Darwin’s contemporary had a theory of evolution too. What if we’d listened to him instead?


Darwin’s contemporary had a theory of evolution too. What if we’d listened to him instead?

Most people today are spending their days behind locked doors, terrified of a deadly virus that has no cure. The many sided-war of the middle east rages on, more dangerous than ever. India is at war with China. The United States is seeing protests and resistance and an uncertain election.

It feels almost irreverent to talk about the environment when there’s such cultural and societal upheaval occurring across the globe. Racial and social inequality are at the forefront of almost every discussion today, almost overnight. A fringe topic we had ignored for centuries, is now front and centre, and all experienced under the umbrella of COVID-19. Against that backdrop, we have a pandemic that has threatened to cut our health and economic legs out from under every country in the world.

I would like to suggest that ignoring our environment all these many years is one of the reasons why we’re in this mess, but, perhaps, if we make changes now there may still be time to turn it all around.

For the last few years, I’ve worked with the Jr. League of Lancaster, a non-profit women’s organization, on our Girls in STEM committee. As part of this STEM education, we planted several rain gardens by partnering with different private institutions and enlisted school-aged kids to help with the planting. We even created a curriculum so others could repeat the process.

It was great fun, and in my opinion, a small but important success. Perhaps we can learn from it, going further?

Partnerships can happen on a larger scale as well. About 15 years ago, I was in Portland, Oregon for a stormwater conference where we spent part of a day out in the field traversing the residential neighbourhoods of Portland, going from curbside rain gardens to bioswales to on-street containment — all stormwater management techniques that were instituted by the City, but kept up in conjunction with the residents and the local environmental groups. The streets were beautiful, and better yet, the City wasn’t fully responsible for all the maintenance. Portland was way ahead of its time for this kind of project.

Today, green infrastructure is popping up everywhere. For example, cities like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are in the midst of ongoing 25-year green infrastructure projects designed to keep bazillions of gallons of stormwater out of the city’s combined sewer system. In Philly, an interagency partnership with the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation — which happens to manage the largest urban park system in the world — has been instrumental in that program’s success.

Did you know that Charles Darwin wasn’t the only one to posit a theory of evolution? Alfred Russel Wallace was a British naturalist who independently developed the theory of evolution through natural selection as a result of extensive field work in the Malay Archipelago.

Wallace, who was a commoner, sent his writings to Darwin, who was part of the upper echelon of society, and asked for help in getting it published. Darwin was shocked to find his ideas on evolution fully formed — he’d been working on them for 20 years — and so offered to collaborate with Wallace since Darwin already had access to the right people. They joined forces and together published some of their writings with the Linnaean Society in 1858.

Eventually, Wallace, who sold animal specimens from his research trips to support his travels, went back into the field, and Darwin continued on the speaking circuit. Their work was enthusiastically received and you can probably guess what happened next. After about a year, Wallace’s name was dropped from the writings and Darwin published a book called “The Origin of Species.” Just like that, the theory of Survival of the Fittest was born.

And there was the key difference between the two men’s theories.

Wallace believed that a species’ best chance for survival was through cooperation, as in the whole herd working together to avoid the lion. Yes, sometimes the lame zebra gets eaten by the lion because that’s how nature cleans house, and because lions have to eat, too. But if the other zebras hadn’t been working together, perhaps more of them would have been lost to the lions.

In Wallace’s version, we all work together and as such, should all benefit from societal advances. In Darwin’s version, the lion was king of the jungle, the top of the food chain; to him all spoils were due.

With deference to Darwin, I agree with Wallace. So many of today’s environmental and societal ills are because of our “winner take all” mentality.

Overall, a little cooperation goes a long way.

Imagine a world where companies always considered the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. Where cooperation, rather than competition, entered into every boardroom decision. That may seem like a distant dream, but until then, what can we do to fix things?

Because everyone’s into slogans these days, I’m going to join in too.

*Vote With Your Feet and Your Wallet *can be our first. We live in a consumer driven society, which means you have the power. If you don’t like something, don’t buy it. Skip the bottled water and invest in a stainless steel one. The pre-pandemic demise of single-use plastics is a perfect example of consumer-driven choices pushing the economy in a better direction.

Our second slogan would need a bit more attention. *Read Labels and do your own risk/benefit analysis.* So many pharmaceuticals and personal care products aren’t environmentally friendly. Is there a natural alternative that will be easier on your body and the water supply? Put pressure on manufacturers by rejecting harmful products — like Triclosan — and watch them disappear.

And now we move on to *Think Globally, Act Locally. *Consider your health and well-being holistically and then make the everyday decisions in support of that health. Eat locally grown vegetables, use less packaging, ride your bike instead of drive, or walk, buy organic — all these things result in more health and less waste, especially on the water supply. You probably never thought of eating as a political movement, but it is.

And, last but not the least, is *Get Involved. *Call your local councilman about the things that need to change. Call manufacturers and tell them what you want. Call your grocery store and ask them to get rid of single use bags. Start local letter-writing campaigns. One person is good, but a hundred, or a thousand, people are better. Join student groups on campus. Find local watershed groups. Tell your legislative representatives that all of our trade deals should have environmental protections in place.

Go volunteer. Get involved.

Corporations aren’t social-justice oriented: they’re bottom-line oriented.

If a company can make it cheaper somewhere else because it can dump untreated effluent or skip the scrubber on the air stack, they’re going to go there because their allegiance is to their shareholders and  not to the consumers. That’s part of their corporate by-laws. Yet, if everyone’s environmental standards are the same, there’s no incentive for a business to move elsewhere.

On some level we are all environmental refugees, searching for access to clean water and clean air. It’s time to roll up our collective sleeves because we are in a crisis. Not to be alarmist, but without fundamental changes, in as little as 20 years from now we may be waging wars over water. Whether it’s as simple as planting a tree or as complicated as starting an entire environmental movement now is the time for action.

In modern society, everything you do will eventually reach the farthest reaches of the farthest reaches of the earth. Water is ubiquitous and always on the move. The radiation in Fukushima will come west, while the industrialized fallout from our manufacturing will travel east. Everything we do, every pesticide we put on the land or chemical we use on our persons will eventually end up in the water.

It’s time for us to make good choices — ones that benefit the individual and the whole of society — for the good of us all.

We’ve tried Darwin. Now let’s give Wallace a chance.