Teach kids about nature's dark side

Despite dire predictions of the 1960s, Lake Erie did not die. It's become the walleye capital for the world. Eagles are breeding along the Detroit River, where a few decades ago only brave crows could be found. The air and water in that region and in most places across the US is a lot cleaner than after the first Earth Day in 1970. Deer, snow geese, Canada geese and wild turkey populations are at all-time highs.

Yah, there is reason to be concerned about climate change and the state of some fisheries, and many people don't get out into nature enough, but one of the reasons why so many environmental problems of the 1970s have been solved or have improved upon is that environmental education programs of all kinds have been relentlessly plugging away. In the greater San Francisco area alone there are over 1500 environmental groups of all sizes, shapes and attitudes — unfortunately often competing with each other, but that's another column.

Back in the late 1960s I was one of the authors of the Department of Education's first definition of a new field called "environmental education."

Environmental education was hardly the first approach to educating people about nature and natural resources. For years, "outdoor education" had sought to get kids outside to learn, as in school camping. "Nature Study Education" taught biology first-hand rather than in a classroom. "Conservation education" was a kind of applied geography education that taught about wise use of soils, wildlife, and forests.

"Environmental education" was created in 1969-70 to expand the boundaries of ecological education to include pollution and the environmental problems of urbanized environments, which none of the previous approaches had dealt with. It has since worked wonders to increase ecological awareness, but also is often guilty of a romanticizing about nature in a way that Teddy Roosevelt would have considered "nature fakery," because it has forgotten its roots in biological ecology.

A June 27, 2008, Agence France-Presse article from Wadamachi, Japan, reports on a holistic environmental education experience for school children. Wadamachi is one of four coastal Japanese towns that are involved in whale hunting. Each year the kids visit a whale slaughterhouse.

Now you may not agree with killing whales for food. The Japanese, Icelanders, Inuit, and Scandinavians do it. Whale killing got your attention, and this is the Information Age when media are supposed to go for "If it bleeds, it leads." The point that I want to make is that people and the food chain cannot survive with the death of plants and animals. People may know this intellectually today, but few know it viscerally, which I for one think is a mistake.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote that one of the great wrong turns of modern society was to believe that one becomes a "good person" by trying to control and suppress one's "lower, animal biological nature." Where outdoor education, nature study education and conservation education used to teach kids about the ecological place of hunting, fishing, harvesting timber, etc., — real lower animal self stuff — environmental education for today's kids frequently avoids the dark side of nature, death and killing. It leads one to believe that we can live in a sanitized world where nothing dies or eats another critter.

The Paleolithic Prescription, the 1988 best-selling diet and fitness book by Eaton, Shostak and Konner, professors at Emory University, reports on research of what are the healthiest human diets since the Paleolithic. For thousands of years that diet has been meat, fruit, vegetables and wholes grains. The authors found that when people ate that diet, they experienced few, if any, common health problems of modern society — diseases of the heart, kidney, and liver, diabetes and depression.

Confirmation of the validity of the Paleo diet comes in the recent book, The Jungle Diet, which is based on research of the diets of contemporary native cultures and arrives at similar conclusions.

Only about 3 percent of the American public are strict vegetarians. Consumption of meat is actually rising. People crave meat protein, and the research shows that this it's healthy for them, in moderation, especially if the meat comes from wild or free-range animals whose flesh is low in fat and bad cholesterol.

One of the myths of the Information Age is that meat magically appears from behind the counter at the supermarket. Someone, someplace, has to kill fish, beef, sheep, pigs, shellfish, salmon or buffalo to put their flesh on our plates. (The same for leather and fur.) Time to get real about it.

Not everyone can go out and harvest all the food they eat, but getting one's hands dirty and bloody gathering some food is a powerful educational activity. Schools should all have gardens. Exposure to hunting, fishing, farming, etc. should be part of biology classes. Studying growing and harvesting food teaches appreciation for life, and develops feelings of reverence for nature and thanksgiving like nothing else. It teaches ethics. Preserving the ethics of proper harvesting animals is why we have a patron saint to look after hunters, St. Hubert, and all major religions offer guidance to hunters and butchers.

Studying harvesting food also works against blind stereotyping of all outdoor sportsmen and farmers as cruel, dumb, unethical, knuckledraggers, and shows how and why sportsmen become conservationists.

An animal rights activist once told me that she did not believe that "a family that slays together, stays together." I counter that with substantial research by University of Nebraska Professor Chris Eskridge, who shows that nation-wide, on a county-by-county basis, where hunting licenses sales go up, criminal violence goes down. And nothing I have seen contradicts this.

A family that enjoys outdoor sports together is probably a lot more grounded in ecological reality, understands the food chain on a gut level, will more likely be honestly concerned about conservation, and may well be more peaceful. It is better to be honest than self-righteous, psychologically speaking anyways. Denying oneself is what keeps psychologists in business.

Eating a diet that makes you healthy is part of self-acceptance. The importance of appreciation of self-awareness and acceptance also extends outward into nature. Maslow also reported that truly self-realizing people all have a deep appreciation for nature.

Another eminent psychologist, Erich Fromm, wrote in his best-selling book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, "In the act of hunting, a man becomes, however briefly, part of nature again. He returns to the natural state, becomes one with the animal, and is freed of the existential split: to be part of nature and to transcend it by virtue of his consciousness."
For many, going fishing and hunting is not just fun and food-gathering, it's therapy.

Long live environmental education, but let's keep it honest about the food chain if it's going to realistically teach about ecological wisdom that will help future generations live in harmony with nature.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.