What does it mean to be a human being?

I was asked to provide a two- or three-sentence response to the question “What does it mean to be a human being?” It’s an enormous question that needs two or three paragraphs or even pages, I didn’t think a couple of sentences would cut it. But here was my response:

Being a human being means finding one’s place among the more than seven billion people on our planet and in balance with our natural environment. As human beings, we have apparent dominion over the animals, plants and other natural resources of our planet and we need to exercise control over the damage we might cause. Further, we need to find belonging with others by finding our own tribe, made up of our family, our friends and our colleagues.

I whittled this response down from a three-point idea about our responsibilities. As human beings, we have a responsibility to ourselves to be the best we can be, without feeling pressured by others. We also have a responsibility to the wider world of other human beings. Obviously, we’re not going to cultivate individual relationships with more than seven billion people, but once we know what’s important to us—because we know how to be the best we can be—we can build relationships with different groups who will support us to be the best we can be. I like to refer to these groups as tribes.

Most importantly, we have a responsibility to our natural environment, the planet we have to live on. We need to share the planet with a bunch of other animals, and we need to leave somewhere for those animals to live and food for them to eat. We also want to reap from our planet resources that will make our lives comfortable and productive. But we don’t need to do that in a destructive manner.

With all of these responsibilities, we need to make changes as the world changes. We know better than to burn fossil fuels indiscriminately, build sprawling cities that infringe on necessary farm land, build sprawling farms that infringe on animal habitats, dump toxic waste in rivers and streams, exploit or enslave vulnerable populations, and so much more. All these things seemed entirely reasonable not too long ago. Now we need to find other ways to continue to live comfortably and productively.

I’m not perfect at living this way, but I’m trying.