The other day my daughter posed an unnerving question to me, which has stuck in my mind. A science writer for a non-profit group, she was asked to write an article on whooping cranes. These tall elegant birds are critically endangered, with only 300 left in their entire population. Her question was why are we spending so much time, effort and money saving them if there is no longer a safe place for them on this earth? My reaction was visceral and immediate. I flashed back several decades (no need to dwell on the number!) when I was in graduate school and wrote a research paper on… you guessed it… the whooping crane. At that time there were 17 birds left, and the public had just realized how perilous their situation was. The whooping crane, along with the bald eagle, had become the symbol of all the perils of human civilization. We knew it was our duty to do everything we could to save it. Few asked why or how much back then because disappearing species were a novel concern and commanded our full attention.
Even though Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring had alerted us to the decline in birds due to pesticides as early as 1962, it wasn’t until 1970 that the first Earth Day was created in response to all the industrial pollution that was plaguing our waterways and air. Carson’s book should have been a wakeup call, but it took years before we reacted to the problem. Since then Earth Day has become a time to reflect on all the progress that has been made in the environment and all that remains to be done.
As teachers, we face a dilemma. Because children have no historic perspective, they tend to see only the present and what is right before their eyes. If we spend all our time reminding them of the perils of the past, we must question whether we are doing them a service or forcing them to wallow in a pessimism that threatens their hopes for the future. We have more than enough examples to show them how humankind has failed in our role as stewards of our environment. How can we instead focus on the successes we have made in reversing our errors? Empowering kids to feel that they can make a difference, that they are the true heirs of the earth’s legacy, and that they represent the future solutions that can remedy our errors are the most important things we can teach them. Putting older children into the role of teacher for younger ones, encouraging involvement in community cleanups and public awareness programs, allowing them to leave a positive mark on their environment through tree plantings, gardens, and alternative energy projects – all are ways they can see themselves making a difference. With these small initiatives, we adults can build a foundation of hope underneath the next generation, to bolster them in their future journey.
So yes, saving the whooping crane is important, no matter how dear the cost or how challenging their existence might be in today’s environment. To grow from 17 to 300 is no mean feat and constitutes the essential ingredient of what Earth Day means to us today: hope for a better Earth than the one we inherited.