Today, I have a measured sense of how much trouble our environment is in. We have many challenges ahead of us, I realize. I also know that the wildlife in my backyard is not likely to drop dead today or even tomorrow.
I have arrived at this balanced view over time. But even today I can’t help thinking much as I did when I was young: each time I see an animal in the wild, I immediately wonder how sick it is, how many toxins it’s carrying, and even if it may be the last one of its kind I’ll ever see. I can correct that thought. But it’s still there.
Kind of a downer? You bet. For many years, I was not only skeptical but downright cynical about environmental efforts. They all seemed feeble next to the threats to the environment.
Only after I learned of some success stories did I begin to question my view. By working together, people brought the turkey, the American alligator, and the bald eagle back from the brink of extinction. They are all signs of hope. I began to wonder if the environmental education I had received had helped me very much.
I attended elementary school and middle school (we called it “junior high”) during the late 1960s and early 1970s—after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had spread awareness about environmental dangers and before the Endangered Species Act was passed. Between those two landmarks, as a biologist once told me, the outlook for the environment was bleak to say the least.
Environmental education, as I recall it, was also bleak. I had a science teacher whom I would place far from the Bill Nye end of the spectrum. In fact, I’d sit him at the opposite end, next to Ben Stein’s character in the television show “The Wonder Years.” This fictitious teacher was known for showing his class case after case of beautiful wilderness areas transformed into toxic wastelands in the time it takes to advance a slide projector.
His approach triggered a substantial dose of guilt, but not much hope.
And every now and then a letter from a Highlights reader reminds me of both Ben Stein and my own teacher. This question from a nine year old stays with me: “When will we die from global warming?”
The letter I wrote to answer that question did not come easily. Generally, I work to answer our readers’ questions about the environment truthfully while also offering a reason for hope. The approach I take is to inform the reader about the issue, and that information includes some people who are working to improve the situation.
And I wish for today’s kids the experience I would have chosen for myself: less gloom and doom and more time outdoors with an adult who also enjoyed nature.
Has the world ever seen a committed, effective conservationist or environmentalist whose main childhood memories of nature did not come from direct and meaningful exposure to nature? Has one ever stepped forward who was not guided by an adult who also loved nature? Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Roger Tory Peterson, and many others—each fell in love with nature before answering the call to champion it.
If our goal is to rear future generations that make thoughtful, deliberate decisions about tough environmental issues, we need to give kids more than the facts. And maybe we need to save the bleakest facts for later. First, we need to help them develop a deep, lasting connection with the natural world. Then, I believe, they will take up the responsibility for saving their little parts of the world in their own time.