With a population of 7 billion people (and still growing) on planet Earth, humanity’s impacts on the environment are becoming an increasingly relevant problem. Imperceptible at first, as greater numbers of people adopt combustion-powered technology, physically alter the planet’s surface and consume engineered products that are not biodegradable, the collective impacts on the environment intensify and affect everyone on the planet. We currently face the Holocene extinction — one of the biggest planetary die-offs of families of plants and animals on record, mainly due to human activity.
The elimination of state science education standards regarding human dimensions of environmental change does not reduce the urgent need for Idaho students to understand where people fit in the environmental equation.
We face two kinds of collective action problems regarding human impacts on the environment. Collective action problems are situations in which everyone would benefit from an action, but the cost of that action itself is a disincentive. The first is a public goods problem where human activity creates negative effects — i.e., pollution and other changes that affect climate and biodiversity. This problem manifests on and across social scales — local, regional, national and international. In other words, when some people adopt practices that curb negative effects and everyone else does not, the adopters bear all the costs and those who do not adopt gain immediate-term advantages.
The second problem is possibly more insidious — time discounting. We tend to think about the present and near-term future with regard to our economic decision-making, and this made good sense for our ancestors. It is harder for us to think about how our behaviors affect the distant future, and so we prioritize gaining benefits today as opposed to conserving the environment for future generations. Students’ awareness of such underlying problems is key to redressing the Holocene extinction and human impacts on climate change.
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Anthropology takes the long and comparative view of human behavior. As our national association has observed, “Climate change creates global threats that affect all aspects of human life, including our health, homes, livelihoods and cultures, as well as our physical environment. Threats of this magnitude affect our stability — our sense of cultural identity, our well-being, and our security.”
We urge the Idaho Legislature to adopt the standards for Idaho’s K-12 science students that include the science of human activities on the global environment. Preparation of the next generation to tackle this great challenge of the 21st century is at stake.
Science teachers have a responsibility to help their students understand, to the extent appropriate, the central methods and results of contemporary science. To strike environmental changes caused by human activity as a reference in our K-12 standards is to deprive the children of Idaho a rigorous and inclusive curriculum and works against preparation for postsecondary education and our common goals for Complete College Idaho.
John P. Ziker is the chair of the Anthropology Department at Boise State. Contributing writers are Katherine Reedy, anthropology chair at Idaho State University, and Mark Warner of Moscow.