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An Essay On Why I'm Honest With Kids About Our Species

There is no doubt about it, humans have caused seemingly immeasurable damage to the environment, to other species, and to each other. However, we have entered a time of awareness and widespread hunger for change, and there is hope for a new era of peace, progress, and sustainability. Both the problems of the world and the leaders of the world have never been so accessible, and scientific evidence abounds. So what's the hold up? We all think these are someone else's problems to solve.

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We have made mistakes. It's time to own up and do something about them.

Caroline Bradner

I work as an Environmental Educator, and as a result of the intimate ties between natural and human history I also spend a lot of time discussing the history of the Carolinas, particularly Charleston, South Carolina. I primarily work with Elementary and Middle School aged children, and I share with them the real impact of mankind on the world because I believe the situation has grown too dire to waste time with strategic phrasing and sugar-coated explanations. This is the reality, and we have to deal with it right now.

The hardest part of my job is presenting children with truths about their state, their country, even their species that are uncomfortable, disappointing, and often horrific. When discussing Charleston's history, I have to tell them that more than 40% of African Americans can trace their lineage back to Sullivan's Island because their ancestors were forced from their homes and families in West Africa and brought to the Americas to be exploited, beaten, raped, and murdered for generations. When hiking on Bulls Island, I have to share the story of the Sewee, an extinct tribe of Native Americans who were 800 strong throughout the Charleston area when the first English settlers arrived and, after helping the English fight off the Spanish and supplying them with food and trade opportunities, were decimated in less than a century by the alcohol and smallpox brought over by the settlers.

A sign at Garris Landing, where I often meet with hoards of 4th and 5th graders, alerts kids to the ongoing plight of the Red Wolf, a species once abundant in the Southeast that were hunted to the brink of extinction, and still struggle to return to appropriate numbers with the help of many dedicated individuals and organizations. Only 50 survive in the wild today. Species like the Carolina Parakeet were completely eradicated. If we didn't kill them ourselves, we sealed their fates by clear-cutting their homes or auctioning those homes off to the highest bidder for developments and shopping malls. The run off from our cities and towns pollute our valuable coastal ecosystems with harmful chemicals and plastics that prove fatal to vital marine species. When I stop fourty 13-year-olds in kayaks to watch playful Bottlenose Dolphins bob up and down through the creek, it kills me to tell them what I know about these remarkable apex predators: studies done in 2008 and 2009 on southeastern resident Dolphins showed concentrations of PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls, dangerous man made chemicals that damage vital organs including the lungs, stomach, and pancreas and diminish fertility and viability of offspring) that were 10 times higher than any location previously documented. It is difficult to know what the long term effects will be, but it is certain that the suffering of these animals at the hands of pollution rests exclusively on our shoulders.

We are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can change the story.

We have to take responsibility as a species for what has been done, and we have to believe that it is our responsibility to right those wrongs, right now. We are smart, efficient, innovative beings and we have spread throughout the earth like no other species has before us. It would be easy to think of us like a cancer, spreading hate, war, and destruction wherever we go. But wouldn't it also be easy to point to the terrible things we've done and say, "We worked together to accomplish great feats, however atrocious, and now we will work together to accomplish even greater feats to correct the damage we caused"? We can band together to bring civil rights to all people, so that no one in the U.S. is born into second-class citizenship. We can decide that there will be not one more mass shooting over skin color, not one more trans person beaten to death just for walking home, not one more Native American treated like a trespasser in the land he has known longer and more intimately than any other human being on the planet. There will be not one more oil spill poisoning our vast but delicate oceans and killing entire populations of marine life for the sake of profit. We can choose to protect the forests we still have and to rebuild the ones we've destroyed. We can put an end to factory farming, which accounts for 37% of methane emissions and emits 41 million metric tons of CO2 per year, and return our consumption to a sustainable and responsible level. We can learn to live in harmony with the world, tuning in to the heartbeats and labored breaths of the ecosystems we inhabit. Every other species around us has found a way to love life without destroying it. It's time for us to do the same. Some may think I shouldn't share these truths with the children I teach, but I believe that real change will only come when we all know and accept the reality in front of us. An environmentalist I very much admire likes to say, "If they knew better, they'd do better." When kids leave me, they know better.

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