This morning, over breakfast, the Free-Ride offspring and I discussed the environment. You can hear the conversation (that crunching is from English muffins). The transcript is below.
Dr. Free-Ride: So I was going to ask you guys this morning to talk a little bit about the environment, and I guess my first question is, what's the environment?
Elder offspring: It's the area around an organism.
Dr. Free-Ride: What do you think, younger offspring?
Younger offspring: I think that the environment is the resources that you can use.
Dr. Free-Ride: OK, so that could be something that's in the area around an organism, true. Does it make sense to talk about environments for things that aren't organisms?
Elder offspring: True!
Younger offspring: I'm not sure.
Dr. Free-Ride: I think it maybe depends. It depends on why we're interested in talking about an environment. Why does the environment, why does our environment, matter to us?
Younger offspring: Because it's like, saving water and saving energy, if you use up too much, then you won't have any more.
Dr. Free-Ride: And then what?
Younger offspring: You'll have to, like, use candles to light up the house and go to the riverbank to drink.
Elder offspring: When we have dammed the last river, cut down the last tree, caught the last fish, hunted the last animal, and killed the last plant for food, we will discover that we can't eat money.
Dr. Free-Ride: No, we can't eat money. Maybe we can eat our fellow survivors though. Well, we can't, 'cause I went and I raised you vegetarian, didn't I? I think vegetarians will probably have the hardest time becoming cannibals.
Elder offspring: Yeah, but then the people who prey on vegetarians -- they would die also.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, of course. Part of the question of why our environment matters seems to be, you couldn't have a human just out there with nothing else surviving, right? Not only would it be boring, but humans don't come with everything they need to survive built into them.
Elder offspring: Not like the trout.
Dr. Free-Ride: I don't think a trout does, either!
Elder offspring: Well, when trouts are born they have an egg-sac, and that's for food!
Dr. Free-Ride: OK, sure, but when trouts have used that up, what happens?
Elder offspring: They die.
Dr. Free-Ride: Don't actual trouts in actual rivers --
Elder offspring: Well, they have to die sometime, and anyway, people fish them up and eat them!
Dr. Free-Ride: Not all of them.
Younger offspring: But some.
Elder offspring: Most of them.
Dr. Free-Ride: Some of them survive to make trout-fry, don't they?
Elder offspring: Yeah.
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, so --
Elder offspring: But then, those trout-fry will be likely to become fried trout.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, only some of them, again. I mean, if they all became fried trout, there'd be no more trout, and that would be the end.
Elder offspring: Yeah, that's what I'm saying!
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, but what I'm saying, going back to this -- you made a claim that trout are born with everything they need to survive, and I'm doubting that claim.
Younger offspring: It's not everything, it's just some.
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, they've got some of the stuff they need to survive, but some of the stuff they need to get from the --
Younger offspring: Ocean.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I think --
Elder offspring: They're freshwater!
Younger offspring: From the environment!
Dr. Free-Ride: Exactly, from the environment. Among other things, if you take a trout out of water, what's going to happen?
Younger offspring: It dies. It suffocates.
Dr. Free-Ride: Isn't that ironic, that it suffocates when you take it out of water and into the air, but that's because it needs to be -- you know, it's set up to get oxygen from the water it's in rather than to get oxygen from air. A trout's watery environment is very important to how the trout works as a critter. And our non-watery environment, at least from the point of view of breathing, is very important to us as the kind of critter we are, yeah?
Younger offspring: Mmm hmm.
Dr. Free-Ride: We know that our environment matters to us, because some of the things we need to survive aren't built into us. They're things we get from the environment. Do we matter to our environment?
Elder offspring: YES!
Younger offspring: YES!
Dr. Free-Ride: How?
Younger offspring: Wait --
Elder offspring: We destroy it.
Younger offspring: Grrr!
Dr. Free-Ride: We destroy it?
Younger offspring: We are important to the environment because ... we destroy it? That's not why we matter.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, that's one thing that we could do to the environment, but that's not the only thing. You could be more general and a little less judgmental and say, we matter to our environment because the things we do have an influence on the environment.
Younger offspring: "Influence"? What does that mean?
Dr. Free-Ride: Have an influence? They change it. So some of the things we could do -- like if we plant a bunch of trees, that could have an effect on our environment. What kind of effect would that have on our environment?
Younger offspring: It would make more animals have homes and not freeze to death and die.
Dr. Free-Ride: You're thinking very far along the life cycle of the trees, but yeah, that's quite possible. I was sort of thinking in terms of trees -- they're going to --
Younger offspring: Oh yeah, they sometimes take out the carbon dioxide in the soil.
Elder offspring: Sometimes?!
Dr. Free-Ride: And from the air, and they put out --
Elder offspring: They do it all the time.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, you know what, there are parts of the day where the plants, the trees, are--
Elder offspring: Resting?
Dr. Free-Ride: When they're not primarily taking in CO2, but sometimes they're taking in O2. It happens. But the overall impact is going to be to reduce the carbon dioxide, so that makes a difference. And also what? Create shade, create little cool pockets underneath the trees, and that's useful, as you point out, for critters or various sorts, and maybe for other plants. And that's going to help lower the temperatures nearby. So that's an impact we can have on the environment. What else?
Elder offspring: We could raise baby fish until they're old enough to know how to survive by themselves and release them into the river.
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, sure, animal husbandry, fishery management, that kind of thing. We change our environment in all sorts of ways, and one way is by putting plants in places where they might not happen otherwise. One way is by putting animals where they might not happen otherwise, or changing the animals through selective breeding.
Elder offspring: Mmm hmm, like making white mice.
Dr. Free-Ride: OK, but I'm not sure that that's a big impact on the environment as most people think of it.
Elder offspring: (plaintively) Albino mice!
Dr. Free-Ride: That's fine. Another kind of thing, I don't know -- I mean, you mentioned before, damming rivers. Irrigating, bringing water from other places to places where it isn't normally, that can change the environment. Deciding to get our fuel from sources that don't require burning. What else?
Elder offspring: Making sure that beavers don't dam rivers too much.
Dr. Free-Ride: So, I guess this is worth pointing out, humans are not the only animal that has an impact on the environment.
Elder offspring: Beaver.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, yeah, and plants have an impact on the environment too, right?
Elder offspring: Yeah, but they're not animals!
Dr. Free-Ride: Yeah, but they are living things. So, living things have this interconnection with the environment where, you might think of the environment as just this thing that we have to take care of, but we're part of it. We influence it, it influences us. Can you think of any place we could go where our environment would be a lot different than it is here?
Younger offspring: Hawaii.
Dr. Free-Ride: Hawaii? You're obsessed with Hawaii, child! So how would the environment in Hawaii be different than it is here?
Younger offspring: Sunny, sunny, sunny!
Dr. Free-Ride: Sunny? What about in the Hawaiian rain forests?
Younger offspring: Spooky, spooky, spooky!
Dr. Free-Ride: Spooky? I would think more wet than spooky.
Younger offspring: Wet, wet, wet!
Dr. Free-Ride: Wet, wet, wet?
Younger offspring: Volcanos are hot, hot hot!
Elder offspring: Stop repeating everything three times, times, times!
Dr. Free-Ride: Being in the vicinity of an active volcano --
Elder offspring: AAAAAGH!
Dr. Free-Ride: -- would probably put us in a noticeably different environment. I was thinking even farther than Hawaii.
Younger offspring: Oh, I know! Japan!
Dr. Free-Ride: How would the environment in Japan be different?
Younger offspring: Hot, hot hot!
Dr. Free-Ride: Hot and humid during the summer, sure. It's not hot and humid here during the summer.
Younger offspring: Oh, I meant Russia!
Dr. Free-Ride: Russia? How would the environment in Russia be different?
Younger offspring: Cloudy!
Dr. Free-Ride: I don't know that it's always cloudy there.
Younger offspring: I don't know, then.
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, OK. You had an idea of an environment that would be very different.
Elder offspring: Antarctica!
Dr. Free-Ride: Antarctica. OK, what would be different about that environment?
Elder offspring: Snowy. We would have to hunt penguins and fish. And no plants!
Dr. Free-Ride: I was thinking farther out even than Antarctica.
Elder offspring: In space!
Dr. Free-Ride: What's the environment like if we live -- you were reading just the other day -- if we lived on Venus, what would the environment be like?
Younger offspring: It would be a little like lightening storms, and very very cloudy.
Dr. Free-Ride: But also, what would the temperatures be like?
Younger offspring: Hot! Hot, hot hot!
Elder offspring: Heat stroke!
Younger offspring: Dry!
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, I don't even think heat stroke would be our first problem because, if we tried to live on Venus what would our first problem be?
Elder offspring: Burning!
Younger offspring: Hot.
Dr. Free-Ride: No.
Younger offspring: No water. You can't breathe!
Elder offspring: What if we bring out own air?
Dr. Free-Ride: Ah, see, this is the thing! In some environments, you've got to bring what you need because it's not naturally part of that environment, right? So there are some environments that as they are, for humans, right now, would be a total disaster for us.
Elder offspring: AAAAAGH!
Dr. Free-Ride: But if we could find a way to generate a constant supply of oxygen and drinking water and places where it's not so hot that we die, then we could think about living on Venus. I think it would be super-hard. Maybe that's a good place to stop talking about environment for today, but I want to have another conversation about environment soon, 'cause Earth Day is coming up.
Younger offspring: But Mommy, I want to tell you something!
Dr. Free-Ride: Tell me!
Younger offspring: I didn't get to talk much!
Dr. Free-Ride: Well, say a little bit more about environment, then.
Younger offspring: The environment in space, like if you lived on Jupiter, you can't stand up. You'll sink because Jupiter is a gas giant.
Dr. Free-Ride: So yeah, that's a problem too that I hadn't even considered. Depending on what kind of critter you are, the environment might not even give you a good place to land.
Younger offspring: And Mars has sand storms that last for, like, a month.
Dr. Free-Ride: Wow.
Elder offspring: Why don't we go to that third planet, what's it called ...
Younger offspring: Earth!
Dr. Free-Ride: Um, yeah.
Younger offspring: We're here already!
Dr. Free-Ride: If you lived on Earth, you'd be home already. Because Earth Day's coming up -- EARTH Day is coming up -- we'll talk more about environment and Earth Day-type stuff soon. OK? Thank you, sprogs!
Younger offspring: Thank you, Mommy!