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Environmental work and education come with mixed feelings

Owen Bjorgan describes this as a photo of him, in the middle of realism, with a symbolic representation of optimism and pessimism for nature on either side. He hikes on both sides of the road, from time to time, he says.
Owen Bjorgan describes this as a photo of him, in the middle of realism, with a symbolic representation of optimism and pessimism for nature on either side. He hikes on both sides of the road, from time to time, he says. (Photo supplied)

In this week’s article, I’m going to open up about my personal challenges of being a biologist, tour guide, and public educator. What do all three of those positions have in common?

The unbiased, unpretentious, and irreplaceable ecosystems on the third rock from the sun serve our entire human existence, and their own inherent wonder.

With local and global ecosystem quality declining, I find myself bounding between optimism, pessimism, and realism.

Admittedly, I spend little bits of time in each sphere of thinking. A peculiar blend of professionalism and emotion can surface, and providing these thoughts don’t stay in one rut, I believe it is perfectly normal and healthy to be provoked in such ways.

Let’s start on an optimistic note. COVID-19 got people in touch with nature again. When people had to reinvent how they spent their spare time, Ontario took to nature like it never did before. This means there are more people out there who appreciate the flora, fauna, and the protected areas they reside in. That’s a bonus for future generations.

I also have hope people can be inspired by the information available at their fingertips. What a time to be alive! You can use a search engine to identify the tree in your backyard, or social media to find a scenic waterfall in your area. There are free courses and field guides and outdoor traveling tips spread across the vast world of the internet.

When I was in grade school, biodiversity wasn’t discussed in class. Climate change was just beginning to make a rumble. Nowadays, both are discussions in public school, among other institutionalized settings. This makes me happy and comforted to know. 

On the flip side, there are undeniable pockets of pessimism, which you shouldn’t keep in your pocket for any length of time, but let’s address the human condition that impacts how I see the fate of the natural world. 

I have been in the loop for, and often exposed, dozens of questionable and sometimes straight up unlawful removals of our natural heritage. They seem to happen overnight, with little or no major repercussions. Sometimes, I think about how monstrous the immovable object of money is, especially when backed by corporate greed or political objectives. Money weighs nothing, but goodness me, is it heavy. 

Spearheading the movement to save the Thundering Waters Forest in rural Niagara Falls was a classic example. People were sued for speaking out. I, with others, was publicly labelled “a special interest group” and I got a first-hand taste of how big money will shut down or silence opposition. Seeing those devious wheels in motion right here in Niagara left me knowing it can happen again, and still happens all around us.

While the pandemic got more people exploring nature, it also clogged and clouded our airwaves, screens, and dinner table conversations for two years straight. I often worriedly wonder what sort of paperwork, deals, and signatures have allowed development of our natural areas while we were occupied.

Ultimately, I find my resting place in realism. No sugar-coating, and less emotion. We all recognize that when you love something, as I love the environment, emotion always finds a way in. 

If I could word our societal relationship with nature and how it’s going to realistically pan out, I see it going down, but how much are we willing to save? And how can we celebrate what we save? The key word being we. This is going to take a collective effort from citizens and governments alike.

To deliver the plea of realism on civilization’s relationship with nature, I have to change gears in language for different age groups and demographics on the job. We must strike the balance between hope and joy, but also, when appropriate, expressing the concerns of the times. 

When your profession is a battle to protect something so enormous and so all-encompassing, it can become overwhelming. There exists a contrast in my head where I imagine 78 million acres of the Amazon rainforest being lost every year, and I’m also teaching a young kid why they should want to protect spiders and flowering plants in NOTL. 

Dread, in my profession, is staring up at the ceiling on many nights, and asking, did I do enough for the greater good today? 

We are all human, experiencing mixed feelings in our day-to-day lives. However, no matter how challenging and complex the task at hand is, you have to move forward with confidence and positivity. Even on top of the realism, this is always the highest road you can take if you ever want to see real change and bestow it upon others.

It can feel weird and kind of cosmic to fight for something bigger than yourself. I have felt that way about the environment my whole life, and especially about my fellow humans over the past years. As we look around the world, there is a strong, factual correlation between a stable society and a healthy environment. When society is socially and politically healthy, it functions as a whole unit at a more purposeful and efficient pace, which is exactly what our environment needs right now.

We all have to move forward with intention and inspiration as the main objective if we’re going to see the positive results we hopefully desire.