Tuesday, February 24, 2009

children's crusade

For about ten years now I have been reading books about animals to small children: tigers, leopards, monkeys, sharks, snakes, komodo dragons. Almost every one of these books has a final chapter bemoaning the threat humans pose the animals we have been reading about.

This drives me crazy. What is gained by making five-year-olds feel bad about tiger poaching? Why would I want to send my children to bed in a state of anxiety about orangutan extinction? It seems to me that what we want is to give children positive feelings about wild animals, so that when they learn, at a more appropriate age, about deforestation, they will care about the fate of wild things.

Last night I read Ben a book about coyotes. You might think that since coyotes have enormously expanded their range and numbers over the past 400 years, this book might end on a more positive note. But no: "although coyotes are doing well now, we don't know what the future holds for them in a world with ever more people...." Maybe I should try a book about rats.

This bad feeling for its own sake is the dark side of environmentalism. The message these books are sending is that all joy ought to be tinged with worry -- whenever we take delight in the power of tigers and the cunning of coyotes, we ought also to fret about the fate of the planet. But this is crazy. I see no evidence that making people feel bad is a good way to motivate changes in behavior. On the contrary, everything I know tells me that people will contribute to causes that make them feel good, and that unending negativity only turns people away. So whenever there is a chance to tout conservation measures that work, or to point out the many creatures that are still thriving in the world, we ought to be doing that instead of broadcasting gloom. Especially in books for five-year-olds.

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