I believe in the power of environmental literacy to transform our relationship with the natural world.
I work with rivers for a living. They offer a great opportunity to observe the responses of complex systems to natural and human-caused disturbance. Streams have self-regulating properties that allow for small-scale change while maintaining larger-scale equilibrium. This, despite huge natural fluctuations in streamflow, energy, and the movement of sediment. One could attribute human intention to stream behavior by saying that the system ‘wants’ to be in equilibrium.
A general characteristic of natural systems is the presence of feedback mechanisms that maintain stability. However, these operate within a range of natural variability. When change is imposed on natural systems, they tend to adjust incrementally, up to a point. That point is a threshold, beyond which the regulating mechanisms fail. The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back illustrates the point. Whoever loaded the camel did not understand the limits of its strength.
Should there have been a law to protect that camel? I believe we cannot regulate our way to sustainability. Our best hope is an environmentally educated populace. Many of my interactions with landowners involve me providing basic information on stream and floodplain processes. Usually, they are receptive and interested, and want to do the right thing. But I come away wondering why they didn’t enter high school knowing that a stream and the floodplain it occupies are a single system. Many intelligent, otherwise educated individuals are environmentally illiterate, yet they are free to own land and make decisions that radically alter the productivity and potential of that piece of the planet for a much longer span of time than they, themselves, are allotted. They are free to decide, in ignorance, what to leave the future.
I believe that, given good information, most people will make environmentally-responsible decisions, without legal dictates. Providing that information should be a core responsibility of our primary education system, so everyone leaving high school will be environmentally literate. By the time we have kids, careers and mortgages, and are in the position to make consequential decisions, the habit of comfortable ignorance is difficult to overcome.
Nature bats last. There are many dimensions to Mankind’s continued progress, but primary among them is acknowledging that we are part of, and dependent upon, ecosystem functioning. Understanding the fundamentals of ecosystem functioning is not especially difficult. We cannot afford to leave that understanding to a small group of specialists. The aggregate of our individual decisions is shaping the world our children will inherit.
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