Moving forward on environmental literacy

This post contributed by Nadine Lymn, ESA Director of Public Affairs

Connect with gamers.  Connect with religious communities.  Work with public health professionals.  Explore.  Make the connection to a green economy.  Find champions in the private sector.  Engage with your community.  These were all messages those participating in last week’s Ecology and Education Summit heard from a wide range of speakers focused on improving environmental understanding and stewardship.  

Convened by the Ecological Society of America and the National Education Association, as well as dozens of partners, the Summit explored ways to enhance environmental education in the United States.  The conference brought together a wide range of people involved in education—from those focused on green schools to those exploring ways to deepen interest in the environment using computer games, and religious leaders promoting Earth stewardship and social justice. 

Focusing on global climate change, polar explorer Will Steger said that he sees building a clean-energy economy as a method for alleviating climate change, contributing to the economy, and advancing national security.  Through his Foundation, Steger seeks to contribute to this transition.

Cassandra Carmichael, with the National Council of Churches, pointed out that, while the science community has knowledge, the religious community has thousands of years of practice in powerful metaphors that successfully move and motivate people.  She argued that these two communities should interact more on their common goal of protecting ecosystems, regardless of differing views about whether or not these are “God’s creations.”  Carmichael noted that elected officials take particular notice of “someone with a white collar or a nun” appearing in their office and making a pitch for taking better care of our natural resources. 

Watching a congressional hearing on endangered species unfold years ago, I saw first-hand how an evangelical minister disarmed a Member of Congress with eloquent arguments based on religious values when that same Representative had just successfully filleted a scientist who was also testifying for species protection.

Thinking carefully about various communities and their perceptions was another recurring theme of the Summit.  One conference participant noted that in his experience, replacing the word “environmental” with “stewardship” or with “natural resources” keeps people engaged who would otherwise immediately switch off, assuming that the speaker is an elitist “tree hugger.”

And while some conference attendees seemed to feel strongly that an outdoor experience should be the top goal, others argued for taking advantage of existing trends in society, such as the estimated 500 million so-called gamers, or people who regularly play computer games.  Instead of maligning this activity, argued game designer Rusel DeMaria, those promoting environmental education should think about ways to reach gamers through their favorite medium.   DeMaria proposed that a partnership between game designers and educators and scientists would offer great potential—making games fun, challenging, and educational.  Chris Dede, with Harvard University, talked about a new virtual educational tool he and his students are using to supplement what can be learned by going outside.  He pointed out how virtual tools—such as allowing a youngster to virtually experience a pond as a tiny Carbon element—may enrich overall understanding.  Much as reading Rachel Caron’s Silent Spring or going to the movie theater to see An Inconvenient Truth, these indoor activities can enhance one’s overall appreciation of the environment, said Dede. 

Will Allen, founder of Growing Power, Inc. enthralled Summit attendees with his story of enabling urban communities to grow their own fresh food, often transforming neighborhoods in the process.  With locally grown food as the main goal, Allen’s enterprise is year-round, featuring multi-tiered greenhouses heated by compost in the winter, compost worms—“worms are our livestock,” said Allen—and diverting waste from landfills.  The company focuses on schools and communities, often creating gardens right on top of asphalt—a much cheaper solution than digging it up and also a way to avoid often contaminated ground underneath, according to Allen.  He noted that engaging with the community is the first step to accomplishing anything and that “once you become a valued part of the community, anything is possible.”