Somewhere in my house there's a western conifer seed bug. I know it's there because when my wife found it strolling slowly up the living room curtain, our daughter refused to let us take it outside where, she quite correctly observed, the swift crush of arctic air would mean certain death. Instead, we placed it on a houseplant and it lived to crawl another day.
My wife, a city girl for whom all bugs are satanic harbingers of disease and decay, was not at all pleased with this solution. She'd have preferred that our daughter's new friend become an insecticle. But I couldn't have been happier. My daughter had seen in this ungainly creature a life worth saving. She had peered into that sacred realm where all living things are worthy because they are alive, and therefore, just like us.
What my child had for that poor seed bug was empathy, the ability to sew a thread of connection between its fate and her own. We can argue about where such empathy comes from and how best to endow it, but one thing is certain: if we are to succeed in the great effort now underway to preserve the many natural treasures of our world, it will be because today's children grow up to become tomorrow's empathetic adults.
Too often, we live in a world of facts. The rainforest gives us oxygen. The oceans provide food. Mountains send us water. The forests give us wood. Such points are true but little more. They tell us why something should be saved but do not compel us to save it. Facts are just too sterile to bridge the gap between knowing and doing. What's missing from their cold equations is the emotional resonance that tells us we are nature and it is us and we are all in it together.
Think about it as instinctive conservation. Regulations can be changed, court orders overturned, laws broken. But emotional covenants are bulletproof because they require no evidence that whatever must be done is worth doing. Without an emotional response to the crises we face -- in other words until our hearts are in it -- we'll get nowhere.
That journey starts with empathy, and that makes empathy the one quality above all others we should seek to instill in our kids. We must send them into adulthood equipped with more than just with a factual, practical understanding of why the environment matters. To find the future we seek, we must teach them to see themselves reflected in nature's many surfaces and guide them toward the wisdom that reveals just how tightly all the countless strands of life on our fragile world are wound around our own.