We spend a lot of time sharing what we’re against. I think we need to more clearly share what we are for. Today’s Earth Day 2012 and I believe we all need to be for the Earth. She needs a champion.
There’s been deterioration over time in our capability to sustain life across the broad range of flora and fauna that are impacted by the human species. We’ve cut down forests that have been lost for generations. We’ve polluted pristine areas of the world that otherwise would be untouched by humans. We’ve darkened daylight and lit up the night. And, as we’ve rapidly drawn down the resources available to us over the last century, we’ve created what some consider to be insurmountable challenges for the future. We’re turning “resources into waste faster than waste into resources” according to the Global Footprint Network.
Some of those challenges have been exacerbated by rapid population growth among humans. Other challenges can be attributed to the evolution of technologies that have resulted in increased carbon load in the atmosphere, degradation of water quality as a result of tapping into resources around the globe, and finding and using the fuels we’ve needed to move us, warm us, and provide us with all we believe we need – or desire.
The very nature of humanity lives within our production and consumption. We celebrate our capability to invent and design. We value the exploration that’s changed the face of the earth, and beyond. We revel in our capability to increase our own sustainability as a population, extending life spans, saving lives, and creating pathways to life that never before existed. Growth of “us” has been exponential in the last century. We’ve swarmed the planet building our city hives, creating trails to and from the resources we need. We’ve become the ants in our rainforests, deserts, and – the kitchen.
However, I believe there’s hope embedded in the DNA of our young people. Humans are survivors. It’s coded into who we are in communities today that represent the tribes of yesterday. E.O. Wilson, socio-biologist, says we no longer exist as people in isolated tribes, but rather as members of intersecting tribes who have the potential to work together and connect in powerful ways. Over thousands of years, we’ve learned the hard way about the ecological principles that govern the planet, Gaia. We are hunter-gatherers who evolved into gardeners. And, gardeners have always understood the importance of environment and what happens if we don’t attend to sound principles of taking care of the garden - from the pollinators to the soil.
My grandfather who sowed and planted until he was 91 taught me that gardening offers a metaphor for the best of who we are as humans – caretakers, providers, recyclers, inventors, and community contributors. He sold or gave away what he couldn’t use from the garden. He reused everything he could, nothing went into the trash unless he couldn’t think of a purpose, and even then he saved far too many bottle caps than he needed to anchor nails in his chicken pens. He appreciated what the earth provided him and he understood what would happen if he abused what he took from her. He studied food chains and webs in the natural world and taught me the value of black snakes to the resident mouse population long before I studied the Kaibab Plateau in college. When the recycling movement first started in the 1970s, he who saved and reused everything asked me, his granddaughter environmental educator, “what’s new about that?”
The 1970s was a heyday of environmental education in our country. We were driven there by the energy crisis, the cloud of ever-present pollution over LA, and the question of how many planet Earths would it take for everyone on earth to live like the average U.S. citizen?
I was fortunate then to direct a federal Title IV-C grant funding environmental education services to a school district in Virginia. Educators across the district incorporated environmental activities into instruction. We created nature trails, study ponds, greenhouses, weather stations and natural areas on every school campus for children to use routinely. Our kids ventured on field expeditions far and wide from Wallops Island to the natural caves of West Virginia. Kids sponsored recycling activities, built bird and bat houses for local habitats, and learned actively through resources such as Project Learning Tree.
Then, something changed and all that environmental focus disappeared, a program that had lived on for fifteen years after I left it. Despite a multi-decade district commitment to the ecology program as it was known, the outdoor resources, field trips, hands on activities became a thing of the past. Why? The Governors’ Conference of 1989 set our states on a path of the current accountability movement. Prescribed state standards arrived in our school mailboxes, hundreds of thousands of copies, that narrowed and limited curricula. State tests arrived on our children’s desks, millions of copies, focusing children on how to pick the one right answer to questions that neither asked them to think or create. Environmental education didn’t just take a back seat on the education bus; in most places it was thrown off the bus.
All of those changes killed a lot of trees. And, we lost our focus on educating children about the earth’s environment and sound ecological principles. The continuum of daily behaviors designed to lower our impact and use resources more wisely mostly died. All that remained for most has been a once a year celebration we call Earth Day.
I believe a new movement’s afoot in America today to take educating our young people back from the long reach of federal and state governments. Parents are tired of their children being bored and failed by an educational environment of dumbed down standards and tests. They want their children to find passion and interest in school. Educators and parents alike want young people to be designers and inventors who help advance humanity through this century by finding solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s problems; water scarcity, air pollution, energy consumption, and global warming to name a few.
Some educators and parents are leading the way in our school communities. At one middle school, students are partnering with school staff to compost food waste rather than send it to the local dump. In another middle school, the school community has sought and received grants to set up a renewable energy generation center on site- a tool for learning about and using less non-renewable energy sources. Children in an elementary school play the World Peace Game with their teacher and in doing so take on researching and addressing all kind of world challenges. They say global warming is the biggest one in their work.
We’re doing our adult part, too. In environmental management of facilities we’re ensuring that we upgrade toilets and lighting in our schools to decrease energy use and water consumption. We’ve stopped using commercial weed killers on our school grounds and use environmental friendly cleaning supplies inside our schools. LEED principles are a must in new design. We’re buying local produce whenever possible for our cafeterias.
Every one of these actions and more says to our young people there’s important learning that a multiple choice test can’t measure. We care enough about our children’s learning and their school environment to make sure that Earth Day just isn’t one day of the year with a poster on the wall.
Our kids have in their DNA the capability to solve anything. We just need to give them the chance. That’s what I’m for.