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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Reflection"
Volume 5 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265

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We All Need Nature
by David Suzuki PhD

Most Canadians today live in large cities - human-created habitats filled primarily with other people, a few pets and domesticated plants. So it's not surprising that I am often asked, "Who needs nature?"

The answer is "We all do," and I will try to show why. Let us imagine that scientists have made a breakthrough and created a time machine. Suppose we board the machine, dial four billion years ago to a time when no life existed. We push a button and zip, we are immediately taken back to a sterile Earth. Anxious to see what the planet was like, we open the door, step out - and within two minutes, we would be dead.

The reason? The atmosphere was completely toxic back then - rich in carbon dioxide and devoid of oxygen. After life arose some 3.8 billion years ago, marine organisms began to absorb the carbon dioxide dissolved in the oceans in order to make protective carbonaceous shells. When they died, those organisms sank to the ocean floor where, over millions of years, they became limestone. All of the world's limestone is made of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

But removing carbon dioxide wasn't enough. We also need oxygen, which was added to our atmosphere by organisms through photosynthesis. Over millions of years, oxygen has accumulated to make up 19 per cent of our air. To this day, photosynthesis on land, in soil and in oceans maintains the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere that we need to live.

Well, suppose we had anticipated the lack of breathable air and stored tanks of it in the time machine. So we don the breathing apparatus and leave the capsule to check out the land. After a few hours, we'd get thirsty. But where would we find clean water to drink? Roots of trees and other plants, soil fungi and microorganisms filter out heavy metals and other toxic contaminants to clean our water. Again, before life existed, water would have accumulated substances that we would not care to drink. To this day, the web of living things filters our water as it percolates through soil.

OK, so we brought clean water. But after hours of exploration, we would also be hungry. Where would we find food? Every bit of the nutrition we require for our bodies was once living. Four billion years ago before life arose, there would have been nothing to eat.

Even if we brought food with us, we would need to include seeds if we wanted to grow anything. But where could we plant them? Soil is created from the carcasses of plants and animals mixed with a matrix of dust, silt, sand, clay and gravel. So before there was life, there was no soil. To this very day, besides being our food, other living organisms create the soil on which we depend.

Finally, suppose after a long day, the sun sets and we would like to have a fire. Where would we find fuel? Heat liberated from fuel is sunlight captured and stored by plants. Like our food, every bit of our fuel - wood, peat, coal, gas, oil - was once alive, so four billion years ago, there was none to be found. Even if we brought wood with us, heaped it on paper, then struck a match to light it - nothing would happen. In order to have a flame, we need oxygen and before photosynthesis, there was no oxygen.

Now let's reconsider the question, who needs nature? We do - and in a most profound way. The web of all life on Earth, through mechanisms we are far from understanding, creates, cleanses and replenishes the air, water, soil and energy that we need to survive. We have never needed nature more than we do today. Next time, I'll explain why we find it so hard to recognize that.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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