“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”  (Baba Dioum, 1968.) 

Curiosity is the greatest gift from our childhood. Each of us is born wide-eyed and full of questions about the world. The impossible feels possible, and empathy reigns as we feel drawn to an unknowable plain of consciousness. As children, we experience something more primal and mystical than our adult selves, our senses tuned to the uniqueness and interconnectedness of the world around us. Though we do not understand it, we feel part of a wider world. By the time many of us reach adulthood the unknown comes to embody fear rather than wonder, insecurity rather than adventure. We lose something of ourselves and the truth of our place within the incredible world that we all call home. Those who remain curious openly embrace the unknown by admitting they still have things to learn. They relish the adventure of discovery. 

To forge a resilient future for humanity on our planet, we must fight the loss of curiosity at all costs and ensure that children never lose their hunger for knowledge because that knowledge gives them the agency to do things we could never imagine. 

My name is Grey Gowder. I am a filmmaker, non-profit founder, and Young Ocean Leader. I have a deep and undying love for our world. I am fascinated by the mysteries of life, consciousness, and the very systems that support our existence. As a young filmmaker, I embarked on the odyssey of my first series of documentary films to find hope for myself and others who share a desire to leave a more resilient world than the one we inherited. I knew that I wanted to study communities, how their identities come from the natural world around them, and how communities could become resilient after catastrophes impacted that identity-forming environment. How do small island communities survive without their reefs, mangroves, or seagrass savannas? If an island sinks beneath the waves, does that community continue to exist? The answers to both questions may lie in how we define a community.

Biologists define communities as interwoven and interacting systems of living things in a shared location. These systems represent the infinite interplay of all living and inanimate forces in the universe, as a colossal network of networks, infinitely stretching outward through time and space from the beginning of our universe to its inevitable end.

Imagine a tapestry made up of millions upon millions of tiny threads. Each thread is a species or a subspecies fulfilling its niche within the surrounding natural system. The greater the biodiversity, the more resilient the ecosystem will be to change. The more species that disappear from an ecosystem, the greater the risk that the entire tapestry collapses. The key to our future on this planet rests in humanity reconciling our fragmented relationship with life on this planet and accepting our place within the tattered tapestry. 

The central figures in my films are ordinary people doing extraordinary things as they embrace their roles as stewards and builders. They are coral gardeners, kelp foresters, Giant Clam nurserymen, mangrove cultivators, and educators restoring the link between their communities and these special places. Some are the inheritors of indigenous wisdom and traditions that blend deep historical memory with observational scientific data to yield intimate connections to biomes they hope to save. Some are innovators establishing highly efficient carbon sinks and living flood control measures for their communities by hacking the natural benefits of environmental engineers like mangroves, longleaf pine trees, oysters, and kelp.

Timothy K on Unsplash

One thing that unifies these visionaries is that they know a coral reef is more than just the corals. They see the vibrant diversity of life that is essential for the reef’s survival. They see the cleaners, waste collectors, street vendors, construction workers, house sitters, and even doormen keeping these bustling underwater metropolises humming. They travel the local roads and high-speed expressways linking these reefs to other bustling hubs of life along coastlines and up watersheds on one side and out into the deep sea on the other. Some lives begin in the reef, others in the mangroves or seagrass savannas, but they all intersect at some point and play a vital role in the highly complex and interlinked web that supports the whole. The stewards know this. They have seen erosion from deforestation smother the reefs in a blanket of silt. They have seen the insatiable hunger of people far away snatch from the oceans more than 90% of all big fish. When these biomes become damaged by human or natural forces, the stewards must become keystone species to fill the void of other greatly diminished ecosystem engineers to rebuild these indispensable biomes until the reef can recover. 

This work requires more than just a handful of dedicated visionaries. It requires a community. So, the stewards must become educators. This education must be immersive and tangible. In parts of the Pacific, Google Cardboard and other simple 360-degree technology opened visions of reefs otherwise unseen by fishing communities that lived and worked above them for centuries. Their children fell in love with the magical world beneath the waves and so too did the fishermen who became stakeholders in new sustainable management pacts meant to protect certain reefs and nurseries from exploitation. On the other side of the world, classrooms of children gazed in awe of the radiant beauty of these far-off cities beneath the waves. They dreamed of a world filled with wonders and demanded ways to ensure their dream of a vibrant and thriving world does not become the nightmare of runaway climate change and mass extinction. 

Marieke Weller on Unsplash

And so we return to curiosity. To succeed as CityCrafters and to be worthy stewards for our communities and the Earth, we must rekindle that burning desire to be filled with wonder and to open ourselves to the majesty of the universe. CityCrafters and thought leaders must adopt measures to actively promote curiosity and creative problem-solving at the youngest levels in the educational system.

The beauty of systems-based thinking is that it often yields far more questions than answers. It requires patience and a keen perception of the intangible. Climate change once felt gargantuan and beyond the power of an individual to influence, but as the effects of climate change become much more personal and tangible and the systems that naturally combat climate change become more clear, a partial pathway to a resilient future built upon natural climate solutions. De-carbonization is only half of the fight for a regenerative planet. When we equip our children with the superpower of curiosity, we grant them the tools to be the change they need. We give them reasons to hope.

Across the world, citizen scientists embrace the responsibility of observing and tracking the changes they see in their forests, their reefs, and their shorelines. Whether they are children exploring their passion or concerned stakeholders fighting to save their livelihoods, they are part of a global community searching for solutions to the challenges that threaten our very existence. They are the grassroots network that could be our deliverance.

Benjamin Jones on Unsplash

This article was the first of a series of meditations on life, our world, and our place in it that I hope to share with you. As each of you works to craft a resilient and equitable future for all life on this planet, remember that we are a part of something remarkable. To ensure that future generations can share our love for our human and natural communities, embrace your role as a steward to heal this beautiful garden that we all call home.

W. Grey Gowder

Grey Gowder is a documentary filmmaker, non-profit founder, Young Ocean Leader, writer, CityCrafter, and sustainability champion based in Charleston, South Carolina.

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