Sunday, May 18, 2008

Roots in the soil

I heard a great story recently during a talk by Bill Wallauer, a videographer for the Jane Goodall Institute who has been living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania for over a decade.  It's not really a great story, it's a very sad story, but it's a great metaphor. 

The local people who live outside of Gombe are mostly farmers on steep inclined hillsides.  Slash and burn is the common method used there to clear the land for new agriculture: the farmers burn sections of the forest and, once everything else is gone, they plant crops in the remaining soil.  Problem is, this method kills all vegetation including root systems, and for the farmers who used the method on hillsides, it had some very serious side effects.  Shortly after one series of prescribed burns, there was a mudslide that caused the death of several children; I believe he said that seven or eight kids died in the massive landslide.  Afterwards, local conservationists came to the town where this happened and asked the farmers if they knew why the mudslide had occurred.  They didn't.  

Bill Wallauer used this story as an example of how crucial environmental education is.  The local people who had been living there for generations had no idea that the roots of the plants they had aimed to obliterate were essential to holding the soil together.  By killing the plants, they weakened the root systems that held the hillside together, and without those deep roots, the hillside collapsed into the homes below.  

The metaphor occurred to me a few days after hearing Bill's talk, that the human race as a whole is doing the same thing.  We are only beginning to understand that many natural catastrophes are direct impacts of our actions.  Like killing the roots that hold up the very hillsides we live on, we live recklessly with ecosystems, climate, and natural resources which we depend on. We lack the proper education and discourse to show that our mundane lifestyle choices have such a vast range of side effects. 

Even in the most developed places where education is so prevalent, environmental education is still not as established as it needs to be.  Such an education must link individual consumption, waste disposal habits, eating habits, travel and transportation habits, and energy use, which have been acceptable for many generations, to the large scale environmental degradation that we're seeing around the globe such as climate change and habitat loss.  Only when we understand these linkages, and I'm glad that the connections are starting to be made more and more often, will we be willing to change our habits and lifestyles.  Education is the first step toward this change. 

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