Imagine a 10-year-old girl living in the heart of an American city, participating for the first time in a field trip to a remote natural area, far away from the shining lights and sounds of the urban life she knows.
As the sun slips below the western horizon, a darkness she has never experienced surrounds her. She looks skyward and is startled to see what looks like a brilliant river of light spreading across the sky.
It is, of course, the Milky Way in all its glory, undimmed by the street, traffic, or other lights that dominate her city’s skyline. With a local park as her only frame of reference for “nature,” this youngster is not growing up with a strong affinity or understanding of our natural world — what it is, how it works, or why it is important.
She is part of the extinction of experience.
Our world is experiencing an unprecedented decline in human-nature interactions with few signs of slowing. It is likely that your grandparents experienced a closer connection with nature than your parents, and your parents experienced a closer connection than you.
This distancing of people from nature, the extinction of experience, is fueling a decline in public health, personal well-being, and understanding of the importance of protecting and preserving our environment.
The challenges that face us are readily apparent — from climate change and biodiversity loss, to emerging pandemics, and issues of social injustice. All too often, these challenges are so intimidating that we feel powerless in the face of their size and scope.
In truth, we have never been better equipped, and we have never had more skills, than we do now to tackle these problems. Global-sized challenges require global-sized solutions from thinkers and change agents of all types, and we are responding.
Those of us in the scientific and educational community are venturing out of our classrooms and research labs to form partnerships and embrace opportunities to work with new and sometimes unexpected allies in government and business to repair and sustain our natural world.
At the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), which I lead, we feel keenly our fundamental responsibility to share our knowledge of ecosystems, conservation, climate change, and global health. Every day at our biological research stations in Costa Rica and South Africa, we witness the transformative effect of direct human-nature experience to create a lifetime of commitment to our environment.
Imagine that you are a young scientist, sampling water from the largest remaining wetland in Central America. Your work results in strategies to track pollutants and protect your community’s water sources.
Or imagine that you live in a community bordering a national park. You receive a scholarship to a training course that leads to you becoming certified natural history guide, able to share your love for nature with visitors while earning a good living for your family.
Or imagine that as a community leader you make a connection with a global network of scientists and policy makers, who work with you to restore degraded lands into functioning tropical forests, helping ensure a sustainable and resilient future for your community.
The private sector can play a leading role in advancing their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) and sustainability practices by collaborating with organizations like OTS on efforts to heal and protect our environment.
On Earth Day, let us commit to continue working together — scientists and corporate leaders, students, community activists, and others — to find real, sustainable solutions to ensure a future where the natural world is accessible and healthy and where the extinction of experience may one day be a relic of the past.
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