Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Education Plays a Role in Preserving the Environment

on March 19, 2010
Thomas Lovejoy

Lately, doom and gloom have gone hand in hand with environmental talk. Is the situation as bad as popular media has it painted? Thomas Lovejoy, the man who introduced the term "biological diversity" to the scientific community, said it's going to take systematic management to create change.

Lovejoy — who holds the biodiversity chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment — developed a model called debt-for-nature swaps, in which an indebted country alleviates its bill by allowing organizations to purchase biologically sensitive land in its country. The former chief biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank and former senior adviser to the president of the United Nations talks about how education can play a role in creating a more prosperous future for the environment.


How can students promote smart environmental practices from the classroom?

You have to really understand the issues, the urgency and the complexity. If you start thinking about some of the things that need to be done, that's great classroom material. How could one reduce greenhouse gas emission? How can the Climate Convention deal with the 20 percent of emissions that come from tropical deforestation?

So you begin thinking about how you actually come to grips with these things. And there's a lot of opportunity embedded in all that. Green education would help move the entire American economy more toward sustainability. It would be good for the climate, good for biodiversity, and good for people. 


What did you want to be when you grew up? How did you end up in this field?

I wanted to be a 20th/21st-century version of a 19th-century naturalist, wandering the world, studying all kinds of weird animals and plants, and just having great adventures.

When I was 14, I had a fantastic biology teacher. The first three weeks taking his biology course changed my life. He was just really excited about biology. We weren't in the laboratory all the time. We were outside, studying these things as they occur in nature. I think the latter is very important; you need to get people outside. I think the laboratory side of science is important, but you can teach it as drudgery, or you can teach it as something that's exciting. 


Which of your projects is currently your biggest priority?

Re-greening the emerald planet, or as some people like to put it, "using the living planet to make the planet more habitable." If you think about it, there's only a certain amount of land in the world, and out of that has to come food for more people, biofuels, and places to conserve biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The population is growing, and it's never going to work right unless you integrate those four. 


How do you ensure your environmental ideas have long-term value?

First, you have to get it off the ground, then, you just have to persevere. Once you get them to a certain point, they become everybody's idea — and then it's really working. The worst thing you can do is hug it to your chest as your own idea. I don't think I could have actually succeeded in doing that with debt-for-nature. Once it started spreading, it began to take on so many different forms, which would have been hard to imagine at the beginning. But that wouldn't have happened if we'd been able to keep it as our own little thing. 


What are your environmental projections for the future?

My biggest environmental concern is what the combined human metabolism — everything humans do collectively — means for the natural world and the way this planet works as a biophysical system. It's really important to communicate the notion that there are so many people and our combined impact is so great that you really have to think about managing the planet as a system. 

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