Words from the Next Generation: Gift and Responsibility

As humans, we can manipulate and change our environment. In the last few centuries, we have abused this power, killing thousands of species, destroying entire ecosystems, and bringing the planet to the brink of irreversible, catastrophic climate change, and all that comes with it (such as widespread fires, extreme heat events, and increasingly powerful storms). Now we face our last chance to live differently, to treat our gift of influence over the environment with the respect it necessitates and to reframe it as our responsibility to be stewards of the planet.

Braiding Sweetgrass is a book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of environmental and forest biology and citizen of the Potowatomi Nation. In this beautiful book, she weaves indigenous teachings with scientific knowledge in a way that bridges two rarely combined worlds. One topic she writes about is the gift-responsibility connection. She asks, “What is the duty of humans? If gifts and responsibilities are one, then asking ‘what is our responsibility?’ is the same as asking ‘what is our gift?’”

If our gift is the capacity to influence our environment, then it is our responsibility to heal the planet that supports us. For some people, this might mean dedicating time and resources to protecting and restoring the natural world. For others, it might mean implementing small, tangible changes into everyday life to lessen their impact on the planet. And for many, this may mean becoming advocates for environmental stewardship.

Recognizing gifts and responsibilities as two sides of the same coin takes an ideological shift. We must reframe our mindset to recognize resources as limited, our ability to manipulate our environment as a tool for stewardship, a living planet as invaluable. Gifts given by the earth should be shared in gratitude and must be returned to the earth in reciprocity. To quote Robin Wall Kimmerer, “sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.”

Written by Kaia Olson, high school junior from Spokane

It means so much to me to have helped protect the rural environment and natural beauty of the San Juan Islands during the 1980s and 90s. Now I get to share my appreciation of these beautiful islands with my grandchildren, too.

Nancy DeVaux

former Executive Director and member, San Juan Island