We’ve both been involved with Earth Day events since they started in 1970. We’ve run booths that educate people about water pollution, we’ve run environmental cleanups in Santa Monica Bay. and judged Earth Day posters in schools in Pakistan. . But no matter what we did or where we did it, we were struck by one simple and glaring fact. Despite more than 40 years of events organized for Earth Day and the heightened awareness of the environmental problems they create, humanity collectively continues to degrade the Earth.
Since the beginning of Earth Day, we humans have fished the seas, scoured the Earth for fossil fuels and rare earth elements, pumped more and more CO2 into the atmosphere and created Texas-sized dead zones and patches of garbage in our oceans and bays. How can this be? We are more environmentally conscious than ever.
The problem is that environmental education has failed to translate awareness into action. To be effective, it must go beyond awareness to create measurable changes in our behavior. Our future and that of our children depend on it. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to reduce our consumption.
Where traditional environmental education has gone wrong
Everyone learns what pollution is, whether at school or on television. Many of our K-12 schools teach kids about the environment – and how to respect it. Some schools even take children outside to learn more about nature. But one way or another, environmental education has always failed to teach us how to change our unsustainable behavior.
Traditional environmental education assumes that environmental awareness will somehow translate into action, but it does not teach how to take that action. Whatever action this education has produced has proven to be largely insufficient to keep pace with environmental degradation. If this traditional model of ‘awareness’ works, why is public opinion moving away from supporting any meaningful climate legislation? And why is it so easy for “climate change deniers”, often backed by industrial or oil lobbyists, to discredit credible scientific opinion on climate change?
Ecology is not a choice. It is a responsibility.
Environmentalism is not a political or lifestyle choice. Unlike religion or political affiliation, environmentalism is not a choice we make. It is a civic responsibility and a fundamental aspect of any united society, such as respect for the law. If we breathe, if we consume something, then we are each responsible for our part in that consumption, whether we like it or not.
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Not only the students, but all of us need to understand the consequences of consumption. Environmental educators now need to develop ways to give us the practical means to reduce it. Unbridled growth is simply not sustainable. Conservation is the simplest and easiest first step towards reducing humanity’s negative impacts on Earth. No recycling, but real conservation. Use less. Reuse and reuse things.
We can learn a lot from the generations who survived the Great Depression. Frivolous consumption was unfathomable to them. They bought quality products and only replaced them after they could no longer be used or repaired. This simple lesson is one way to reduce our consumption. But there are many more.
Simple ways to reduce our consumption
A mere ten percent reduction in our consumption could happen virtually overnight and would not only make significant short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, such a reduction would give us all time to develop and implement the long-term solutions we desperately need. Reducing our consumption is easier than you think. Keeping homes a little cooler in the winter and a little warmer in the summer would have a significant impact on energy use if we all did that – starting tomorrow.
Eventually, our lifestyles will likely have to undergo real changes, but we can all make big differences in the short term by simply doing what we already know works. And we can do it with minimal impact on our comfort.
Charles Saylan is executive director of the Ocean Conservation Society. Daniel T. Blumstein is Chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Professor at the Institute of Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. They are the authors of the forthcoming book “The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)”.