Talking to 12 year olds about the environment

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to give a talk about conservation issues to a class of 12 year olds at the English National Programme at the Lycée International de Ferney Voltaire near Geneva. I had undertaken a similar exercise two years ago. As with then, the children showed curiosity, intelligence and ingenuity in thinking about environmental issues.

School visit - Lycéee International de Ferney Voltaire

School visit – Lycéee International de Ferney Voltaire

I spoke about the type of threats that wildlife face around the globe and how these are linked to poverty. I posted four pictures representing these threats (climate change, invasive species, urbanization and farming) and asked the class if they could say what these threats were.

Following on, I showed them pictures of all the different sectors that use wildlife products including for example cosmetics, fashion, medicines, the pet trade and food. I highlighted how the world’s poor rely on this trade for money as marginalized communities live in close proximity to flora and fauna.

I elaborated on this theme, presenting the two competing philosophies about conserving wildlife – the “preservationist” and the “sustainable use” approaches. The former is driven by an anthropomorphic view of nature (I didn’t actually use this word) in which the killing or harvest of animals for their products is rejected. To illustrate this point of view, I played a video from a talent contest of the charming and eloquent Olivia Binfield, aged 8 orating her poem about pythons, and how they shouldn’t be used for making handbags.

I then discussed with the kids the local context where animals are found, essentially in and around communities of people who are poor and have not the means to meet the basics of life that we take for granted, like clothes, running water, shelter and health services. I pointed out that the rural poor in Africa and Asia will view a snake in the forest as a source of valuable income for their family, thus taking a preservationist view may well not work in this part of the world.

If resources are to be protected then communities need an economic incentive to do. Currently, poor communities are overrun with poachers offering relatively huge sums of money to help spot endangered species like rhinos and elephants, a choice which is hard to turn down if you want to feed and clothe your families.

The children asked around 40 questions throughout the one hour class. By the time the presentation was finished, a series of rapid fire questions flew my way from these little people. Many got to the heart of the issue:

  • Should we pay people to recycle (if you want people to do good things for the environment, then yes you have to find a way to make it financially interesting)
  • Why don’t we farm endangered species? (that is a technically possible but many people are opposed to the idea)
  • What is the most serious environmental problem? (climate change)
  • What can we do to save the environment (be aware of the problem and think about how you can use your enthusiasm and skills and protect the environment starting close to home).
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