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How do we prepare our children to survive a planet in flux?

In May the U.N. released a report suggestion that one million animals and plants could go extinct over the next few decades. As we have heard loud and clear over the last few weeks, young people around the world recognize that it is THEIR problem. They are rightly demanding that the adults in the room do something about it. There is much to be done through policy change and wise legislation. But I would argue that we also have to figure out how to prepare future generations to deal with this impending global challenge in a way that empowers them and gives them hope that all is not lost.

Unfortunately environmental issues are often politicized, sometimes to the exclusion of the facts. Social media and mass communication distill complex problems to a few characters, sound bites, or a cute GIF or animation. If extinctions occur in this century, the reasons will be multi-fold and complex. 

Take frogs and toads—there are roughly 500 species, world-wide, that are on the decline or presumed extinct because of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a chytrid fungus. The crisis brought on by this microorganism may have been exacerbated by global travel, and changes in our climate, but it is a complex microbiology problem. 

Species like the fascinating orangutans who live only in Borneo and Sumatra, have become critically endangered because palm oil plantations are replacing their tropical rain forest homes, and because poachers find them appealing for the exotic pet trade. Here we are dealing with changing agricultural practices, human avarice, and related issues of poverty.

We know that tigers are coveted by those wanting their body parts for medicine. That is not the only reason the Bengal Tiger is critically endangered. The rising oceans resulting from climate change, plague countries like Bangladesh and threaten to eliminate the habitat of these magnificent creatures.

But all is not lost—there are success stories out there. The Black-Footed Ferret, a native of the Great Plains, managed prairie dog populations and served as a food source for owls. In the late 1970’s these ferrets were considered extinct as a result of disease, and loss of habitat and food supply. When a small colony of 18 individuals was discovered in the 1980’s, government agencies and zoos including the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, partnered to breed this species in captivity. Thanks to talented reproductive physiologists and wildlife biologists, today, 300 to 400 Black-Footed Ferrets have been successfully reintroduced into the wild. 

Perhaps the most prominent story of the rescue of an animal from the brink of extinction belongs to the bald eagle—our national symbol. In 1940 the number of these majestic birds was perilously low. Congress passed the Bald Eagle Protection Act, which prohibited killing, selling or capturing the species. DDT, an important pesticide during and after World War II, was found to thin the eggshells of birds, including the bald eagle. With the banning of DDT, scientists saw resurgence in the raptor’s reproductory success. Today, due to sound legislation and wise stewardship of this species’ environment, extinction is no longer a concern.

Our children need to learn the specifics of how and why species are going extinct. And then they need to develop the skills to tackle these problems. We need microbiologists, ecologists, geographers, sociologists, lawyers, legislators, and technologists of all sorts, to define the problems and craft solutions – yes solutions – to create a world where we don’t decimate the organisms that form our web of life. 

By teaching our children to explore the facts and think critically, we will empower them to become good citizens of our country and stewards of the planet earth. Only with the ability to ask questions, absorb knowledge and act independently, will we survive as a species.


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