The quotation below, which has been attributed to the Cree people, is one of many that stems from diverse tribes and clans, and expresses heartfelt understanding of our connectivity to the natural world. A connectivity that is has been severed by mainstream industrial culture.
When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.
If becoming "unshackled" refers to the process of freeing ourselves from the blinds of industrialism so that we might reconnect with the natural world, then the "key" that will open the lock to our chains may lie in graphic illustrations of how close we really are to consuming the last fish. Illustrations that help people recognize how our current economy with its increased inflation, decreased opportunities, nutrient depleted foods, and rising incidence of chronic disease all result from increasing demands for finite resources like clean air, clean water, nutritious soils, and the microbial diversity that ensures proper nutrient cycling--not only in our land and water, but also in our crops, our diets, and our bodies.
Entire species of plants, animals, and beneficial microbes are disappearing from the planet, in some cases more quickly than we can document them. Lost biodiversity includes lost heirloom crop varieties that provided our ancestors with varied diets, and lost microbes that colonize our personal microbiomes. Since the industrial revolution, we have watched food and energy prices climb, nutritional content and variety of fresh meats and produce decline, and water purification costs increase. Because existing food supplies were transferred more efficiently to growing cities, decision makers in these cities were often blind to the lost diversity. As long as there was more wheat than before, it mattered not that it was all coming from the same germplasms, or that the nutritional content was depleted due to chemicals in the soil. Yet even with the deceptive abundance of resources that have been concentrated in our urban centers, costs of food, clean water, and energy have continued to creep upwards. In the 20th century, these costs grew slowly. Recently, the rate of inflation has gained momentum due to rapidly growing populations and rapidly developing economies. This rapid inflation is fueled by rising global demands for declining supplies of natural resources.
A few of us are still blind to food price inflation, because we have simply switched costly, nutrient rich organic foods for the empty calories of foods produced on depleted soils with the addition of synthetic chemicals. Since these foods fill our bellies at a low price, we think little about how our food is grown, how our soil is managed, or how our food connects us directly to our environment. Instead, we look in dismay at the mounting epidemic of chronic diseases that are driving our health care costs through the roof, and wonder at the cause. Heart disease, cancers, diabetes, and obesity trends suggest many baby boomers will outlive their own children. Some will outlive their grandchildren. Yet most of these diseases can be related to poor nutrition and an unhealthy environment/lifestyle. Furthermore, anyone living with chronic disease recognizes how quickly illness impacts personal economy. Sickness reduces productivity, reduces earning potential, and increases living expenses. With 133 million American's suffering from chronic disease, an economy that is being crippled by rising costs of healthcare, continual declines in the numbers of farms and farmers nationwide, and a growing dependence on foods transported from overseas, the term "food security" is slowly trickling into the American psyche.
The challenge for those among us who understand the relationship between environmental stewardship, food security, economic sustainability, and physical health is to enlighten a public that values money so that they understand the high cost of environmental decline. We must simultaneously illustrate the wealth that can be obtained when soil is restored, food is more nutritious, sickness is rare, and diverse species thrive.
Too often, we use illustrations from the past to demonstrate what life would be like in a world connected to nature. These illustrations can represent barriers for people who do not want to sacrifice the comforts of modern life. It may be easier to inspire change if we can show people what a modern world would look like if our children had access to whole food nutrition, if our soils produced higher yields at lower costs because they were more biologically active, if those who grow our food were so healthy, wealthy, and independent that their children would choose to be farmers too, and if small local businesses were so "unshackled" by regulations that politicians would not need to set minimum wages or create jobs because nearly everyone would be an independent entrepreneur. When we can clearly illustrate why maintaining good soil, clean air, quality waters, and appropriate technology makes lands more productive, food more nutritious, healthcare less expensive, and individuals more wealthy, even those who care most about their bank statements will began listening to Mother Earth, and start breaking free of their shackles.