Canary in the coalmineAug 10, 2021
Singing a song of loss
I can't do the work I do without taking time to talk about how I feel about the world right now. Now, as the headlines tell us that like so many species before us, humanity is on the ‘red list’, we are a species facing its own decline.
For many years, I worked in conservation. I was fortunate and privileged to work for the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew. From there I went to work for the United Nations Environment Program. I was part of a team creating a study to make an economic case for conservation of nature. We had to show the cost to human, environmental and biodiversity wellbeing if we didn't take notice of, and work within, the delicate and myriad interconnections of the animate and inanimate.
We wanted to make a difference. We'd seen reports that had gone before ours, gathering dust on government shelves. This was 2008, and we thought that maybe this time we could be a catalyst for change because we could see how urgently that change was needed. Surely action will be taken this time, we said.
The study was called TEEB, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Every day data poured over my desk: so much loss, so much ignorance, so much greed. A tsunami of fear washing to the floor. I would lie awake at night with my heart pounding in my chest as I saw a picture of the future unfolding before us. Please may this be different, I prayed.
That was over a decade ago.
The data we saw then showed impacts of deforestation, loss of topsoil, water pollution, and then more water pollution. We saw coral dieback, air pollution, species loss; the complete cause and effect and interplay of decline of ecosystem and climate health with human and economic health. We saw how every collapse and extinction is connected.
We could see the sceptre of uninhabitable regions arising. We glimpsed the enormity of 'climate migration'. We could see tipping points like boats on the horizon, traveling towards us at speed. We were told not to scare people. Yet we were already scared half to death.
We met with policymakers and businesspeople and those we elect to act in our best interests. We had well-intentioned conversations in conference halls. This required us to jump on planes: one plane after another, after another. A vapor trail of despair started to follow me.
Ten years prior to working at the UN, my studies in sustainable technology showed me what has happened since the onset of the industrial revolution in terms of impacts of emissions, the canary was already in the coalmine singing its song of loss. I remember feeling fear.
In the late 1700s, the extraordinary scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt loudly called for action as he could see no good would come of the rapid rate in deforestation and other man-made impacts that messed with the integrity of functioning systems. He called for change.
In the 12th Century, the abbess Hildegard von Bingen wrote that if we lived in a way that was disconnected from Nature, the seas would rise and swallow cities. She saw the future.
And now here we are. We experience pandemic, flood, fire, famine. Another extinction, another ruined crop. Another community on the move.
With a deep sense of ecological grief, I returned home to New Zealand. I wasn't as brave as my colleagues who could face these facts day after day. But I knew like me they were hurting. I thought maybe I could do something here to contribute to the change we need in this place. Surely here would be different.
But here like everywhere else, we love our petroleum-fuelled vehicles and food flown around the world so it can be tasted all year. We turn our air conditioners up and pour more milk on our cereal. We have cut down forest and now we stand up in the dust.
I turned inward, spiralling like an autumn leaf falling from the tree. I decided that if I can't help make macro change, maybe I could just simply try and help one person at a time.
There are many things that nature has taught me, and one of them is that we need to accept the moment we are in right now. Another is that, like so many other species, we need to adapt to our new reality.
Healers and sages throughout history have known that in nature we can see ourselves reflected, and we can find the cure for what ails us. By deepening our relationship with nature we can find the medicine that our society, and this planet needs.
If we can, in this moment, accept that we need to be in right relationship with our fellow humans, with the species on this planet, flora and fauna, with landscapes and waters, myths and legends, and stars and cosmos… maybe we have a chance.
Hildegard, Humboldt, Black Elk, Ficino, these are people among people who have appeared through time to communicate the simplicity, beauty and the importance of seeing ourselves in direct relationship with nature and cosmos. I turned to their words. These people spoke of soul, spirit, astral forces. They spoke of us as a microcosm of the macrocosm.
They said everything is connected.
They showed us totems and spirit guides and points on the wheel. They showed us a life that celebrated seasons, equinox and solstice. They turned their face to the heavens and gave thanks.
Somewhere along the line we cast ourselves adrift from this great dreaming, and now we're washing up on the shores of our own mistakes. Now sometimes I can't bear to look too far ahead for fear of the visions I may see. And I know that I'm not alone.
Yet like so many others, in my own way, I must do something. I am doing something.
My hope is that helping connect one person at a time to nature for their health and wellbeing, is like dropping a stone into a pool of water. A ripple of change will start moving, ever outwards. If we see a connection, if we become the connection, maybe we can look after things better as well. Maybe it's not too late.
Before, on that global stage, I communicated the endings of things: species loss, ecosystem, collapse, extinction. And I tried like so many others to shine a light on ways forward. Now I help people navigate their own endings, and I try to shine a light on pathways to new ways of being alive to the wheel of life.
I created a business, Archeus and The Centre for Nature Connection, that places working with nature at its heart. It gives money to conservation work. It enables me to have a platform to teach people just how restorative, and healing, a deep connection to nature really is. When someone says to me, “wow, I never thought of a plant like that before”, I can see that ripple moving across the water.
I fear for what the world is becoming. And it's not like we hadn't heard the canary's song. But I still strive to help bring about the change. One person at a time.
If you are building your own natural skincare business take a look at this offering - it is a course I have created that helps you understand your impacts and interactions with the environment, place nature at the heart of your decision-making, and get an abundance of practical information on the ins and outs of establishing a natural skincare business.
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