If I told you just two short decades ago that I liked to Google blogs, you would have wondered if I had overdosed on baby-food and lost my adult vocabulary, so strangely unfamiliar would those terms be back then.
“Come again?” you might say.
“Ya know, surf the web on my laptop,” I’d reply and your confusion would deepen.
“Do what on your what?”
I might follow with examples of favorite sites like Wikipedia, YouTube, EBay, and Yahoo. At this point you would be humoring me with a nervous smile while you scanned the horizon for an escape route in case my incoherent demeanor was a sign of some dangerous underlying psychosis. If I ran on about how I collect tunes on my iPod or if I asked to take a photo of you on my cell-phone to download onto a Blackberry, you would be sure I was a deluded babbler (later: “First he went on about playing with his lap at some sort of wicked hootenanny -- Hooray or something like that -- and he said he kept music in a peapod. When he wanted to make a picture of me with some telephone in his skin so he could rub it on a strawberry…well, that’s when I got out of there. ”).
It is the case, of course, that the language of the present could not be understood in the past because we invent words to express what we learn as we go along, words that capture and convey new knowledge, realizations, perspectives, and technologies. Logically enough, words that are invented to name new things and activities follow what they describe. But words can also shape new behaviors -- pull them from mind into being. Words like “baptize”, “market,” or “democracy” help create what they describe. Words can merely light up what we are passing by or they can illuminate the path ahead.
If we can so rapidly acquire the new skills and understandings that we have gained by adopting computers and the WorldWideWeb into our worldview and our daily lives, then why can’t we also become ecologically literate and just as conscious of those other world-wide webs that enfold us? We could also acknowledge nature’s operating systems in our shared language. We could see how the ecological services we ignore or take for granted enable that close relationship we have with our technology that we express through our new Internet jargon. I mean, try e-mailing without food, water, and air and chances are “help!” is all you’ll want to say.
Hopefully, not too many years from now if I use terms like ecotone, threshold, keystone species, resilience, disturbance, biodiversity, nutrient cycle, and complex adaptive system, others around me will instantly and easily understand me, even if I am riding in a subway with strangers. This is more likely to happen if we consciously use such terms and teach the concepts they describe.
Take evolution, for example. When we think "evolution" we probably see in our minds-eye that iconic illustration of an ape, then a Neanderthal, then another hairy but less stooped caveman, and then, finally, a modern homo sapiens walking in a line, one after the other, getting upright as they go. That familiar illustration highlights the aspect of evolutionary theory that pinches the nerves of Christian zealots who prefer a creation scenario like the one painted on the roof of the Sistine Chapel -- a grandfatherly God tagging a look-alike Man with life, finger to finger. But man’s common ancestry with primates is just a thin slice of what evolutionary theory is all about.
Evolution is about connection and relationship -- not just the linear connection of one species evolving into another (speciation), but about how species fit and fill niches created by one another, about how they interact and exchange energy and information, how they both compete and cooperate, and how all of them -- from microbial soils to migrating birds -- form dynamic communities that, in turn, are also connected to one another, web within web within web. Pull one thread of that awesome tapestry and you tug at all the others, so precaution is wise. Evolution’s intelligence is opportunity, synergy, and reciprocity that relentlessly play out over millions of years. Its scope and complexity are both humbling and inspiring.
The teaching of evolutionary science in schools, then, is not a sidebar issue. Evolutionary insights are the seedbed for the ecological sciences that have taught us, for example, the value of biodiversity in the resilience of stressed ecosystems and the important role that keystone species play in keeping ecosystems vital. If you do not accept and understand evolutionary theory, you are likely to also reject the need to protect biodiversity. Saving owls and restoring wolves may strike you as the crazy idea of extremists. You are also less likely to recognize when a natural system, like the earth’s climate, is getting pushed across tipping points or why you should care. Blind to the damage and having no eye for habitat integrity, you are ecologically illiterate -- awash in a sea of chaos you cannot fathom, unable to read the signs and navigate through the trouble ahead.
So, if you want a revolution, teach evolution.
New terms are invented and used, memed and spread. Some catch, some don’t. Once widely caught and shared, they influence how we see our world and how we behave. So, if you are already ecologically literate and know that vocabulary, then use it, share it, explain it, teach it, and spread it, especially among others who are not yet ecologically aware. Be bold - help everyone on the subway car learn and talk about what you already know. If you are not yet ecologically literate, get there soon. And keep learning and listening and sharing…maybe, just maybe, we can save the planet one word at a time.