I hear the exhale before I see the fin atop the arched back of a juvenile humpback whale, then the wide white fluke before a long dive. The second whale followed. Ice swirls on the surface where they had been, then looking beyond them you understand that you are in their space. “You” are the odd object here, “You” do not belong in Antarctica and are only a feeble visitor, and that humility is speechless.
E.O. Wilson, naturalist and Harvard entomologist, defines biophilia as the human affinity for life and life-like systems. Why do we need nature? Predominantly we take from nature for practical and material exploitation, which Wilson calls “utilitarian biophilia.” We eat nature, farm, ranch, fish, hunt, drill, log and mine nature. But there are 8 other relationships, each of equal importance. Three are evident here in Antarctica at this moment; satisfaction from direct experience (naturalistic biophilia), affinity and ethical concern for nature (moralistic biophilia), and an overpowering sense of beauty (aesthetic biophilia). I’m also well aware that in a Maslow’s Hierarchy kind-of-way, that I can have these thoughts and feelings because my utilitarian needs of food, shelter, security and warmth are already met. Surely, I wouldn’t care much about natural beauty if our zodiac flipped over. Yet, when I have basic needs met, I long for greater meaning in life, and nature gives that in spades.
We soon move our zodiac away from the scene and head back to the security of the ship, and within and hour we’re under way. That’s when I see a fishing buoy dragging a long line. I cringe, the same way you do when you hike to a vista somewhere far in the hills and you think you’ve got to be the first person to have this view, or at least the only person within a hundred miles at that moment. Then you see a candy wrapper, water bottle, or even a diaper on the side of the trail. You think, “What’s wrong with these people,” because in some small way that act of leaving trash behind and the persistence of that trash by design takes something from you, an opportunity for solace or a bit of personal restoration.
This deeper need for nature is echoed by Robert Swan when he says, “Can’t we leave just one place alone?” as he talks about the mission of his organization 2041 to make the Antarctic Treaty a permanent agreement. In the case of plastic pollution, we need the middle of the ocean, the top of the mountain, and all the trails and seaways to get there, to be free from material graffiti. The persistence of plastic waste in the world is an assault on wild space and what lives there, and a theft from humanity of a basic right to experience nature in the raw.
So when we think of why we do what we do, we must look at the complex relationship we have with nature. The sum of these is the measure of who we are and more than justifies our conservation campaigns.