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Over 100 years ago a little brown passenger pigeon named Martha died in the Cincinnati Zoo. She was the last of her breed. Just like that, in an instant, a bird species that had once numbered in the billions were wiped out forever.
What a Little Pigeon Could Teach Our World
I’ve been researching Martha and other endangered species for the past five years in my efforts to write a book that children can relate to on the importance of conservation and environmental protection.
What’s become perfectly clear to me as I wrote and rewrote my book, is that if we don’t educate our children on the importance of conservation today, we are likely to experience a catastrophic loss of biodiversity that will alter the course of human and natural history forever.
Think about how the lessons of Martha connect with our current disastrous state of affairs. Martha lived through a seminal time in American history that included the expansion West, industrialization, the Gilded Age (age of decadent consumption), huge population growth, several wars (nothing new there), and the heady legacy of Manifest Destiny.
Environmental Impacts Burning Coal
In the US, we burned coal, we raped the land, we expanded our economies, and we became, before long, the greatest industrial empire the world had ever seen.
But at what cost?
Facing habitat loss and other environmental impacts, passenger pigeons began to drop like flies. In just a few short decades, the bird flocks that had once stretched for miles across the American Heartland as they made their northern migration, were no more.
Our children need to know the story of Martha. They need to know the story of George the Snail, who died in Hawaii at the ripe old age of 14 earlier this year and was the last Achatinella apexfulva snail on the planet. They need to know the story of the Dodo and how scientists are working today to restore coral reefs and protect natural habitats in its native Mauritius.
Children need to learn about the dire consequences of Planet Earth’s sixth mass extinction. At our current unchecked and unbridled rates of conspicuous consumption, pollution, habitat loss, population growth, heating oceans, rising temperatures and melting ice-caps, an estimated 1 million species could follow Martha into the history books.
An entire generation will miss out on the majesty, power and grace of wild gorillas, sea turtles, Bengal tigers and polar bears. They will miss out on swimming in the technicolour wonderlands of the Great Barrier Reef. They will miss out on the endless possibilities that our world’s insects, birds and plant life could bring to science and humanity.
Climate change and environmental degradation triggering violent conflict and mass migration
In the developing world, they will miss out on much more. Climate change, species loss and environmental degradation are already triggering violent conflict and mass migration. It’s pushing children and their families to leave their homelands. It’s disrupting entire economies. This means more children go hungry, more children are forced out of education, and more children will never get the chance to learn and grow and one day be the change we need to save planet earth.
What to Tell our Children?
Yes, children need to learn about these dangerous and inconvenient truths. And they need to learn about our history so we don’t repeat our mistakes.
Failing to do so puts our very existence at risk.
Think about it this way. More than 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will die by 2050.
This is certainly bad for people that rely on fish for food. But it’s also really, really bad for our economy. With violent storms and rising sea levels, entire communities could be wiped out without the protection barrier reefs provide. Oceanic ecosystems will fall apart and coastal peoples will be forced to move.
So what does true environmental education look like?
First and foremost, we need to stop talking about the possibilities of climate and environmental disaster. We are in it!
Every day we lose a dozen or more species, and we are still fretting about teaching subjects like climate change and conservation in public schools. In fact, more than half of US teachers do not teach climate change in their schools. I thought we had gotten past that with the Scopes Monkey Trail, but apparently not.
Second, we need to teach children about history, and we need to include lessons on conservation in our art, science, reading and even mathematics lessons. Think what understanding the real social and economic facts behind Martha could teach a child about our current situation?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to get children out in nature. This means putting the iPad down (you’re probably reading one right now), and going out for a hike in any local park or preserve. Along the way, you will probably spot dozens of species with your son or daughter, niece, nephew, or favourite student. One of these animals will probably go extinct in that child’s lifetime. Don’t they deserve better?
Lucubrate Magazine November 2019
The photo on the top of the article Elizabeth O’Brien/Smithsonian Institution