How to adapt to an uncertain world

April 22, 2011|Celeste Maiorana
  • People can retrain themselves to enjoy natural settings, weeds included, rather than douse their yards with harmful herbicides and fertilizers.
Photo by Celeste Maiorana

Two very different recent readings nicely framed for me a primary objective of this column, which is to encourage people to plant trees and promote natural ecosystems.

One was a book examining and advocating barefoot running; the other a review of science journal articles about the rate of species extinctions in the context of a changing climate.

It is normal for species to go extinct, but lately the rate at which species are disappearing has been increasing. Historically, there have been five mass extinctions — periods when an estimated 75 percent or more of all species disappeared in a few million years or less. There is concern that humans, through our global effects upon the planet, are ushering in a sixth period of mass extinction. Such an event would have dire consequences for human wellbeing.

Until the last decades most of our effect upon the welfare of other species has been through hunting, over-fishing and deforestation. Direct effects of those types of activities can be moderated or overturned if changes are made in time. The effects of climate change upon the welfare of species, though, remains largely beyond human understanding and control.

Scientists involved in extinction studies note that species can be remarkably resilient when given adequate undisturbed space. One response to climate change, then, would be to simply set aside and protect as much land and water as possible in as many places as possible so that species inhabiting them might adapt to changing conditions.

As individuals we can set aside part of our properties as natural areas. If we make wild backyards, we create wild corridors through our communities. This can help species migrate to new locations in response to changing conditions.

"The Barefoot Running Book," by Jason Robillard, begins by itemizing many reasons shoes are bad for you, and why going barefoot is a key to better running. As much as anything, however, it seems to be about retraining runners. Lack of shoes on tender feet inspires even seasoned runners to start out easy and increase mileage slowly. It also increases the likelihood that runners will land more lightly and be aware of the surface. Doing so, it causes runners to relearn running in the way a barefooted baby learns to toddle, walk and run — naturally.

Just as shoes enable us to ignore the signals of our bodies, so too does our technology encourage us to be unaware of the effects our actions have upon the other residents of our world. Sitting inside our air-conditioned homes, we don't hear the roar of the machinery outside our windows. Astride our riding lawnmowers with our earbuds piping music, we have little appreciation of how it sounds to everyone else.  

But we can always retrain ourselves. The first step is to get outdoors. Walk around your house and community during the day and night. Look and listen. Do the same in a natural setting. A nighttime walk along a country road with a full moon shining is truly magical.

Simply by becoming aware of our heavy impact, we can lighten the effect. We can choose to buy electricity from companies that are providing power from renewable sources such as wind or solar. We can make sure that our outside lights are turned off at night and shrink the size of our lawns. And decide that dandelions are pretty. No need for those petroleum-base fertilizers and herbicides. Just enjoy the fresh scents of spring.

Celeste Maiorana is a member of the Washington County Forest Conservancy District Board. Visit the board's Web site at to learn more about forest communities and projects you can do.

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