Savoir-vivre: Literacy in biology is crucial if we are to meet environmental and health challenges

In French, savoir-vivre means “know how to live” and is used for good manners in society. On this post the authors explore an extended meaning of good manners with all living things in the biosphere, especially for behaviors that affect the quality of our environment and health.
Savoir-vivre: Literacy in biology is crucial if we are to meet environmental and health challenges
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The fundamentals of education, Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic, or the ‘three Rs’, are experiencing difficulty among the new generations. Abilities in the three Rs are decreasing and we thus need to increase our efforts to teach mathematics and language skills. Indeed, no one denies that the three Rs are key tools for our children, but is this all they need? Is our national education building tomorrow’s foundational knowledge? No, definitely not.

The current environmental and health crises experienced by our societies clearly show how previous generations (including that of the authors) have missed out on certain fundamentals, despite being trained in the three Rs. We claim here that they lacked savoir-vivre*, that is to say, they have not understood how to live healthy lives, how to consume while protecting their environment and thereby the health of future generations. They lacked a basic understanding of the logic of the living world they are connected to and thus were unable to address the implications in their professional, political and consumer choices.

Plants must be fed and protected? Nothing better than mineral fertilizers and pesticides – but these have catastrophic effects on water quality, biodiversity, and the health of farmers and consumers! Items must be packaged and transported? Plastic is most useful – but releases into our environment microplastics and endocrine disruptors. Teflon and Gore-Tex are practical – but they release non-biodegradable fluorinated compounds (PFAs), forever chemicals toxic to our immune system, kidneys, and thyroid gland, thereby generating healthcare costs of 50 to 85 billion euros per year in France. It is clear that our techniques are poorly calibrated for health and the environment.

We have misjudged our techniques and practices in terms of health and environmental impact, because we were unaware of what living means. We did not consider how we depend on our living environment and thus we allow negative feedback on our health and quality of life. We have lacked savoir-vivre. Indeed, days may pass when we don’t read or write or count – and use none of the three Rs. On these days, we breathe, eat, live, consume, make love, produce waste… And on such days, we need to know how to live, that is we must understand our body and its living environment. This fundamental knowledge of savoir-vivre would ensure that our children do not repeat the mistakes of the past, and may even correct them.

This will not only forbid some actions, but also offer ways of improving practices. Think, for example, of little-known actions to maintain our microbiota, the microbial ecosystem in us that maintains our good health: fewer preservatives, sweeteners and emulsifiers, more fiber and fermented food are daily reflexes to improve our lives.  Think also of agroecology as a way to reduce pesticide use by maintaining hedgerows, promoting rotation of crops over years and mixing varieties with diverse resistances to pathogens. Better soil management, without tilling and with improved provision of organic waste, can store more water and sequester carbon: good news for climatic issues! If we teach the fundaments of savoir-vivre to our children, they will not only avoid our past mistakes, but also repair them.

Yet our current educational project fails to take this into account adequately. The life and environmental sciences are often of limited importance in primary school curricula. They are taught in just 1–2 hours of biology classes per week in high schools. Nothing compared to the disproportionately higher time devoted to the three Rs (a ratio of 8:1 in French high schools). Will this produce new generations able to face health and environmental challenges? Or simply to ameliorate their health and nutrition? No. Similar causes having similar consequences, we simply reproduce the problem through our teaching. From an economic point of view, are we really improving tomorrow's food production and health professions? No. No, because the fundamentals of our national education are still failing to teach youngsters how to live: savoir-vivre.

Let’s adapt the fundamentals by blending savoir-vivre with the three Rs, for there is no gap between these know-hows. Understanding the living world and health requires mathematics and can also enhance oral and written expression. The study of an apple, for instance, involves writing to describe its appearance and taste and the counting of seeds in class to tackle the notion of mean and standard deviation of the mean, to understand its biological function – before addressing its nutritional role, fiber and vitamins. Naively, we have ranked know-hows, without forging the effective links between them. Yet, these links strengthen the meaning of each discipline. Interdisciplinarity would help each student to access aspects of the living world through the discipline that s/he most enjoys. Combining the three Rs with savoir-vivre is therefore a way to support all these fundamentals and to meet the challenges ahead.

Solfeggio and music theory was for years taught before any music instrument was touched, and this boring method probably put many gifted musicians off music. The fundamentals must no longer be a kind of solfeggio that hinders the learning of humanity’s main instrument: the living world, and the need for savoir-vivre. Let us avoid the errors of a generation who knew the three Rs, but little more. Let’s accept and anticipate our cultural evolution. Let us reflect collectively on the fundamentals and put things into perspective before reforming education. Let’s avoid hasty reforms that leave no time for serious and careful thought on the aim and fundamentals of education. Let’s decide about this collectively and democratically, based on current and coming challenges. Let’s not overlook the value of the biological sciences, let us help our children learn savoir-vivre.

This post is a translation of an article in French that appeared in Le Monde, titled «La compréhension des liens entre les êtres vivants est un savoir fondamental de demain».

Marc-André SELOSSE,
Professor at the French National Museum of Natural History and University of Gdansk
President of the Fédération BioGée

Erik ORSENNA,
Author, Member of the Académie Française
President of Initiatives pour l’Avenir des Grands Fleuves


Photo by Josh Mills on Unsplash

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