Real Green People is a monthly feature that puts a spotlight on folks who are being the green change they want to see in the world.
Tony Gerard is the kind of biology teacher that I wish every student in Southern Illinois had the good fortune to learn from. He’s passionate about teaching, he’s knowledgeable about biology and ecology, and he’s a role model for thoughtful, environmentally-friendly living.
Gerard grew up in Joppa, Illinois, but didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. However, through a series of fortunate events, he got a teaching certificate while at Morehead State University and has been teaching biology classes at Shawnee Community College for 30 years.
These days, as Gerard ponders retirement, he lives on a 90-acre homestead adjacent to the Cache River State Natural Area with his wife, Berna, and their two young sons.
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Mike Baltz: What do you hope your students take away from the classes you teach?
Tony Gerard: Well, it’s certainly sad to me that we humans often only seem to care about plants and animals if they somehow have value to us. But that’s the reality. So, I try to give students lots of examples of how plant and animal species have been used to improve the quality of human life, often in the area of human health. Hopefully, that helps some kids come to a place where they start thinking that every critter is important.
MB: As a biology teacher and ecologist, what worries you about the future?
TG: The loss of biodiversity is a real anxiety for me. Let me give you an example from right here on my property.
For the last eight years, pretty much every night in the summer I leave my porch light on and I photograph moths. And in that time, I have watched a noticeable decrease in moths. There are moths that I used to see every year that I haven’s seen in several years now. And I’m right next to a huge state natural area and we don’t use any chemicals on our property. If I’m seeing declines here, how bad must it already be?
I used to think that when this stuff started to get bad, we’d start to fix things. I used to think that it’s going to get so bad that we’re going to get on it. But I feel now that we still don’t seem close to taking meaningful action. And I’m afraid we will pass too many points of no return.
MB: How are you living your green ideals?
TG: I don’t quite know where to start. I guess I’ll start by saying we’re all hypocrites, right? My wife is from the Philippines and every other summer we go to the Philippines. That’s clearly not sustainable and I struggle with that. As far as things we do here. We’ve got 94 acres that we have been restoring to prairie grasses and native hardwoods. We don’t use any chemicals on our little bit of lawn, or on the fruit trees, or in the garden. So, we feed a lot of local insects. And we use the manure from our poultry as fertilizer. We just recently put some solar panels on the house. And I hope to do more. But it’s a struggle for me, because I know there’s so much more I could be doing.
MB: What makes you hopeful about the future?
TG: Well, I know there can be cultural paradigm shifts and major shifts in business-as-usual. And maybe this new normal will be the beginning of a big change. So, I’m hopeful that my kids or at least my grandkids will live in a world where we respect all life on the planet and understand that we are a part of Nature. My fear is how much will be gone before we reach that point.