Tuesday, August 5, 2014

There Is No I in Ecosystem, But There Is A Bit Of Me

By: Sophie Wasserman

After over a year with Think Elephants International (TEI), I have finally learned to “think elephants.” Of them, about them, for them, like them. I think elephants in the office, in the field, and sometimes even in my dreams. I think elephants are stubborn, sassy and temperamental. I think elephants are brilliant, charming, and playful. I think elephants have excellent aim when throwing grass at your head, I think elephants base their estimation of your character almost entirely on your ability to provide them with food, and I think elephants deserve a chance to continue their existence on this planet.
The ability to “think elephants” is a skill we’re trying to teach to future generations. One of my favorite lessons in the TEI education curriculum uses a ball of red string and a little imagination to teach children that everything in an ecosystem is connected. Called the Web of Life game, it illustrates the concept that an ecosystem is made up of inter-related food chains, as well as the idea that elephants are a key stone species; if you remove elephants from the equation, the whole complex network falls apart. Often it’s a turning point in the classroom, a tangible demonstration of just how co-dependent organisms can be and a breakthrough in terms of a students understanding of the role they play in their own environment. It’s inadequate to study an ecosystem without realizing that you make up an integral part of it.
To me, the most important part of conservation education is not students learning facts or figures, but children coming to understand that their actions have consequences. In the same way that poor choices can slowly erode our environment, preemptive actions can save it. This year with TEI made me realize that the true value of our curriculum lies in the problem solving it inspires, the discussions it sparks, and the fundamental shift in assumptions from what’s happening to the environment to what’s happening in my environment. We are actors, not passive observers, in not only our ecosystem but our classrooms and communities as well, and the sooner we can get children to realize their own agency and ability to affect positive change, the better off our planet will be.
I have frequently joked to friends, family, and Earthwatchers that it’s “all downhill” from here: no job could ever live up to the unbelievable experience of the past year with Think Elephants. I worked with an incredible team, with an intelligent species, and in indescribably beautiful country. In truth, however, I leave TEI facing a long road uphill, inspired by my work here to continue fighting for the conservation of endangered species everywhere.
Finally, thank you to all of TEI’s friends and fans for the enthusiastic, unwavering support; we could not have come so far without you. Get ready for another fantastic year with new team members Sarah, Hunter, and Dan!