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Never Take Our Natural World For Granted

As a journalist writing about climate change and the environment, I spend a lot of time thinking about nature and humanity’s relationship to it: what we have done to our planet, what we still can do to save it from being utterly transformed.

Last November, I traveled to Maine for a story I was reporting for The Atlantic about efforts underway in Maine to make connections between businesses in the state and those in Arctic countries. Some elected officials, policymakers and business people are looking at the far north as a new market for goods today, but they are also making a long-term play for the opportunities that may come as our climate continues to change and the world continues to warm: when Arctic sea ice has melted, and ships can pass over the North Pole between Asia, Europe and North America; when Greenland’s permafrost thaws, and its rich current of metals and other precious materials can be mined; when this last spot of wilderness is open to greater human involvement.

That story–about the loss of certain natural features we take for granted, and what some people might gain from the now-inevitable changes to our planet–was interesting and complicated, but not exactly what I want to write about today.

While I was in Maine, I went to visit Peter Rand, an independent oyster farmer who grows oysters on several small floating docks where the New Meadows River meets Casco Bay, on land where his grandfather had built a small hunting and fishing cabin in the first half of the last century.

The day I visited was New England at its peak – bright and cold and crisp; a perfect fall day that threatens to suddenly snap into winter. Peter was leaving the oysters to hibernate for the winter, but he had harvested some that morning, and I got to try one: it tasted like ocean in the best possible way. As we stood on the docks watching the fishing boats pass up and down the clean, clear river before heading out to sea, I felt momentarily connected to a world far from my own; I felt that I had stepped into nature.

Then, Peter told me that there were more and more oyster farmers in Maine, many of whom used to work as commercial fishermen but could no longer support themselves that way. Cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine has been strictly regulated for years, but the cod population still hasn’t recovered from overfishing, and climate change is making recovery more difficult; the shrimp fishery was closed in 2014 and will stay closed through at least 2021; the herring fishery, important to Maine’s economy since herring are lobsters’ favorite bait, is on the verge of collapse.

Any illusions I had been quietly harboring about a world unspoiled quickly disappeared. Even here, in a place that felt so far away, where nature lends certain things–like oysters or spring water–their value, nothing can be separated from the exploitation and damage being done to the planet somewhere else. It made me realize that no corner of the earth is untouched by human action, and that our indifference to nature and to its limits threatens not only the things we take for granted, but also our very existence on this planet.

We have pushed the planet towards a breaking point, unconsciously sacrificing the future to meet what we think we need today. In the name of convenience or profit, we’ve created a world where we consume because we can, without paying much attention to our waste and the problems it creates. We imagine that what we do in New York or California or China or France has nothing to do with what happens in Maine, as if our actions are not connected, as if we are not members of the same species, as if we don’t live on one planet with one ocean and one atmosphere, one Arctic and one Antarctic.

As if it’s not our only home.

Tatiana Celia Kennedy Schlossberg was a reporter for “The New York Times” covering climate change and has also written for “The Atlantic.” Her new book “Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have” comes out August 27th. Pre-order here.

This essay was featured in the Aug. 4th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.