A Vision of Conservation from School
JOSÉ ANTONIO LÓPEZ TERCERO CAAMAÑO
Article first published online: 9 NOV 2011
Conservation Biology, Volume 25, No. 6, 1091–1093
©2011 Society for Conservation Biology
During my teaching career I have come to understand that the teacher's labor goes further than providing instruction on scientific definitions and theory. We must also deal with all the problems and interests of our students, and some of the most relevant ones are those related to our planet and its inhabitants.
When I was invited to write an essay for Conservation Biology, I thought it was a great opportunity to reflect on how a teacher's actions can advance the mission of conservation science. Teachers have the obligation to be informed about advances in conservation science in order to be able to transmit to students the importance of adopting an environmental-friendly lifestyle.
For all humanity and all species known, Earth is, at least for now, the only inhabitable land we have. Despite being the only species that apparently understands this, it seems we walk the path of destruction, depleting our own home for the sake of comfort and financial interest, and putting our survival at stake.
Understanding Conservation Biology
When someone talks about conservation biology, most of us who are not specialists on the subject inevitably think of all the actions needed to preserve biological diversity and to prevent further extinctions of plants, animals, or microorganisms. We reflect on actions needed to protect the habitats of these species, which are threatened by humans’ use of resources to produce goods and obtain energy. Thus, talking about conservation biology makes us keep in mind endangered species and their history and evolution; the preservation, respect for, and recovery of species’ natural habitats; monitoring and analysis of weather changes due in part to natural phenomena, but mainly due to human actions; the processes by which humans can obtain natural resources, including energy, with the maximum respect for nature; the handling and recycling of our waste to affect the environment as little as possible; the scientific research and achievements that keep emerging on these topics; and, of course, spreading all this information to the general public.
Biological conservation is a multidisciplinary activity. It draws from the work of experts from many disciplines, including but not limited to biologists, chemists, physicians, veterinarians, geneticists, microbiologists, engineers, environmental professionals, geographers, paleontologists, economists, urban planners, and agronomists. However, the actions of all people, not just disciplinary experts, are necessary for conservation to succeed. I believe it is a responsibility of each and every person to be informed of actions consistent with coexisting with other elements of the natural environment. Meeting this responsibility requires that jargon-free information is available outside specialized journals.
Many efforts are being made to disseminate information about what actions may be necessary to meet conservation objectives, but the information does not address realistic challenges such as the discrepancy between need and action. Many actions are taken too late, when they cannot accomplish goals or when other actions have already led to situations considered to be disasters.
Contributions of Teachers to Conservation
Teaching science to those below 19 years of age is a huge opportunity to shape these individuals’ future behavior. With this opportunity comes a commitment to stay updated on the main disciplines that affect everyday living. Our students are eager to understand ecological phenomena and their surroundings and to be able to propose new ideas for conservation actions. Many topics inspire young people to learn, including the species of different regions of the world. Who would not be thrilled and attracted by the image of a huge whale, monarch butterflies flying enormous distances to Mexican forests, or the wide variety of colorful fishes, insects, and flowers that occur in different ecosystems?
For the average science teacher to show and move students with these wonders, audiovisual materials are necessary but not sufficient. The teacher simultaneously must be able to introduce information about threats to these species and raise awareness that human activity causes most of these threats. Students also are taught that evolution perpetually selects the species that remain on Earth. Therefore, students may consider as normal the extinction of some species while recognizing that the pace of human activity not only tends to be more rapid than evolution but also threatens many species, including humans. In most cases, neither students nor adults are aware of these phenomena.
Information on extinctions and drivers of extinction is readily available. Almost every day some media outlets provide news about endangered species and approaches to managing resources and energy and try to persuade humans to care about the environment. All over the world there are ongoing successful, multidisciplinary, and fascinating research projects. A few decades ago, educational and environmental authorities from different regions of the world launched plans and programs to raise awareness on the effects of resource use in different ecosystems, including effects of developing urban areas, tourism, crops, pastures for domestic livestock, mines, and industrial estates. For example, in Mexico, all basic education programs in primary and secondary schools contain information about the environment and how to take good care of it. From 1993 to 2006, environmental education was even a special subject in the curriculum of the third grade of secondary school; however, the subject has now been relegated to other science classes. Teachers share environmental information with their pupils and assess it together so students can learn to identify environmental and development challenges. Students may even become interested in these subjects for their future careers.
Despite mass-media information campaigns, school programs, and recently acquired knowledge, I do not think people are shocked enough. Not even news dealing with natural disasters and their possible relations with climate change, showing a series of moving or terrifying images, awakens humans worldwide to change their habits.
The conservation efforts of a conscientious, positive, and encouraging teacher include a struggle against social and economic facts. While some media send messages to create an environmental and conservation consciousness, they also bombard us with advertisements of different novelty products and services intended to make our lives easier and more enjoyable: highly processed foods, comfortable and spacious vehicles, gadgets, communication devices, games, appliances, medicines, exotic drinks, and all sorts of junk. Fabrication of many such products has a huge negative effect on the environment and is an incredible source of waste because it is difficult to reuse or recycle most of them. Additionally, much profit from these products feeds the pockets of corporations and businesspeople whose primary goals include becoming richer.
We must face the paradox of the consumer. Those of us who are aware of the environmental damage we are causing frequently do not act on this knowledge. We know what to do but avoid doing it for reasons of comfort or economic gain. We avoid responsibilities and deny problems, not only to take advantage of the products at hand, but also as a way of concealing risks or fears of unleashing the ecological disasters that we are being warned of, as if by ignoring the risks the issues could disappear.
It is not easy to answer questions about the preservation of species and of the environment. For example, why should we look after species that not only seem useless to humans but also may put us in danger, for example, wolves, jaguars, lions, tigers, or poisonous insects and plants? Why should I deprive myself of luxuries and pleasures that advertising presents as indispensable? How can something across the world or at the bottom of the ocean affect me? If scientists and engineers are responsible for all the great inventions we have, should not it also be their responsibility to come up with a solution to the undesirable effects that have been created? What is wrong with creating agricultural fields, housing, and factories in a forest if these changes promise to create jobs and increase human well-being?
Conservation science can provide information for individuals who fight fiercely against those who manipulate the economy, businesses, governments, and ignorant or irresponsible consumers. In the last few centuries, conservation science and other forms of science have moved forward at a fast pace, but on their own, largely unaccompanied by education. And for those who are not involved somehow in science, scientific knowledge, technology, and magic are equivalent.
How can we make people understand that all species and processes are related and thus even what we do not perceive touches us? How can we expect lawmakers to spare some time and effort on subjects they do not grasp, such as those related to ecology and conservation? How can we convince businesses and governments that all the money and all the power in the world will never be enough to recover from environmental disasters and the destruction humans are causing?
Teachers are faced with an almost insurmountable challenge. Only highly informed professionals fully understand environmental changes and their relations to societal decisions. The only way to face such a challenge is to effect change in human behavior and in consumers’ habits, so that the smallest action could actually have a positive effect on conservation objectives.
Programs Developed at School
In the last 20 years at the Instituto Escuela, we have searched for different ways to raise consciousness about the importance of changing our daily habits in order to preserve the environment and biological diversity. Besides presenting the Ministry of Education with official study plans on ecology, we are introducing environmental themes in classes on many different subjects. This leads us, for example, to analyze environmental readings in Spanish and English classes, to hold debates on environmental issues in social science classes, or to introduce an everyday environmental problem in a mathematics class. Environmental information is constantly delivered to the school community, but that is not enough; we also have designed specific activities that have had a good return.
On a regular basis, we invite specialists to talk to the students about topics such as biological diversity, endangered species, climate change, use of water, and the effect of garbage on the environment. The mere presence of a specialist on a given subject, an instructor who is not their regular teacher, creates an atmosphere that highlights the importance of the topic we are talking about.
We organize visits to places of interest related to the environment and its preservation. For example, we take students to nurseries, water treatment plants, garbage dumps, or farms. Visiting a place called Mazunte, in the state of Oaxaca, is particularly successful. There, the students spend several days watching the birth of sea turtles and helping the turtles get to the sea safely. Real-world experiences such as these are much more memorable than anything the students may learn from books or inside the classrooms.
Every year, the Ministry of Education in Mexico organizes competitions and fairs on activities that are designed to promote environmental improvements. Our school always encourages students to participate in these events with their own research and proposals. For example, in the last few years, we won a competition to design an environmentally friendly diaper, which we made out of corn husk and cotton. Regardless of the challenges in fabricating this product on a larger scale, our students were recognized for their research, inventiveness, and effort.
We have also been invited to competitions organized by nongovernmental organizations. One such event is an annual poster and essay competition at The Molina Center, Let's Perform a Miracle for the Air. The winners are invited to a two-day congress about current environmental issues, where serious proposals are put together after hours of reflection and analysis. Those of our students who have participated in the congress had an amazing experience. Unfortunately, only about 100 students from Mexico City take part in the congress, which can only go so far.
School administrations and teachers must provide examples of behavior for students. It is worthless to preach if we cannot put into practice what we say. Actions do speak louder than words. At school, conserving water, saving energy, handling waste properly, and setting the example for healthy eating habits and a generally healthy lifestyle are actions that students should not take only on their own but with their teachers. Students then may follow the examples from school, take the actions home, and thus extend the actions to society.
Challenges in the Near Future
Many conservation achievements have been realized in recent decades and many of the new sources of information have been welcomed into the educational systems of several countries, so that attitudes from home to school promote activities consistent with conservation objectives.
However, there are many more challenges than achievements. Dissemination of information about conservation actions must be widened to involve all parts of society. This implies countering some interests of corporations, the usual allies of governments and mass media. Conservation professionals have to direct their efforts beyond academia and research; there is already much data and planning. What is missing is action.
As an example of this lack of action, very few people, even in government, know that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared 2005 as the beginning of the United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014). We are well into the last third of the decade and very few of UNECSCO's objectives have been achieved. Among the primary objectives were, fostering peace, minimizing climate change, reducing inequalities between the northern and southern hemispheres, and combating poverty and the marginalization of women and girls.
There are many challenges to come in the science and practice of conservation, so it is imperative that those who are immersed in the subject search for allies in all possible spheres. Without a doubt, the first ally should be teachers of children and youth, who traditionally keep themselves informed and promote change, raising consciousness about social causes throughout history. Already, many teachers work on environmental topics, but there are many more who should be doing so. The cooperation of all teachers with conservation professionals could affect everyone's survival.
About the Author
José Antonio López Tercero Caamaño studied biochemistry and microbiology at the Chemistry School of the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM). He is head of the science department and a chemistry teacher at Instituto Escuela in Mexico City. He is the author of 15 books, including La Química de la Vida y el Medio Ambiente, La Química de los Fluídos Naturales, 6 chemistry and physics textbooks for secondary school students, and Retos de Química, a book that helps students prepare for PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) exams. Since 1987, he has worked with students between 12 and 18 years old, teaching chemistry, biology, environmental science, and the history of science.