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We Called Them Polar Bears- Part 2

In truth, my inner worry for the polar bears had begun to intersect with my external self and was quietly boiling over into a sustained rage.

How could one teach about the fall of dinosaurs and mass extinctions and not see climate change, the plight of polar bears and sundry other environmental issues as modern, human-driven allegories? How was I to impart the value or urgency of these topics to students with no lived experience of the natural world? The irony of living in an age that has made access to the outdoors safer and easier than ever before was not lost on me. Outdoor trails, campsites and parking areas are clearly labeled, well maintained, and typically have some kind of bathroom facility, outdoor gear and clothing is lighter and generally more efficient and reliable, and more of us own cars than at any other time. 

In spite of these things and as evidenced by my students, the abandonment of the American wild has happened in my lifetime.

Trail heads at which I fought for a parking space fifteen years ago are now empty. I can walk for over an hour on a once-popular trail without passing a soul. Those I do see are either focused athletes or overweight, over-worked, and in over their heads. More often than not I marvel at how few people I encounter, that the great expanse of American wild lands are seemingly mine alone to play in. It is not an exaggeration to say that the wilderness in America, after more than a century spent finding it, has largely been lost. Gone are the days of summer-long family vacations, outdoor schools, and over-packed hiking trails. Also gone are the Hawaii chaff flower, the Passenger Pigeon, and the California Tapirs. Parents and children alike have taken to the couch, to twitter, to their phones, to doing absolutely nothing. And it is killing us. 

The obesity and related health crisis, the rampant rise of heart disease, type II diabetes, and sundry other obesity and sedentary-related illnesses has been helped by the abandonment of the American wild, as has our increasing dependence on modern convenience. We no longer hunt, fish, or gather in our natural lands for food, fuel, building supplies or even Christmas trees. We do not cook or clean for ourselves, do our own gardening, or send or children outside to play, much less go out to play with them. 

Our educational system, overrun, under-funded, and focused on standardized testing, is no longer teaching us to be inquisitive, no longer providing outdoor educational experiences, no longer teaching the life or earth sciences that inform our understanding and enhance our appreciation of the natural world. Conservation and educational organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace lost funding in the post-9-11 economic crisis and are still cutting programs and staff.

It is not just that we have abandoned the wild, we have allowed it to shrink, stripped it of its diversity, dammed its rivers, fouled the waters, clear cut the trees and strip-mined the land. We have traded parking lots, big box stores and miles and miles of subdivisions for our once resource-rich and expansive wild lands.

Huge glacier with tiny people standing below


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