“True self is non-self, the awareness that the self is made only of non-self elements. There's no separation between self and other, and everything is interconnected. Once you are aware of that you are no longer caught in the idea that you are a separate entity.”
-Thích Nhất Hạnh
The roots of a forest are veins; the fungi, arteries. Contrary to natural selection’s claim that organisms naturally compete for resources, trees share nutrients and chemicals through mycorrhizal connectors beneath the forest floor. When a tree is dying, it sends carbon through the fungal subway so that other trees prosper in its wake. When insects attack, chemical signals travel through the fungal network, warning other trees to defend themselves1. Mycorrhizal fungi are the unseen liaisons of forest integrity. They allow trees to act with altruism instead of competition.
We could view relationships between humans in a similar light. In many ways, we are connected to one another like trees. Cities, neighborhoods, and families of people foster communal connection and interconnectivity between one another. Similarly to how we might give a gift to a loved one or have a conversation with our next-door neighbor, trees also vitalize social connections by sharing resources. However, Earth’s forests are disappearing. Every year, Over the past decade since 2010, the net loss of forests globally was 4.7 million.2 Our societies have been centered around a consumer culture which places little focus on conserving nature and incentivizes economic growth. Perhaps, instead of destroying forest ecosystems, we could learn from them. As climate change threatens the livability of our planet, casting aside our fossil-fuel intensive, oil-drenched economy could heal our fragmented relationship with nature. We could look to the interconnectivity of mycorrhizal networks as a model to view both our relationship with one another, and with nature, in a more symbiotic light.
Interconnectivity between trees is vital to the health of a forest, especially as climate change threatens drastic weather disruption and deforestation fragments ecosystems. For humans, interconnectivity will be equally important as we fight for a greener future. We must give to one another, instead of taking. We must share our resources, instead of competing for them. Acting with altruism towards one another and towards nature might be the most courageous action one can take to fight climate change. As we face one of the greatest global challenges in the history of the human race, we must be brave enough to preserve nature, to start movements, to engage in conversations with one another, to educate ourselves, and to grow our networks. Our human fungal network is fragmented. Now more than ever, we must be brave enough to heal it.
As a child, my mom used to pull me aside when I was scared and say, “Bravery is fear plus action,” I would repeat the words back to her, even though I didn’t understand what they meant. Now, I know why this phrase resonated with me in such a powerful way. You have to be afraid, in order to show courage. Or, in other words, you cannot be brave without first facing a challenge.
As we grow from childhood to adulthood, our fears change shape. Children usually fear what they don’t yet understand; a thunderstorm, the dark. In adulthood, our fears become more abstract. Society presses down upon our psyche to make enough money, live a fulfilling life, protect our loved ones, and preserve our livelihood for future generations. Though distinct, fears in adulthood and childhood share a common thread. Throughout our lives, we tend to fear that which we do not know.
War, famine, economic downfall, genocide, terrorism, natural disaster; the global news is incessantly grim. For the current generation of young adults, one issue of global importance and personal affliction stands out among the rest. Climate change poses one of the greatest threats to the future of humanity. Increased numbers of tropical storms and weather disasters have rendered entire cities uninhabitable. Rising sea levels will soon obliterate coastlines. Unpredictable climate patterns have altered agricultural growing seasons and put immense strain on farmers. Biodiversity levels in many areas of the globe have plummeted3. The earth is purging itself of the human race as we make our home unlivable.
And yet, despite these catastrophic consequences, little has been done to slow climate change. Over time, humans have developed a dependency upon fossil fuels that has proven difficult to shake. Fossil fuels have shaped our roads and automobiles, our food systems and waterways, and our art and religion. As humans have industrialized society, we have enveloped ourselves in a ‘petroculture’; a term to describe how modern human history and existence is drenched in oil4. Using extracted resources from the land to our benefit and the earth’s detriment is one of the earliest fragments to our metaphorical fungal network.
The ways that human societies have developed around fossil fuels could be viewed through both an ecological and social perspective. Mining for coal and drilling for oil changed the landscape of cities, towns, farmland, and wilderness in Europe throughout 17th and 18th century and America throughout the 19th century. As hillsides were excavated to make space for mines, forests cleared for roadways, to transport materials, and cities converted into smoggy factories, our entire “modernity’s ecology” became altered. Furthermore, modernity’s shifting ecology required a vast increase in mechanical labor. During the 1920s, it is estimated that the energy input of mechanical labor increased to 1.5 billion horsepower per annum.5
Cultural dynamics also shifted as fossil fuels rose in power and influence. Examples of this can be viewed in many ways throughout history. Coal mining has been attributed to the development of the working class in England during the 17th century. Most coal miners working in the early coal mines came from poor families and gave their entire lives in indentured servitude towards the mines. The conditions under which the first rudimentary coal mining began were immensely onerous. Operating without any kind of electrical technology, the first mines in England relied purely on horse and manpower. Coal miners would huddle together in darkness as they were lowered deeper and deeper into a dark pit of the earth6. The struggle and triumph over nature associated with coal mining has perpetuated themes of domination within our petroculture society.
In addition to obtaining power over nature, petroculture also affected gender roles. Prior to coal mining, most families owned and subsided from their personal farm and garden. Labor tasks between the men and women of the house were divided fairly evenly. When mining became popularized, the men flocked to these manual labor jobs while women stayed at home to tend to family matters. As coal mining developed into industrialized factory labor, the division of labor between men and women persisted. Some scholars postulate that the gap between women and men’s labor roles throughout history in relation to fossil fuels has contributed to a sense of domineering identity within men. The term ‘petro-masculinity’ approaches masculinity as a socially constructed identity that emerges within an order of gender that defines masculinity in opposition to femininity, and therefore creates a skewed perception of power dynamic between men and women as groups7.
In present day society, petro-masculinity has been perpetuated within deniers of climate change and authoritarian governments. An analysis of petro-masculinity brings attention to when challenges to fossil-fuelled systems, and more broadly to fossil fuel- drenched lifestyles become interpreted as challenges to white patriarchal rule. To break free from the mindset of petro-masculinity requires denouncing the current status quo. However, in order to re-vitalize our fragmented fungal network, we must get to the root of what broke the fungus in the first place, and fight against them.
As mentioned above, humans tend to fear what we do not know. In pre-industrialized society, nature presented a plethora of untold fears. Natural disasters had the power to wipe out entire villages. Without modern medicine, environmental afflictions such as viruses and insect bites were regularly lethal. Achieving dominion over nature required both bravery of action and mind. As we entered the Anthropocene, humans engineered more efficient building materials to erect more durable cities, altered the forested landscape to expand agriculture and feed more people, and developed vaccines to increase life expectancy8. Bravery– facing the unknowns of the pre-modern world– propelled humanity into a self-made utopia of innovation and comfort.
However, we have held onto our ideals of victory over nature for too long. Bravery is no longer required to obtain dominance over nature, because it has already largely been industrialized and managed. Now, we must use bravery to save it. Anthropogenic climate change presents a unique challenge of changing our mindset surrounding nature. Instead of viewing nature as a competitor, we might instead view it as a companion. However, detaching one’s mind from the trodden path is no easy task. It is easy to be a follower, but it is necessary to be a leader. Courage, among other virtues, must be utilized to think differently than humans have thought for centuries.
Though similar, bravery is distinct from courage. Courage can be defined as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. Courage is an intentional practice; it is choosing to be brave. Bravery, on the other hand, is more of a momentary decision to act. Bravery is defined as facing one’s challenges, threats, or difficulties. It can be divided into three forms: physical bravery, psychological bravery, and moral bravery9. Physical bravery is putting your body through actionable risks, such as jumping from a tall tree or engaging in hand-to-hand conflict. Psychological bravery involves facing personal mental or emotional problems directly, and might take the form of admitting mistakes, or asking for help when you need it. Moral bravery is harder to define than the other two, but could encompass standing up for what is right, even in the face of opposition.
There is importance in understanding courage as a quality of spirit or mind in addition to physical feats of bravery. Mental bravery is distinct from physical bravery, and thus acts of mental bravery should be regarded with a different sort of analysis. Mental bravery is fundamentally an attitude towards facing intimidating obstacles10. The intimidating obstacles we face in our modern society are not often physically threatening, but rather place anxieties upon our mental state.
Mental bravery could also mean disengaging from the mental trap of fears placed upon our generation. Social media is the boldest representation of virtue and vice in humanity today. The conflict between the usefulness of the internet and its deleterious effects on society are explored in the documentary, The Social Dilemma11. One piece of the film revealed that Google search results change depending on the user’s geographic location. A person searching “climate change is…” in New York City will receive an entirely different slew of auto-fill recommendations after that phrase than a person in rural Florida, based on what the algorithm predicts that user will be most likely to click on from what other users around them are searching and clicking on.
If you have engaged with science or reputable journalism, it is likely that you believe in climate change. Given the extreme abundance of evidence available verifying climate change is a serious threat to the survival of future human generations and millions of species, it is easy to assume that most people who decried the climate crisis are simply ignorant. However, with algorithms that trap our brains in confirmation bias so easily, it is possible that the ignorance of climate-deniers has been curated by social media companies to keep them engaged with their devices.
It takes tremendous bravery to decrease phone usage and social media engagement. Oftentimes, people who detach themselves from online messaging and media updates are scorned by friends and family as ‘out of the loop’ or even unintelligent. However, a monumental step towards decarbonizing one’s life could be decreasing the amount of time spent on phones and computers, scrolling through social media or messaging other users. Electronics require power, and thus burn a significant amount of fossil fuels, so putting a phone down or closing a computer can be very beneficial to the environment.
Social media can also connect people to impactful movements, like the strike against climate change or Black Lives Matter. Similar to how mycorrhizal fungi create vast networks of information exchange between trees, the internet allows for lightning-fast, virtual interactions between humans across the globe. The world wide web, like the wood wide web of mycorrhizal fungi in forest ecosystems, vitalizes our social encounters and fosters positive growth and change. However, the artificial intelligence of the internet has also given rise to harmful mass-movements of hate speech. This is perpetuated by algorithms that create a snowballing effect of likes and followers on social media posts that aim to harm, instead of inform.
The extreme extent to which social media promotes confirmation bias tugs and tears at the fabric of our democracy. Our ability to function as a society and hold academic or political discourse has been severely debilitated by the consolidation of alike viewpoints that social media enacts. In order for there to be any hope for rational thought and compromise to survive in our society, there must be regulations put in place that limit the speed with which social media algorithms can spread information. Advocating for political change requires bravery, but it is a necessary measure if we are to have any hope for the environmental movement.
As we look at our fragmented mycorrhizal network between humans and nature, we must also carefully examine where connections have been severed between human groups as well. Oftentimes, marginalized, low-income, and indigenous communities are left out of discussions of energy use and environmentalism. The inherent bias against Indigenous knowledge that exists in science has narrowed our breadth of understanding important components of biology, climatology, ecology, astronomy, psychology, history, and religion. In her chapter, “Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth''12, Sherri Mitchell writes that, unlike colonial thought, Indigenous thinking recognizes the “individuality of elements in the natural world and how they relate to a larger whole.” She goes on to argue that in order to address the ecological and sociological crises of our time, we must align Indigenous knowledge with western thought and share our resources to build a more resilient world.
Only recently have governments begun returning land to Indigenous communities with the recognition that these ecosystems are healthier when managed by native groups. Bridging the cultural divide between Indigenous groups and Western societies will be essential to combating climate change. As Mitchell writes, “Everything is interrelated and recognized for its sacred place within the web of life.”
For communities who have been marginalized, environmental destruction poses an even more elevated threat than to affluent societies. Redlining often places low-income, black, and brown residential communities in close proximity to toxic waste sites or in areas with poor air and water quality13. As a result, low-income communities of color are often the most vulnerable to adverse health deficits. Furthermore, these communities are often financially unequipped to recover from natural disasters that threaten their safety and the security of their home. Many people in these communities use public transportation and work minimum- wage jobs. As a result, the people who contribute the least to climate change experience the worst of its harmful effects.
Let us return to the metaphor of humanity as an interconnected web of information and communication between one another. Imagine, for a moment, a tiny thread that extends from your body, traveling tens of miles and splitting at the ends, to the last ten people you interacted with today. When it reaches them, a thread shoots out from their bodies to the last ten people they interacted with. And so on, and so on. You can see how quickly the threads would proliferate into a dense, teeming network of interaction and interconnectivity. There would be so many threads layered one upon the other, it would be nearly impossible to see a few meters in front of us if we could visualize our social encounters. How might we live our lives differently if we could actually see the connections we shared with our family, our neighbors, our friends, the strangers on the street, the cashier at the grocery store, the man at the corner of the street asking for spare change?
If our connections became seen, instead of unseen, perhaps we would no longer fear what we did not know. Because our interactions go unnoticed, forgotten, and trivialized, we don’t recognize how interconnected we truly are. Perhaps the cashier who bagged your groceries today lives in a community exposed to polluted water, or maybe the person whose Instagram post you liked has been trying to collect donations for an endangered species. In the brief interactions we have with people throughout the day, a thousand words of possible connection go unspoken. Oftentimes, we barely look up to notice our surroundings because our eyes are glued to the screen of a smartphone or electronic device.
Perhaps, one of the most valiant acts of bravery one can take in the fight against climate change is to unplug from our devices, look up at the trees and the sky above us, and smile at the people around us. Maybe, if more of us noticed the ladybug crawling along the blade of grass by the car door, if more of us talked to our climate-change denying uncle at thanksgiving dinner instead of scoffing at him, if more of us listened when the janitor at the school gym complained of a respiratory problem, maybe we would make some progress in changing the tides of global destruction we are currently threatened with. To fully engage with the world, to wholeheartedly interact with our surroundings in our digital age is an act of immense bravery. I would argue that the unsaid conversations with our peers and the unnoticed changes to our world are among the most dangerous weapons we have made to harm ourselves. Humanity alone has fractured its own mycorrhizal network and, as a result, we have forgotten how to connect with one another. Healing those fractures now calls upon those of us who are brave enough to reweave the pieces.
Listen to the earth, and listen to one another. We must be brave enough to rely upon each other and share with one another, and with nature. We need to be brave, in order to heal our network. Climate change is accelerating. Future generations are uncertain whether or not they will have a planet left to live on. Let us harness our bravery, as it has served us so well for centuries. Only this time, let us unhinge it from fossil fuels, detach our prowess from petroculture, and use it to fight back.