Margaret D. Andrews
All life on our planet exists in a delicate balance, a system of interdependency among plants, animals, insects, microorganisms, and the environments in which they live. The earth supports a variety of different ecosystems in the air, water, and land—and each ecosystem, ultimately, is dependent upon all the others for its survival.
Humans have been slow to learn this simple yet vitally important lesson. Carelessly and ruthlessly, we have hunted animal species to the brink of extinction, cleared away forests, and released poisons into the environment. We are only recently learning that if we cause an environmental crisis, or destroy a single habitat, even far away—in the sea, under the earth, or on another continent—we are indirectly affecting every creature on this planet and ultimately hurting ourselves.
This unit has been designed to help students in grades 3Ð8, better understand their environment and their world, through a look at Biosphere 1 (Earth), Biosphere 2, and mini-biospheres that can be created by the students in the classroom and a sampling of other hands on activities. In an effort to encourage a generation of individuals who understand their relationship to the environment, we must begin to show students that there truly is a direct connection between how they live and the life support systems of the earth. They must begin right now to work towards saving their environment.
After the first day of school this year I noticed all the litter on the school grounds that had been left behind by the anxious students who had just begun another year at Helene Grant. I could still see the green grass and the flowers that had welcomed them that morning but the litter disturbed me. I wondered if it bothered any one else, the students, their parents, the staff? Were they angry at what was happening? Did they realize that this was just a small taste of the attitude toward our environment that was causing so much of the destruction of the biosystems of the world? As I drove to the highway past several other schools the situation was the same, in fact the more I looked it was the same everywhere. The litter wasn’t restricted to those academic campuses where small children might unconsciously drop a paper or two, it spread through the downtown area where there were very few children, and many adults. In fact, when I got back to my own small environment 45 miles north, the litter was bad there too.
I realized that I, like the children, their parents and the rest of the staff was so accustomed to this situation that we hardly noticed what was happening. The litter was there in the deeper backgrounds of our consciousness. We had adapted to the situation so completely that we were no longer consciously oppressed by these conditions. I guess what bothered me even more was the fact that this carried over into everything we do. We are wasteful with no consideration as to the consequences, we rarely carpool, we rarely recycle and worst of all, we rarely notice.
The question of what could be done about the situation surely had been asked many times, with the frustrated answer of, “very little, if anything.” Any changes or regulations enacted would disturb the entire life system. Whatever the forebodings of the present citizenry or our children, the situation was a product of our own activities. Any change would require total commitment, and this was too much to ask.
Thus does “adaptation,” the basic instrument of our survival, become the source of our peril? We adapt to our addictions. We do not change until some event shocks us so profoundly that we finally decide that the remedy is less to be feared than the addiction. Such a shock we have begun to experience from the toxic elements in our food supply, air pollution, our need to drink bottled water rather than the uncertain or tainted water that flows in our water systems, problems of waste disposal, the climatic changes taking place as a result of our use of fossil fuels, and the prevalence of cancer throughout our society. There is also the brooding sense of guilt when we think of the damaged world that we are handing on to our children.
One of the basic values of this unit is its clarity in presenting the consequences of our present activities on the biosystems of the planet and the urgent need to deal with these addictions. This altering of our conduct has three phases:
increasing our awareness of the impending disaster;
cessation of our harmful activities;
healing the damage already done.
These are universal obligations. Everyone can contribute to these efforts to ensure the survival of the planet, and thereby give ourselves and our children a context for continued human existence.
We can take much encouragement from certain events of recent years. Through the work of many organizations we have attained a new clarity as regards to our present situation. The media has raised environmental issues. The shock needed to bring about a recovery is now being felt throughout all levels of society. The consciousness of danger now exists, the rate of devastation begins to diminish, the healing is begun.
The director of the United Nations has stated that the issue of the environment is at the top of the international agenda, and it was the foremost concern at a recent meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm Conference, the first of the major international conferences on the environment. Whereas prior to this conference there were no environmental protection agencies in our governments, the delegates went home from this conference and established such agencies in almost ninety percent of the nations that attended.
From these and a multitude of other events that have taken place we can conclude that a pervasive consciousness now exists of the plight of the planet. We now recognize that a thousand things need to be done, all the way from recycling our paper and our metal containers to completely transforming our lifestyles, especially by reducing our use of (and possibly eliminating) the gas driven automobile. For our students who will suffer the most we can teach through example by reducing paper waste, water waste, the hazards of littering, and recycling.
Beyond all the particular things that need to be done there is a general need to transform our basic values. This applies especially to our religious and educational establishments, which have been terribly negligent in dealing with this situation. Our religious institutions have long ago developed ways of dealing morally with such issues as suicide, homicide, and genocide; yet they are totally lacking in moral principles for dealing with biocide and geocide—evils at least as disastrous.
So too with education. We educate our children for efficiency in running our commercial—industrial institutions, precisely those establishments that are tearing the planet to pieces and saturating it with toxic wastes, especially the petrochemical industries. Even though we have developed organic agriculture to a newly efficient degree, our universities continue to teach reliance on chemical based agriculture. Similarly, despite the vast amounts of toxic waste from our nuclear industry that we cannot dispose of, we remain negligent in committing our energies and our finances toward the development of solar energy. We are still not giving our students basic information on the dangers of fossil fuels and the destruction of our forests in building up the blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Everyone can make a significant contribution. We must begin to recognize the dangers of a consumer society. We can revise our lifestyles to reflect the needs and activities of the planet itself.
There was a time, prior to our use of the automobile and the development of the petrochemical industry, when we did not need to know a great deal about the earth or how it functioned in relation to our human activities. That is no longer true. Today all of us urgently need to know the implications of using polystyrene cups, dishes, or fillers, or plastic linings for diapers. As automobile owners we need to know that each year we put an amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere equal to the weight of the car itself.
By teaching some of the specific forms of our present situation, I hope to clarify not only the reality of our present situation but help offer specific remedies that can be applied to the issues. You should be able to bring the issues before your class in its actual urgency, but also help them to come up with directions as to how they can meet the difficulty. While there is no single answer to the problem, the suggestions given here will work for almost everyone.
Use this unit and your students will no longer live in deadly innocence, nor will you feel so frustrated as to what you can do with your knowledge. The students in my classroom have already committed themselves to limiting their polluting activities. If these students can become aware of their situation and commit themselves to change it, then all of us should be able to rethink our present condition and proceed with the radical transformations that are needed.