There is an undeniable emotional distance between climate change and us, thanks in no small part to environmental education itself.
Since its inception—whether you point to the first Earth Day in 1970 or to nature study and outdoor education dating back to the early 20th century—environmental education (EE) has emphasized developing a connection to our world and understanding the value of all life forms. Aided by Silent Spring and a surfeit of natural disasters, environmental education broadened to include specific issues like acid rain, ozone depletion, and endangered species. By incorporating problems into its mission, EE extended its goals to include advocacy and behavior change. It was, of course, only a matter of time before climate change was folded into EE. But boxing climate change into EE has severely limited our view of the issue because of the very ways we encounter environmental education.
We cannot expect people to care about climate change if they have not learned about it. Even though EE is more widespread than in the past, its sphere of influence remains patchy for one key reason: it is optional. In schools, EE is not universally offered. Instead of a dedicated course or embedded curriculum, it is usually up to the discretion of the teacher in elementary and middle schools. When an EE course is offered, usually in a high school, it is often an elective, which by nature means students have to opt in (rather than opt out) to take it. In most schools, when EE is offered, it falls under the domain of the science department and as such is often only enticing to those who feel confident in their scientific prowess. Environmental education outside of school is also an opt-in experience, which again makes it an exclusive form of learning. What results is a populace that does not share a similar level of understanding about their ecological world.
But even those who have learned about climate change do not overwhelmingly share their knowledge or take actions to mitigate the problem. Talking about climate change is not fun. Even if you can move the conversation past the hard science, it is burdensome and depressing as hell. The subject guarantees conversation comes to a screeching halt. We are left with a situation where most of the citizenry is in the dark—some completely, others in more of a dusk-light of knowing that climate change is a problem lacking true understanding and the sense of urgency that are required to take committed, informed action.
Unfortunately, this ignorance is in part propagated by the conceptualization of EE. Being an entity itself, like any discipline, EE is seen as a distinct form of knowing our world. It is taught as a subject separate from English, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Art, despite its obvious interdependence with them all. The irony is that one of the major take-home messages of EE is the interconnectedness of everything. Outside of schools, EE largely occurs at nature or environmental centers, which in their very design and name create a distinction between what is nature or the environment and what is not. You hop in your car to go to such a center, driving away from your home and community in order to learn about nature. While preserving wildlands and offering a refuge from our built world is vital, we neglect EE in our own backyards or city blocks. As a result, EE is occurring in nature preserves, causing us to differentiate between our neighborhoods and our vague conceptions of ‘nature’ beyond it all. We learn about nature, but not ourselves.
Adding to the distance is the compartmentalized essence of EE curricula and textbooks. In the past, we were able to maintain distance from environmental problems for two reasons. First, we had others to take care of them for us. Second, the perpetrator was something other than us. Typically, one set of people—environmentalists—led the charge when it came to environmental problems. Environmentalists have traditionally been the only people tasked with looking after our ecosystems and creating uproars when they were being abused. They have enacted an impressive amount and range of change (from the establishment of national parks to the Clean Air Act to pressuring Smithfield and Hormel to halt the use of gestation crates for female pigs to local towns banning single-use plastic bags). Because they are good at what they do, Americans have come to rely on them to take care of whatever environmental issue arises. In the past, this modus operandi has worked pretty well because environmental problems were caused by a corporation or limited set of contributors. For example, we were up in arms about Exxon for its massive “spill” in 1989 or Mitsubishi for leading the charge on rainforest deforestation. We knew who to blame and what to do about it. It was [insert corporation here]’s fault so boycott it, write its CEO letters, and call on institutions to divest from it. Other times the culprit took the form of a category of substances, like ozone-depleting chemicals or bisphenol A (BPA). Whether a corporation or set of chemicals, the villain was something else, and we could make progress simply by opting-out of its products.
But now, that separation is at odds with addressing climate change. Climate change differs greatly from past environmental problems because in order to truly address it, we need to change the ways we think. We need to understand that the human/nature divide is an artificial construct, albeit a ubiquitous one. What happens to nature happens to us because we are part of nature. It may take some time, but we are just as vulnerable to ecological functioning as any other species or ecosystem. Any quick search of a mainstream media outlet will yield countless stories about the impacts of climate change on us, from longer and more severe allergy seasons, to increased stresses on such vital crops as wheat and corn, to longer and more intense heat waves that directly impact our health and cause very poor air quality, to residents of the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea in need of new home because theirs is flooding. We must also acknowledge that we can only blame ourselves for climate change. We cannot point a finger at coal or petroleum companies without turning it back on ourselves. As roughly 4.5% of the world population, we as a nation contribute about one-fifth of global greenhouse gasses. And we certainly cannot rely on others to fix this environmental problem for us. No one is immune to causing climate change—not even environmentalists. We cause this problem. We do not get to opt-out of its consequences.
Elizabeth Hufnagel is a former high school environmental science teacher. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Science Education, interacting with data and journals and teaching undergraduates.