If we are to create a new generation of ecoliterate young people who truly understand and value nature's life supporting systems, we must join up the dots through education. The need for Environmental Education (EE) that begins in pre-school and is completely integrated into the curriculum throughout compulsory schooling cannot be overstated.
In arguably the most comprehensive overview of the current state of our natural world, the Living Planet Report 2018 shows the staggering extent of the human impact on the planet. Published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), this report could be the most sobering picture yet on the wide-reaching damage that our species is having on the Earth's natural systems and biodiversity.
"Populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have, on average, declined in size by 60 percent in just over 40 years. The biggest drivers of current biodiversity loss are over-exploitation and agriculture, both linked to continually increasing human consumption." World Wildlife Fund
Through multiple indicators including the Living Planet Index (LPI), which examines trends in global wildlife abundance, the WWF concludes that populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have, on average, declined in size by 60 percent in just over 40 years. The biggest drivers of current biodiversity loss are over-exploitation and agriculture, both linked to continually increasing human consumption. Humanity and the way we feed, fuel and finance our societies and economies is pushing nature and the services that power and sustain us to the brink.
Awe and Wonder
It's not enough to expose children to nature and hope they'll develop an in-depth understanding and intimate connection to its wonders and vital life-giving support systems. Vitally, children need to explore the outside world through a process of discovery-based learning, built on awe and wonder to create a fuller appreciation of our reliance on nature. Rather than trying to conquer nature by viewing ourselves as separate from it, we must start to view ourselves as one small piece of a much bigger system on which we all depend on for our continued existence. This will require a far greater emphasis on EE in our schools and wider communities.
Big Picture Thinking
Systems thinking is vital to shifting human consciousness towards understanding both how we as humans impact nature, and how Earth enables such diversity of life to thrive. Rather than viewing things in the natural world as an isolated piece of a much bigger puzzle using an approach known as 'reductionism,' systems thinking involves viewing things as a whole by acknowledging the complexity and inherent interconnectedness of nature's intricate maze. One seemingly small change to an ecosystem can have wide-reaching effects which are amplified far beyond the initial trigger.
The perfect example of this is bees. Global populations of bees have been dessimated in recent years. Bees provide a vital ecosystem service by acting as pollinators to a huge variety of crops and flowering plants worldwide. For quite some time, scientists were scratching their heads. What was causing such as dramatic reduction in bee numbers on a global scale? What would happen without bees to pollinate plants? What knock-on impacts would this have on ecosystems worldwide?
As it turns out, multiple compounding factors including drought, pesticides, habitat loss, climate change and disease are to blame for the bees' decline. If this downward trend continues, it will present a collossal problem for humanity. According to early estimates, it could cost upwards of $30 billion per year to replace bees as key pollinators of the world's crops, if we were forced to utilize man-made technology to fill the gap.
Web of Life
Ecosystems are vast and complex. Nothing in nature is wasted. Energy and matter are continually flowing through the system in a never ending cycle. No matter how much we think we know about nature's web of life, our scientific models routinely fail to predict the outcomes of perturbations and changes within Earth's diverse ecosystems. Climate change is just one example which is expected to have thousands upon thousands of effects on every ecosystem on Earth. Some can be identified with confidence by scientists, while others cannot easily be foreseen with our current levels of understanding and technology.
We Need Nature
The central point is that we need nature much more than nature needs us. Life on Earth would continue to do just fine without humanity, but the same cannot be said of us without nature. This realization is vital to the future survival of our species and something we must strive to teach young people around the world. Essentially, our challenge as educators of young minds is to turn the tide on current destructive patterns of thinking and human behavior using the power of EE together with real-world action to create widespread change on a scale never seen before.
"Humanity and the way we feed, fuel and finance our societies and economies is pushing nature and the services that power and sustain us to the brink. The reality is that there's now a rapidly closing window for action to reverse the trend." World Wildlife Fund
It won't happen overnight, although it will happen if we make ecoliteracy and sustainable development a central focus of our education system for the next generation of youngsters. Our best hope is to achieve a carefully balanced blend of both classroom and place-based, hands-on learning, centred on ecoliteracy and how to live in harmony with Earth's vital life-supporting systems. The clock is ticking and the window for action is rapidly closing.
The need for the global community to collectively re-think and re-define how we value, protect and restore nature has never been greater. So let's start with the way we educate our children, and create a new generation of nature lovers and changemakers for a brighter future!
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