Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist and co-author of the new textbook Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature, answered your questions on Monday, October 18 about topics including environmental education and teaching the next generation about nature.

See a transcript of the chat as it happened or read the complete transcript here.


Hi, everybody — welcome to our live online chat with Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy. Peter is taking your questions today about environmental education and how to get kids interested in nature; he’ll also take questions on any other conservation subject. Peter is the co-author of a new conservation science textbook for college students, and he has strong opinions about where we’ve gone wrong in educating young people on nature’s value.

We’ll be answering questions sent by our members last week as well as your questions today — use the form below to submit your question.

The chat will begin in about 10 minutes.

OK, let’s start with a question about how to get kids into nature and away from technological distraction:

Brent Gotsch, Grahamsville, New York asks:
Children these days have so many distractions. From iPods, to smart phones, to video games, so many things are competing for their time. How can we convince our young people to learn to love nature and find enjoyment in it, away from all of the distractions of modern technology?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Hi, Brent. Yes, your observation is exactly right.  Youth between the ages 8-18 spend on average 45 hours a week with electronic media, and only 6% of children (age 9-13) spend time playing in nature on their own.  I hate to tell you how much time my own son spends on the computer playing games.

That said, I do not think it is such a hard sell — all that is needed is to get the kids out. When I taught in colleges, field courses were the most fun because without exception, students loved going to the rocky intertidal, the Mojave desert, or wading through streams.  But there is the rub – getting them out takes our time and it costs schools more money than having them sit endlessly in a classroom.  Those field trips require buses and bus drivers, and these days there can be endless insurance forms, and – well you get the picture.  So maybe one thing we could do is make it easier by bringing nature closer to where the kids are.  I would love to see conservation organizations like The Conservancy invest some in urban conservation.  We could restore urban rivers and riparian zones and then maybe it would be much easier to take our children to nature.

Carol OIson, Los Altos, CA asks:
We know that teachers play a key role in inspiring and cultivating future scientists and stewards of our environment, but they are pressured by their districts to raise scores in Language Arts and Math. How do you suggest we get school district administrations and communities to recognize the value of nature-based science education in and out of the classroom so our teachers will take time to teach it and incorporate it across the curriculum?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Carol, I am not very savvy about what goes on in school districts, although I have a son and a daughter who have graduated from high school in the last couple of years. The Conservancy has a program that is working with NYC high schools, and the key seems to be: make it easy for the schools, give them curriculum materials that helps over-worked and under-appreciated teachers, and measure outcomes.  For instance, several studies have shown that time spent outdoors both during school and at home helps children become high-performance learners and score higher on standard tests. Unfortunately, American children spend only minutes a day outdoors, which presents a new educational challenge for our country.

Comment From Roger Harris:
Dr. Kareiva, Can you briefly comment on how to discuss the need to educate our children and adults on nature when we encounter attitudes such as those I encountered in an online exchange on Discover blogs, titled “Americans Flunk Global Warming”; viz. one commenter saying “… do not expect anyone who has drank the GW kool-aid to take my reservations seriously. Therefore, I will remain on the side of taking no action until there is proof that action is necessary, that the proposed action is efficacious, and that the proposed action is no worse than the consequence of taking no action.”

Peter Kareiva responds:
There is no doubt that many of us find the disbelief in global warming discouraging. But we in the conservation business have to accept some responsibility. We should have done a better job making it clear that global warming is not about models—we can see it today. And instead of global averages, we should have talked about what is happening in our backyards and cities. We jumped too quickly to advocating policy without making the case that temperatures are on the rise with real world consequences – children and elderly at risk during heat waves, and reduced agricultural productivity in some regions.

Tim Scalzone, Kailua, Hawaii
Do you think the United States’ lifestyle and consumption patterns are sustainable on a global level for the preservation of biodiversity? What modeling behavior do you do to teach your children to decrease your consumption?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Tim, you frame this in an interesting way – essentially you are implying we have to make huge sacrifices (i.e. less consumption) in order to be sustainable. Maybe you are right. But I also think it is not so much a matter of the amount of consumption as the type of consumption.  When conservation becomes the equivalent of a monastic non-consumptive existence, it is doomed.  Obviously we cannot have our cake and eat it too.  But the data I am aware of reveals that, for a fixed amount of consumption, the impact on the environment can vary by one to two orders of magnitudes.

So instead of telling people to deny themselves, why not tell them simply to be thoughtful.  Eat less meat (but no need to become a total vegetarian), do not buy bottled water (but obviously drink plenty of water), recognize that the implications of having children are significant (but this does not mean have no children), reduce unnecessary travel (but do not stop travel altogether), and so on. Consumption is an issue — but I personally am uncomfortable with the environmental self-righteousness that can accompany pleas for an ascetic life style.

Loretta Ekoniak, Canfield, OH
Dear Peter, As a retired high school teacher who taught Biology and Environmental Science, I would like to know what your views are on getting the Nature Conservancy involved at the K-12 level. My students loved outdoor labs and projects. Sadly, many of them (and these were high school students) couldn’t tell an oak tree from a maple! They were thrilled to learn about wildflowers like the touch-me -not, and stream dwellers like stone flies by actually seeing them outside rather than as a picture in a book! We need to develop programs to encourage these kinds of activities if we want our young people to care about our world!

Peter Kareiva responds:
Loretta, your question is such a bulls-eye.  You probably know this, but I am astonished that today’s youth can identify 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants and animals native to their own neighborhood. The secret, as you know, is to get kids outdoors and into the world.  The Conservancy has a wonderful program for high school students in the Northeast, where the interns work on our preserves – doing science and stewardship (see We are seeking funding to expand this to a national program.  Ultimately, connecting with high school students may be the most important thing the Conservancy could do.

In Israel, which has a remarkable national conservation ethic, conservation non-profits get one-half of all students into nature for extended time periods – and they do this with all of the security risks and constraints of that country. I remember growing up during the Sputnik era, when our nation suddenly made science education a priority – and it paid off (and it is also how I became a scientist).   There are good arguments to be made for environmental and outdoor education as a national priority. Not just would our kids be happier and better able to focus — the health benefits could be massive.

Comment From allen Clark, VT:
The latest (NOV/Dec) issue of American Scientist has an article discussing that 95% of science lerning goes on outside of school, at museums, zoos, aquariums, etc. We probably need to build on that idea.

Peter Kareiva responds:
Yes, any of who have taught know this. Lectures are passive, and students remember very little of what they hear in lectures a year later. But take a student out to do a project, and they will remember it thirty years later. I personally must have known this when I was a college student, and hence skipped class as much as possible. But it does mean that investments in museums and zoos should be viewed as a education priority. To that list I would add parks and nature reserves. There are lots of neat studies that show we learn best when we are engaged in motor activity and physical activity. I certainly did not become a scientist because of any lecture I heard or book I read. I became a scientist because I dissected frogs, and collected stoneflies, and looked through telescopes. Sadly, with tight budgets, there seems to be less time and inclination toward outside the classroom activity.

Samson Kohanski, New York, NY asks:
Just to play devil’s advocate: if the human condition down to its basic is survival at all costs which is in essence preservation, how does the average person justify the preservation of the forests and swamps and the brooks and animals when the duty to keep our population alive seems to take precedence? When the growth rate of humans expands and expands and more space is required where would the idea of conservation motivate anyone to help?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Samson, exactly.  I just wrote a book called “Conservation Science: Balancing the Needs of People and Nature” that uses your observation as a jumping off point.  Here is how I see it. Conservation has made a mistake by being too much about nature and too little about people. But we (people) are part of nature — we are a species as well.  So I feel that conservation will succeed when it makes clear that really what we are seeking is improving our quality of life.  A world in which nature is protected will be a world with clean water, with kids who are active and happier because they get to play outdoors, and world in which mangroves and oyster reefs reduce storm surge and protect coastal villages or cities. The point is nature does enhance our survival and happiness — that is a damned good reason to preserve it (see to learn more).  Conservation is in our self interest.

Comment From Chris Hanessian, Bethesda:
Dr. Kareiva: Do you think that experiencing nature could be a substitute for many chemical prescriptions?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Your suggestion is not as crazy as some might think. Studies of patients recovering from gallbladder surgery showed that those with views of trees from their hospital windows experienced better outcomes than those looking at brick walls. Lung cancer patients have been found to be happier with an improved quality of life if they are allowed to dig in the soil. A University of Washington study found that stress at work decreased when people looked out a window at a natural scene. People looking at a plasma screen of nature scored just as poorly on stress as did those looking at a brick wall. So yes –nature may be better than chemicals.

Parrie Henderson, Washington, DC
What happened to Woodsy Owl and the crying Native American? What happened to the social marketing of conservation? In the 70’s we virtually ended littering with these campaigns and it is something concrete that you can tell people to do that helps the environment; why is that no longer considered a valid way to educate young people?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Parrie, you are on to something. I grew up in the Sixties when the environmental movement touched everyone, when Richard Nixon happily endorsed (and signed) the Endangered Species Act, and when conservation had just as much support from Republicans as from Democrats (the ESA received unanimous support in the US Senate).  This was largely because Rachel Carson had made it clear that the environment was a broad social movement and an issue that touched us all.

In contrast, most environmental organizations over the last few years have made environmentalism an “inside the DC beltway” movement — whereby we become lobbyists, just like all of the other lobbyists jockeying for position and influence.  The recent failure of cap-and-trade shows us how successful that strategy has been.

I think it is time to get back to our grassroots, and emphasize what people, not senators, can do.  You and I can do a lot as individuals.  Not only can we adopt lifestyles that are sustainable, we can influence our school districts to teach conservation and sustainability, we can support local funding for urban and regional parks, and we can support businesses that adopt sustainable supply chains (meaning for example that they only buy lumber products form well-managed forests).  In The Conservancy we have begun to reach out to younger and broader communities because we realize conservation needs to be a people’s movement, not a lobbyist’s agenda item.

Melissa McLaughlin, Los Angeles, CA
What species do you expect to become extinct over the next 50 years? What species, like salmon, are good indicators of the health of the environment?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Melissa, first, let me say that species are much more resilient than most people recognize.  For sure, species will go extinct. But a lot of species that are iconically endangered will survive.  Gray whales have recently made a come back. Wolves are abundant in Yellowstone after decades of absence.  The bald eagle and American alligator are thriving. Even salmon could fare well.

So instead of asking which species will go extinct, I think a better question is: “where can we expect conservation investments to rescue species from the brink of extinction”?  My favorite example is orangutans.  Orangutans are the poster child for species at risk due to deforestation. But recent research suggests orangutans have broader habitat tolerances than we ever suspected.  If we can reduce hunting and killing of orangutans by humans, there is good reason to suspect we can position them for a long-term success.

As to your question about “good indicators”, I favor top predators, such as tuna, wolves, tigers, and mountain lions.  I feel like if we manage the world so that it can sustain these top predators, a whole host of other species and ecological processes will be well taken care of.  I could be wrong on this, and the whole topic of ”indicator species” is a vigorous area of research. But I still think top predators area good place to focus — both because they often dictate the dynamics of ecosystems (what ecologists call “top-down control”) and they are inspiring.

Melissa Hollenback, Shrewsbury, MA
How can you get parents to embrace nature and not be afraid of it? Mosquitos, ticks, skin cancer and dirt are making the outdoors dangerous to many parents…and they are passing this fear onto their children.

Peter Kareiva responds:
Melissa, as you may know, there is a vigorous “children and nature” campaign that is spreading throughout North America. Richard Louv who wrote the terrific book LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS makes that “fear is the enemy” argument.  And I see “fear” in the US to have become an emotion that guides too much of our behavior and politics.  It drives me nuts.  I would guess the only way to counter it is through mass media, culture, social networks, and a dynamic anti-fear marketing effort.  It should be doable —because the thing my kids most wanted to be growing up was cool and attractive to members of the opposite sex — and being fearful is uncool and unattractive.

Comment From AnaAna:
Don’t you think that it is also a good idea to go where the kids are? If kids are online, you go online after them. I say this because I am someone who doesn’t like to be outdoors, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about Nature or that I don’t try to do things to preserve it.

Peter Kareiva responds:
For sure we have to go where the kids are –if we just try to appeal to outdoorsy types in flannel shirts we will be reaching too small a portion of the population. And I believe you when you say you care about nature but do not like being outdoors. But for most people, the sort of passion that gets people out ringing doorbells and writing their senators comes from direct outdoor experience. So I would advocate using online media and resources, and getting kids outdoors. One project I have done with students is get them to make videos with their cell phones of nature and post on you-tube. That is fun and a combination of both cultures.

John Sparzo, Avon, IN
How can The Nature Conservancy and other like-minded (if differently operated) organizations share a message of hope and progress to future generations instead of one of gloom? Can conservation be motivated by a record of successes and futures improved than a constant barrage of “the end is near” messages? People want to back a winner, not join in the pity party with a loser. Let’s show The Nature Conservancy for the winning organization it is!

Peter Kareiva responds:
John, you might be more of a cheerleader than I am — and I am paid by the Conservancy. For sure, doom and gloom is a jejune message — we need to always be analyzing situations with a mind to asking what we can do to make things better.  There are tons of examples of conservation success.  In the USA, many species that were on the brink of extinction have come back (alligators, bald eagles, wolves, gray whales, etc). And our water and air is cleaner than ever before.  The key is to face the facts and do what is necessary.    We do not always get this right — but that is our ambition.  I would love to discuss this with you over a beer.

David Rostad, Kindred, ND
I live in a small farming community. In this area, like much of rural America, the prevailing attitude is that there are no real worries about the environment. Everything is cyclical, and any concerns with nature are a waste of time. Recycling is almost unheard of here. Given that children tend to be a product of their own family environment, how can we best, if at all, get through to these children, or their parents?

Peter Kareiva responds:
David, I find your commentary intriguing and disturbing. My experience also is that many rural communities are less supportive of conservation than urban communities.  I think the answer has to be through the schools.  I personally am working to develop curriculum materials that could be used in any high school with internet access.  But I do not think education is enough. I think marketing and making conservation cool is essential.

Wouldn’t it be great if Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie starred in a movies where they were conservation heroes?  That might seem silly, but I am very serious when I say conservation needs to be a social movement.  Travel would help as well.  Many of the ill-effects of farming are only felt downstream—so those rural communities need to go and visit the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Comment From Nathan Roberts, UK:
As a recent graduate in the field of wildlife conservation, I find job opportunities in conservation are relatively limited in comparison to more traditional public sector jobs such as economics and retail, for example. Do you think the apparent lack of jobs in the environmental sector could also be negatively affecting the willingness of young people to be educated about the value of nature? Perhaps schools should therefore receive targetted work experience opportunities or career guidance that raises the profile of conservation and environment jobs?

Peter Kareiva responds:
I do think students tend to be unaware of the variety of jobs in conservation. Partly this is because Professors themselves may be unaware. There are actually quite a few job opportunities in the environmental sector. Restoration is a huge industry that hires regularly. State and federal government are good sources of environmental jobs. Many large multinational corporations have an environmental division. The students I have known have almost all found jobs. But they have had to broaden their search image a little. Thus you might not find a job in wildlife, but you might find a job that looked at control of invasive plants.

Stephen House, Schiller Park, IL
Haven’t we already lost the war to save nature? With all the invasive plants, insects, animals and exotic diseases that have been introduced and will be introduced in the future, what is the point of trying to conserve nature. I have been volunteering at the local forest preserve. The forest here is supposed to be an oak tree forest, but it is filled with buckthorn. We have been removing the buckthorn and uncovering magnificent oak tree specimens, but I just found out there is a disease in California called sudden death oak disease. I’m starting to feel that we are just wasting our time.

Peter Kareiva responds:
Stephen, I think you have a sense of despair partly because you have been setup for that despair by the clichés of the environmental movement.  Let me offer an alternative. Quit thinking about some past you seek to preserve.  Think instead of what sort of world you want for your region in 2050.  When you think that way, it will be obvious there are a lot of options for the future. The “good ole days” were never as good as we imagined.

The invasive species challenge you mention is interesting. There are cases where yesterday’s invasive species are today’s protected species – Eucalyptus in California is such an example.  So in some cases you will have to simply adjust to a changing world.  In other cases, we have found we can in fact win the battle against invasive species.  On Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California we recently succeeded in eliminating feral pigs that were destroying the vegetation and posed a threat to island foxes.

Kumar Raj Subedi, Kathmandu, Nepal
Being a citizen of an underdeveloped country where basic needs are unmet, how could we contribute nature conservation?After all, so called developed countries contribute maximum carbon emissions and they are not investing sufficiently in nature conservation. The people of underdeveloped countries are prone to bear the sins of developed countries through climate change and global warming, which are threatening through unnatural melting of snow in the Himalayas and flooding in the lower land and water scarcity.

Peter Kareiva responds:
Kumar, for sure undeveloped countries are suffering from the sins of Europe and the USA when it comes to climate change.  It must be hard to not get swept up in anger about that.  But from the perspective of pure self-interest, developing nations and the quality of life for people in those nations will be enhanced if they invest in conservation. Conservation means clean water, less flooding, reduced storm damage, fertile soil, fish as food in rivers and streams.   And when it comes to climate change, it does none of us any good to dwell on past sins – it is time to choose our future, and hopefully a future that does not mean your glaciers will be lost. I am not a politician, so I do not know how to craft that solution.  But the impacts of global warming are becoming so clear that I sense a global tipping point in our attitudes and willingness to make changes.

Comment From Guest:
You may have covered this above (I just joined the chat), but it seems to me that one way to get younger people involved in conservation is through purposeful activity in the wild. I am thinking of activities ranging from birding to hunting and fishing — things that get the indovidual directly engaged with nature and spark an interest in conservation. This would perhaps suggest collaboration with Audobon and various sporting groups on education, outreach and participation.

Peter Kareiva responds:
You are exactly right. I served on TNC’s Board of Directors for eight years and made it a habit to ask every Board member how they got involved in conservation. Without exception, every Board member during that interval got involved through childhood experiences either hunting or fishing (or because someone in their family to whom they were close fished or hunted). Without exception. That has stuck with me. For that reason I follow national data on hunting and fishing and worry about the fact these activities are on the decline (when measured per capita).

Connie Rosenblatt, Auburn, AL
More and more children are growing up in urban and suburban environments. How can The Nature Conservancy encourage direct interaction with nature without having to travel great distances that only a small percentage of children would be able to do?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Connie, I think the key is to bring nature to the kids – to build urban parks. These parks would not only be great for kids, it is well known that vegetation can mitigate the heat island effect that makes cities so inhospitable during summers. Cities are commonly 10-20 degrees F warmer than surrounding rural landscapes. With global warming, we are going to need urban parks not just for kids but as natural “air conditioners”.

John Parke, North East, Maryland
We have constant and unrelenting increases in population growth in the United States and more so the world, more and more natural areas and our biodiversity will be put under pressure. How can we reconcile not addressing this issue?

Peter Kareiva responds:
John, you are right to point to population growth. In fact a recent study showed that if we slowed population growth we could accomplish almost one-third of the reduction in emissions we need to curb global warming. Fortunately, we are slowing population growth –largely through economic development and urbanization. It turns out that when women are empowered and educated and given career opportunities in cities, they immediately cease to have so many kids. So women’s rights and education is a great approach to slowing population growth. It now looks like the world’s population will level off after an additional 2-3 billion are added. My personal feeling is we can handle that population. I conclude this by looking at countries like Israel, which has a major national park system and almost ten times the population density as the United States. Of course for my optimism to be warranted we do need to design and build smarter cities, and curb suburban sprawl (which is so land-consuming).

Comment From Elizabeth, CA:
As a researcher and practitioner in environmental education, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to get more students involved with nature based learning and projects. However, I think young people also need to identify with others whom they see as environmentalists or as taking conservation action. Ex. I had a student, who was Filipina and came from a farm worker community, who felt out of place with the women scientists with whom she was working on a field project because the girl felt she didn’t look “sciency” enough. She didn’t own fleece, she didn’t drive a Prius, she didn’t eat organic, and she wasn’t white. While these may be stereotypes, they are very real for some adolescents. I am wondering your thoughts on how we make sure that the environmental education nature is inclusive for all children and how conservation organizations, like Nature Conservancy, can help lead the way?

Peter Kareiva responds:
You have touched a sensitive nerve. Minorities now make up more than two-fifths of the children under 18. Over half of American children under 5 years old are non-white. But look at the membership of any conservation group and you will see all white. Unless TNC and conservation in general looks more like America, it cannot hope to have broad appeal. So how do we remedy this situation? We can start working in cities, and contributing to environmental education, and not being so narrow in what we call “nature”. I think within the last couple of years conservation has finally realized it needs to broaden its base. In TNC we are expanding our urban programs with high school students. That is a big new step for us. I hope we do more. Incidentally, I never wear fleece, I do not drive a Prius, and I do not like bird-watching. I actually prefer cities to nature (unless it is a beach). So we are not all the same.

Andrew Rudin, Vienna, VA
If young people are not educated on the value of nature, what are the top risks you see for human and environmental health in the next 50 years?

Peter Kareiva responds:
Andrew, I think you know the answer to that question. We will not care for what we do not know about. Getting kids into nature is essential for the next generation of conservation. A generation that is disconnected from nature will be unhealthy, unhappy, and will make poor decisions that could come back and haunt them in terms of squandered water and reduced food security.

Thanks to everyone for your questions, and apologies to those whose questions we didn’t get a chance to answer — we received more than 300 last week! The transcript of the chat will be available here as well as on Cool Green Science, the blog of The Nature Conservancy. Have a great day!

(Image: The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva at the Worldwide Office in Arlington, Virginia. Photo credit: © Mark Godfrey/TNC)

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  1. The content of the chat session is very elevating, motivating and action inspiring. As a committed conservationist I have found valuable thoughts here.

  2. Its critical! failure to appreciate nature by all in our community today is a big problem ! The most effective way to win the interest of others is by us illustrating the impending danger of our destructive and careless tendencies !

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