By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Just how important is nature to Canadians? For some, our land defines who we are as a culture. For others, it provides a place of escape and renewal from the frenetic urban centres where the majority of us live. As Canadians, it seems that nature is deeply embedded in our collective psyche.

Earlier this summer, Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor wrote a lovely article about spending time on the lake and in nature: "If you head down the lake and through a small narrows — watch out for that deadhead — you come to a smaller lake with not a single dwelling to be found. The surrounding leaves hint at what time of year it is, but say nothing of the year itself. It could be this century, it could be last century — could, with an enormous amount of good fortune — be next century."

It's a beautiful and evocative passage, and one that I will carry with me through the autumn as the days get shorter and the weather turns cold. But I'd make one small alteration to the last sentence: "It could be this century, it could be last century — could, with an enormous amount of good fortune and effort — be next century."

You see, it's not just about good fortune anymore. We aren't just subject to the whims of nature. We're subject to the whims and pulse of humanity. Whether or not Roy's lake will be around next century depends far less on good fortune and far more on what we Canadians, as a society, and what we humans, as a species, decide to do in the next few decades.

That lake may look the same as it did a century ago, but it's actually probably undergone some fairly substantial changes. The water no doubt contains persistent, man-made chemicals that didn't exist a century ago. The pH level of the water has probably changed due to acid rain, and the wildlife around the lake has changed in abundance and diversity due to hunting, trapping and logging in the surrounding area.

Still, in spite of these changes that have taken place from coast to coast, Canada is a blessed country. We have some of the largest intact healthy ecosystems in the world. We have a huge land base and a small population. We're just not taking very good care of it.

By most measures, we're failing. While we used to consider ourselves a world leader on environmental issues, we simply can't make that claim anymore. Most other industrialized countries are dealing with climate change, air and water pollution, and species extinction. We are not. Other countries are working towards becoming sustainable. We are not.

That's a hard fact to face when we're camping in the great outdoors, sitting on the dock of a lake, or canoeing down one of Canada's countless magnificent waterways — but it's true. It's only by an enormous amount of good fortune that we still have the opportunity to change before it's too late.

Conserving the natural world that Canadians hold so dear is up to all of us, but few of us have the power of our elected leaders. They make the laws and they make sure they are enforced. These are the folks we need to talk to if we want to make change happen. Of course, that's up to us too. Unless we ask, they won't do a thing.

So as we leave summer behind and head back to the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives — getting the kids off to school and ourselves to work — try to think of those places that make Canada special. Places, like Roy's lake, where we truly feel connected to the land. Then remember that it's up to us to make sure these places are still there in the next century, so our children and grandchildren can enjoy them too.

November 8, 2006