DAY OFFERS OPPORTUNITY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL LESSON
few years ago I asked the question What does Martin Luther King
Day have to do with environmental attitudes? The answer seems
especially pertinent this year.
Luther King Jr. was a great and special man, a teacher. Some of his
teachings work for ecology as well as for race relations, such as appreciating
diversity, developing tolerance and overcoming fears and prejudices.
exists between the attitudes Dr. King worked to modify and those some
people have toward environmental issues. The parallel is elementary
people discriminate because of ignorance and a lack of understanding
about another's place in the world. Fear, begot by ignorance, is the
primary wrapping on a package known as prejudice. The consequences of
opening the package are unfair treatment of others, self-induced anxiety
and loss of harmony in the world.
of groups, both human and wild, have suffered from environmental discrimination,
some over the last few years or decades, others for centuries. Among
the nonhuman victims are snakes, wolves and mountain lions. Less apparent
in some instances are particular groups of people who have been victims
of prejudice, including environmentalists, timber companies and private
landowners. All these groups, including the animal predators, have individual
members who have done no harm. Ill will toward them comes from ignorance
about the group as a whole and fear fomented by people with their own
agenda. Each group has members who have done, and will continue to do,
positive things for the environment.
action by a single member or faction of a group that is viewed as characteristic
of the whole often leads to prejudice and discrimination. One principle
of human behavior is that we tend to judge those in our own group by
their individual actions; we judge other groups by conspicuous traits
displayed by a few individuals.
blow up a whaling vessel, some people then categorize anyone who protests
whale hunting as an extremist. If a mountain lion kills a domestic sheep,
some ranchers conclude that all mountain lions should be eliminated.
If a private landowner destroys woodlands and wetlands on her property,
some people get the mistaken notion that private landowners have no
regard for environmental stewardship.
and irrational fears about groups of people or wildlife lead to negative
attitudes about them, which in turn leads to discrimination. What can
be done to correct this situation? As with efforts to overcome racial
bias, the formula is a simple one: Get to know the group better.
most snakes are nonvenomous and completely harmless to humans; they
play an important role as both predator and prey in natural ecosystems
and have fascinating lifestyles. Likewise, wolves and mountain lions
are natural predators that trim the weak and sick from prey populations.
They have captivating behavior patterns as individuals and only intrude
on man's domain where man has already intruded on theirs. But people
ignorant of the group characteristics of these animals are likely to
base their opinion on the behavior of a few individuals.
the human groups mentioned above, most environmentalists are not reactionaries
who are unwilling to negotiate or compromise about environmental issues.
Many timber companies use sustainable forest approaches, are concerned
about the entire forest ecosystem and have individual employees who
are as ecologically minded as any research ecologist. And the majority
of private landowners are good stewards because they appreciate healthy
ecosystems as much as ardent environmentalists.
of these different groups should cultivate an awareness of the ideals
and goals of the others. They should recognize and respect the differences
that separate them, while searching for common ground. In the spirit
of Martin Luther King Jr. we should all champion the diversity we find
around us, in our own species and in others, by increasing our knowledge
about different groups. Fear, begot by ignorance, can be overcome, because
ignorance can be remedied.
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