The Changer and the Changed
by Casey Murrow
Ever since the publication of Charles Darwin's studies on evolution, there has been great fascination in the ways through which plants and animals adapt to their environments in order to survive. A number of the articles in this issue explore ways in which we can introduce students to adaptation, change and survival.
Adaptation also has to do with loss of species, both those that could not adapt successfully and those which were forced out of their natural niche by the acts of humans. Some of these serious issues of change over time were brought home to us in a recent speech by Dr. Virginia Ravndal, a specialist on biodiversity at the United Nations, and an article by Larry Beutler, editor of the environmental education publication, Clearing.
Ravndal noted that we have not addressed the true implications of uncontrolled growth, either in terms of human population or industry. As people continue to destroy large areas of natural environments, we do very little to study or even catalogue the supposed five to thirty million species living on earth. When we do set aside areas of land, they are often small, severely limiting the capacity to preserve "wildness," or they are in poorly controlled parklands, particularly in third world countries.
In her sobering speech, Virginia Ravndal observed that when we speak of "stewardship" of the earth, we are advocating stewardship by the same organism (us) which is the greatest threat to the earth. And while we discuss preservation, our actions often result in large scale destruction of systems which have worked in relative harmony with nature. She gave as one example the widespread introduction of a small number of new, genetically manipulated plants in the Altiplano region of Peru. This region has a traditional agricultural base which has functioned for over 4,500 years using a wide variety of locally adapted seeds. When farmers are encouraged to intensively plant the new seeds in a fashion that approaches monoculture, the entire regional ecosystem can become unbalanced, threatening native cultivated and wild species of plants, as well as insect populations.
Writing in Clearing, Larry Beutler gives us another way to look at our involvement in this process. "As human beings, we have a distinct advantage (or disadvantage, as the case may be), of being the only animal capable of actually changing its environment. [We are] the only animal capable of being the changer, rather than just the changed."
Beutler then explores a role for education, writing:
…One of the main reasons we seem to encounter seemingly endless environmental crises, where the solution to one problem only brings us face to face with another problem, is our inability to see beyond the short term. [The natural world upon which we depend adapts to change over long periods of time]. We need to develop a long term vision of our relationship with the earth, to stop exploiting non-renewable resources as if they will last forever, and start living within the means of our environment. If we can just see beyond the short term benefits of some action, we will be able to see ahead to the long term results and judge the appropriateness of that action.
…We must encourage foresight, wisdom and a creative approach to the solution of problems … to create the change necessary today for a healthy and enjoyable tomorrow. Teaching about the natural world, its systems of balance and adaptation to change, is a lesson that could have far ranging implications for our children, who must deal with a future as yet undetermined.
©1994 Teachers' Laboratory (Synergy Learning, Inc.). All rights reserved.
Clearing: Environmental Education in the Pacific Northwest is a bi-monthly resource and activity guide (K-12) for teachers. For subscriptions or information contact: EEAW, PO Box 4122, Bellingham, WA 98227.
- Casey Murrow is Co-Director of Synergy Learning and editor of CONNECT.