Finding our balance

Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/AP
A ‘Survivor Tree’ clone is planted in a park in Oklahoma City in April. The parent tree survived the 1995 bombing of the city’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

Just for a second, turn back to the cover and look at those two photos of Baltimore. If I asked you simply to say the first thing that came to your mind, we all would surely say about a hundred different things. But the first thing that comes into my mind is “balance.”

Admittedly, I grew up playing in the woods of northern Michigan, and the things I remember most about my reporting trip to Kashmir are the stately chinar trees. Think maples, but massive. I like trees. But I think most would agree that the bottom picture on our cover this week looks severe, regardless of the state of the houses. Concrete and brick have taken over. The green in the picture almost looks insurgent, as though it has had to stage a rebellion.

This is a portrait of imbalance. This week’s cover story talks about the clear value of trees in urban environments. They save energy by providing shade, and urban tree censuses suggest that, in places with more trees, there is less crime and better mental health.

Studies have repeatedly shown that humans need nature. Poet Robert Frost dreamed of being a swinger of birches, flinging himself “outward, feet first, with a swish,/ Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.” Today, programs have sprung up across the United States to address a “nature deficit” among urban residents who have never swung on a birch.

But the two pictures on the cover this week are also about more than finding balance just in individual lives and locales. The pictures speak to the need to apply that thinking more broadly. In a time of wide concern about climate change, environmental conversations can easily become as polarized as our politics. But for all the acrimony between crusaders and skeptics – all the policy proposals and United Nations reports – the ultimate goal is finding balance.

One of the more alarming recent environmental studies made this point. After suggesting that one-eighth of the world’s species face extinction, the study pivoted to question “­ever-increasing material consumption.” As a May 20 editorial in the Monitor Weekly noted, the assertion is that humanity has become imbalanced, now tilting toward consumption over conservation.

The idea of balance is deeply rooted across faiths and cultures. Gautama Buddha wrote of the Middle Way to enlightenment. Islamic thinker Wahb ibn Munabbih counseled, “If you hold one of the ends, the other will be skewed. If you hold the middle, the two ends will be balanced.” For Christians, prophecy said Christ would come only when “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” 

Where is the right balance between consumption and conservation? Future innovations could change the question, as the Green Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s did when it found new ways to feed billions more people. But climate change is forcing the question of where, as societies, our balance of thought is and whether it has become skewed.

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