Monday, October 28, 2013

Musings: Are we encouraging the wrong attitude toward nature?

There have been a few events in the news and media lately that have been making waves in the environmental community – and not in a good way. There are two examples in particular that seem to be sending the wrong message about our relationships with, and attitudes toward, the environment.  What is even more disturbing is that both of these examples are either directed toward children or involve people who work directly with children, who will be the next generation of humanity responsible for continuing critical conservation efforts that so much of our society is fighting for right now.  Are we sending them the right message?  Are we teaching them to develop the respect and sense of wonder that will cause them to care about preserving the environment that sustains us? Judging by these examples… definitely not.

I’m sure by now that everyone has seen the video of the boy scout leaders toppling an ancient rock formation in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah.  In the video, a boy scout leader is shown shoving a large rock (“goblin”) off of its natural pedestal near a trail.  After a few pushes, the rock gives way and tumbles to the ground, at which the perpetrators in the video throw their hands in the air and commence with their self-congratulations and victorious hooting and hollering. 

This video caused a stir due to the fact that it documents the destruction of an ancient rock formation in a State Park.  In the big picture of things, is a rock being pushed over a huge deal? No, not really.  Of course, it would be a big problem if everyone decided to run around Goblin Valley toppling rock formations left and right, but that seems unlikely given the outcry over this most recent incident.  

The big problem with this video, in my mind, is that the actions of the boy scout leaders demonstrate a blatant lack of respect for nature.  They deemed this rock to be a “threat,” and in a scene that could have easily featured primitive cavemen, decided to push the rock over and then commence with the high-fives, boasting, and verbal chest-pounding as they congratulated themselves on "modifying" and making the valley “safer”.  However, their concerns with safety are clearly not the driving force behind their decision to destroy the rock formation – why then would there be all of the testosterone-infused shouting and celebration?  No, this action was borne from the need to dominate nature, and from a complete lack of respect for our environment.  This is the same attitude that has persisted throughout human history… the attitude that has resulted in species extinctions, polluted air and water, millions of square miles of natural habitat destroyed annually, toxic Superfund sites, and complete reshaping of the landscape as mountaintops are leveled and rivers dammed.  It is extremely discouraging to see this attitude perpetuated in the Goblin Valley video by a group of men who are responsible for imparting knowledge to boy scouts.  This is not the attitude that should be demonstrated for them.  As human beings, we are meant to be stewards of this planet, not destroyers of it.

The second item causing an upset among conservation organizations is a recently-released Toys R Us commercial that appears to promote consumerism while portraying nature as utterly boring.  In the commercial, a group of elementary school children load up on a bus emblazoned with the name “Meet the Trees Foundation,” and many of them immediately become catatonic upon the field trip guide commencing a game of “name that leaf”.  Just when the kids can’t take any more, the guide informs them that this whole thing is a joke and that they’re actually going to Toys R Us where the kids get to pick out any toy they want.  Cheering erupts and the scene shifts to children shrieking and laughing in jubilation as they run through the aisles of the toy store.

I see a few issues with this commercial.  It is pushing two clear ideas onto children who are still developing their perceptions about how the world works: the idea of consumerism, and the idea that nature is boring and uncool. Sure, we see these ideas (especially the former) presented separately all the time, but it is when the two are juxtaposed in the same commercial that you really find yourself shaking your head and thinking “that’s not right!”. Just a little caveat here:  I’m not saying that children shouldn’t have toys – not at all!  However, promoting the idea of consumerism to children while in the same breath saying that nature is dumb and boring is essentially dropping a bomb on our future environment and viability of our conservation efforts.

Let’s dissect this bomb a little bit: First of all, teaching children that “stuff” is good promotes the idea that “things” will make them happy, and “more is better”.  This attitude of consumerism in our society is responsible for a great deal of environmental destruction, as producing more “stuff” requires extraction of natural resources, processing raw materials and manufacturing the product, and finally packaging and shipping the item to the stores - all of which draw down our natural resources and require inputs of fossil fuels, ultimately leading to pollution and contributing to climate change. (The Story of Stuff Project has a great video that outlines this process).  Secondly, nature is not boring! Frankly, I don’t think this commercial gives kids enough credit, because at least from my experience, children love to learn about the outdoors and are fascinated when you take the time to point things out and explain the natural world to them, especially if it is done with a sense of adventure and discovery.  Many of us fell in love with nature as children, and it is important to help kids develop that fascination and appreciation for nature at a young age.  Giving them the message that nature is boring is misleading and does them a disservice.  In fact, we’re doing all of ourselves a disservice if we give children the impression that nature is dull and fail to help them develop an ethic of conservation, being that they are the future generation that will be responsible for looking after our natural resources and environment in the decades to come.

Bottom line: we need to be aware of what message we’re conveying regarding our attitudes toward nature, especially when children are involved.  Our futures depend on it.

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