Whether the issue is air pollution, endangered species, re-cycling, or clean water, all environmental scientists, educators, and policy-makers agree that the key to public understanding is public education. Without a thorough understanding of the problems facing the planet in terms of its fragile environment, humanity is on a collision course with disaster. It is not enough to warn people, impose economic sanctions, and establish strict regulations. People must understand why they should recycle, how they can take care of their waste, and what they can do to lessen their own individual impact on the earth. It is also essential that environmental education be appropriate and applicable to the person doing the learning.
Too often, environmental education focuses on a topic far removed from the reality of the student. A child living in the mountains can have all the concern in the world for the manatee or the blue whale and be completely unaware of the forest degradation going on in her own mountain backyard. Likewise a Brentwood student can be vitally concerned about the nuclear waste dumps in the desert but still mindlessly damage her own unique environment. In order for environmental education to be truly effective it must be both relevant and applicable. Such awareness may be the only truly viable option that exists that can make a difference in saving or renewing the earth’s rapidly diminishing natural resources.
Such education must be fully integrated so that the student can understand the interrelatedness of all aspects of the environment, including her role within it. Once a person understands that all life on earth, not just human life, is dependent on the health and protection of the environment, it is no longer possible to dismiss the planet as a nothing more than an object designed to meet human needs and desires. The most valuable time to begin such environmental education and awareness is with teenagers while they have not yet lost their sense of connection to all that surrounds them.
In order to best communicate the importance of the environment and the need to care for it as vigilantly as human beings care for themselves, students must begin to learn at an early age to respect the earth, its environment and all of its inhabitants. The “environment” is not some abstract concept. That lesson must continue to be taught and learned throughout life in order to facilitate meaningful change. Each individual must understand the consequences of her actions on the surrounding environment, whether it is in a rural area or city. Teenagers are, admittedly, creatures of self-interest but certainly there can be no greater service to oneself than the assurance that there is clean air to breathe, fresh water to drink, healthy food to eat or sanitary housing. The foundation and encouragement of that self-interest is education.
Beginning in the first years of school, children are taught the processes of life on this planet. Even very young kids can easily understand that a strong plant cannot grow in unhealthy soil or that trash does not simply disappear. There can be no more valuable lesson than how to not poison oneself through unthinking or greed-based actions. Active recycling is genuinely a better lesson than algebra and living more simply in the midst of a consumer-driven society is undeniably more useful than memorizing the dates of battles long since fought. Environmental education can and does make a difference and is a valuable ideal for the future.