What every student should know about the environment

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,Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 3.54.23 PM 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The web of life is interdependent. Organisms evolve complex relationships, each depending on numerous other species for their survival.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

For more information:


5 Responses to What every student should know about the environment

  1. Elizabeth Enslin says:August 20, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    What a wonderful post, Priscilla. Another bright spot is Waldorf education, which weaves reverence for the natural world (and for social relationships) into the entire curriculum. There are some public school initiatives that integrate Waldorf approaches too.

    I’ll be checking out some of the links you provide — most helpful

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:August 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Yes, I think I’ve run across Waldorf schools that merge their philosophy with Wood outdoors play too. Lots of alternatives these days for parents and teachers who want to see kids making connections with nature. Thanks for your comment, Liz. I welcome any other comments from readers who have other bright spots to share in nature education.

  3. Hystery says:August 21, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Dear Priscilla,

    Inspired by your sensible and lovely words, I wrote this statement about how my children and I see ourselves in relationship to the environment.

  4. Carrie Saxifrage says:January 19, 2011 at 7:45 pm


    I share where you are coming from but I feel so discouraged by the two following sentences in the same post:

    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.


    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.

    It’s like Al Gore walking through the AIRPORT having just got of a plane in An Inconvenient Truth while commenting that he doesn’t notice any of the necessary changes taking place.

    If we really don’t want to be part of the problem and our personal actions truly do matter, when will we apply our principles to hugely emitting activities like flying, instead of only to activities with relatively small GHG consequences like how we dry our clothes and what light bulbs we choose?

    I wonder time and again as friends and family who are climate aware tell me about their trips to Africa, Europe – don’t they make the connection that air travel is their biggest, most damaging GHG contribution by far?

    Thanks for hearing me out. It feels crummy to criticize those with whom I deeply agree when there are so many people out there doing so much worse and caring so much less. But if people like us who truly deeply care don’t make the change, who will? And who are we to tell them that they should?


    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:January 19, 2011 at 10:47 pm

      Carrie, you raise a tough and important question. It’s one the school raises too, especially because it a signer of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment and actively working to reduce its carbon footprint. Traveling to see one another a few times a year is the trade-off that students and faculty make for not relocating to Prescott but instead applying our skills in our home communities. And it is a price we pay for face-to-face meetings. Students & faculty do most things by phone & Skype & email, but it remains true that face-to-face is still different because we are fleshed, we are animal, and meeting in person makes a difference. In the world we want to build, do we want people not to travel? Or do we want to develop more sustainable forms of travel? I personally vote for the latter, because it seems to me that traveling (migrating) is also part of being fleshed, being animal.

      What I think you’re expressing is frustration at our frozenness in the face of the changes our society needs to make–and fast–to lower carbon emissions. I share this frustration. And for a host of reasons I intend to change other aspects of my footprint before I stop traveling to Prescott to teach. Some of those other aspects include eating closer to home, mobilizing public support for clean energy and organic and smaller-scale agriculture, and helping to build community at the local levels.