Someone told me a while ago that a surprisingly large number of inner-city kids today are not aware that milk comes from a cow. That is, they have not considered where the milk was before it ended up in the carton that they then pick up from the supermarket. I laughed and shook my head at the time, but the statement has come back to bother me lately.
Back in the day, if you wanted to have a glass of milk, you would first have to find the cow in a pasture somewhere, make sure it had some milk to give (i.e. that it had a calf) and then convince it to stand still while you milk it. That, I would assume, would make that glass of milk mean something more to you, and also perhaps make you grateful to the cow (and calf) for sharing it, and to nature for feeding the cow so that she in turn could give it to you.
We are living in a time of rapid technological development and urbanization. This means that an increasing number, more than half of the world’s population according to the United Nations, are living in cities. City-life and innovations have enabled a lifestyle where you seldom have to risk bumping in to dangerous animals, where one can swoosh from one end of the world to the other in a matter of hours by airplane, and where you can get basically everything you would ever need and want from a store a few kilometres away. But what implications does this lifestyle have for our perception and understanding of nature?
We are living in a time of unprecedented pressure on the world’s ecosystems, where overexploitation, overconsumption, global warming and a plethora of other human-induced changes pose a serious threat to the continued existence of the world as we know it. Many of these problems are concentrated in the cities, where people tend to have a bigger environmental footprint than rural inhabitants. Many scholars (see for example Segovia, 2010 and Palmberg, Berg, & Jeronen, 2015) now voice their concerns that one of the reasons for this destructive behaviour is that many people have decoupled themselves and their actions from nature, not realising or reflecting on their contribution to global environmental problems.
To achieve sustainable development, ecosystems and their ability to deliver services and goods must be preserved. Given current trends this will require many people, especially in the developed world, to change their lifestyles. These changes might be inconvenient and uncomfortable, limiting the freedom to eat what you want, travelling where your heart desires and many other things we currently take for granted. People’s acceptance of changing and living within the ecological limits depends on their understanding of nature, its basic functions and its significance for human well-being. Today however, interaction with nature is decreasing and along with it the knowledge of how to recognise animals and plants, how food is produced and how our behaviour affects life around us.
We need to restore our connection to nature because without it we cannot develop environmental ethics that enable us to coexist with nature.
So how do we achieve this?
In a recent TED talk by Dr. Carlos De La Rosa, he concluded that one solution is to bring kids to the woods. Carlos was one of the minds behind the environmental education program in Guanacaste, designed to conserve and restore an ecologically valuable dry forest ecosystem in Costa Rica. The aim was Biocultural Restoration, i.e. to reconnect people with species and their natural history, ecological interactions and basic biology in general. By using the national park as a lab students are able to see, feel and experiment with the nature of their area. They are furthermore involved in the scientific and practical tasks of conservation, measuring tree-growth over time, taking inventories of animals and plants and much more. These labs enable students to understand the effects of human actions on flora and fauna, empowering and motivating them to bring about positive environmental impact.
The outcomes of the programme have been very positive. Illegal activities such as logging, poaching and mining have decreased along with human-wildlife conflicts. Moreover, many students have moved on to occupations within biology and ecology, some becoming staff at the park.
Increasing bioliteracy, the ability to “read” and understand nature and wildlife, is an essential step in achieving social change for sustainable development. I am personally convinced that this is one of the most important measures to achieve conservation of biodiversity. So bring the kids to nature: the woods, farmlands and oceans. Show them that it deserves our awe and respect.