For the next 10 days, the bustling city of Marrakech will host a small army of government negotiators, NGO representatives and business delegates for COP 22, a huge international follow-up conference that aims to build on the scaffolding of 2015’s historic Paris Agreement on climate change.
Part of this work to turn the promises of Paris into action and flesh out what the fine print of the deal actually means will focus on education, specifically Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Why is this so crucial? Because climate change is at its root a crisis about disconnection; from nature, from the impacts of our everyday actions and from each other. In very practical and tangible ways environmental education can resolve this disconnection and deliver real and widespread changes in knowledge, behaviour and on-the-ground action.
Environmental education can resolve disconnection and deliver real and widespread changes.
The link between our well-being and the environment is now beyond doubt. Access to a healthy environment is vital for our physical and mental health. Swedish studies have shown improved cognitive abilities and more positive emotions after even brief spells in nature. Studies in several nations show that children’s games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Environmental experts such as Jonathon Porritt go even further to say that contact with the natural world is the fastest route to wellbeing we have.
“Contact with the natural world is the fastest route to wellbeing we have.”
This is all the more true for young people. Sadly children throughout the world are experiencing the adverse effects of living in degraded environments and are at risk of living with chronic diseases caused by air pollution or exposure to environmental toxicants. In extreme cases communities are experiencing the loss of their natural environment through sea level rise, flooding and natural disasters linked to climate change. Western countries have seen a remarkable collapse of children’s engagement with nature as described in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half to fewer than one in 10. In many countries we are witnessing the first generation of children largely growing up indoors, disconnected from the natural world.
How can we expect young people to lead the defence of nature if they have less and less to do with it? Put simply, we can’t. You do not protect what you do not know.
Which brings us to Maryland. In 2011 it became the first US State to make environmental literacy a mandatory high-school graduation requirement, a policy which earned the State the Future Policy Award in 2015. The innovative environmental literacy requirement pioneered in Maryland has helped secure the integration of environmental content in varied ways across the curriculum from Kindergarten through to graduation. It has also strengthened the cooperation between outdoor education providers and schools to ensure that every child has regular meaningful experiences in nature.
From 12-14 October the World Future Council hosted a three day field trip to Maryland for legislators from education and environmental ministries from around the world, to explore the positive impacts of the state’s Environmental Literacy (E-lit) Standards. Participants from five continents came together to see Maryland’s pioneering policy in action. With its focus on hands-on outdoor learning the policy offers a wide variety of benefits for students – enhancing engagement, raising test scores, and increasing well-being. While in Maryland delegates had the chance to join an impressive range of field experiences with school kids testing river pollution levels and relating the findings to surrounding land use, identifying wildlife and plant species in the Chesapeake bay ecosystem and conducting experiments to learn about the importance of oysters for water quality. As part of the curriculum students regularly engage in wetland restoration efforts, tree planting and other local conservation activities.
It’s not hard to see why many of the proponents of this type of environmental education see a strong link between these education efforts and the improving state of the local environment which has seen a flurry of positive trends in recent years.
We must focus on providing the next generation with meaningful interactions with nature.
This brings us back to Marrakech COP 22 and how to deliver on the Paris Agreement. One of the rare hopeful moments in Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent climate documentary Before the Flood comes during a conversation on how to reverse the climate trajectory we’re on. “I have faith in people,” says Piers Sellers, Director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA Sellers. “Once people come out of a fog of confusion on an issue, realistically appreciate the threat and are informed of what the best action is to deal with it, they get on and do it. What seems impossible to do becomes possible.” If we want to see the next generation tackle the climate and environmental challenges facing us we must focus on providing them with meaningful interactions with nature, a good grounding on the fundamentals of sustainability and a high level of environmental literacy. Proven policies like those in Maryland offer the way forward.
More pictures of our international workshop on environmental education in Maryland: