Thursday, March 7, 2013

Are 3rd graders going to destroy the Earth?

In last week’s blog entry, I put wild-caught seafood production in perspective and offered suggestions for how to make it an even more responsible dining choice. It quickly became my most-viewed blog entry ever. I also got my first comment, albeit a thinly-veiled advertisement. Please consider adding to the comments, preferably holding off on any ads, by letting me know why that particular entry caught your attention. I’d love any feedback that helps broaden the appeal of this blog.

I ended that entry with a story about pollution posters at a local elementary school, all of which seemed to carry the message “pollution is bad.” I didn’t want to single out some 3rd graders in my critique of this topic so I am not going to show you the kids’ posters. I did find some gems online, though, presumably made by adults. One, which can be purchased at the website watermarked into the image, is pictured here è

So, what’s the problem with teaching that pollution is bad? I mean, it is bad, right? In fact, it is by definition. Pollution stems from the Latin word pollutio, meaning defilement. Feel free to look up defilement if you want further proof that pollution is dirty and bad, but I’m guessing your Safe Search filter may come in handy, particularly if kids are around. In the end, teaching kids that pollution is bad amounts to nothing more than a vocabulary lesson.

The problem is that we all pollute. What a terrible burden to put on a 3rd grader, no? I’d rather not have it as an adult. If we want to teach about pollution from a scientific perspective, we can go over the details of how various activities produce a range of pollutants, and how these pollutants affect the health of humans and ecosystems. I believe that this was the intention of the posters I saw, and I am all for that intention. But we shouldn’t forget the resulting guilt trip, which is not a motivator of good behavior, especially when the best we can do is to be less bad, not actually good. Since the guilt trip brings us into the realm of values, ethical considerations are unavoidable when teaching about pollution.

From an ethical perspective, our consideration will only be complete if we include an entirely different perspective: that pollution can actually be thought of as a good. It’s rarely produced by mistake or out of malice. Pollution is usually a byproduct of something that we value, whether it be an activity (e.g., driving) or the production of a good (e.g., apple pie).

You can’t have your car or your apple pie without pollution. Driving and apple pie are quintessentially American. Are you anti-American? (friends from other parts of the world, please accept this as a rhetorical question designed to provoke my American readers, not to provoke you)

In sum, every 3rd grader pollutes, and the message “pollution is bad” is an inappropriate guilt trip to put on them. Instead, we should be teaching them that polluting involves choices and that the details matter. Some pollutants have much more severe effects on people or the environment than others. Also, we should keep in mind that one person’s trash is another’s treasure. Most pollutants eventually break down and are resorbed by the environment. They do vary in the amount of time this process takes, though, which is another important consideration.

Let’s face it—pollution is complicated. Whether educating young kids or discussing public policies, we’d be better off if we avoided the classic pitfalls of ignoring pollution or treating it like it is evil. Teaching about pollution will invariably lead kids to be concerned about the negative effects. Leaving them with the simple concept that pollution is bad does them a disservice, and we can do better. Does this discussion sound a lot like my perspective on fisheries regulations? It should. The new mindset that Bridge Environment is advocating would serve us well in addressing virtually every environmental issue.

Next week, I will be working on location on St. Thomas and will make a blog entry if I can. If so, I may talk more about my work there on fisheries. If you have other ideas you would like me to address, feel free to make suggestions.

As always, your comments are appreciated.


For more information, read our other blog posts and visit us at Bridge Environment.

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