Once, while lecturing 150 freshmen about the value of the natural world in which we live I paused and asked, "How many of you can tell me the current phase of the moon?”

None could.

Are we approaching some sort of endpoint in which contact with nature is optional to the human experience, absent rude awakenings from tsunamis and tornadoes? Environmental curricula are proliferating in universities, but how can you teach someone to value something that they do not know?

Natural resource economists teach the concept of existence value, a property that a reef (or a forest or a glacier) might have absent any utility such as shark-finning or logging. The existence value of a natural place, like Ulong Channel on Palau, goes up a little when you read about in a blog. It goes up a lot when you visit it. Existence values persist after the transient and localized benefits of ecotourism. Even if I never return to Ulong Channel, I will continue to value it and I will argue for its conservation. If a few people visit Ulong Channel but a lot of people read blogs about it, the existence value might become quite substantial. Maybe enough that Ulong Channel and some of our other Micronesian reefs will continue to be conserved.

In the last several weeks we put 24 USC Dornsife students in the ocean on coral reefs in Guam and Palau. They measured biodiversity and got to form their own opinions of the value of these places. We could have instead given them a Powerpoint lecture, and most university faculty would have no other option. Dave Ginsburg and I got lucky. A few years ago USC Dornsife opened a program for international experiential learning courses. The Environmental Studies Program provided one of the first courses — looking at environmental problems facing both modern and ancient civilizations in Belize. That course ran for the fourth time while Dave and I were in Micronesia. You can read the Belize blog here.

Coral reefs are among the most diverse and productive ecosystems in the world. They are also among the most threatened. Warming oceans cause corals to expel their algal symbionts — a process called bleaching that is depleting corals in much of the world. About half of the anthropogenic CO2 we emit dissolves in the ocean, which is becoming measurably more acidic. By the end of the century the chemical equilibrium required for biomineralization of hard corals may be tilted too far.

Right: Jim Haw, photo by Steve Millington.

Overfishing of reefs, including the taking of sharks, puts reef ecosystems out of balance. Suspended sediment and chemical run off from farming and sewage create other stresses. Boats run aground on reefs, wrecking them, and sometimes we simply blow them up, as is proposed for Apra Harbor on Guam. The protection of coral reef ecosystems is not just about sea cucumber populations, it is also about land use, energy choices, cultural practices, military operations, and yes also about the utility-free existence values of these places we have been writing about. Reef conservation, like many environmental problems, is massively interdisciplinary and cannot be effectively taught without literally immersing the student in the environment and embedding them in the associated culture.

Last year we had 14 students in the Guam and Palau course. For at least 10 of them there is clear evidence that the experience significantly altered their educational trajectory. Decisions were made and executed for graduate school, study abroad, internships and more experiential learning. I've got my fingers crossed about the 24 we just brought back.

In the previous and penultimate post Dave Ginsburg outlined some of the additional academic content for next year's course. We are also adding formal content on the communication of experiences and findings. Even if every USC student wanted to take our course (and they should!) we will never have the instructional capacity (or the carbon emissions budget) for more than a few dozen in any given year. But in order to maximize the existence values of the threatened places we are visiting and the endangered species we are encountering, we need to communicate with as many people as we can. Thank you for reading.

As for me, the spring 2011 semester that began with the first day of classes on January 10 finally ended on June 9 when I turned in Maymester grades and this blog post. I think I'll take a few days off and maybe go diving.


About the Author: Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the USC Dana and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This four-week course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the 24-student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam, Palau and other Micronesian islands.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Environmental Studies Lecturer Dave Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.