How do we educate for emergency? Millions of students are headed back to school this week. My teaching starts too; I am en route to Arizona for the opening colloquium of the semester in a low-residency program, sitting in a jet and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a two-hour flight than a person in some poor countries does in a year. It leads me to think about education and ignorance, and specifically about what makes for good education in a time of emergency. What do today’s students need to learn in order to respond to the ecological crisis?
It is indeed an emergency we face. Ten years ago environmental educator David W. Orr opened the first edition of his book Earth in Mind with some dismal numbers—numbers that have only worsened since then:
If today is a typical day on planet earth, we will lose 116 square miles of rain forest, or about an acre a second. We will lose another 72 square miles to encroaching deserts, the result of human mismanagement and overpopulation. We will lose 40 to 250 species, and no one knows whether the number is 40 or 250. Today the human population will increase by 250,000. And today we will add 2,700 tons of chlorofluorocarbons and 15 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Tonight the earth will be a little hotter, its waters more acidic, and the fabric of life more threadbare.
Orr points out that these grim realities have been created not by illiterate but by highly educated people. The problem is not lack of education but the wrong kind of it. He quotes Elie Wiesel, who said regarding the education that prepared Holocaust perpetrators for their deadly acts:
It emphasized theories instead of values, concepts rather than human beings, abstraction rather than consciousness, answers instead of questions, ideology and efficiency rather than conscience.
I think Wiesel’s list can be summarized very simply: It was education that had forgotten relationships.
In a time of ecological crisis, we need education that values, fosters, and increases awareness of relationships—relationships between human beings, and between humans and the more-than-human world.
Forty years ago, in the summer that saw both the moon landing and Woodstock, the first issue of the Journal of Environmental Education was published in a new field that was preparing students to interact with the wider web of relationships. The citizens produced by environmental education were to be, in the words of William B. Stapp, the founder of environmental education:
knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems, and motivated to work toward their solution.
A recent article in Educational Leadership, written by environmental educator Mike Weilbacher, asks if Stapp’s goals have been achieved. He answers,
In a word, no. . . . Although students are overwhelmingly “pro-environment,” they possess remarkably little information about breaking environmental issues. One small example: We asked them to name one bird they can identify by song. The leading answer? None. If local birds disappear from the landscape because of extinction, or arrive three weeks late because of warming climates, it’s possible that no one will notice.
Weilbacher cites a number of reasons for the ignorance in a litany that will be familiar to teachers. The reasons include students’ extreme disconnection from nature (and connection to electronic screens) as well as the No Child Left Behind policy, which forces teachers to teach to the test and has led to a decrease in class field trips. In fact, Weibacher reports, the website of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation stated this year:
No Child Left Behind is contributing to an increasing environmental literacy gap by reducing the amount of environmental education taking place in K–12 classrooms.
At this point in time, says Weilbacher, environmental knowledge—knowledge of relationships—is drastically lagging:
Even though there are more centers for environmental education and more college degree programs in environment-related fields than ever, and even though building green schools has suddenly emerged as an important idea (pre-economic meltdown), we are perhaps even farther from environmental literacy than we were in 1969.
Fortunately, there are bright spots as well—programs and schools that are working to connect students with nature. He cites the No Child Left Inside movement; green charter schools; update: Green Schools National Network; watershed education curricula; and forest kindergartens, where children spend the entire day outdoors.
Weilbacher also offers a list of 10 things every student should know about the environment. He does not start with the drastic environmental news, like I did here; he believes kids need to first learn how resilient, lively, and creative nature is. I think he’s right.
I invite you to peruse his list with the idea of relationships in mind. It strikes me that every one of these points has to do with the interconnected, interrelated web of relationships in which we are immersed.
What Every Student Should Know About the Environment
There are scores of possible models of environmental education programs, and most have many of the following large concepts in common. As students go from kindergarten through high school, they can work their way down the list.
- Earth overflows with life. One of science’s biggest mysteries is how many species share this planet— estimates range from 5 million to 100 million species. Many environmental education programs begin with the premise that life is vanishing; young learners should first know that Earth teems with a huge number of creatures.
- Each creature is uniquely adapted to its environment. Every species evolved to possess a unique set of adaptations that enables it to survive and thrive in its ecosystem. Students should be on a first-name basis with many local creatures.
- The web of life is interdependent. Organisms evolve complex relationships, each depending on numerous other species for their survival.
- Materials flow through ecosystems in cycles. All creatures need water, air, and nutrients to survive. These materials cycle and recycle through ecosystems. The water we drink today is the same water we’ve always had, and always will.
- The sun is the ultimate source of energy flowing through ecosystems. Food grows from sunlight energy; our houses are heated by fossil fuels created many millennia ago from ancient sunlight.
- There is no waste in nature; everything is recycled. In nature, every waste product is used by other creatures. Humans have bent those circles into straight lines, where things are used once and tossed.
- We consume resources to live. Every student should know where the trash truck takes the trash, where water comes from, and how the nearest power plant makes electricity.
- Conservation is the wise use of finite resources. We are physical creatures with real needs—to eat, drink, build houses, write on paper. But how do we use these resources sustainably?
- Humans can have a profound effect on environmental systems. Fossil fuels pump carbon dioxide into the sky; habitat loss is causing the extinction of large numbers of species. Our actions profoundly affect the ecological systems that sustain living things—and us. Nature can often repair these systems (forests grow back, for example); but humans are changing systems faster than nature can adapt.
- Each of us can powerfully affect the fate of the natural world. Because each of us is directly plugged into the planet, the actions we take—or fail to take—profoundly influence earth’s systems.
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