by Shannon – I recently had the amazing experience of visiting Singapore. Singapore is a fascinating city-state, which, largely out of necessity, has organized its 5.6 million inhabitants in a rather remarkable dance of waste management, public transportation, and water reuse. The modern architecture and organization makes you feel as if you have somehow been transported 20-30 years into the future, and that’s exactly how I felt as I visited its many attractions, including the wonderful National University of Singapore, where I was fortunate to speak about the NICE Lab research.
One of the “must-see” spots in Singapore is the famous “Gardens by the Bay”, a waterfront attraction housing the solar-paneled Supertrees and lovely outdoor gardens. Also in the same location are two gigantic greenhouses containing temperate region flowers from all over the world, and a cloud forest highlighting the flora of the water forests of the world, particularly in South America and Southeast Asia.
Both the greenhouses contain immaculately maintained plants of many families, all organized by origin and type (ancient, modern; ferns, trees; orchids, rosaceous; etc.). As I walked along the neatly laid paths, I found myself becoming more and more troubled. Eventually, I had to sit down as I had actual tears in my eyes. At first, I had no idea where this was coming from. Was I just tired from all the meetings? Slightly jet lagged? And then it hit me. What was making me sad was that these beautiful plants lacked the very thing that created them in the first place – ecology.
There were no insects. No birds. No reptiles. All the LIFE that usually surrounds these plants was gone, and these living objects were trapped in space and time. The very interactions that shaped their forms and functions over millions of years were missing. And it made me profoundly sad.
When I was little, I loved snow globes. I loved to see the tiny buildings and landscapes inside and tip the world upside down to watch the snow or glitter fall softly down on the little world below. But here in these huge, beautiful, and silent houses, I, too, felt like I was trapped inside a snow globe.
Given the futuristic nature of Singapore, this experience gave me an eerie premonition of how we might soon experience “Nature”. The mass extinctions of the Anthropocene, the aftermath of deforestation, pollution, and environmental degradation could very well force us to protect our nature from the real world. Imagine if our future children will need to walk through a field of flowers, or climb a tree, indoors?
At the end of each exhibit, there were several displays on the issues that threaten our natural world, including deforestation, climate change, urbanization, and others. But I noticed that the visitors often strolled past these areas, and rather commented on how beautiful the gardens were. And this is the choice we have to make as humanity. Will we continue to dismiss these threats to our natural world while we embrace the beauty that it has created? Will we continue to ignore the (admittedly) difficult problems that face our futures and assume that our plants and animals will always be there?
I look at the bright, beautiful souls that make up the NICE lab and I wonder, will their grandchildren be able to visit the forests of the Northeast? Will they see the lakes of Bangalore? Will they ever chance upon an elephant herd in the Western Ghats? Or will these children have to visit these natural wonders in an artificial biosphere, far removed from ecology, and trapped under an artificial sky?
We still have a choice. We still have the chance to save our natural world for our children. But we must stop and pay attention to the damage we are doing. We need to make changes ourselves, to control waste, preserve water, and reduce our human footprint on the world. The choice belongs to every human on this planet. Because if we don’t act soon, we too may find ourselves viewing what’s left of our planet in a snow globe.