Trees don’t think about sharing their nutrients: they just do it.

Flowers don’t think about sharing their pollen or their beauty: they just do it.

We don’t think about sharing our oxygen with plants and they don’t think about sharing their CO2 with us: we just do it.

The paradox that selflessness is actually selfish — that individuals benefit when helping others — seems to continue to challenge our egocentric minds and, in particular in western society, our everyday norms. Perhaps it’s epigenetics from past harsh winters of scarcity, or the collective trauma of war and disease that has us forgetting our altruistic nature, or individuals being taught about separateness, othering, and divisive ideologies from persons who haven’t healed their own hurt. Whatever the case, the current crisis has me wondering:

What’s the lesson?

While in graduate school, I had a Philosophy of Education professor that would ask us time and time again, “Have I told you the meaning of life yet?” We would all roll our eyes and nod yes, to which he would reply, “Well I’ll tell you again anyway. The meaning of life is to overcome the illusion that we are separate.”

Unfortunately, despite the fact that this idea can be found far and wide among ecologists, philosophers, writers, religious figures, and great thinkers across time and space, we continue to think and act like there’s “us” and there’s “everything else.” We hoard, we consume more than our fair share (in the US especially), and we are convinced by the powers that be that we live in a world of scarcity.

And yet, when we learn more about sustainability and nature’s perfect systems we wake up to the fact that we live in a world of abundance and interconnectedness. The wholeness we strive for through consumption can simply be filled – for free and with a net zero carbon footprint – with community. Community is a “coming together” and a reliance on one another for shared reasons, which is often survival, but is beneficial in a myriad of other ways (ways most of us are sorely missing at the moment). We also see that humans fit beautifully into that system, so long as our egos are deflated and we open to the power and mutual benefits of stewardship, relationship, reciprocity, and respect.

These concepts are not new, yet, it seems that as humans we are in constant need of reminders. COVID-19 is our latest reminder.

So what can we learn from this unfriendly reminder of our interconnectedness and the relational nature of our existence?

I don’t want this piece to get too heavy with the terrible realities of the climate crisis and ecosystem collapse, but the reality is: climate change will devastate our food systems, ecosystems, force people out of their homes, devastate the economy, and force species of all kinds to eventually go extinct.  More pointedly, we know that the climate crisis and our disregard for preserving ecosystems and protecting biodiversity is related to the current pandemic.

Experts speak about the importance of banning the wildlife trade and protecting wildlife habitats as means to prevent another outbreak, which again, we know is directly correlated to our own individual purchasing power like avoiding palm oil (read food labels! It sneaks into a lot of products but can easily be avoided), skipping factory-farmed animal products, and buying toilet paper that is FSC certified (not-so-fun fact: Costco TP is directly responsible for destruction of virgin boreal forests. Try to avoid it!). Forest loss is directly related to our individual purchases and choices, which is directly related to the chances of an outbreak of a virus like COVID-19.

We think to ourselves, “Oh, but it’s just one time or just me.” Guess what: a lot of people are thinking the exact same thing. My hope is that with this latest reminder of individual power and interconnectedness, our thinking will change.

The lessons in my mind so far, amidst a strange quarantine-haze of grief, shock, some joy, and probably a few too many baked goods are:

  • We are, in fact, not separate from one another. We are all connected one way or another and no action, no matter how small, is without reaction or consequence.
  • That brand new pair of Nikes or daily Starbucks habit are not essential. Clean air, clean water, fresh produce, shelter, and the ability to care for our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs, which includes connection in all its forms, are essential.
  • We need each other, including every little thing in the kingdom of living and nonliving things. We cannot do this life thing alone. We need bacteria, viruses (yes, viruses), mold, fungi, plants, and animals. We need human experts, too: scientists, farmers, teachers, and other essential workers that are so often not treated or compensated as essential. We wouldn’t be alive without all of these elements of Earth’s precious interconnected biosphere.
  • We can shift our way of life and our collective way of being quickly and drastically. Individual actions do matter and do make a difference. And not a little difference – the WHOLE difference – since we are nothing more than a collective whole and should stop seeing ourselves as individuals with little to no power.
  • Our own minds are our own greatest ally and our greatest enemy. Many of us are realizing this in quarantine rather quickly. A bad news day can sour our mood quickly, whereas a day spent mindfully and intentionally may be close to blissful. I’ve worked with hundreds of students over the years and so often mindset is the greatest determiner of learning outcomes. Our thoughts become our beliefs which become our actions which become our reality. This circles back to one of the most powerful of the “R”s that we are always talking about at EAS+Y: “rethink.” It is a key first step in behavioral change.
  • We are an extremely intelligent, resourceful, and altruistic species when we are at our best. We send people to space regularly, formulate vaccines to fight devastating disease, and have evolved to communicate with technology at a mass scale to operate as close to a global community as we’ve ever been.
  • Nothing is more powerful than the power of community. As Margaret Wheatley states, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” What does our global community care about?

I could easily let my anxieties and fear take over. I sometimes think: what if we don’t learn anything and are so eager to get back to “the way things were” we jump right back on our path to collective self-destruction?

But I refuse to think that way. Instead, I choose hope (and action, of course!). I choose hope because I hope we are all learning the lessons – and then some – about the power of the individual and the collective, about what brings true meaning to our lives, and about our inherent interconnectedness with all living and nonliving things, which is exactly the lessons we need to learn to fight the global climate crisis and live sustainable lives.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Emily Dickinson, who says it much better than me in her poem “‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers”:

Hope is a thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

The Evergreen Sustainability Alliance family always chooses hope (coupled with action, of course!), which is why we do the work we do.

So tell us, what makes you have hope in these trying times? And what are the lessons you are learning from this experience? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section!