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Many people agonize over their lives, trying to find a pattern that proves they’re making or have made a difference by being alive. If they can’t find one, they may grow depressed or surrender to apathy. Others substitute material possessions as markers of how important they’ve been. Some accrue power over others to establish their prominence. But which of us has been able to preserve a vital aspect of life on Earth? We consider humans as standing at the pinnacle of significance, yet we watch our environment degrade while we text. Even those who spend inordinate amounts of time, effort, and/or money to protect Earth often feel discouraged.
The PBS series CHANGING PLANET gives us a long-view perspective of people and animals around the globe that do matter to the health of the world, and they aren’t anyone we expected. For example, in the premier episodes of season 2, Dr. M. Sanjayan, a conservation scientist, visits a group of indigenous people who still echo their old lives in the outback as they protect the land from fire devastation—by setting little random fires to decrease the kindling at hand in haphazard patterns. It’s a practice that goes back many generations, a practice that protects certain animal species and food sources. Meanwhile, we also learn that endangered dugongs, that look like slurpy cousins of manatees, are the caretakers of sea grasses that store carbon that may save us all. The dugongs make the sea grass seeds more viable and productive by passing them through their digestive processes. In an awareness breakthrough about sound, scientists mimic the busy underwater “conversations” around healthy reefs to attract coral young to set up life in threatened areas. As the CHANGING PLANET episodes continue, we discover we have no idea who our heroes truly are—except that we’re defended by plants, animals, and indigenous peoples we generally don’t recognize, much less thank.
In daily life, too, we generally have no idea which people around us promote a happy, healthy society where we and our children can thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually. We publish flashy stories about perpetrators of violence and degradation and relegate those who quietly make life kinder and gentler to brief posts on social media—upside down priorities. We need to redefine “hero” to include teaching ourselves to restrain temper long enough for us to think critically to develop positive responses to hostile behavior and selfish threats to group survival. To save the planet, we must first save what is best about our species, beginning with the best parts of ourselves.