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The World Just Became a More Dangerous Place. Can We Teach Our Way Out Of It?

This may be a rambling post.  It’s a bit more emotional and opinionated than my usual articles, so it’s likely to elicit stronger disagreements or rebuttals (which is fine).   The tone is probably grumpier too.  Understandably so, since I haven’t slept since 3:30, waking to the same disturbed, churning belly that plagued me throughout much of yesterday evening.

You know, while the U.S. election unfolded.

Most of the world (including much of our own country) is in shock over the results today.  Donald Trump will be president soon, which scares a lot of people.  On this day there is probably more fear, angst and dismay around the globe than at any time since September 11th, 2001.  There is a lot of uncertainty and nervous speculation about what will take place in the years to come, but the shock and disappointment many people feel right now is justified in at least one respect: by electing this president, we’ve just legitimized all of the hate, bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny that came to the forefront of his campaign.  Showing everyone that that message has just been endorsed in 2016 by the supposed bastion of “freedom and equality” fractures the message the United States has been working hard to promote over the last 240 years.

I traveled a lot during the immediate post-9/11 years: Europe, Africa, New Zealand, Latin America.  It was not a great time to be an American on the road, both due to the fear for our own safety and the complications arising from representing what was perceived as a war-mongering nation while visiting a number of peaceful countries.  In this regard we’ve never quite recovered from the Bush era, and it now seems that many of those fading concerns and fears are about to be rejuvenated.  The world once again won’t know what to expect from us, and we’ll once again be struggling to combat a tarnished reputation overseas.

Onion farm, Tanzania

Visiting an onion farm in Tanzania in 2007.

On the home front, we have just endorsed hatred and bias toward large portions of our own population (Latinos, disabled people, gays, Muslims… oh, and women), while reconfirming a government that has no interest in making improvements to sensible gun regulations.  So Americans are angrier today.  We’re more spiteful.  More prejudiced.  More hated.  More hateful.  And armed better than ever.

Nobody can reasonably argue that we’re actually safer.

But this isn’t just about the human race.  It’s not exactly safe for the other living beings on this planet either.  We’ve just granted full power to a movement that denies human-caused climate change (and its potentially-disastrous future impact on the environment and society), impedes scientific progress, encourages animal trophy hunting and destructive wildlife management policies, and which wants to return our federal parks and land to the states in order to pillage more natural resources.

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly bears are prized by trophy hunters in Canada, and they’re about to become targets in the U.S.

Why did this happen?  Perhaps more importantly, why does it looks like things may get worse in the near future?  I’d argue that it’s due in large part to one major failing aspect of American society: education.

It’s widely acknowledged that Trump garnered huge support from non-college-educated voters (and even bigger support from those without a GED), while his support among college-educated voters waned compared to past Republican candidates.  But this is an issue that’s farther reaching: the United States as a whole is lagging behind other developed nations in general education.  Math, science and literacy levels among American children are much lower than they should be for this self-professed “greatest country.”

Nobody should be surprised that Trump was able to pull off a campaign largely devoid of specifics while relying on vague generalizations (including his trademark mantra) to win the vote.  But in this case he was also the last remaining candidate of “change” that appealed emotionally to a large portion of the populace.  Perhaps a better indicator that our educational struggles are influencing politics is that we’ve chosen to support champions of anti-science and anti-environmental policies by returning the same cast of characters to a conservative-led congress.  How can we waste time disseminating facts and asking questions when we’re having trouble learning to read, study, analyze and interpret information, theories, policies, hypotheses, etc.?  You know, all that stuff that comes with a decent education.

Of course, education doesn’t just take place in the classroom.  I graduated from college 17 years ago, but haven’t stopped learning.  Reading a lot is a big part of that.  But so are my travels.   The lessons learned about other places, cultures and wildlife are invaluable.  They’ve helped me develop a greater respect and appreciation for other people and nations, and understand the value of wildlife and our environment.  In this respect I differ from many in the conservative movement who largely ignore or devalue our wilderness and our neighbors.  But they don’t get out and travel as much either, either by choice or by circumstance.  I still remember visiting a tourist destination in New Zealand back in 2004.  They had a map showing all the places their visitors originated from around the globe.  The U.S. map was notable because nearly all of the markers were placed in “blue” states.  Not surprising.  Those who are able to travel and experience new wilderness and culture firsthand are much more likely to foster an appreciation for it and a desire to conserve it.

Galapagos sea lion and tourists

The best way to appreciate the value of our world is to explore it, but not everyone has the means to do so.

But not everyone has the privilege to travel abroad, much less to a national park in the next state over.  Despite an improved economy over the last seven years, people are still fighting to support families and keep their homes.  They don’t have the resources to fund vacations, be it a road trip to Yellowstone or an expensive African safari.

So we’re getting worse at educating our children in the classroom—a trend that will likely continue with a government more likely to cut education spending before boosting it—at the same time that we’re struggling to show them what life is like beyond their school walls and their neighborhoods.

So what can we do?

Many of the messages I’ve seen this morning on social media come from concerned parents and teachers, wondering how to explain today’s shift to their children.  The tension is palpable, but it’s encouraging to see so many re-dedicating themselves to emphasizing the value of respecting others in our society, and the world at large, to their kids.

Children sledding

Ladakhi children sledding on a frozen river in the Himalayas.

I’m not a parent yet, but one of my goals as a photographer has always been to educate by sharing a wider view of the world with anyone willing to look.  My audience may never get to travel the way I do, but at least I have the ability to show them that we’re sharing the planet with some fascinating and beautiful people and animals.  I can play a small role in developing a better understanding of the world that surrounds us, how foreign culture or wildlife is so similar to our own in so many ways, and why it must be preserved before it’s lost forever.  And maybe I can even inspire someone to hit the road and develop a deeper connection by experiencing these wonders for themselves.

I’ve never been overly political or opinionated 1, generally trying to remain neutral as factions on both sides of the spectrum take up arms in their battle over how we treat each other and our planet.  But I feel something has changed.  With one step, we’ve placed ourselves square in the middle of a very destructive path.  By validating the hate, we’re endangering our society.  By handing our full government to people who place little value in science, education and the wild world, we’re further endangering what’s left of the planet.

Lion Cubs

The African lion population has plummeted 95% since the 1940s. With only 20,000 left, they remain a prize among trophy hunters.

In order to step back off that path or reverse course, we need to continue to promote a greater understanding of everyone and everything around us.  It starts by educating the next generation, but it’s not too late to teach our grown selves a thing or do.  I may be an old dog, but I am always learning new things.

I can only promise to put more effort into raising awareness via my photography, and taking a more active role in teaching.  Who knows, maybe someone will learn something new, grow to like something different and discover new things that are worth preserving.  Maybe if we can all impart similar values, even in the smallest way, the world will become a better, safer place for everyone.  And everything.

Notes:

  1. I’ve written more about politics today than the rest of my life combined… including my high school civics class!

5 Comments

  1. Reny November 9, 2016 Reply

    When we woke up this morning, we too were shocked to see Trump won the election.

    Thanks for writing this and your intention to put more effort into raising awareness via your photography.
    I hope that this and taking a more active role in teaching will help.
    I prefer to think it will!

  2. Brent Paull November 9, 2016 Reply

    Wow Max, pretty one sided. We (the USA) is a war mongering nation? Really. I think nearly every person on the planet would change places with you to live here, immediately, without reservation. Only blue states represented on the tourist tote map? Really. No one from Texas, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Montana, Utah, North and South Carolina, North and South Dakota, Wyoming etc etc. Wow, you must be especially lucky to be part of a pretty exclusive blue state group. You are clearly from Seattle. You say you are “trying to remain neutral as factions on both sides of the spectrum take up arms in their battle…” Battle, eh …. pretty strong word for someone who says he is scared, and aware of all the world’s fears. You should have stayed neutral my friend, because like virginity, you can never get it back once its gone.

    • Author
      Max November 9, 2016 Reply

      Thanks for the feedback, Brent! That term was used to convey the general feeling I encountered in the world at the time during my travels. Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. Many saw the second Iraq war as unjustified (which has been debated ever since, moreso than Afghanistan) and that was our nation’s image in the places I visited. It can be challenging but also enlightening encountering different perspectives and cultures, as you know. When I am traveling and am answering questions about our politics, I do try to be sure to present both sides. Though the majority of people I encounter overseas express opinions that likely differ with your own politics, I do feel it’s important for them to understand what the general thinking is from both sides. This year during my trips, there was a lot of discussion about why Hillary was in reality very unpopular, when most folks I met overseas had simply assumed she would and should be the default choice for president.

  3. Karin Occhialini November 10, 2016 Reply

    Max…This is so well written and I know will be well received by those that treasure the wildlife, wild lands and the beauty that is our National Parks. My feelings and fears are the same, and I so agree with educating people, especially the young… about our environment and the other animals that through no fault of their own will have to survive or die by our decisions. Make no mistake…this will be a battle…One political party is in charge…a Party that denies the impact we have had on the planet and will march forward in their support of big business, oil, hunting the Endangered and denying climate change. Keep sharing your beautiful photographs…it shows Nature in all its beauty.

    Love you,
    Karin

  4. Daniel Waugh November 15, 2016 Reply

    As Max’s Dad, I claim no particular credit for all he has done that I wish others would emulate; his response to the election is his own, even though I nodded in agreement as I read it.
    We have been fortunate to join him on several photo tours and have been greatly enriched by the experience, and we have done a lot of other international travel, which continues to educate us about our world and its people. In looking at the exchange above with Brent, I would just add a few observations. It is very easy to meet people who may share our liberal (or conservative) views in other countries. As one of those Seattleite blue staters, I am more likely to have friends and colleagues of like political views around the world. But, yes, we have to recognize the complexity and diversity of views even if we do not always encounter them directly. In Iran, for example, where one might expect to have met hostility, given the disturbing record of our relations with that country in recent decades, people we met back in 2010 were unfailingly polite and positive about meeting Americans. I suppose here there might be some disconnect between views about American tourists as opposed to views about the U.S. government and its policies (we didn’t really try to talk about politics, either theirs or ours; any comments about the current political/religious leadership there were at best very indirect). In Syria in 2010, one could find ample evidence in Damascus of those who saw it politic to support the regime by posting a picture of Assad in the window, at the same time that there were rather more subtle signs of alternative views. In eastern Turkey, the political views of Kurds were less subtle, but then that was in an area and at a time a few years ago when the situation was less fraught than it is today. As in the case with Iran, even if one might have imagined encountering some anti-American views, none of that was in evidence apart from a passing comment about some NATO installation. The subject of what the Armenians want the world to acknowledge as genocide came up in various ways, some of them quite unpredictable, including blaming those events back in the later stages of World War I on the Russians (!). In Mongolia in 2005 and 2007, we interacted with young university students, many of whom could not understand why so many of the Americans in our group that was doing field archaeology did not like George W. Bush and his policies. On probing a bit about our interlocutors’ political views and understanding of history, we discovered that apart from their national hero (Chinggis Khan), this young generation of possibly the next leaders in Mongolia admired Hitler and Stalin (as strong, Chinggis-like leaders) but decried Mao, since it was felt the Chinese had done a number on the Mongols at some point in their recent history. This, incidentally, in a nation that had gone through its own “Stalin period” of political repression, etc., about which there was, perhaps, a certain amount of collective amnesia.
    So we have a lot to learn both here at home and as we travel abroad….It is a world worth doing everything possible to preserve for this generation and its heirs.

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