Daphnia – Photo Courtesy of Edwin Barkdoll

We had a campfire and cookout by the pond at the Institute for Humane Education recently, and when we were done, my husband poured buckets of pond water on the fire to put it out.

Two nights later, I collected a cup of that same pond water to look at the microscopic creatures who inhabit it. (My husband is a former biochemist, and now a veterinarian, so we have a microscope in our house.) This is what we saw: a Daphnia (also known as a water flea).

Suddenly I felt a bit sick inside, realizing that we had killed countless microscopic creatures by pouring all that water on the fire. That’s the effect of knowledge and awareness.

Yet I would never trade knowledge and awareness for ignorance. Knowledge and awareness allow us to make informed, compassionate and wiser choices.

Over the years, many people have told me that they don’t want to know how their food or electronics or clothes are produced. They don’t want to hear about the cruelty involved in animal agriculture, the environmental destruction in which they are complicit when they fulfill their desires for certain products and foods, or the human toll—in slave, child and sweatshop labor—to produce the clothes, rugs and other products they wish to buy.

Few people want to participate in abuse or destruction, but not that many want to forego the things that bring them pleasure and satisfy their desires. That’s why it can feel easier not to know.

But it’s not really easier. We all suffer the consequences of climate change, collapsing populations of many species and rapid extinctions, violence and social strife that erupts due to injustice, ill health when we consume polluted, drug-filled foods, and rising costs of healthcare.

Ignorance isn’t bliss when the cost of ignorance is so high. And knowledge and awareness can lead to, if not bliss, real joy and satisfaction as we align our choices more deeply with our values, put our money and effort into solutionary approaches that provide win-wins, and invest our energy in meaningful work, volunteerism and changemaking.

That’s the whole purpose of humane education, to seed knowledge, creative and critical thinking skills, and collaborative approaches among students so they will eagerly seek out more knowledge and awareness—because they will have the tools to solve challenges and create positive systems that do the most good and least harm to themselves and others.

As for the pond water, I’m glad to know and to see who lives in this extraordinary little ecosystem. I’m glad we don’t put pesticides on our property that would impact this ecosystem or keep a monoculture lawn around it. I’m glad we’ve allowed the natural growth of the plants that thrive here, even if this has meant the pond has become grassier than when we arrived 17 years ago. It’s also meant that the ducks can hide from predators, new species of salamanders and frogs have taken up residence, and a great blue heron has become a frequent visitor.