Sweden’s environmental education is building a generation of Greta Thunberg

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STOCKHOLM – That 17-year-old Greta Thunberg has become the face of action on climate change may have taken the world by surprise, but in Sweden, young people have long been champions of the environment.

As Thunberg traveled to the United Nations climate talks in Madrid earlier this month, students at a primary school in suburban Stockholm took off their sneakers and boots at the door before entering for the day, both for their comfort and to reduce the need for chemical floor cleaners that harm the environment.

Caring for the environment is integrated into every aspect of the students’ day at Orminge Skola Primary School, where bright classrooms are decorated with maps of the world and images of animals. Students collect their lunch scraps from reusable dishes in a compost bin, remove their shoes at the door before entering, and learn about the impact of plastic pollution on the oceans.

Liv Emfel, 11, says she can’t imagine people not recycling their waste, having grown up learning to recycle at home and at school.Linda Givetash / NBC News

“I have two different views of the world. It’s either a beautiful world and we’ve fixed everything and we’ve saved the climate and the environment, or it’s only getting worse and we can’t do nothing and everyone thinks they’re going to die because we don’t. ‘didn’t do anything earlier,’ said Liv Emfel, 11, who didn’t seem intimidated to speak to reporters in English, which is not her mother tongue.

“I hope it’s a great world, but you can’t know, (so) you have to do something now (for it) to get better.”

The environment, from ecology to conservation, has been an integral part of the Swedish school curriculum since 1969. Teachers and education experts could not identify an event that triggered its adoption, but the relationship with nature is long predominant in Swedish culture.

“My family has recycled my whole life and (when) I heard that some people didn’t, I thought it was weird,” Emfel said, before joining his class of less than 25 students. .

The country’s environmentally conscious culture is attributed by many to the fact that over 80 percent of Swedes live within 3 miles of any of its 30 national parks, 4,000 nature reserves, or many other conservation sites. . The use of public lands for hiking, camping and other recreation is not only encouraged, but also a legislated right.

Instead of being exceptional, Thunberg, named Time Magazine Personality of the Year 2019reflects the culmination of decades of government education policies, said Kajsa Holm, 26, a social science teacher at Vårbyskolan Middle School in southwest Stockholm for children aged 10 to 16.

“She is a representative of this generation. A lot of children feel like they have to change, that something has to change, ”she said.

The lessons on the environment are not grouped together in a single course, but are covered in all subjects, from science to home economics, and in each year from preschool. Considering the breadth of education, interest in environmentalism comes as no surprise to teachers, but the level of youth action is.

“If I compare with my generation – and I’m not that much older than them – we didn’t have the same idea of ​​doing something like them,” Holm said.

Ayat Mahdi, 14, says she not only learns about climate change at her school in Stockholm, but also through social media as a hot topic among her peers.Linda Givetash / NBC News

Sitting in a large music classroom lined with forest green curtains to dampen sound, Ayat Mahdi, 14, said she was forced to take action on climate change after learning about the global ecological crisis in school .

“I wanted to know more, so when I got home from class I started reading,” Mahdi said, his beaming smile expressing his passion for the matter.

These lessons permeate his daily way of life.

Rather than chasing after “fast” fashion trends, Mahdi only does her shopping when she really needs something and prefers to buy second-hand clothes or trade them in with her cousin and mother. She also avidly practices ploggs – a Swedish-born trend of picking up litter while jogging.

Like many of her peers, she takes lessons learned in class at home. Mahdi said she taught her mother to use less water while doing the dishes and advocated for vegetarianism. Despite having won the water battle, her mother is reluctant to cut back on meat, believing that growing children need nutrition, Mahdi said annoyingly.

“We need all humans to change, because if one person does, what’s going to happen? ” she said.

Such action is what the education system has set itself the goal of instilling values ​​of democratic engagement and citizenship, said Johan Öhman, professor of education at the Swedish University of Örebro.

“Encouraging independent and critical thinking, encouraging student voice, encouraging students to take a stand, this is an important goal in education in general in Sweden,” he said.

The Orminge Skola primary school in Stockholm compostes food waste, uses reusable dishes and cleans the building with natural soaps in an effort to respect the environment.Linda Givetash / NBC News

This philosophy has also influenced the way ecology and environmentalism are taught. Evidence-based lessons expanded into the 1980s to pose the problem as a moral issue that called for a level of activism to change lifestyles and attitudes, he said.

“We tried to create green revolutionaries, to make them think in a specific way,” said Öhman.

However, the modern approach to education that Thunberg and his peers grew up with is more nuanced. Students are encouraged to think critically, examine the policy challenges associated with environmentalism and sustainability, and make their own arguments, said hman.

In addition to encouraging environmental education, Sweden was the first country in the world to establish an environmental protection agency in 1967.

It was also one of the first countries in the world to introduce a carbon tax in 1995 for carbon-intensive fuels such as oil and natural gas. It seems to have been a success. In 2013, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 22% from 1990 levels.

In comparison, total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 1.3% between 1990 and 2017.

However, climate-conscious policies, which often require lifestyle changes and additional costs, are not adopted by everyone.

While protecting the environment, the carbon tax is one of the factors contributing to high gasoline prices, which have hit hard people living in more remote and rural communities. A Facebook group against gasoline taxes has more than 616,000 members, a significant figure for a country of 10 million people.

“Everyone wants a better environment and better climatic conditions, but at the same time, people don’t want them at a price,” said Martin Kinnunen, member of the Swedish Democrats, an anti-far-right party. -immigrants who have experienced a sharp rise. in popularity in the 2018 general election.

Swedish Democrats, while not opposed to the emphasis on the environment in education, criticize the country’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.

“We don’t know how to fill it up and at what cost,” Kinnunen said.

The target also does not take into account emissions generated abroad at the expense of Sweden. He highlighted the incentives for Swedes to use biofuels for their vehicles. While biofuels create less carbon emissions than fossil fuels when burned, the Indonesian palm oil from which they are made requires harmful deforestation and creates emissions due to its importation, a- he declared.

Although Kinnunen calls the targets “extreme,” others believe the country is not doing enough. Many citizens are taking their own steps to tackle climate change, from spending less thefts on reducing waste at home.

Ismahni Bjorkman, 45, who lives 38 miles north of Stockholm, repairs clothes, uses reusable cloth diapers, and buys toys that are second-hand or made from sustainable materials to help protect the planet.Linda Givetash / NBC News

In a cozy log house on a quiet street surrounded by forest about 60 kilometers north of Stockholm, Ismahni Björkman, 45, teaches his children to garden and compost.

Instilling in her children the passion to mitigate their impact on the planet is a priority, she said, after suffering a “crisis” as a teenager learning about the effects of pollution and degradation of the earth. environment.

“I had a lot of climate anxiety,” she said.

She said she had managed to cope with her anxiety by deciding “to be a steward of the planet rather than a polluter.” In her day-to-day life, that means using reusable cloth diapers for her four-month-old daughter, fixing clothes instead of buying new ones, cooking only vegetarian dishes, and opting only for natural soaps over products. chemicals to clean the house.

She is heartened to see these values ​​reflected in the classroom where her sons learn more about ecosystems, the water cycle and wildlife.

“When that knowledge and that way of life is supported in school, you learn why it is important,” she said.


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