by Andrea Becerra
The terms “Mother Nature” or “Mother Earth” can sometimes feel clichéd, overused and unnecessarily gendered, but it can be a powerful metaphor when we think about about the sustaining value of our planet. On this Mother’s Day, let’s pay a tribute to our soil, water, and air, the foundations of life on our planet. Let’s challenge each other to treat the planet like we would a mom: with the respect and care that she deserves. We can’t give our planet chocolates or a thank-you card, but we can certainly try to be better stewards of Mother Nature and the life that she sustains.
First, the land and soil that we walk on sustains our ability to grow food every single day. Healthy soil is essential for healthy crops, and is part of an amazing natural cycle of soil, water, and air that produces plants and crops. Without recognizing the importance of this balance, we can become over-extractive and deplete the soil that we need to ensure this process can continue.
Just as nature is filled with virtuous cycles that sustain life on earth, humans can contribute to dangerous cycles that do the opposite. Our industrial farming practices have departed from balance and sustainability, and instead lead to carbon emissions, deforestation, and overall climate change. In turn, climate change threatens agriculture by causing more frequent and expansive droughts and heatwaves.
While we need to protect the natural processes that sustain our food production in the face of climate change, there are also problems with how we use and consume the food we do produce. The things we eat are increasingly contaminated with dangerous chemicals that threaten our health. A separate problem is that, while one out of every eight Americans struggles to put food on the table, a full 40% of the food we produce is wasted each year.
By supplying our food, Mother Nature gives us the platform for a healthy and sustainable way of life. It is up to us to use this gift with responsibility and care by thinking carefully about how we can produce and consume food in a healthy and sustainable way.
Water — in all its forms — is another gift from Mother Nature that we quite literally could not live without. Groundwater provides a substantial portion of the freshwater that we use for drinking and irrigation. Left alone, Mother Nature uses the water cycle of falling rain and melting snow to replenish groundwater supplies. Humans are disrupting this process by overdrafting groundwater and treating it as an unlimited resource and by covering our cities in pavement and impervious surfaces, preventing the natural process of water filtration and groundwater recharge.
Water covers 71% of the globe and is dangerously impacted by human activity. Carbon emissions cause global ocean acidification, with dire consequences for marine life and coastal communities. Damage to our water resources occurs on a local scale as well — approximately 10 trillion gallons of water runoff escapes untreated each year in the U.S, polluting waterways and drinking water. Green infrastructure solutions like green roofs and restored natural areas are an important solution to counteract an increasingly urbanizing world by promoting water retention and water quality.
Plants and soils act like natural water filters, removing pollutants from stormwater in a cost-effective way. In fact, natural water filtration can reduce the energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions expended by mechanically pumping and treating wastewater. Green infrastructure has resulted in wastewater treatment savings throughout the world, including an annual savings of $600,000 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and $1.3 million in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Mother Nature has a remarkable capacity to keep us safe in other ways. Plants remain the world’s most effective technology for filtering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This natural technology developed by Mother Nature has been honed for millions of years, and surpasses our own attempts to develop carbon capture and storage mechanisms. Safeguarding forests — which act as the lungs of our planet — is one of the best ways that we can repay Mother Nature for the ecological services that she provides.
Mother Nature has, for the entirety of human history, also gifted us the clean air that we breathe. We’ve taken this for granted because it seemed so freely and abundantly given. Today, air pollution is the world’s fifth leading risk factor for mortality. The chemicals that our factories, cars, and power plants send into the sky return to haunt by causing asthma, bronchitis, and many other health conditions that are especially damaging to children and seniors. These issues don’t just happen far away — 91% of the world’s population live in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution.
Mother Nature has also shown her patience, withstanding centuries of our unrelenting pollution, mismanagement, and destruction. However, she is also nearing tipping point: with one million plant and animal species at risk of extinction, sea-level rise already transforming communities, and record-breaking forest fires, the warning signs should not be hard to miss. It can easy to overlook many of the things that mothers do to keep us safe and healthy, and on this Mother’s Day we should remember the importance of clean air, water, and food, and fight to help Mother Nature keep us safe.
Andrea Becerra is a VOCES leader and works on sustainable water management issues for the Latin America Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
Photo credit: Pixabay