In their eloquent preface to The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It), Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein wistfully recall how freely they roamed an immense wilderness when they were young, only to find, as adults, that the "unexplored places that inspired us so deeply are now mostly gone."
They had lived through a doubling of the world's population, initially with "a sense of pride and wonder at technologies that seemed like something out of science fiction" — among them, the green revolution that seemingly averted a Malthusian catastrophe. But then came the dark side of progress, the authors say: The "unforeseen ramifications" of "industry, development, better living, travel, and consumerism. ... And our faith in human ingenuity was confused and shaken. It was that very same ingenuity, for the most part, that brought about this assault on nature."
The Failure is a manifesto of sorts — part science, part politics, part moral persuasion. Saylan, co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, an educational nonprofit group based in Marina del Rey, Calif., and Blumstein, a biology professor at UCLA, admit to sounding utopian. What they're agitating for is nothing less than a redefinition of success, a metamorphosis in the way people live, especially in the industrialized world.
And they're pinning their hopes on the young: "If educational institutions taught ecology as the overall system in which we exist and economy as a subset of that system, instead of the other way around, perhaps the blind rush to affluence perpetrated by rampant industrialization would eventually give way to a more holistic approach to living."
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, with its focus on standardized tests, leaves little time for history, civics, art, literature and other courses that can shape responsible, involved citizens and teach them common sense, Saylan and Blumstein contend. So far, schools have failed "to provide what is necessary to turn the tide of environmental deterioration."
"Having a population that loves watching nature shows on television is great, as long as the population acts in ways that preserve and protect the nature that it claims to like," the pair write. "We don't think our current population does this. ..."
In a lucid summary of the worst-case scenarios for climate change, the authors lay out the effects of the melting polar ice cap, including the potential release in this century of 100 billion tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, from the permafrost and sea floor. Such a catastrophe would produce 270 years' worth of greenhouse gas releases at today's levels.
"We have a preview of our own destruction, or our own salvation," the authors say. "The future is shaped only in the present."
For a look at what public schools are doing to repair themselves on the cheap, check out the education stories found in the September-October 2011 issue of Miller-McCune, and when they'll be available on Miller-McCune.com:
Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results, August 22
What Would Diane Ravitch Say?, August 22
Chicago Charter Schools Aim to Lift Urban Education, August 23
Bad Teachers Improving With Help From Peers, August 24
Showing Where Community Colleges Pass, Fail, August 25
Bridging the Budget Gap with Stolen Lunch Money, August 25
Teaching Religious Literacy in California's Bible Belt, August 26
Checking Consumerism at the School Door, August 26
Schools can help come to the rescue, they suggest, by taking kids on more field trips. Students should be taught to love nature instead of shopping malls and to identify birds rather than cars. (The schools farthest from wild places should get the most funding for these trips.) More classes — even literature classes — should be held outside. Students should be taught to examine where consumer products come from and to "vote with their dollars." Kids should get involved in "greening up" their schools with vegetable gardens and native plants instead of lawns. And these schools should have geothermal cooling instead of air conditioning.
"It is not a reasonable use of public money to simply inform students about nature without teaching them ways they can act to protect it."
The Failure is a good read, but it can sound a bit naïve. In the face of just a few decades left to curb the worst effects of climate change, is it realistic to wait for an overhaul of the educational system? The authors note that even California's groundbreaking new curriculum for environmental literacy will not produce its first full graduates until around 2022.
But Saylan and Blumstein are educators, not organizers. They want teachers to lead a grassroots push for change. They don't have much faith that the U.S. Congress will address the dangers of ecological collapse (witness the death of carbon cap-and-trade legislation last year). They don't think that the media, awash in opinion disguised as news, will educate the public to consume less, recycle more, eat less meat, break its addiction to oil or protect the land.
The authors have lost faith in the green movement itself, noting a "decided lack of cooperation within the ranks," even as industry is winning the day. Next year, counting from the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the green movement will be 50 years old. Although there have been advances in recycling and cleaner air and water, the authors say, "The successes of 20 years ago are not the successes needed today."
Environmentalism, they argue, "is not an option like choosing one's religion or political affiliation" and should never have been labeled as "liberal." Political inclination won't matter much if the planet is uninhabitable. Too many environmental advocacy groups have overlooked the importance of finding common ground with conservatives, effectively contributing to their own isolation. (As a notable exception, the authors point to the success of Ducks Unlimited, a sportsmen's group and a world leader in wetland preservation.)
Saylan and Blumstein warn that time is running out, but in the end, they remain cautiously optimistic. They believe that people can educate their way out of this mess, and quickly: Just look at the success of the civil rights movement and the student movement that helped shift American opinion against the Vietnam War.
"Humans are creatures of remarkable capacity and, without question, have the ability to find a sustainable place in this world," the authors write. "People need only the collective will to do it."