Conservationist John Hartig on Connecting with the Ecosystem

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John Hartig has dedicated his life to improving the quality of the Great Lakes and waterways throughout Michigan. A childhood passion turned into his life’s purpose, and in the 81st episode of the Make Meaning Podcast, he tells host Lynne Golodner how others can follow a similar path.

Hartig, a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, believes that connecting with nature will spark a more conscious effort to protect our planet. In a similar way, his connection to his personal ecosystem stimulated his passion and turned it into a meaningful career.

Nature As Inspiration

Hartig has always loved fishing, canoeing, swimming – anything to be near a body of water, exploring what lives beneath its surface. His parents helped pique this interest at a young age by taking the family outside as possible.


“Certainly my parents encouraged me – I was taught that each person has unique gifts and talents,” Hartig told Lynne on the podcast.

Through family trips to Belle Isle and the inland lakes of northern Michigan, Hartig was exposed to a lot of what makes his state so beautiful. What wasn’t beautiful, though, was the amount of pollution he discovered in the Detroit River near his childhood home in Allen Park.


Hartig was a high school senior when he noticed the stark contrast in water quality between the Detroit River and northern Michigan inland lakes. After witnessing the river burst into flames due to being overrun with contaminating oil, Hartig decided to pursue an education that would lead to a career where he could help clean the lakes and rivers he loved.

Five books and countless articles later, Hartig is now the Great Lakes Science Policy Advisor for the International Association for Great Lakes Research. Through years of work, Hartig better understands the damaging effects of pollution on Michigan’s beloved natural resources. He uses this expertise to teach and inspire others to be serious about conservation efforts.

“I wanted to make a difference,” he said on the podcast. “I’ve cleaned up some of the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes – I’ve worked on all five of them, and spent time thinking about and understanding the Detroit River and the Rouge River as well.”

Nature As Healing


What’s most significant about Hartig’s cleanup work is the lasting impact it can have on our planet. Together, we have the opportunity to save the place we call home –  and it begins by reconnecting with our surroundings, he says.

Eighty percent of U.S. and Canadian populations live in urban settings, so they need ways to connect with nature in order to realize the effects of climate change and pollution. Only once we leave the cities can we fully appreciate nature’s beauty, its calming and restorative effects on us, and how badly it needs protecting.

Many cities, Detroit included, are investing in green spaces and promoting their natural assets to residents.

“The Detroit Riverwalk now has 3 million annual visitors,” Hartig asserts. “It’s a great way to reconnect people to these amazing natural resources right in our backyard.”

It can be easy to build connections with nature – we needn’t go far. Get involved in an urban garden, build a backyard butterfly sanctuary, or join a local conservation group – they’re all small, impactful ways to connect with the environment while contributing to the ecosystem where you live.

Nature As Understanding

The distinction between the words environment and ecosystem is important to Hartig. An environment encompasses all things while an ecosystem is the interaction between all components and the environment – relationships, experiences, everything that makes us who we are. 

These terms can be applied to almost everything. Conservationists like Hartig use them to dissect and evaluate the many ways we can help our planet thrive. At the Make Meaning Movement, we might also say that the connection with personal ecosystems helps us find purpose, do meaningful work, and change the way we look at our many environments. 


The way Hartig found his lifelong passion and purpose came from a fascination with the world around him when he was young. Make Meaning Movement founder Lynne Golodner speaks often about reconnecting with who you were and what motivated you when you were young as a way of discovering your purpose. It may already be there – you just need to uncover it.

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, bloom where you’re planted,” Hartig says.