The Oxford dictionary defines ecosystem as a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. For millennia humans lived as a part of the natural ecosystem when they hunted and gathered, eventually settling into an agrarian lifestyle which was in harmony with nature. Over the last few centuries, urbanization has divided the landscapes into urban and natural ecosystems. All urban ecosystems depended on the surrounding natural ecosystems for clean air and water, food, and other ecological capital.
Shooting oneself in the foot?
This model might have been sustainable but for the fact that, in the last few decades, urban areas have exploded with incoming populations and administrations have had to acquire fertile land around cities, pushing agricultural belts farther away. Overexploitation of water and land have resulted in poorer support for urban systems. Having forgotten the basic fact that it was our ecosystem, we polluted our air, land and water. This resulted in sourcing food, water, and other products over great distances for our cities. Our dependence on fossil fuels has increased, adding to the already high pollution levels. Even the manufacturing of panels used for the production of renewable solar energy creates a lot of toxic waste in places far away from where they are sourced. All this has shown us the tremendous capacity urban areas have to influence natural ecosystems.
How did we let this happen?
We forgot that human beings are a part of this planet’s ecosystem, and that we were meant to live in synchrony with the natural world. Most importantly as urbanization increased, kids grew up far away from agricultural belts, which made them completely ignorant of the cycles of nature. They did not understand the interdependence of water, land and air for the wellbeing of the planet. In fact not many adults understand how tightly our wellbeing is woven into the good health of the natural systems of our planet.
Fishing, a very primary and ancient way to sustain ourselves, is a great example of how we have distanced ourselves from nature. We became so good at finding shoals of fish and catching them, that we cleaned out fish from waters immediately around us, forcing fisherfolks to go farther and farther into the deep seas. Satellite imagery used to study the industrial fishing footprint has shown that 55% of the oceans are fished; this is four times the agricultural land. We forgot the systems our forefathers had followed for millennia where waters were never fished in the season when the young fish grew to full size. We thought we had built sophisticated fishing nets, which we had, but we had traded in our collective wisdom from earlier generations for the bigger and bigger catch.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said – there is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.
Catch Them Young
In the best interests of our kids and their future, we need to equip them to manage their homes on Earth better than we have. Perhaps we could start by talking of ecological problems which others have tried to solve. If nothing else, let’s hope they learn what not to do. For that we need to get them involved in their ecosystem. Here are four simple ways of doing that:
- Get them outdoors
There was a time when most of us spent a lot of time outdoors either working, playing, cycling/walking to school, farming, relaxing, swimming, etc. This made us aware of the geography, changing seasons, plant life around us, and our fellow creatures. Nowadays most of us spend a very large part of our lives indoors. Kids need to get out into nature and play with others. A simple activity like climbing a tree, testing a branch for its strength before stepping on to it, or just jumping off a tree, helps kids internalize risk assessment and teaches them to trust their instinct. Getting a good dose of Vit-N (vitamin nature) will help them strengthen their muscles, curb disorganization of the sensory system, and toughen their immune system, while interacting with others will equip them with the social skills required to negotiate society.
2. Take them to the national parks
National Parks are wonderful places to enjoy landscapes in pristine conditions, and to see a variety of flora and fauna which might have disappeared elsewhere. It gets kids to see nature’s richness, question things, and understand the underlying interconnectedness of processes. E.g. On a visit to the Sequoia National Park, I’ve overheard innumerable questions from kids – how do trees grow so tall, that too on slopes? Won’t they fall? Can I climb that tree? How can a tiny seed grow to such a height?
Introduce them to the variety nature offers – tall trees, underground caves, swift flows of water, fish which swim against the current to get home, beetles which feast on dung, the places we can find water, the roots which go deep, and those which go wide holding ‘hands’ with other roots, and whatever else that fascinates you.
3. Encourage kids to be observant
Talk of how our fellow creatures solve many of the problems that we also face using these biomimicry videos. Schools encourage kids to write down their observations when they are taken out on a field trip from school. But why wait for the school trip? My mother recycled old cut up cards by giving them to me to note down things when we went on an everyday trek or walk. Encourage kids to spot and notice things outdoors from a young age. They can create sets of flash cards (could include images) which kids can share with friends or teachers who are interested. These can be very useful as reference while doing a project for school, or just a wonderful way to remember interesting walks and trips.
4. Lead by example
Have an active lifestyle which includes spending time outdoors, and make the effort to live a sustainable life. Help the kids understand that living cooperatively with shared objects can be fun. There’s no shame in carrying a handkerchief as against using tissue all the time. Start small – avoid long baths, learn to turn off taps, ask about your sources of water, try and eat local, don’t waste food, appreciate the farmer who grows your food, and talk about how food gets onto the table. Get older family members to talk about how they grew up. Answer the questions kids ask; be warned they might be hard.
As Janine Benyus writes in her book titled Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature – in seeing how seamlessly animals fit into their homes, I began to see how separate we managers had become from ours. Despite the fact that we face the same physical challenges that all living beings face–the struggle for food, water, space, and shelter in a finite habitat–we were trying to meet those challenges through human cleverness alone. The lessons inherent in the natural world, strategies sculpted and burnished over billions of years, remained scientific curiosities, divorced from the business of our lives.
It’s time. Get the kids to learn from nature.
Author Bio: Sophia is a newbie online ESL/EFL instructor. She is a passionate educator and blogs about education on her personal blog. She found her true calling — teaching — while she was juggling writing and a 9-5 desk job. When Sophia is not busy earning a living, she volunteers as a social worker. Her active online presence demonstrates her strong belief in the power of networking.