On a recent quiet morning, I happened to look out the window next to my desk and noticed a small fluffball perched on a branch in the shrubbery outside. A moment's study revealed that the fluffball also had a head, beak, tiny little stick legs and a mottled red breast-- it was an adorable fledgling robin, and his momma and siblings where nowhere in sight. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to get a little panicky whenever I see a baby bird all by itself-- I start worrying that maybe it fell out of the nest, got lost, or was abandoned by its mom. My (completely unfounded) concern led me to peek outside the window every few minutes to make sure the little bird was okay. I named him Martin. I found myself smiling as he fluffed up his feathers, stifled a gasp whenever he wobbled on his little stick legs and looked as though he might tumble to the ground, and finally had to keep myself from breathing too loud a sigh of relief when his mother located him and fed him a mouthful of earthworms. An hour or so later, the branch was empty and my little Martin was gone. His downy baby wings had carried him to another branch out of sight of my window. I found myself a little bit sad that he was gone.
(An awful photo of my new buddy Martin)
It is amazing how quickly and how passionately we can become involved with something that we probably wouldn't have cared much about had we not seen it with our own eyes, or experienced it for ourselves. Honestly, if someone were to tell me that a little fledgling robin had fallen from a branch and been fatally injured, I would have felt sad for a moment, then promptly forgotten all about it. However, if someone later told me that Martin had fallen from his branch and been fatally injured, I would have been very upset. I probably would have gotten teary-eyed and then felt a little sad for the rest of the day. What's the difference between these two scenarios? Experiencing and becoming personally involved with a situation firsthand versus simply hearing about it.
My experience observing Martin the robin brought to mind a question that surfaced several times in my environmental studies and conservation ecology courses in college: Do people care to conserve what they don't know? If someone hasn't seen something with their own eyes or experienced it firsthand, will they be able to care about it enough to conserve it? This is a critical question to consider in our current global environmental situation, as we enter a time when we will need more people than ever to stand up in support of conserving the very resources that sustain us.
This is a particular challenge for serious issues such as ocean acidification and increasing atmospheric CO2 levels, as these problems cannot be readily seen. Unfortunately, the CO2 molecules are not becoming a visible and menacing visual presence in the air around us and atmosphere above us, and the oceans aren't changing color from blue to red like a piece of litmus paper in an acidic solution. Sure, we're beginning to see the effects of these environmental issues: rising CO2 levels are changing the climate, and we see these results in the decreasing arctic ice, in our increasingly strange weather patterns, and in disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. Ocean acidification is becoming more noticeable as corals die and sea animal's calcium carbonate shells become thinner as the acidic ocean water dissolves them. However, everyone does not see these effects and as a result, not everyone will be motivated enough to do something about it.
Just imagine, though, if these problems were visible. What if the increasing CO2 levels could be seen as a thick layer of bright red clouds, blotting out the stars at night, and trapping the earth's heat during the day as they slowly built up and encroached on the earth below? With such an ominous and ever-present threat looming above, I would imagine that we would have just a few more people panicking about this situation and trying to do something about it. The visibility and personal experience of a problem have a huge impact on a person's perception of it, and reaction to it.
So how do we get people to care about things they don't see, or haven't experienced, especially if it is something that is not visible? Well, unfortunately, it seems as though the number of people who directly experience the results of increasing CO2 levels and climate change are rising exponentially. Thousands upon thousands of people we affected by hurricane Sandy. Thousands more people in the midwest and "breadbasket" of the US have been suffering drought conditions, decreasing water supplies, and loss of crops due to extended periods of hot, dry weather. Dozens of tiny island nations across the word are watching in dismay as the ocean levels around them rise, threatening to put their nations out of existence within the next few decades. The list goes on and on. I suppose the challenge is for the growing populations of those individuals who are directly experiencing the effects of, or have knowledge of, these potentially devastating yet "invisible" environmental issues to try and convince the rest of the world that something needs to be done. To convince the world that even if the problem isn't clearly apparent to them personally as of yet... it will be soon.
This is a huge question to consider as we, as a global society, are confronted with these serious and potentially devastating environmental issues and try to sort out the best way to address them. Especially with climate change, it is going to take a monstrous, collective effort on the part of nations, governments, businesses, and individual people in order to change the current destructive pattern within which our society operates and try to avoid the worst effects of these environmental issues.
I certainly don't have the answers, but these thoughts and questions ran through my mind as I watched my new friend Martin perched on his branch outside my window. I couldn't help but draw the connections between the concern I felt for this little bird, and the relative lack of concern that I would have for any other bird that I hadn't "known" firsthand, and the extrapolation of that concept to the environmental issues we're currently facing.
It's interesting how the smallest things in nature can inspire your mind to ask questions, drawing you to the bigger picture and contemplating your place within it. That's just one of the things I love about the nature around us.