People as sentinels of sustainability

In many small-scale communities, people’s health and well-being are intimately connected to their local environments. Indeed, it seems self-evident that healthy ecosystems are essential to people’s ability to live full, good, and healthy lives. Yet, the relationship often works the other way: that is, many contemporary ecological problems are the direct result of people meeting their needs. This has come to be called the environmentalist's paradox: that solving environmental problems will require some costs, and perhaps significant costs, to society.

We talk about this paradox, and propose an alternative way of thinking in our new publication in Facets. Rather than focusing on win-lose scenarios, which are no doubt common in today's world, we argue that we can and should be pursuing win-win scenarios, where both people and ecosystems thrive together. There are numerous examples out there, present and historical, where people find ways to not just protect but enhance biodiversity through their food and land-management practices. 

We chose to frame our discussion with the concept of sentinels: which has taken many meanings and forms throughout the years, and all of them powerful for thinking about sustainability. Historically, sentinel could be used to describe a sentry or guard, or the position from which those people took their watch. According to the OED, the origin is probably an Italian word for the act of keeping watch. Today, the word sentinel is used in ecology, to describe a species whose health is closely linked to the health of its local environment. Think "canary in the coal mine": a sentinel species lets us know when something is wrong. Similarly in public health, sentinel communities are those that are likely to provide an early warning of emerging epidemiological patterns. 

All of these are apt metaphors for the many possible positive roles that people can take in ecosystem sustainability. However, while many arguments have been made that people need to learn to be guards, shepherds, or stewards of ecosystems, we know of no other examples where the argument has been extended further, to thinking about people's health and well-being as indicators of ecosystem health. Our question is, under what circumstances can people be the canary?

Recognizing the potential for reconnecting our communities and families to our local ecosystems in healthful rather than destructive ways opens up a very positive vision for what a sustainable future can look like. The task at hand, and it must happen fast, is to transition away from the industrially-minded and growth-based practices and values that have come to alienate us from the natural world. We believe that win-win thinking offers a sense of belonging that we seem to have lost. We are natural beings. We belong here, and despite our recent misstems, we can learn to coexist with a biodiverse world.

For more on this, check out the publication in Facets. 

You can also read my essay on the importance of belonging here


Banner photo by Russell Lee - Library of Congress LC-USW361-847 B.