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Environmental Education Begins with Hope

Insights + Opinion
Environmental Education Begins with Hope

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

Some say that the best way to learn is to teach. In my second year as a college environmental educator, I have learned much more about my subject matter—namely the increasingly tenuous ability of nature to meet the needs of seven billion human consumers. But I have also come to learn the barriers to understanding and acting upon the signs of planetary peril, including climate change, peaking oil production, water depletion and toxics in our food.

Antioch University Midwest in southwestern Ohio, where I teach, has since 1990 required all of its students to take a course entitled, Global Ecology and Public Policy. At that time, ozone layer depletion was a prime concern, climate science was just beginning to show that human-caused climate changes were occurring, and the world seemed awash in relatively cheap crude oil as the suburbs continued to sprawl.

In many ways, my course probably looks similar to the one offered in 1990. I have my students read books by Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, published well before 1990. I treat my students to an overview of the modern environmental movement beginning in 1962 with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and give presentations on long-standing problems like hunger and poverty, global water shortages and soil depletion, and show how the exponential growth during the industrial revolution, and consequently environmental destruction, came with the explosive increase in fossil fuel use. I could have given similar lectures in 1990, if I weren’t just eight years old at the time, that is.

Yes, the environmental situation has deteriorated. Today, civilization’s prospects are more dire as conventional oil production peaks, money and credit get scarcer and resources become more monopolized. In addition nearly every environmental indicator has worsened over the last 30 years, such as measures of biodiversity, habitat loss and species extinction.

The perennial war between humans and nature rages on, while in the battle of ideas an anti-environmental perspective appears to prevail, with many environmentalists portrayed as “doomers” in the media because of their focus on resource limitations and industrial decline.

At the same time, the populace remains detached from the ecological world, distracted by the race for money and consumer goods, while buried in debt, trapped in concrete jungles and viewing nature through the distorted lens of a television screen or car window.

Is hope and optimism fading with the worsening environmental indicators? Were my course to be taught in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, there might have been much more optimism. Even in 1990 it may have seemed as if environmental awareness could reach such a height that over-consumption might be stemmed before resource limits were reached. The problems themselves are daunting, but even more daunting is the long lull since we became so much more aware of them.

The thinking goes something like this: “Surely, if we were going to stop our environmental collapse, we would have done so by now. Since we haven’t, we won’t.” I find this hard to disagree with, yet my role as an environmental educator is not just to explain threats to humanity but to combat despair.

Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the role of formal education itself, which Berry and Leopold are highly critical about as it elevates book learning over knowledge gained from being in nature, and thus creates a populace indifferent to the natural world and its fate. As Leopold asks in A Sand County Almanac, “Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth? The goose who trades his is soon a pile of feathers.” We should take heed.

This semester I will dust off a few of my old PowerPoints with graphs and statistics that hit like a bomb in the classroom. But I will also take my students hiking, spend time at local farms and parks, and explore our emotional and physical relationships to the natural world. We will trace the origin of our water supplies, find point-source pollution in our neighborhoods, discover why mass-produced food is so cheap, and learn the human and natural consequences of our addiction to finite and fast-dwindling fossil fuels.

If industrial civilization soon collapses, as those “doomers” claim, we face living directly from nature’s bounty, deteriorated though it may be. So we better become familiar with our local habitat and living locally. Saving our dying planet, and ourselves, is preceded by knowing, loving and caring for this place and its inhabitants. Leopold put it best: “We grieve only for what we know.”

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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