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Nathaniel Stenseth

Caesar Rodney High School, 12th grade

2024 RENEW essay contest Honorable Mention

“Much That Once Was Is Lost” (quote from Lord of the Rings)

For centuries, humanity lived in a steady equilibrium with the natural world. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, man has increasingly sought to exert control over nature’s bounty. Every day, human greed further destabilizes the delicate cycles of the ecosystem, and the Earth is nearing a catastrophic tipping point. Soon enough, we won’t be able to say that the natural world is dying—it’ll already be dead and gone. 

Ecology is a common theme in stories—especially in sci-fi and fantasy. Since those are the genres of books I’ve always aspired to write, I became a voracious reader of fiction. As such, I’m very familiar with dead and dying worlds, as well as how heroes fix those kinds of worlds. 

In The Lord of the Rings, evil poses a very clear threat to the natural world. Saruman, a sorcerer, murders the living trees (Ents) of a proud and ancient forest to fuel his infernal war machines. When his crimes move the peaceful Ents to war and his tower is destroyed, Saruman escapes and goes to subjugate the gentle Hobbits of the Shire. He flattens their forest, destroys their homes, and builds a mechanical watermill that pollutes the air and water. The solution here is clear: murder the industrialist wizard and elect a gardener as mayor so that, soon after its scouring, the Shire is back to being an idyllic image of pastoralism. 

In the sci-fi series, Dune, the eponymous planet is a barren, almost entirely incompatible with typical humans, where water is worth more than its weight in gold and the sand dunes hide a valuable drug. With the help of climate satellites, Dune could once again be a wet planet, covered in a lush, green ecosystem not unlike our own, but corruption and human greed prevent that vision from ever being realized because it would destroy the drug. Change only comes when a dynasty of warriors from Dune seize control of the known universe and use their godlike powers to return the planet back to the ecological paradise it once was. 

The world of Mistborn has been dying for generations. A thousand years ago, a man briefly became a god and tried to save the planet by moving it closer to the sun. When that caused catastrophic global warming, he erected volcanoes to spew ash into the sky, cooling the planet. Ever since, ash falls from the sky and blankets the land in gray soot. The sun can’t pierce the clouds, so plants are small, sickly, and malnourished. When humanity is on the verge of drowning in ash and a duel between gods kills their hosts, another man—much wiser than the last—is able to use the gods’ power to restore the beauty of the natural world. By the next installment, nature has not only returned to the world, but is plentiful and thriving. 

In countless stories, the “bad guys” are threatening nature until the “good guys” save the day. In Greek myth, the monster Typhon rampages across the Greek countryside until Zeus smites him. In The Last Airbender, the Avatar, master of the natural elements, defeats the highly industrialized Fire Nation. In Princess Mononoke, human hunters kill the Forest Spirit, and only once its head is returned to its body can the forest heal. In Avatar, human colonizers are defeated and banished from an alien planet after razing a massive, sacred tree. In the Dark Sun books, a harsh, primitive world that sorcerers have sapped of any life waits for a hero prophesied to replenish the earth. 

But the real world isn’t that simple. In the real world, heroes can’t single-handedly set everything right with the world. 

Even good guys—anyone trying to stave off a climate apocalypse—contribute to the poisoning of the Earth simply by existing on it in the modern day. Thanks to zoning laws and urban planning, a car is necessary for even short distances. Interfacing with the total sum of human knowledge and experience (y’know, the internet) can only be done with rare materials harvested from deep underground. Even eating well requires food to be shipped in from all over the world that was farmed in vast fields or harvested from animals in awful conditions. Over the past several centuries, society has simply set itself up in such a way as to make coexistence with nature nearly impossible. 

I try to be one of the “good guys”, but it’s not as easy as it is in the stories. I recycle anything that’s obviously recyclable, but I’m sure I mess up sometimes. I turn the lights off when I leave a room (unless I’ll return in 15 minutes), but I’ve fallen asleep with the lights on before. I know e-readers are better for the environment, but I can’t resist the feeling of a hefty 1000-pager in my hands. Sure, if there were some cool quest I could go on to defeat a dark lord and fix all of the world’s problems, that’d be amazing, but that kind of thing is solely for the realm of fantasy. 

Nor are “bad guys” in real life some cartoonishly evil tyrants who are so evil that the world simply decays around them. They’re also people, just ones with more private jets and money than the average person. Taylor Swift may own a plane she flies all the time, but she’s also given away millions in charity and bonuses, and she brings joy to just as many people. So many billionaires are the same: they could, perhaps, do more to protect nature and fly around less often, but they also support great causes and don’t really deserve the bad guy moniker. 

Perhaps the true bad guys in the real world would be the magnates who exploit the natural world solely for their own benefit (as well as the oligarchs who enable them), but those people are often almost faceless and harder to hold accountable. 

Regardless, we’re clearly not doing enough for the climate right now, and we can’t just solve all our problems by assembling a band of heroes and going on an adventure because nothing will ever be as simple and clean-cut as it is in the stories. That sucks, obviously, because those stories are awesome, but it’s also a reminder that humanity needs to at least do something. 

There is a happy medium between the present and the imaginary, a world where we strive for more fundamental changes to society that address the root of the problem. 

Someday soon, my generation can do a lot of good for the environment. Rather than curing the symptoms with electric cars, we would alter the zoning laws to promote five-minute neighborhoods. Instead of just using paper straws and bags, we could limit the power of megacorporations, reducing plastic waste, minimizing shipping, and encouraging the growth of local businesses. We can combat the myths and misinformation about nuclear power, 3D printing, and other innovations so the world can finally embrace cleaner energy sources and manufacturing. 

I hope the youth of today can build a future where we truly coexist with nature. By pioneering cleaner, greener tech and limiting unnecessary waste, we can curtail the harmful effects of civilization on our planet. Combined with more effective, sustainable means of conservation and agriculture, we can make up for the inevitable (but smaller) harmful byproducts of human society. 

As for me? Well, I’m a storyteller, by no means an aspiring politician or scientist. There aren’t really that many ways to directly affect the environment as an author, but I will (hopefully) have an audience, and that can be powerful. My books can inspire in others a deep respect and awe for nature, as the books I read and the shows I watched in my childhood did for me. I can keep my friends, family, and audience informed on how to best help the environment. My stories can be more nuanced than “good guys beat the villain and save nature” to reflect the realities of the complex world we live in. I’ll give any money that I don’t need to live comfortably towards the causes I think will do the most good in the world. 

The Earth that I and billions of my peers grew up on was not the stable, pleasant place it once was. We were born into a world of annual record-breaking heatwaves, of blizzards destroying power grids, of massive tropical storms that would have seemed one-in-a-lifetime a decade ago but are now commonplace. The only world we’ve ever known is dying, and it has been for our entire lives. 

So many of today’s youth know firsthand just how imperative fixing our climate is, or, at least, I hope they do after everything they’ve lived through. We have the motivation to protect the Earth; we just need the ability and the power to do so, and I intend to do everything I can to prevent our world from being just another one of the dead and dying worlds that so many stories are set in. 

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