The Wisdom of Our Elders
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having lunch with my former entomology and ornithology professor, Don Messersmith. At 90 years old, Don hasn’t lost a bit of his spunk in his 63 years of teaching. He still has the same dry wit and deep passion for birds and bugs. But he is desperately worried about the global decline of not just these creatures, but all life on earth. “My children and grandchildren are facing a bleak future unless people truly understand what’s at stake. When a species disappears—that’s it. You can’t go back! And when hundreds of species disappear, the very systems that support all of us are threatened.”
Messersmith’s concerns are backed up by a recent UN report on the extinction crisis. According to the chair of the report, Sir Robert Watson, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
For some species, like the Seychelles scops owl, time is short. Scientists estimate the population of these small, nocturnal owls is fewer than 300. Don Messersmith has seen more than 4000 of the 10,000 known species of birds on the planet, and he knows the Seychelles well. When I was in his class, he told us the story of the crazy night he spent walking back and forth for hours in a mountain valley, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tiny owl, which only lives in the Seychelles and is critically endangered. He never did see it, but he did hear its rasping, frog-like call high in the trees that night.
For more than sixty years, Messersmith has been bringing birds to life in his classes, reaching thousands of students like me. But he knows that there are hundreds of species, like the Seychelles owl, that most of us have never seen or heard of, that are destined to disappear in our lifetimes.
I’ve also had the honor of meeting another game-changing professor, who has devoted his life to protecting biodiversity. Now also in his 90s, E.O. Wilson has been a pioneer in preserving and protecting the biodiversity of this planet. In addition to being an entomologist (he knows more about ants than anyone in the world) and an author, E.O. Wilson has won more than 150 awards, including the National Medal of Science, and two Pulitzer Prizes. And he was named one of the 25 most influential Americans by Time magazine and one of the world’s 100 leading intellectuals.
NAAEE is working with the E.O. Wilson Foundation to support efforts to protect biodiversity. The foundation has launched an ambitious project called the Half-Earth project, which is using the best available data to safeguard the most species.
In honor of E.O. Wilson’s 90th birthday, which is coming up on June 10th, the foundation is asking everyone to give the gift of data starting now and continuing for the next several months. We encourage you to become a citizen scientist and take a walk in the woods, explore your backyards with family, visit neighborhood parks with friends, or organize a group of students or community members to make species observations. Visit the Half-Earth Project website, to find out how to use the iNaturalist app or the Map of Life app to submit your observations. If you are already on iNaturalist, you can go directly to the project page. If you would like to celebrate E.O. Wilson throughout the year and stay engaged with the Half-Earth Project, please sign up to be a Half-Earth Educator Ambassador.
Thanks to all of you who are working to better understand and care for the biodiversity of our planet through your work. We’re just about finished reviewing the more than 500 proposals that were submitted for NAAEE’s 2019 conference in Lexington, KY, and many are focused on the critical relationship between education and conservation. It gives us hope that so many educators like you are helping people of all ages learn more, care more, and do more to protect the biodiversity that supports all life on Earth.
I also want to thank Drs. Don Messersmith and E.O. Wilson for leading the way in helping us understand what’s at stake. Scientists like Don and Ed know that biodiversity loss is inextricably linked to our changing climate and land-use conversion from natural habitat to farmland and pavement, and educators like you know how essential it is to help individuals, communities, and governments understand these issues and build the skills and motivation to address them. In the wake of the recent UN Report, and so many others on the state of our climate and natural resources, it’s a critical moment for us to come together in support of environmental education—not just for biodiversity conservation, but also to create a more just and sustainable future for all. And as the UN report emphasizes, although the trends are ominous, “It’s not too late to make a big difference. Through ‘transformative change,’ nature can still be conserved, restored and used sustainably.”
We hope to see you in Lexington. Registration will open on Monday, and it’s shaping up to be an amazing gathering. Whether you’ve spent the last year inspiring kids and adults to get outdoors, engaging your community in resiliency planning, building new partnerships, or peering into trees to catch a glimpse of a rare owl, we’re excited to learn about all the inspiring work happening across the NAAEE network and beyond.
We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.
The loss of a keystone species is like a drill accidentally striking a power line. It causes lights to go out all over.