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Big Nature Debate

September 14, 2010
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David Ng is a science literacy academic based at the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, Canada.  His interests generally look at unconventional intersections between public outreach, creative art, science education, as well as web dynamics.  He is currently on sabbatical at the Natural History Museum, London and encourages you to check out the PHYLO project.

 

I just noticed, with some amusement, that the 2010 Toy of the Year is something akin to a cute robotic rodent. Specifically, they are called Zhu Zhu Pets, a mechanical universe of furry and mobile hamsters, expandable with a hamster-like ecosystem complete with wheels, balls, and see through tunnels. The fact that this was announced during the International Year of Biodiversity seems deliciously ironic but maybe also informative?

 

Lest you think my thoughts on biodiversity outreach and education will settle uncomfortably on robotics, or perhaps even more frightening, hamsters, let me reassure you that, instead, I think this nugget of toy trivia highlights a problem with developed society in general. That is, we and more importantly, our children, have an apparent lack of connection with nature. After all, I'm pretty sure that any patch of green will reveal much more interesting examples of ‘animals that move’, which is unfortunate, because despite this obvious logic, I suspect that when presented to the eyes of the young, we all know who will win in a ‘Zhu Zhu versus the Green’ showdown.

 

This lack of connection is, I think, a very bad thing. In our television, computer, and now robot hamster driven world, we appear to be slowly losing the will to go outside and simply ‘take a look.’

 

After all, the act of going outdoors to look for biodiversity is still one of those few things that allow the citizen and child to undergo the very real act of discovery - a wondrous sensation that is not soon forgotten and often an entry into both awe for the environment and respect for the scientific method. Still, this is something that requires a bit of effort: a quick look doesn't suffice - you need a good long look, sometimes in the rain, which is perhaps why in the end the objects with batteries are winning.

 

There is, of course, another interpretation of connection. In this case, I'm referring to the general importance of biodiversity in the things that are near and dear to us, even things that an average person might not quickly equate with the natural world. Take our Toy of the Year as an example. No doubt, Zhu Zhu pets would not have been possible without careful study of the original prototype (an actual hamster). We can safely assume that the wheels would work a little less efficiently without our knowledge and use of materials from the rubber plant. The table from which people sat around to develop this toy idea was probably made of wood. I can also surmise that the room where this table might be found, is likely in a city or town placed ‘just so’ on a map, chosen to be there because the location was close to natural resources like forests for materials, soil rich in microbes for agriculture, a river ecology for clean water and transport. And let us not forget the food fuel required to power the minds that came up with the idea in the first place!

Seriously, it goes on. Truth is, if you were to imagine yourself part of a cult, one that rigorously abhorred the very thought of using anything connected to nature - a sort of extreme anti-vegan philosophy - your life would be severely lacking. Indeed, you might also be dead.

 

All to say that I think my point is this: that biodiversity education represents a wonderful opportunity to connect things. Whether it's the linkage between a child's thrilled senses and the backyard, or a person's bottom line to their natural surroundings, there is value in the discussion of biodiversity as yet another means to provide a holistic context in this noisy and frenetic world. In other words, why not with even more vigour, promote this connection to nature?

 

And how would this be achieved? I'd imagine this is already happening in wonderful ways, in many places, many projects. More so, I'd imagine that there are many opportunities where these values can be more emphatically applied. But I think this is where having a venue like this website where readers can post their ideas is fitting. Biodiversity is great because it is on the one hand represented by brilliant diversity and variety, and yet on the other hand, is unified in theme and focus.

 

Shouldn't there be an educational prerogative that works in the same way? I'd like to think so, since I know that that is one kind of noise I and others would love to hear more about.