Can Virtual Hugs Save Real Trees?

earthwatch xuvuye changing world photo

First-grader Kayla Arsenault, 6, left, reads a question to teacher Brenda Page-Reilly seen on the screen at right via Web cam during a live from the field Earthwatch entitled Climate Change and Caterpillar Populations at E.C. Stevens school in Wallingford Wednesday. Page-Reilly was live from a research location in Louisiana. Tech teacher Charlotte Robbins stands next to Kayla Arsenault at left.
Image credit: Dave Zajac / Record-Journal

By: George Grattan

Note: The opinions expressed here are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Earthwatch.

My last blog touched on some of the economic hurdles people might face when trying to become greener in the ways they consume—particularly in an economic downturn.There are many other barriers to food-chain environmentalism, as well: it's tough to grow your own food (or enough of it) year-round in all climates in the US, it's tough to find enough land to do it in many urban areas (especially for renters), and it's tough for low and middle-income workers to allocate the daylight time—even on weekends—to tend their locally-grown-organic-one-link-on-the-food-chain crops.

In fact, while under-served urban residents are often the people most in need of the better nutrition, long-term savings, and sense of self-sufficiency that growing one's own food can bring, they're often the least-well positioned to participate in that movement.

(For a great example of a group fighting the good fight on these issues in Massachusetts, check out The Food Project. And for the infuriating, inspiring, transformative story of a community in Los Angeles trying to do the same, watch The Garden.)

Like many aspects of the modern US environmental movement, eating sustainably can mean an initial outlay of time and money that creates what economists call a "price point" that's a bit too high—at least at first glance—for many people in many places to consider.

And that type of barrier—where participation in, or even knowledge of, a healthy environment becomes a luxury item—runs through far too much of our culture.

As many of you know, wealthier communities have more public green space and denser forest canopies. Poorer communities get disproportionately burdened with industrial sites and waste facilities. Rich people vacation in large national parks and "pristine" tropical beaches; middle-class people drive to regional campsites and "scenic resorts"; poor people try to get to the neighborhood park as often as they can and hope the upkeep hasn't gotten too bad.

Let's face it: For many Americans, Nature remains someplace "far away" precisely because our culture has priced it to be that way.

And, yeah, I'll point out the elephant in the blog, here: Earthwatch itself (my esteemed employer) asks people to contribute hundreds or thousands of tax-deductible dollars to go on expeditions to research locations around the world. There are very few ways to get a more direct experience of nature—and to directly participate in the science required to save it—than going on an Earthwatch expedition. Yet, despite the hundreds of fellowships we give to teachers, students, and corporate volunteers each year, relatively few people can afford that kind of experience.

The good news: technology offers one way to peek through—if not actually smash—that barrier. For all its undeniable role in the origins of our environmental crisis, technology (like consumerism), when re-examined and sustainably re-deployed, may also hold part of the solution.

For example, Earthwatch's Live From the Field Program allows teacher fellows on our expeditions to connect to their students, schools, and wider communities through blogging (who'd a thunk it?), live web-cam chats, and satellite teleconferencing. (BE SURE TO CHECK OUT THE GREAT 5-min. VIDEO ON THE LINK ABOVE.) While it's not the same, of course, as being in the field themselves, for many urban students, linking up to a teacher's experiences this way may be an inspirational first introduction.

As 7th-grade teacher Rebecca Lewis in Philadelphia puts it (in reference to her research expedition to the forests and swamps around New Orleans), "Most of my students are from the inner city and don't have a big connection to nature…this way, I can give them a sense of being there."

The connection works the other way, too, as the students of Live From the Field teachers are able to send questions about the habitats, species, and field tasks their teachers are encountering that can drive what the teachers report back on. (And what kid doesn't love the chance to give out the assignments, for a change?) Brooklyn high school teacher Chandler Griffith was in the Arctic ( monitoring the release of greenhouse gases from thawing peatlands, but was able to offer his students some information on a related issue they were particularly interested in: what's happening to the polar bears?

With the right tech support, these live research experiences can reach hundreds, even thousands of students at a time, and not merely as passive viewers of a nature documentary, but as virtual co-participants, co-inquirers, and (we hope) co-enthusiasts for the natural world.

But, some will ask, is this really experiencing Nature, really caring about it in its actuality? Well, no.

And yes.

And it's necessary, I think, in an educational system—and a culture—in which physical access to these experiences still carries too high a price point for the vast majority of US urban students—and promises to for decades to come.

As much as all of us self-styled tree huggers understandably privilege the actual, physical experience of relatively unspoiled sections of the natural world, I think we need to remind ourselves what a luxury that can be for many people. Heck, given the persistence of the digital divide, even our ability to discuss these ideas about Nature in a forum such as this is a luxury that many urban (and poor rural) students can't imagine.

Technology and economics might never allow the majority of people to experience the feeling of actually being in an unspoiled place, and, honestly, that's at least partially a good thing if we want to keep such places at least a bit unspoiled.

But if we want to encourage more people to HELP keep those places unspoiled, we need to find inexpensive, low-impact ways for all kinds of individuals to "experience" them precisely so they may come to understand and care for them. Technology may provide many new and effective ways to let more of us connect with the natural world—and might prompt more of us to want to save it, without necessarily letting more of us set foot in it..

The question is, I suppose: if a tree gets un-sustainably harvested in a rainforest and you "see" it happen online, does it make a sound in your heart?

Can Virtual Hugs Save Real Trees?
First-grader Kayla Arsenault, 6, left, reads a question to teacher Brenda Page-Reilly seen on the screen at right via Web cam during a live from the field Earthwatch entitled Climate Change and Caterpillar Populations at E.C. Stevens school in