“Every time you take a breath,” Bob Sandford began his talk, “you inhale the breath of every creature that has ever lived upon this planet.”
Sandford doesn’t make unsupported assertions. He has been, among other roles, the chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade. He knows what he talks about.
But I didn’t hear what Bob said next. My mind was too busy trying to digest the import of his opening sentence.
Because it’s true. The atmosphere we breathe is the product of millions of previous creatures breathing. We don’t know precisely what mix of gases first cloaked the planet. We do know that the first algae absorbed carbon dioxide from that mix of gases and converted it—by photosynthesis—into oxygen. And as the concentration of oxygen rose towards toxic levels, animals began using the plants’ waste, and converted oxygen back into carbon dioxide.
Our present atmosphere is a fine balance that serves both plants and animals. Too little oxygen, we die. Too much oxygen, we combust.
But Sandford’s insight also has huge implications. Because it follows that every exhalation of mine will affect the atmosphere that every living thing that follows me will also have to breathe. Whether that exhalation comes from my own lungs. Or from the exhaust pipe of my car. Or from the chimney of the factory that produces my car, my cell phone, my newspaper…
I see myself almost as a transparent membrane between the past and the future—inhaling the past, exhaling the future. Past and future butt together, separated only by the thickness of a single breath.
Life is a huge responsibility.
The metaphor of breathing in and breathing out reminds me that we are all intimately connected, in ways beyond our imaginations. The fate of a tree in an Indonesian jungle will affect the air future generations of humans will breathe. The fate of a dolphin in the Galapagos will eventually be affected by outdated antibiotics that thoughtless Canadians flush down their toilets.
There is no such thing as what government regulators love to call a “negligible impact.” Everything has an impact. Some things have more impact than others—nuclear war would obviously affect the planet more than using an extra sheet of toilet paper—but everything has an impact.
This is the principle behind chaos theory—small inputs can have big consequences. We’ve all heard the cliché that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in Mexico may affect the strength of the typhoon that devastates Manila. But we haven’t applied that insight to our own daily acts.
A small act of kindness or of carelessness can reverberate down the empty halls of tomorrow, amplifying itself. Ripples pile on top of each other to become a tsunami.
I know, that can feel like a paralyzing responsibility. I don’t suggest stopping breathing! Nor does each breath have to be deliberately taken. Life goes on. But I believe it’s worth developing a mindset, a mental attitude, that everything we do has consequences.
The future isn’t something way off in the distance. It starts right here, right now, with your next breath.