Monday, November 5, 2007

The Loss of Awe and Ecophobia

Yes, another post about environmental science, but from a different perspective. This time, I am going to talk about environmental education. I started thinking about this because of something that Judy Aron said over at Consent of the Governed. She mentioned that some of the science education about global climate change was "scaring little children."

I am also preparing a talk for the National Association for Gifted Children annual conference about the uses of wilderness awareness curricula for meeting a variety of goals in the education of gifted children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. So ideas about environmental education are fresh in my mind.

First, a few definitions. The first two are from
Awe: n.
A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might: We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach. The observers were in awe of the destructive power of the new weapon.

Natural history: n
1. The study and description of organisms and natural objects, especially their origins, evolution, and interrelationships.
a. A collection of facts about the development of a natural process or entity: the natural history of early hominids as revealed in the fossil record.
b. A work or treatise containing such facts.

This last one is defined by David Sobel in his book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in Nature Education.

Ecophobia n.: a morbid fear of one's home or morbid or excessive fear of ecological disaster or deterioration.

So what is the problem? School-based science curricula have been developed to teach children about the prospects of global warming, the destruction of the rainforest, and the movement of pollutants through the food web while at the same time they do not teach children about the natural wonders in their own backyards. Children as young as first grade are taught about rainforest ecology and the loss of habitat in which they learn that in the time between recess and lunch "tens of thousands of acres of rainforest will be cut down in order to make way for fast-food 'hamburgerable' cattle," as Sobel puts it.

There are several problems with this approach to teaching about the environment. To begin with, small children need hands-on instruction in science. When a person has been on the planet only six or seven years, he has had little chance to experience the vacant lot next door or the woods outside of town, let alone be required to worry about the end of nature. Most of them, in North America at least, have never seen a rainforest and they have little idea of where one is or what it might look like.

Secondly, the science of ecology requires the student to understand a large number of complex biological interactions that happen at the organismal, community and ecosytem levels. These interactions between species, and between species and the environment require a basic understanding of non-biological concepts such as energy, and laws of conservation. And you can't see or touch these interactions. Although there are probably a few, highly gifted first and second graders who could imagine these large ideas, most little children would be better off without them for a while longer.

Does this mean little children cannot learn about ecology and the environment? Not at all. But why not go local? For one thing, it is right in front of us. Take the kids out and show them how the bees and butterflies pollinate flowers, which develop into fruits that we can eat. In this way, a small child will learn about the vital role that pollinators play in the environment. And the schools will not need to buy expensive curricula with all the bells and whistles. All a teacher would need is some library books, some inexpensive hand-lenses, and access to the outdoors over a period of time. A guest speaker from the university biology department who will talk to the kids for free would be an added bonus.

Really, the first thing we want to teach our small children about the environment is as close as the door garden, the trees at the back of the schoolyard, the garden, or the desert across at the edge of town. Because what we want to teach them is wonder and awe. We want them to have time to satisfy their curiosity about how a tadpole becomes a frog and what makes a plant grow 'big and strong.'

There will be plenty of time for them to learn about species interactions in rainforests far away, once they have experienced the joy of watching ants follow their little trails of formic acid to get food and bring it safely back to the anthill. They will be better equipped to take responsibility for whole ecosystems after they have taken responsibility for the family aquarium or birdfeeder. The study of rainforest ecology is much more appropriate for mid-schoolers and high schoolers, who have developed at least some ability for abstract thought.

Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods notes that most scientists started out their careers as small chasers of snakes, catchers of spiders and collectors of leaves. The great natural historians of the past began like E.O. Wilson, who spent the days of his childhood roaming the shores of Mobile Bay, bringing home shells and starfish, and exulting in the power of the waves and the awesome winds of storms. Or like the 'grand old man of Rocky Mountain Geology, David Love, who grew up roaming the mountains of Wyoming, testing his mettle against the blizzards and the droughts.

When I was a child roaming the woods and fields of Central Illinois, I did not imagine that I would be an ecologist who would do statistics at the computer. In fact, the only computer I knew of took up a whole floor of the IAA building downtown, and was kept behind glass windows in a clean room. No, I imagined being a geologist, roaming the hills and mountains, collecting rocks. Or a paleontologist, spending my days running the soft shales of the Morrison formation in my hands, finding the spectactular fossil of my dreams. Or as a Naturalist, studying how the plants and animals of the tall-grass prairie made a living.

It is not necessary to induce ecophobia into our kids in order to get them to care about nature. In fact, it may even be counter-productive. Inducing unnamable worries into the hearts of our children may even cause them to avoid thinking about nature. It may make them feel like aliens who don't belong to the earth. As the naturalist Robert Pyle wisely observed: "What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?"

As homeschoolers, we have taken the power of our children's education into our own hands. We don't need to let them be taught to fear nature. We are there with them, day after day. Take the little ones outside. Let them experience the power of the sun's heat, the smell of rain on a dusty road, the softness of freshly turned soil in their hands on a spring day in the garden. Take them outside every day and teach them awe and wonder.


Judy Aron said...


Elisheva - Your last paragraph was brilliant.

Tony said...

I couldn't agree more with your article. We also homeschool and are amazed how a healthy sense of awe and wonder at a young age will naturally develop into a care of nature given the proper training and education. Starting with the "disaster mentality" is putting the cart before the horse. How can you care about an environment you don't even know?

My wife will be attending Parent's day at the NAGC conference. What's the name of your workshop? How did you get to be a speaker as a homeschooler at a traditionally PS educator conference? Way to go!

Melora said...

I agree completely. You can't expect people to care about protecting something that they don't understand at least a little and have a real (as opposed to an abstract) appreciation for.

Mike said...

Last Child in the Woods ––
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder,
by Richard Louv
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
November 16, 2006

In this eloquent and comprehensive work, Louv makes a convincing case for ensuring that children (and adults) maintain access to pristine natural areas, and even, when those are not available, any bit of nature that we can preserve, such as vacant lots. I agree with him 100%. Just as we never really outgrow our need for our parents (and grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), humanity has never outgrown, and can never outgrow, our need for the companionship and mutual benefits of other species.

But what strikes me most about this book is how Louv is able, in spite of 310 pages of text, to completely ignore the two most obvious problems with his thesis: (1) We want and need to have contact with other species, but neither we nor Louv bother to ask whether they want to have contact with us! In fact, most species of wildlife obviously do not like having humans around, and can thrive only if we leave them alone! Or they are able tolerate our presence, but only within certain limits. (2) We and Louv never ask what type of contact is appropriate! He includes fishing, hunting, building "forts", farming, ranching, and all other manner of recreation. Clearly, not all contact with nature leads to someone becoming an advocate and protector of wildlife. While one kid may see a beautiful area and decide to protect it, what's to stop another from seeing it and thinking of it as a great place to build a house or create a ski resort? Developers and industrialists must come from somewhere, and they no doubt played in the woods with the future environmentalists!

It is obvious, and not a particularly new idea, that we must experience wilderness in order to appreciate it. But it is equally true, though ("conveniently") never mentioned, that we need to stay out of nature, if the wildlife that live there are to survive. I discuss this issue thoroughly in the essay, "Wildlife Need Habitat Off-Limits to Humans!", at

It should also be obvious (but apparently isn't) that how we interact with nature determines how we think about it and how we learn to treat it. Remember, children don't learn so much what we tell them, but they learn very well what they see us do. Fishing, building "forts", mountain biking, and even berry-picking teach us that nature exists for us to exploit. Luckily, my fort-building career was cut short by a bee-sting! As I was about to cut down a tree to lay a third layer of logs on my little log cabin in the woods, I took one swing at the trunk with my axe, and immediately got a painful sting (there must have been a bee-hive in the tree) and ran away as fast as I could.

On page 144 Louv quotes Rasheed Salahuddin: "Nature has been taken over by thugs who care absolutely nothing about it. We need to take nature back." Then he titles his next chapter "Where Will Future Stewards of Nature Come From?" Where indeed? While fishing may bring one into contact with natural beauty, that message can be eclipsed by the more salient one that the fish exist to pleasure and feed humans (even if we release them after we catch them). (My fishing career was also short-lived, perhaps because I spent most of the time either waiting for fish that never came, or untangling fishing line.) Mountain bikers claim that they are "nature-lovers" and are "just hikers on wheels". But if you watch one of their helmet-camera videos, it is easy to see that 99.44% of their attention must be devoted to controlling their bike, or they will crash. Children initiated into mountain biking may learn to identify a plant or two, but by far the strongest message they will receive is that the rough treatment of nature is acceptable. It's not!

On page 184 Louv recommends that kids carry cell phones. First of all, cell phones transmit on essentially the same frequency as a microwave oven, and are therefore hazardous to one's health –- especially for children, whose skulls are still relatively thin. Second, there is nothing that will spoil one's experience of nature faster than something that reminds one of the city and the "civilized" world. The last thing one wants while enjoying nature is to be reminded of the world outside. Nothing will ruin a hike or a picnic faster than hearing a radio or the ring of a cell phone, or seeing a headset, cell phone, or mountain bike. I've been enjoying nature for over 60 years, and can't remember a single time when I felt a need for any of these items.

It's clear that we humans need to reduce our impacts on wildlife, if they, and hence we, are to survive. But it is repugnant and arguably inhumane to restrict human access to nature. Therefore, we need to practice minimal-impact recreation (i.e., hiking only), and leave our technology (if we need it at all!) at home. In other words, we need to decrease the quantity of contact with nature, and increase the quality.


Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Errington, Paul L., A Question of Values. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Flannery, Tim, The Eternal Frontier -- An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, 1995.

Louv, Richard, Last Child in the Woods -- Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially,,, and

Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

Wilson, Edward O., The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

momof3feistykids said...

Excellent post!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Everyone, thanks for the comments.

Tony--unfortunately they were charging 9.95 US per day for internet at the hotel I stayed at and I was too cheap to pay for it! I presented Friday AM at dark o'clock (7:30 central, 6:30 mountain standard. AM. And there are lot of homeschoolers with gifted kids!

Mike--thanks for the, comment. I cannot answer it at length here but I will make two comments.
With respect to your thesis 1: I agree that there ought to be wild and untouched places of earth where no human goes. However, your statements imply that human beings are separate from nature and do not belong in it at all. I disagree with that implication.

A comment on your thesis 2: Actually, Louv does discuss this. He plainly says that he disagrees that fishing and hunting are always inappropriate contact with wilderness. Since I did not claw my way up the food chain only to be a vegetarian, I tend to agree with Louv and not with you on this issue. I do think that fishing and hunting should be well regulated so that we do not wipe out endangered species, however, the predator-prey species interaction is an important one in any ecosystem in order to keep rapidly reproducing prey species at or near carrying capacity. In many, many ecosystems, humans are now the only predator. Prey populations tend to crash when there is no regular predation.

christinemm said...

Have you read "Facts Not Fear" yet?