With World Biodiversity Day yesterday there is no better time to be talking to students about what a healthy, flourishing natural world looks like. Biodiversity may seem like a bit of a niche topic, but we now know it is one of the central issues of our time. Increasing biodiversity creates ecosystems that produce the most food, lock in the most carbon and have the greatest cooling effect on the planet. With that said, lets go over two short and simple key points that you can discuss with your students this week.
1: The planet is abundant
It’s very common to hear questions of ‘how can we feed the world?’ or ‘when will we run out of X resources?’. For at least a hundred years there has been widespread anxiety about the planet running out of the things we need. With all this talk you would think that we live in conditions of scarcity, where we are constantly struggling to find enough food, water, energy and minerals for everyone. However, this is very rarely the case. The fact is that we live in conditions of relative abundance. This was true in the past, is true in the present and, if we learn the lessons biodiversity has to teach us, can be true in the future.
Let's use the example of food. It is often thought that our ancestors lived lives of austerity, but now a more complicated picture is being drawn. In ancient Britain practically the whole island was covered in rich old growth forest, communities in Iron Age Scotland built stilted houses on loches in order to get away from the sheer volume of animal life. In the middle ages, salmon was considered a peasant food because there was so much of it in our streams. Today, despite our landscapes being far less pristine, the world produces 1.5 times the amount of food required to feed everyone- that’s enough for 10 billion people! Issues with feeding the world are about the 30 to 40% of the food we waste and where it is supplied rather than whether the planet can be ‘more productive’.
So how can we apply this in our classrooms? It’s simple. We teach this: we already know what the most productive, most efficient, most resource rich system is. It’s called nature. Rainforests, coral reefs and wetlands far exceed the resources produced by traditional single crop farming. There are also new ‘regenerative farming’ techniques such as agroforestry that mimic the productivity of these ecosystems. This means two things. Firstly, we already have all the tools we need to lead healthy, happy lives. Secondly, the more we restore ecosystems, the richer lives we’ll be able to live.
Activities such as exploring what the ecosystem of a tropical rainforest is like are great for showing students what high biodiversity and flourishing life looks like. Use this as an example to say: all over the world we had this in the past, we can do the same in the future. You could also do some simple outdoor activities in your local area to teach about biodiversity such as planting wildflower seeds, planting native hedges or allowing your lawns to grow longer for bee populations (especially in No-Mow May). Alternatively, you could use Groundwork’s ‘Making space for Nature’ course or The Harmony Project and Resurgence's new 'Local Rivers' pack for introducing students to the wonders of nature in an outdoor setting.
2: We can have a positive impact
The second point is even shorter and more simple. It is increasingly said that humanity is some kind of ‘virus’ that cannot help but cause harm wherever it goes. Often we hear talk of ‘limiting our impact’ as if we have to balance living good lives with how much we degrade the environment. However, this isn’t accurate either. The fact is that not only has humanity existed in flourishing ecosystems, but we have also helped to build them. It is truly possible for us to have a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world around us- we know this because it has been done many times before.
We covered this point in a longer discussion on teaching about indigenous people, but put simply; the Amazon rainforest is the most biodiverse place in the world because it was made so by indigenous people. There is increasing evidence to suggest that , for 8,000 years, the indigenous communities that call it home turned it into a ‘food forest’ once complete with ‘bustling towns and cities’. The same principles applied there were no doubt applied in many different ways in many different regions of the world and there is no reason to suggest that we couldn’t restore the great food forests we have lost in the UK. This revelation shows that our civilisations don’t have to be a detriment to the environment around us- it’s just a question of working together with the ecosystems we are part of.
By simply sharing facts like this in the classroom we can play an important role in reversing these huge misconceptions about our relationship with the natural world. Climate Solutions 101 is a great way to begin showing a roadmap for how we can revitalise our planet as is Friends of the Earth’s ‘Climate Justice, Hope, and Action’ course. Another useful resource is Happen Films. This thorough collection of short documentaries explores the people and organisations already building the sustainable systems we need everywhere.
With these facts we can begin to cultivate a positive, hopeful mindset towards the great collective challenges of our time. Knowing that the solutions are out there, that we are able to build the world we want right now are powerful counterbalances against eco-anxiety. Lets get every classroom having these discussions!