Corwin--Educators Offer Hope in These 'Dark Days' for the Environment


Emmy award-winner Jeff Corwin, best known as the lively, energetic host of Animal Planet's The Jeff Corwin Experience and the Discovery Kids series Jeff Corwin Unleashed, delivered Wednesday's opening keynote address at the opening session of FETC 2008 at the Orange County Convention Center, in Orlando, FL.

Corwin, who studied to be a teacher at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, addressed the audience with his signature, easy-going style, sharing the joke, "... I know you guys just do it for the money."

After the laughter subsided, Corwin dug in to the major theme of his talk: environmental stewardship and the role of education. "I can't think of a time in the history of our species," he said, "that the role of the educator has been just so critically important."

"You've been bestowed with this awesome responsibility," Corwin said. "This incredible challenge to get people to be excited about their world--the world they live in--but ultimately, to be stewards; to build a bridge; a bridge that takes information, takes ignorance, and turns that into enlightenment."

Corwin, a biologist and anthropologist, shared his experience as a 6-year-old child, playing in his grandfather's yard, when he was bitten by a Garter snake he found sitting on a pile of wood. "It was at that moment," he said, "at about 6 years old, that I became a naturalist." It was during a similar experience at age 8 when, while observing the same Garter snake, a neighbor, assuming he was in trouble, killed the reptile, that Corwin says he became a conservationist. "That's when I realized the value and the power of sharing information."

According to Corwin, education and building awareness is paramount to the effective conservation of our natural environments. Pointing to his recent concern with the state of our natural resources, Corwin spoke of what he calls a "perfect storm." Citing the issues of habitat loss, environmental degradation, climate change and a fast growing human population, he explained that it all comes together to create one of the greatest measures of extinction we as a species have ever experienced. Corwin shared that his role, and the role of the Discovery Channel, is to ensure that the tools and resources are available for the educator so the message of conservation can be effectively passed on to the next generation.

"We are at a critical stage," Corwin said, "when it comes to the conservation of our natural resources." And educators, according to Corwin, know the challenges we face.

He spoke of the role of society to pass on to our children a world that is environmentally richer and more bio-diverse than the one we have inherited; a world where a parent can take his or her child to a pond to watch frogs or out in the county to see unique species of birds. "Unfortunately," he said, "we are failing to do that."

Corwin spoke of what he called "charismatic species syndrome," in which we add value to one species while detracting it from another based solely on our cultural and emotional biases. Save the Pandas, save the tigers ... but not the crocodiles because they are ugly or scary. Such an attitude, he shared, can have devastating consequences.

As the father of a 4-year-old daughter, Corwin expressed great concern that our children will be denied exposure to a wide variety of species, some of which having become extinct during the course of his own television shows. Amphibians are among the most critically affected, with the potential for three thousand species to disappear within the next 2-5 decades, as some experts predict. Such a reality would have catastrophic results. Many of these species are culturally significant, as well as medically relevant, providing chemicals, fungicides and potential treatments for diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's disease, and AIDS.

Corwin at a press Q&A session prior to the keynote

Corwin pointed specifically to the importance of Florida as a uniquely rich and bio-divers area of our country; one that is currently in crisis due to climate change, a rising sea and the effects of an ever-increasing population. But, he added, Florida is also a story of success when it comes to bringing a species back from the edge of extinction, as it did with the American alligator.

Corwin concluded his talk by reiterating the importance of teachers in getting the message of conservation out to those who will be the decision and policy makers of the future. He called on teachers to empower young minds to build a sense of passion and urgency, encouraging them to be conscious, active citizens. "Education isn't about a single person," he said. "It's about a community." That community, according to Corwin, offers the opportunity for the redemption of our species and the reclamation of our habitats.

Corwin promised to continue doing what he does for the environment, making the information accessible to the masses through his television shows and documentaries, as well as the various outlets provided by The Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, but reiterated that what educators do is the most important mission on our planet. "Despite the dark day of conservation," he said, "... there is hope."

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About the author: Chris Riedel is a freelance writer based in Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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