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What do we owe the environment?

Fri, Jan 12th, 2007
Posted in Commentary

"Hey Sara, is this a real job?"

This question was posed to me as I was out recently with some students doing a winter pond study. At first, I thought that maybe the question was an unintentional insult in regard to my choice of careers.

Unbeknownst to that child, it is still difficult to explain to people that as an Environmental Educator I work at a real school - albeit one that teaches outside and, yes, it does pay including benefits.

Once I realized that the student genuinely wanted to know if catching and identifying pond invertebrates was a real career option, I tried to assure her that, indeed, there were quite a few opportunities available as a grown up if you really liked insects, ponds, or just liked exploring places to see what lives there.

What lingered with me after I answered her question though was how this experience was helping that student determine her path in life. The possibility that this child may be a biologist or environmental educator or water quality specialist could be a direct result of her time spent in this environment. Her environment was helping to determine her future.

While in college studying Biology, I came across an interesting school of thought called environmental determinism. It states that one's physical environment, rather than social conditions, determines culture and society. This idea was held mostly by anthropologists and geographers in the early part of the last century. The view was later abandoned due to its incorrect assumption about race. I was always intrigued by this concept though and I thought that something could be gleaned from the idea on a much more basic level. This concept was brought back to me that day at the pond.

I think it makes perfect sense that the environment, along with a few other factors, shapes our culture and communities and our place within them.

Take a look at our environment. The streams, bluffs, prairies, and woods are at the heart of this area. The first settlers immigrated here looking to make a better life; the life they were able to build was a direct result of the environment in which they found themselves. You don't see mines or textile plants or commercial fishing villages here. Milling, farming, lumbering, quarrying, construction and tourism were undertaken and continue today because of our environment. These same streams, bluffs, prairies, and woods are also at the heart of the hobbies we have whether fishing, canoeing, camping, biking, bird watching, or finding inspiration for art.

Just like that girl at the pond, it takes a rare moment for us to take a look around and see all that this environment has already given or shaped in us and what it has to offer for our future.

I am new to this area (a mere 10 years) yet I have seen the state of the environment impacting the future of our individual jobs, local economies, and communities. The impaired water status of the Root River, the fragile Karst geology, the safety of the Jordan aquifer, soil erosion and the lack of a good Minnesota snow all factor in to what this area will look like in as little as 10 years. Rather than looking at environmental issues as blocking the road to progress, we must look at them like the pioneers did 150 years ago and as that student did 15 days ago.

Our environment is what we all have in common; it has created what we have become and its health will determine our future. Perhaps the new definition of environmental determinism is not how the environment shapes our culture and society but now how our society and culture will choose to shape the environment.

Sara Sturgis is the Director of Education at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro.

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