The question now is no longer about the old polarity between nature and culture. The effects of nature and culture on us are intertwined. Each lends something to the other; together they sustain us. The better question is: Where from here? How do we react so smartly to the complex social and natural threats before us that a stranger to our planet, looking back at our history, will be moved to call us a just, courageous, and reverent people?
Establishing better ethical relations in every quarter of our lives—political, social, environmental—is arguably the starting point, one that will require, first, an instinct for reconciliation. Instead of the numbing rhetoric of "us" and "them," we will have to invent a new kind of "we." It's the "we" already welling up in many of us, born out of empathy, out of genuine love for each other and the Earth, and out of sober assessments about our predicament. It's a grittier, less jingoistic "we," born of hard work.
We hear too often now that times are rough. Considering global climate change alone, we can argue convincingly that, in fact, we're in a far worse spot than those who have come before us. There are threats to our physical and mental well-being on the horizon the like of which humanity has known only in the most limited way. These unanticipated developments—collapsing ocean fisheries, the human disturbance of viral ecologies, the accumulation of nonbiodegradable plastic—are, rather suddenly, a scary part of everyone's everyday life. And our apprehension, too, is of a different order than, say, the fears of Europeans during the spread of the Black Death or of peasants throughout history, living precariously before nature's forces and at the whim of despots. It's an apprehension calling for something untapped in us.
What we need is uncommonly mature people. A kind of courage is required we've not seen before, that "we" in us that wants to make a simple bow of recognition, without judgment, toward all other people caught in the same travail, and then simply to start the work. As individuals we can, each of us, assess our own faiths and beliefs, measure our stores of energy, take account of our own pressing personal responsibilities, and then respond, inventing together another way of life, one less harmful, less cruel than the one we have now.
We risk trying one another's patience when we put too fine a point on precisely which threats we face as a species or make overbearing claims about the divine attributes of "nature." Simply put, the impact of human enterprise on nonhuman systems has created an unusual and strange urgency. In a relatively short time, we're going to learn whether we are indeed a match for the various threats science enumerates. We are going to find out whether we can actually be as empathetic toward one another, as tolerant, as imaginative as we believe we can.
To develop less cruel and better governed societies, we're going to have to begin by trading in the old questions about what kinds of darkness are forcing us into the future and ask instead another question: What is calling to us? What lies buried in our destiny that is calling out to us now?
I look at my own task as a writer and humanitarian and know this one thing: Without other men and women, hard at work devising a safer future for every life on Earth, my task is like the song of a man living alone in a box: beautiful, perhaps, but of no great help to humanity. I need these men and women. Before long, each of us will be looking to our right and to our left for eyes that we can believe in. It is with these women and men that we will initiate the work that will impel those still to come, including our children, to praise us—and to understand the fierceness of our determination that they not be born in vain because, facing great threats, we fell down.
Barry Lopez has traveled to more than 60 countries and worked on international humanitarian projects with Mercy Corps and Quest for Global Healing.