18 August 2018
As with many endangered species these days, the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise is a result of human activities. Photo: Yahoo
As with many endangered species these days, the near-extinction of the vaquita porpoise is a result of human activities. Photo: Yahoo

Saving the planet through a shift in education priorities

A recent story in the news described the plight of a small cetecean called the vaquita that lives in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico. The vaquita is now very close to extinction with as few as 15 members of the species remaining in the wild. As with many endangered species these days, the cause of their decline is related to human activities. In this case, the vaquita just happens to share the habitat of the desirable, and also threatened, totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder, sometimes referred to as fish maw, happens to be highly prized in Chinese cuisine. Vaquitas get caught in the gill nets meant for totoaba and end up as collateral damage.

Beyond the illegal poaching of totoaba, one of the causes for their decline is the changing marine environment at the north end of the Gulf. The Colorado River, which once drained fresh water into the Gulf, has been reduced to a trickle by the Hoover Dam. The resulting increase in the salinity of the water in the Gulf is thought to have made survival more difficult for the totoaba.

Thus, we see a chain of events, ostensibly far removed from the vaquita, that has resulted in its present dire circumstances and likely extinction. In essence, this chain began centuries ago with false beliefs espoused by traditional Chinese medicine about the totoaba swim badder’s curative and fertility powers. Add to this the incidental cohabitation of the vaquita with the totoaba resulting in the collateral damage. Then, couple these factors with the building of a dam decades ago and hundreds of kilometers away, and the links of the chain work to tighten around the hapless vaquita.

This story captures the complexities that surround environmental issues. In this case, it is a seemingly harmless ancient belief grounded in a myth that has set off a cascade of unrelated events centuries later that may doom the vaquita. However, it is these types of seemingly inconsequential cascading events related to the environment that are presently happening all around us that need urgent attention.

Just one example: the recent sudden increase in the consumption of meat and dairy products in China, now climbing close to Western levels, has resulted in many more cows. Until recently, who would have thought that cows are responsible for climate change? But cows, belching methane, which is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, are now thought to be a significant contributor to global warming. Again, the complexity of interacting forces are far from obvious and require an extensive understanding of butterfly effects (the metaphoric flap of a wing eventually resulting in a tornado) that underlie many environmental issues.

How, then, can we begin to address the enormous task we have ahead of us to undo the harm we have inflicted on our planet? The obvious answer, if it is possible at all, lies with our education system. While it is true that students here in Hong Kong are exposed to environmental issues that are infused in subjects such as science and liberal studies, presently the environment and sustainability serve only as adjuncts to these subjects.

However, as long as environmental issues remain only appendages to core subjects and even elective ones, a complete understanding of the environment’s complexities will remain just an accessory topic in the minds of a future generation of policy makers. Therefore, given the urgency of avoiding severe climate change, environmental degradation and species extinction, school curriculums worldwide need to give priority to teaching about the complex systems that intertwine all matters related to the environment, including behavior on an individual level.

Here in Hong Kong, our system of core school subjects was mostly devised in earlier times when a basic grounding in languages, mathematics and natural and social sciences was viewed as sufficient preparation in the basics of education. Since that time, our new understanding of the world as a complex system of interrelated elements, both physical and social, requires that we make educational adjustments – essentially a grand rethink and shifting of priorities – that give the next generation the means to deeply understand the interrelationships that govern environmental outcomes. One such shift would be to have a dedicated subject focusing on environmental systems and sustainability as part of the core curriculum.

We already have compulsory moral education which deals with how we need to better understand and respectfully treat each other. Given the impending environmental crises, it is time to teach the next generation so they will have a better understanding and respect for our planet. Tweaking the curriculum to give the environment a greater priority may be too late for the vaquita, but it could help the next generation make environmentally sound policies as well as informed choices at the dinner table.

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Associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong

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