Environmental Reads

Environmental Education and Us: A Tragedy

Let’s cut to the chase: We don’t know enough about the world we live in.

Sure. We know about our daily lives, and some of us know some more technical aspects of our impact on the environment, but do we know the extent of our actions on the Earth? I’ll wager a majority of us don’t, and here’s why: Our environmental education is severely lacking.

How much energy was required to make your cup of coffee this morning? Where does the coffee come from? Did the electricity that you used to make it come from solar panels or a coal-powered power plant? What about the cup it was in–what’s it made of?

If it’s plastic, it’s going to be around long enough that your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild can use it, because plastics last an average of 1000 years, or about the same length of time as 30 generations.

If you knew that plastic coffee cup would be around for centuries, would you have bought it?

We don’t learn enough about where our stuff comes from. Many of us have no clue how it’s made, or who it harms on the way to us. All we really learn is how much it costs and how soon it will get here.

Why is this a tragedy? I’m 32 years old, and the most I’ve learned about our environment has occurred in the last five or so years. That means I have spent more than 80% of my life not appreciating or respecting the world around me. I took it for granted that the Earth would always be here, thought our resources were unlimited, and viewed myself as removed from nature instead of as being a part of it.

And it’s not just me, we all do it. The fact is that we’ve been conditioned this way. The lack of environmental education in schools contributes heavily to our lack of understanding. If we learned from a young age that the plastics we use would long outlive us, I have no doubt that we would also have learned to use them sparingly. I’m not disparaging the use of plastics all together–we need them. We wouldn’t have been able to achieve our numerous advancements with technology and medicine without the expanded use of plastics since their accidental invention in 1907.1 But I believe that, had we realized how hard plastic would be to get rid of in 1907, we might have reigned in our enthusiasm.

So. Now that we’re thoroughly depressed about the literal gigatons of plastic in use around the planet, lets talk about the importance of introducing environmental education into the classroom. In our Environment, Society, and Sustainability class, many of the students could not recall a single environmentally minded lesson. This is a problem for many reasons. Lack of education about a subject is still teaching a lesson, but it’s a lesson that these topics don’t matter. It teaches students to overlook important information in leu of studying other material. In A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, the authors quote David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College, who writes “All education is environmental education. . . . By what is included or excluded we teach the young that they are a part of, or apart from, the natural world.2” There can be no doubt that, in doing nothing, we are doing far more to hasten environmental issues like deforestation, pollution, and climate change.

There is also a need to relate environmental education to the world we live in locally. In class, we were all readily able to recall the impact deforestation has on the Amazon rainforest, but much like the students in A People’s Curriculum, no one could really recall learning about more localized efforts to cut down on development to preserve natural habitats of our own neighboring nature species. We tend to learn about environment through a lens–one that has us looking at ‘them’ instead of ‘us’–which keeps us from becoming involved or invested in what happens.

The question now turns to how we can remedy this inequity in environmental education. Can we simply begin teaching younger students from here on out that they are active members of the world around them and hope to bridge the gap over time, or will more inclusive, widespread education across generations be necessary? It feels like an overwhelming case of too little, too late in terms of conservation or combating climate change. One thing is certain, inaction is no longer a viable option.

This post meets the second assignment requirements for ESS210. My sources for this assignment include the following links, which I encourage you to explore in more detail:
1 – https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution
2 – A People’s Curriculum for the Earth pg 35

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