, disposition, past, and present. All are inextricably linked.
This, it turns out, is the more accurate representation of my—our—condition. This interconectivity is borne out in the functioning of the brain and all other systems in the body. We know this to be true in nature, as well. Rewilding Campaigner George Monibot’s TED talk, “For More Wonder, Rewild the World,” illustrates how reintroducing the wolf to Yellowstone revived and restored virtually all aspects of the wild—alive or flowing—back to its original state. A great, complex synergy defines life on the micro and macro levels. Among conscientious individuals, understanding this demands patience and foresight. Even among the best of us, being ignorant of this fact yields myopic, impulsive, and reactionary decision making. Even if we act with the noblest intentions, we often neglect unintended consequences. Sometimes, we just can't see them. Sometimes, life spirals so rapidly that the requisite patience and planning are impossible; we can only hope to play catch-up. In such circumstances, we can only hope it isn’t too late.
Driving to school earlier this week, I heard that the Yamuna River in New Delhi, a sacred river to Hindus, is stagnant and almost completely toxic. The broadcast was so stark that I lingered in the day care parking lot a bit longer to hear the story to its conclusion. Predictably, my mind wandered. I thought about Flint, Michigan and Yemen, and I thought “we are such idiots.” The problem with the Yamuna is it runs through a metropolis that has grown too quickly for the city to appropriately handle. As a result of the city being unable to manage development, provide services, and protect resources, the Yamuna effectively functions as a repository for waste, toxic runoff, a space for prayer or cleaning, and a source of potable water. When 17 million people rely on one section of river that is not properly managed in a city that cannot possible be managed (without industrial-scale changes), one can only imagine the consequences, right? Surely, they knew the river would get polluted. Surely, they knew that, as more bodies required the resource, its levels would drop and the flow would stagnate. Surely, they knew that people prayed in the river and they would consequently be exposed to toxins at drastically unhealthy levels. Surely, they foresaw these and other consequences.
We must accept that we live in tightly woven matrix, one in which the manipulation of one variable affects many other. For economic, social, developmental, cultural, or traditional reasons, we neglect the reality. Out of necessity, we often neglect reality. But the consequences of our neglect are expensive, deleterious, and very punitive—as if Gaia herself is punishing our myopia. Our pragmatism fails us when the costs outweigh the benefits, and too often, when we focus only our spheres or the moment, such is the outcome. We poison our rivers. Unprecedented numbers of refugees seek refuge. We liberally satiate our thirst for oil but leave ourselves with air we cannot breathe. Industry, with our endorsement, provides us with excessive material wealth and contributes to the eventual submergence of small islands and flooding of all major coastal cities. We clear-cut forests and loose medicinal plants that only thrive in ecosystems buttressed by the trees. We miss the tapestry when we focus on only one thread, and we risk unraveling the art.
Ironically, researchers in New Delhi, much like Monibot in Yellowstone, are turning to nature to rectify the problems. Monibot’s solution was simple. Reintroduce the Grey Wolf and see what happens. The transformation was deep and broad! For the Yamuna, researchers are trying to restore the original biodiversity of the watershed. This acts as a natural filter and might mitigate some of the damage. I tell my students that every component of real art is deliberate and purposeful. If we approach our real-world decisions with an artful eye, a critic’s glance, we’ll notice the intersections and connections. We’ll slow down, we’ll be more thoughtful, and—if we’re fortunate—we’ll do more good. The initial costs may be higher, but the long-term gain is unquestionably worth it.
Director of the Global Initiatives
This blog is the collective voice of every person involved in the Global Initiative. Just as the globe hosts billions of disparate voices, we hope this space will embody and embrace the same diversity.