Introducing a natural history GCSE would give us a greener future

What is the biggest environmental problem: climate change? Loss of biodiversity? Soil erosion? Is it our collective failure to harness sustainable technologies, our inability to muster sufficient political will? Or is it there something more vital still: namely the fact that so few people have an understanding of nature and thus find it hard to comprehend what is happening?

There are several ways to approach this particular problem – one is via the education system. The best thought I have come across on this subject for a while came from a conversation with BBC Saving Species producer Mary Colwell. She asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to introduce a GCSE course on natural history.

Unlike biology, this would not be a largely theoretical subject disconnected from the real world, but more practical, including basic identification skills in, for example, butterflies, trees and fish. The basics of how to recognise different bird songs, soil types and fossils could be offered. So could learning about the work of the great naturalists, Alfred Russell Wallace, Charles Darwin and Gilbert White, and not only how they found wisdom from observation in nature, but also how they were moved by the natural world they investigated.

Learning about the work and motivations of pioneering conservationists such as Charles Rothschild could also be included. Taking notes and making sketches of wild plants, insects and birds outside would not only boost knowledge but add new dimensions to learning.

In addition to an academic qualification, many young people would be inspired to take a life-long interest in nature. Many youngsters who learn about the natural world never lose the fascination, having had someone showing them how to look and see the incredible interconnected systems that sustain life on earth.

Colleagues who teach biological subjects at Cambridge university tell me that many in their undergraduate intake in recent years have little basic knowledge of natural history. If even the new zoologists we are training don't know a wood warbler from a whitethroat, what chance will we have in reversing the mass extinction that is now exploding around us?

Perhaps a short letter to Michael Gove from a few of our major conservation groups would get the ball rolling. Half a dozen competent amateur naturalists could put together a sensible programme in a couple of days. Many biology teachers are naturalists and would love to teach such a course.

Most environmental leaders were naturalists before they became biologists or environmental scientists. Many people who grasp the scale of what is going on have a feeling for nature, borne out of an interest nurtured at an early age. A natural history GCSE would help towards rebuilding our collective awareness that we are not the only species on Earth, and that our well-being is not isolated from the health of all the millions of others. It would be a small step, but at least it is practical and can be easily implemented.

Originally published by The Guardian.