Any one who cares for the environment is busy changing life-long habits. Thinking twice before driving, getting a Prius or other hybrid, changing all the light bulbs, maybe rethinking their own energy use and going for solar, and buying organic. I totally applaud their commitment. The bad news is that these are just symptoms of the underlying disease and like any other disease the cure requires looking more deeply into the cause of our current crisis.

At the heart of it all is our relationship – or lack of it – with nature. Yes we LOVE the natural world, witness the vast numbers of us that use our National parks. We plant our own gardens; we support the Nature Conservancy in their attempt to salvage wild places, and we give money to save the Redwoods. All this is good, but I want you to stop a minute and notice your thoughts and feelings as you read the next line. Trees and rivers have rights. Are you still with me? At the core of all of our problems is the simple fact that we treat the natural world as property. And the corollary to that is that an owner can do anything he or she wants with his/her property. Why does this matter?

It’s not been too many years since the idea of an ecosystem has become a rather mainstream idea. An ecosystem is a collection of plants, animals, insects and land formations that work together to both live their own life and support each other in living. We are just beginning to understand the complex kinds of support that happens in an ecosystem. Home gardeners are aware of some of this as there are plants we plant to protect other plants from insect “pests,” Marigolds come to mind. This kind of mutual benefit is just the tip of the iceberg.

Each and every plant, animal and insect has a role to play in the ecosystem of which it is a part. It is even possible to argue that since all aspects of nature are key contributors in a given ecosystem that the Law of Nature would suggest that each aspect of a given ecosystem has not only a “right” but a “duty” to fulfill its role. The key concept here is relationship – the relationship between all living organisms and the rest of nature. An ecosystem is a collection of relationships. All of the relationships have as their highest “duty” the enhancement and support of the whole. In fact, in nature, there is NO waste as each aspect of the life cycle of all plants, animals and insects supports the betterment of the whole. There is one fly in the ointment.

Us, we do NOT act with the whole in mind. Our belief and intoxication with individualism and separateness has us acting as if nothing else matters. We do this with Nature, with our own systems (seen Sicko yet?), with our “development” and “progress” in every aspect of our lives. We are beginning to see that it doesn’t work. All of our support systems are broken, medicine, education, politics, you name it and it needs fixing. Why? Because, for the most part, each aspect of our society has come to believe that IT has rights that out weight those of the citizens IT was supposed to support. The key issue is relationship. Relationship requires a balance of give and take to be healthy. When one party to a relationship does all the taking, then that relationship becomes abusive. We see that abuse in our health systems, and in our food system to name just two. We also see it in the way we use the “resources” of the natural world to make what we want. Resources the very word connotes an object, not a living breathing contributing member of a natural community.

In an ecosystem all things are tied together. One part or aspect can’t change without having an affect on the rest. Our cities should be part of the ecosystem, but they have been built as if they could stand-alone. Our highways should be part of the ecosystem, but they have been built as if they could stand-alone. The very word sprawl is one way of saying that our housing developments have been built, as if they can stand alone, with no regard for the environment in which they exist. There is a part of us that knows that this is not right, but we have been so seduced by the belief that we are separate and independent of Nature that we have turned a blind eye. The consequences are coming home to roost. Some of these consequences, our sense of ennui, of depression and lack of meaning, the emptiness in most of our lives is a reflection of our lack of connection with the natural world. Most of us have no sense of place and this lack of belonging has become a spiritual crisis for some of us.

So, if trees have rights, if squirrels have rights, if lakes and creeks and rivers have rights, how does that change what we do? It means doing things like moving the road instead of the tree, it means not allowing people to build in a flood plane, it means understanding and living within the carrying capacity of the land (not asking the land to support more than it can comfortably manage). It means not using insecticides that kill every living thing, it means not planting monocultures and not creating seeds that will not germinate the next year. It means being in respectful relationships with the rest of the natural world. It means self-discipline and foregoing greed for appreciation. It means giving as well as taking. It means following our hearts instead of our wallets. It is a paradigm shift of the highest magnitude – a shift that we need to make as fast as we can.

In the West the methane drilling that is draining the aquifer from Canada through Colorado, the oil drilling, the timber industry in California, the lack of water, wild fires, disappearing animal and fish species, GMO issues, all have a tremendous impact on the lives of everyday citizens and they speak of destruction that will leave an impact for generations. The answers are not just to stop doing/taking/raping, but stopping and rethinking. Is our money better spent developing solar, creatively rethinking methane drilling or draining the aquifer for immediate methane needs? Each issue has a sustainable answer, if we take the time to look for it.

Understanding that other life forms have rights makes the right decisions and actions much clearer and easier to discern. We have an internal barometer that helps us with choosing the right action – our feelings. If you wince, if you feel sadness, if you regret taking or “needing” to take an action, then don’t do it. Does the action you or someone else is contemplating improve or support the ecosystem in which it is taking place? What does your heart say? We are an ingenious species, if we hold the tension between a desire and a caution long enough a whole new option will appear. We have the ability to create a new path, new ways of solving our problems, new approaches to old issues. We can do this! We need to do this! Our actions are our legacy.

Author's Bio: 

Kathryn Alexander is a writer, speaker and consultant who is deeply in debt to Cormac Cullinan for his wise thoughts and systems thinking applications in his book Wild Law. Kathryn’s focus on ethics in organizations was sharpened by his wisdom.