THE BLOG
07/28/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2014

Having a Conservation Conversation With Your Kids

2014-07-28-1082_SuziEszterhasPC_zpsa05b21fd.jpg

Protecting the biodiversity of our planet will require us to make some big changes in the way we live in America. Every product we use - then discard - impacts the health of our planet and availability of our natural resources. This in turn affects every plant, animal and insect species that depend on these natural resources for survival. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012 (the most recent year data was published) Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash, or 4.38 pounds per person, per day. But only 87 million tons was recycled or composted, the equivalent of a 34.5% recycling rate. In a wealthy country like the United States where recycling programs are readily available for the majority of the population (and in many places mandatory), why is this number so low?

As parents, we teach our children how to walk, talk, eat, and often many years later, how to drive a car. In between, kids learn many other things from the adults around them, either from asking questions or observing their behavior. When we think about the things we must teach our children, the topic of conservation is typically not at the top of the list. But consider this: if you do not bring up a subject from an early age and teach appropriate behaviors, it becomes far more difficult to change poor habits once they become ingrained. Perhaps this is the reason Americans still throw away an estimated 25,000,o00 plastic beverage bottles every hour instead of recycling them, despite the fact that 94% of the population has easy access to plastic bottle recycling programs.

If we started teaching respect for the planet from a very young age, we could potentially grow an army of conservationists from the ground up. Recycling rates would skyrocket. Natural resources would be conserved. The overall health of our planet would improve vastly. And the outlook for endangered species would be far brighter than it is today.

The Next Generation Holds the Key
In Namibia, Cheetah Conservation Fund's (CCF) training and capacity-building efforts are aimed at helping supplement the country's institutional capacity as well as educating students from all over the world about conservation. Here topics include the importance of biodiversity; natural resource management; appropriate land use, and eco-friendly livestock and wildlife management practices. More than 300,000 Namibian students, youth, farmers and other stakeholders have participated in CCF's educational programs in the past 20 years. Our Educational Outreach vehicle is on the road regularly, taking our conservation message to schools and communities throughout the country.

The Orphan Calf and the Magical Cheetah
is a book of cheetah poems, essays and illustrations contributed by children of Namibia that resulted from a scholastic art and writing competition. This CCF project presented children with an outlet to express their appreciation of the natural environment and the roles predators play in balancing the ecosystem. By expressing themselves through art, the children broadened their own perspectives regarding the dilemma facing cheetahs and committed themselves to promoting their survival. Many schools and other organizations like CCF are teaching the importance of conservation in their curriculum, but they should not have to take on this issue alone.

In many parts of the world, including the United States, school is out for the summer and kids are spending a lot more time with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings and friends. But having family time does not necessarily exclude us from having learning experiences together. Summer is a great time to be outdoors. Events like picnics, swim parties, sporting contests and family vacations provide ample opportunities to spark conversation and instill in our younger generation a greater appreciation for the environment.

How can adults quickly get up to speed on conservation topics so they can pass along accurate information to our children? There are many ways to go about doing this; all of them are correct. Talk with people in your community who have experience. You'll find that they are very eager to share their knowledge. They can point you in the direction of other local resources you may not find out about otherwise. Gather written information from as many different places as possible and read, read, read. In addition to newspapers, magazines and websites, you can follow groups on social media that are concerned about our planet. Often they post links to studies or media stories that are highly informative and sometimes they host online discussion forums. Right now you're reading this blog, and that's a really good start.

For those interested in developing a more comprehensive understanding of how biodiversity is tied to natural resource conservation, I recently wrote a book, A Future for Cheetahs, which paints a very clear picture of how environmental issues impact the cheetah's ability to survive. When writing it and selecting photos and illustrations, I contemplated parents and mentors sitting with children looking at the book together, using it as a teaching tool to open a discussion about the importance of conservation. Global issues such as climate change, human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and developing new biomass energy sources are easier to understand when framed by the story of one endangered species' fight for survival.

Above all, the most important thing we adults can teach our children is to be aware of how our actions and our choices impact the world around us. There is a well-known quote about conservation attributed to the Great Law of the Iroquois Nation:

"In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

So yes, it is imperative that we recycle every aluminum can, glass bottle, plastic bag and newspaper that we use, not just some. We must compost all of our food waste, no matter the burden this creates.

While it may be disconcerting to lay the responsibility of saving our planet on our children, it is perhaps unavoidable. But if we teach them to be good citizens of Earth, and they in turn teach their children the same, in time we may not have to worry so much about fixing things. By adopting the mantra of the Iroquois -- or the U.S. EPA's popular "Reduce, Recycle, Reuse" -- we are all far more likely to make better choices. Better choices will guarantee our future, our planet's future and a future for cheetahs.