Before the first leaf even hit the ground this fall, every pumpkin patch, apple tree and square foot of foliage became coveted backdrops for many Dartmouth students’ new Facebook profile photos. Fall brings the entire campus closer and provides a rare opportunity for many to interact with nature. Unfortunately, for most students much of that connection to nature is superficial and rooted in shallow aesthetics, which undermines the importance of caring for nature as more than just a pretty backdrop.
This term, I have been fortunate enough to go on two classic “fall” trips in which I picked apples, took a tour through a corn maze, snapped photos in a pumpkin patch and satisfied my appetite in a raspberry field. At the orchard, I cringed at how many apples were left to decompose on the ground; people would take them from their trees and throw them away as soon as they found another one that looked more symmetrical or more appetizing. The same was true for the corn and the pumpkins. Too many of us have no problem with ripping a fruit or vegetable away from its root and wastefully disposing of it simply because we are tired of carrying it, have decided that we are not willing to pay for it or have found a more appealing alternative.
We treat nature the same way we treat people: we have more regard and respect for those we perceive as more beautiful. This is part of what makes our relationship with nature so problematic — we only truly pay attention to and care about nature when we perceive it as beautiful and thus worth protecting.
I am sure that if any one of us saw a tall, beautiful tree on the edge of the Connecticut River being cut down, we would do everything in our power to stop the offender. At the very least, we would see the tree’s death as tragic. But when our improper recycling causes many more trees to be chopped down, most of us rarely give it a second thought.
Just two weeks ago, the College decided to temporarily suspend recycling at certain collection points on campus because of excessive contamination with regular and food waste. When taking 30 seconds out of our day to sort trash is seemingly too much for us to manage, we must realize that our attitude has to do not just with a lack of time or knowledge but also a lack of empathy for the environment that we love to use.
Unfortunately, it is part of human nature to act this way — we are designed to be more devoted to what is in front of us, especially when we think that it is aesthetically pleasing. We consume so many products with huge carbon footprints and other problematic environmental effects because we are so far detached from the chain of production that we fail to realize each product’s real, direct harm to nature. We fail to perform simple tasks such as recycling because we do not have an accurate perception of how each individual failure to act further exacerbates environmental issues and resource exploitation. We appreciate the beauty of a Hanover fall, but we cannot will ourselves to care enough about it because our actions do not spoil it rapidly enough — on the surface, at least — for us to see a difference in real time.
Unless we can find a way to change this pervasive callousness toward nature, the sustainability movement has no future — not at Dartmouth, not in the United States, not in the entire world. Unless we can force ourselves to think long-term, to track our decisions and to see nature not only as beautiful but also important to protect, the sustainability movement will fail.
We will not spark change just by picking asymmetric apples or appreciating every kind of pumpkin, misshapen or otherwise. But that is a place to start. Learning to love nature with all of its imperfections is a step in the right direction. Learning to love it even when it is not right in front of us is a step further. Actively working to stop its destruction even when that destruction is happening thousands of miles away is where we need to be. By taking the tiny first step of appreciating all aspects of nature, we can start the long journey toward protecting it from ourselves.