More often than not, the status of nature in the media is portrayed more or less as a dire ‘call to arms’. We hear of the collapse of the bee population or the demolition of another swath of the Amazon rainforest, but what does this mean? In our eyes, and the eyes of our children, what we see is that we are losing something we didn’t even know we had. Some may feel apathetic, and some may feel loss, but what is most appalling is that we are feeling a loss of something we may not have been aware of to begin with.
From the perspective of a scientist, this feeling of loss can encourage research; to uncover the ‘why’ and reflect with ways we as humans could have prevented this. Whether it be reporting the loss of a population of organisms, a species or even an entire ecosystem, to the public this research may appear like we are displacing the blame on them for this loss. What we sometimes fail to see as scientists is that the action of breaking down every loss of life in excruciating detail followed by a how-to guide for preventing future biotic carnage, we do ourselves a disservice. This introspective approach of what we could have or should have done instead inspires apathy and causes us to lose our audience’s attention.
We cannot empower the public to take action towards stewardship, environmental awareness, or prevention while simultaneously telling them it’s their fault and their responsibility to fix it. It is similar to a nagging parent telling their child to clean their room; if the child feels like they don’t have responsibility or ownership of the room, why would they be motivated to clean it?
It is time to recognize that even though these ‘step-by-step’ and ‘us versus them’ approaches are how we have been taught for decades as scientists to understand the world and address the public, our methodology for collaborative improvement may be flawed. Perhaps it is time to adjust the approach from finger wagging, media saturation and fact checking to teaching the public the experience that empowered us to improve the environment in the first place. At the core of every scientist is a story or a moment on this Earth where they gained motivation to study and improve it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t in a Tasmanian forest or across the great plains of the Sergenetti that inspiration struck, but instead in the comfort of their very own backyard. Sir David Attenborough began with a bird egg collection, David Suzuki accredited his interest to spending copious amounts of time outside with his dad, and E.O Wilson first became intrigued watching one of the most social insects, ants.
Where does environmental empowerment start?
The common threads these iconic scientists now preach is that what we are sorely lacking is providing everyone with the tools to become a scientist. We simply have not given others the opportunity to do what we as scientists do everyday: play. How we start playing is by beginning with the basics. What do you see? Hear? Smell? The scientific method is a powerful tool that is the foundation of every experiment. How about touch, can you describe it? Is it soft? thorny? Abrasive? Begin to question everything, because the simple questions are often times the hardest to explain. The scientific method is a powerful tool that is the foundation of every experiment. Once you have gathered your observations, and formulated a question, go out and test it! In nature, we can be destructive, yes, but we are even more destructive when ignorance and complacency are added to the mix. Peel apart a blade of grass, blow a dandelion head, stomp around in crisp autumn leaves. Experience dissection, dispersion, or the decibels of crunching crystal lattices in snow. This is science. This is building familiarity. This is how we begin to recognize the nuances of nature.
Playing is honest, open, and gives you the opportunity to question everything. It allows us to run our own experiments and test hypotheses, (whether they are wildly outrageous or an educated guess). Through play, we can promote a sense of adventure and curiosity, stewardship and responsibility, and the care for our collective science project- a functioning Earth. Because, guess what? Every single one of us has a living laboratory right outside their front door. Sir Attenborough had an urban English neighborhood, Dr. Suzuki a lush forest in British Columbia, and Dr. Wilson the boardwalk of Mobile Alabama. Regardless of if it is a lawn full of invasive plants, a power line covered with songbirds or a concrete sidewalk crawling with ants, we are surrounded by a host of these living museums, a plethora of ecological tools at our own at our disposal. When we begin to exchange exploration for exploitation, we make the small changes in our lives that connect us back to the why we should care about small acts of change and a better chance at collaborative restoration.