I co-authored this article in 2001, though the topic remains as relevant today as it did then.

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Teaching conservation effectively: a lesson from life history strategies.

Conservation Biology in 2001, Vol 13 (2), pp 453-454.

We have followed with interest the discussions in Conservation Biology regarding higher education and its importance in conservation (Meffe 1994; Jacobson et al. 1995; Strauss 1995; Gerht 1996; Uhl et al. 1996; Dunning 1997; Mattingly 1997;). However, we believe that informing college students about environmental issues, falls short of addressing the large-scale problem of environmental apathy in today’s world.

To illustrate our point we cite two examples. The first, relates an event that took place in Panama, where a fellow ecologist was conducting some field research. She, and other researches, stopped at a restaurant by the coast where the menu read, among other things, “turtle soup”. Most of the researchers ordered the soup, however our friend (a native Spanish speaker) asked the waiter what kind of turtle it was. He responded matter-of-factly: “green sea turtle”. Our friend translated this to her peers, but to her surprise they showed little reaction; the most concerned stated that as long as it was not a female, it was okay to eat. The researchers then proceeded to enjoy their meal.

In contrast to this is an event observed, by one of the authors, while working in an aquiculture farm in the foothills of central Venezuela. It was discovered that a medium-sized caiman (an abundant relative of the alligator) had invaded one of the ponds and consumed a sizable amount of the fish being farmed. When the intruder was finally caught, the author watched with surprise as one of the workers of the farm begged him not to hurt the animal, encouraging him to relocate it and release it in a deep river from which the caiman would most likely not return.

The researchers in Panama were post-doctoral and Ph.D. students in tropical biology and behavioral ecology. The worker at the Venezuelan farm had at most first or second grade level of education, and was raised in an area of little conservation awareness. Perhaps these are not examples of any particular trend, but they are two extreme points that illustrate a more transcendental issue: lack of knowledge is not the problem.

Lack of knowledge is certainly not the problem when lumber companies decide to clear-cut a large extension of land in the old growth forests of western Canada or the Brazilian rain forest. Insufficient education of conservation issues is not the missing ingredient when large industrial companies decide to build factories in developing countries; where the local environmental regulations are not well enforced, if they exist at all. It is clear that for the most part the real cause of environmental irresponsibility is not a lack of knowledge but a lack of “caring”. It is not information that will make a real difference in our environmental attitudes and behavior but, indeed, feelings; since love cannot be bought, corrupted, or intentionally ignored the way knowledge can.

Only those people who feel strongly about the environment and have established some bonds of respect and awe for nature are going to fight to protect it (Gould 1991; Orr 1992). Now, how can we teach the people to care? College students are bad targets for promoting environmental responsibility for several reasons: not only are their personalities already shaped, but also they have many newfound priorities and concerns. The final stages of a stubborn adolescence, plus the responsibilities of early adulthood (choosing a career, finding a job, finding a spouse), and the demands of the programs themselves do not leave time or desire to devote efforts to environmental issues. Therefore, we believe that college students should not be the prime targets for our teaching efforts.

To teach and instill love and respect for nature, our best audience to target is children. Children, especially grade school ages, are still developing their personalities, and unlike most teenagers and adults, they are very receptive to new ideas and philosophies. The seeds planted in children, will grow into feelings when the person grows up

The idea that children are a better target for teaching love to nature has been known for a long time (Norton 1989; Paul & Serpell 1993). Yet, conservation academicians consistently ignore this important issue, or at least seem to be waiting for somebody else to take care of it. We cannot depend solely upon overworked and underpaid school teachers, who also lack the proper education in this field.

Teaching in lower educational levels versus higher ones can be compared with life history strategies. We can invest a lot of time and effort in training a few Ph.D. students, to develop the theories, models, and design strategies to apply to conservation biology (k-selected strategy), or we can invest an equivalent effort seeding love for nature in many kids of whom at least some will eventually become environmentally concerned citizens (r-selected strategy). These citizens will demand some degree of environmental responsibility from themselves and from the community, ultimately producing voters concerned in the environmental policies of politicians and other decision-makers.

Just as in nature, we need both strategies. Having sophisticated models to apply to conservation is of little help if we lack the political and economic interest to achieve conservation goals (current situations). On the other hand, having communities and politicians with strong environmental policies would not guarantee success without any guidance. How shall we distribute our efforts? We can, again, learn from nature: we should invest in creating a few “k-modelers” and many “r-voters”. We will always need some (and have jobs for only a few) scholars to recommend proper environmental solutions. Yet, in light of our conservation crisis we can never have too many environmental activists and responsible voters.

In today’s competitive world of academics, where research and publications are the key to success, to teach children is perceived as a “waste of time”. However, getting involved in teaching environmental awareness is now a necessity, not an option. As Gerht (1996) claimed, it is a matter of ethics, it is also an alternative that is at everybody’s reach and it is ultimately a fair toll to nature.

How do we devote our time to both educational strategies? One efficient method would be to directly involve both graduate students and children. Graduate students could be required, as part of their candidate duties, to interact with a group of children in which the goal would be to seed love for nature and to educate children about environment and conservation issues (this also would be a great piece of learning for the student).

We believe targeting many young children is the best way of promoting a permanent solution. Seeding a love for nature in today’s youth is the best hope we have of ever achieving a world with real respect for earth, instead of a minority of concerned citizens struggling to make “the best of a bad job”. We call on conservation biologists, especially students and faculty, for a greater commitment to our environment. We can make a more valuable contribution to conservation by diverting a little of the time that we currently devote to research to the simpler, yet fruitful, task of teaching children.

Literature Cited

.-Dunning, J. B. 1997. The missing awareness, part 2: Teaching students what a billion people looks like. Conservation Biology. 11: 6-10.

.-Gerht, S. D.1996. The human population problem: Educating and changing behavior. Conservation Biology. 10: 900- 903.

.-Gould, S. J. 1991. Unenchanted evening. Natural History. 9/91:, p 4-13..

.-Jacobson, S. K., E. Vaughan, and S. W. Miller. 1995. New directions in conservation biology: graduate programs. Conservation Biology. 9: 5-17.

.-Mattingly, H. T. 1997. Seeking balance in higher education. Conservation Biology. 11:1049-1052.

.-Meffe, G. K. 1994. Human population control: the missing awareness. Conservation Biology 8: 310-313.

.-Norton B. G. 1989. The cultural approach to conservation biology. In Conservation for the twenty-first century. (Eds. D. Western & M. Pearl) Oxford University Press. p: 241-246

.-Orr, D. W. 1992. For the love of life. Conservation Biology. 6: 248-250.

.-Paul, E. S. & Serpell, J. A Childhood pet keeping and humane attitudes in young adulthood. Animal Welfare. 2: 321-337.

.-Strauss, B. 1995. Education in the real world. Conservation Biology. 9:1346-1348.

.-Uhl, C., D. Kulakowsky, J. Gerwing, M. Brown and M. Cochrane. 1996. Sustainability: a touchstone concept for university operations, education and research. Conservation Biology 10: 1308-1311.

There are those who study the natural environment to advance a career, to attain tenure, and/or  to attain a certain status. Others become students of Mother Nature because they can’t help themselves, because they know they are intrinsically linked to it, can’t imagine a life separate from it. If you want an advocate, a defender of the natural world, don’t look to the former, they believe they have to much to lose by taking a side.  Go to the latter, because they know they have everything to lose if they don’t.

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