Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why we need environmental education.

The Times has a story this morning on the discovery of snakehead fish in a lake in Queens. The snakehead as you may or may not know, is a voracious and effective predator from eastern Asia which, when introduced into non-native ecosystems, is quite capable of decimating fish populations and permanently altering the balance of those ecosystems. What I found interesting about the article was this quote:

"He said someone might have bought several in an Asian fish store a few years ago before the ban was enforced and deliberately released them in the lake, hoping they would reproduce there and provide some inexpensive dinners. Of course, it would not be the first time that an ecological nightmare was unleashed by someone who did not know any better."

How many of you would know better? I'm guessing, most. Why? Because, I think, all of us have had some degree of environmental education in the course of our secondary and post-secondary educational careers. At the very minimum, in high school biology, we heard about ecosystems and ecosystem change. The question is, without such exposure to topics like invasive species and ecosystem health, would we be aware of the risks of introducing new species to non-native environments? It's hard to say.

I suspect that most southerners are familiar with destructive introduced species like the nutria. Moreover, lots of folks on the East Coast and in the midwest are probably familiar with chestnut blight and dutch elm disease, both of which are due to introduced species. But these are only a few examples of the hundreds of introduced species that affect America's various ecosystem complexes. Relying on word of mouth, alone, to pass this sort of knowledge along is a precarious way to educate the public. That's why I applaud state curricula that include environmental science requirements. Even Texas, where the certifiably insane Republican party controls state government, the state education standards include a comprehensive "environmental systems" requirement for high schoolers.

Of course, there are people on the right who think that environmental education is a liberal plot ot institute communism. Why? Presumably because educated voters recognize the value of environmental legislation and regulation, and such laws and regulations stand in the way of the perfect corporate state. Back in 2001, for example, The Nation had a great article describing how much of the anti-environmental and anti-environmental movement is basically a front for the polluting industries. It makes sense, if natural heritage means nothing to you and money means everything what do you do? (That's easy! You lie about your policy goals, you manipulate gullible Christians to vote for your candidate, you spend billions in soft money, and you get George W. Bush elected to office! I'm kidding...kind of.)

Logically, if you want to operate unfettered as a polluting industry, you must game the system that currently regulates most industrial activity in this country. You must attempt to influence the policy and political debates, but you also must influence the electorate. The easiest way to do this? Change educational standards and use modern marketing and outreach methods to weaken Americans' scientific understanding and call the very institution of "science" into question.

I would argue that this process is already under way. As The Nation article points out, folks like John Stosser and the people at the Competitive Enterprise institute have already begun attacking science and environmental education. At the political level, moreover, we are faced with the unpleasant image of Joe Barton, the sleazy north Texan who represents the Dallas area, recently attacking scientists and the scientific method itself. Why? If Republicans and their corporate funders can make enough people believe that scientists have a political agenda and if enough people lack sufficient education to understand the basics of the scientific method, then presumably it will be that much easier for them to gut the corpus of legal and administrative protections that constitute our primary protection against a degraded and debilitated natural environment.

Call me crazy, but that's atleast one reason why we need environmental education in this country. That, and to stop people from releasing snake heads into local lakes...