Most pressing environmental problem?
Perspectives from the Freshmen
This semester, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman-level environmental science class for a diverse audience. My previous environmental science classes have been taught for those intending to be K-5 teachers.
This semester’s majors comprise 46 percent business administration, 21 percent fine arts, humanities and social sciences, and 13 percent human services. Ten percent each fall into “undecided” and science/math fields, respectively, with 9 percent being environmental science majors.
The first assignment on day one was to write what they believed was the most pressing environmental problem facing the world today. Much to my surprise, global warming did not “win.” In fact, approximately 30 percent of the class cited “pollution” as the most significant issue. Air, water and landfill pollution and their impact on plants, animals and humans were all cited.
Global warming did come in second, with slightly less than 20 percent of my students identifying that issue as most important. Sea level rise and impacts on animal populations were cited as resulting dangers.
Depletion of our natural resources, in particular petroleum resources, was the top concern for 10 percent of the class. Renewable energy sources were cited as the solution for this depletion. Habitat loss for plants and animals ranked equally with resource depletion.
Hunger, overpopulation and water resource problems garnered one vote each; ignorance was cited by two students.
I was reassured by these results. Perhaps the incessant media focus on the horrors of global warming has not drowned out our ability to recognize the real environmental challenges facing our world.
I will share with you two of the more cogent of my students’ comments:
- One of my environmental science majors held that “acting on environmental changes (making major decisions to counteract or react to the environment) without being informed enough and without being confident in those decisions is at the forefront of environmental problems.”
- Another student stated that “some say global warming is the biggest problem, but even that’s debatable. Human ignorance is worse.”
I believe that the students in my class have shown, through their identified concerns, that they are not uninformed – and that they are not simply accepting what (scientists in) the media propose as the top environmental problem facing our planet. They recognized other real issues even before taking the environmental science class, and I hope to broaden their horizons further during this semester.
I suspect that many of you reading this column may have been as surprised as I at the range and ranking of issues cited by my class, especially given the largely non-science-majors population in the course.
Perhaps it’s related to location – Midwestern State University is in the “oil patch” (Wichita Falls, Texas), so perhaps the local geosciences community focus on practical resource extraction filters out into the general community? I’d like to think so, and like to facilitate that through my teaching and outreach.
I recommend that you do so as well – share your environmental focus issues with your community through any available venue. As a resource exploration geoscientist, you have unique knowledge – about the potential for renewable resources to replace hydrocarbon resources (any time soon), about the costs and time frame to bring new resources into distribution, about the economic risks of restricting exploration and development and also about the fact that climate change is a natural process with a billion-years-long history that is not “caused” by human activity alone.
Finally, I urge you to Google “top ten environmental problems;” this should take to you to a blog posting from 2006, based on a survey of ecology graduate students, in which global climate change is number nine of 10 (with one being the most significant). What is missing from this really rather rational list is energy, and the threat to economic security that a reduction in energy availability poses.
Without economic strength and stability, for which energy availability is a cornerstone, we cannot address any of these environmental problems effectively. The link between energy and the environment receives primarily a negative spin, when in fact energy availability will enable environmental protection.
Share this perspective with your community!