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Climate Change and the Need for Responsible Education Reform

This article was written by WorldChanging Guest Blogger Elin Kelsey in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Sky.jpg "Spray the farm!" a young boy screams, trying desperately to wrench the plastic spray bottle from my son Kip's grasp. "I want to spray the cows!" The force of the contact threatens to send flying the large plastic diorama of a rural and urban streetscape, perched temporarily on a folding table at our local street fair. But Kip has too much experience as Esme's big brother to let that happen. With the quiet calm of an older, wiser and, perhaps most importantly, bigger child, he steadies the corner, casually aims the bottle at a car lot and sends a jet of water through a storm drain destined for the make-believe ocean beyond the table edge. He pauses to answer questions posed by the volunteer working the booth, questions about the health of the oceans and the problems we create for it every time someone dumps oil or car detergent or trash down the gutter. "It's a bad idea," he dutifully agrees. "It's terrible for sea otters. We're killing the oceans." Only then does he place the bottle down, just a hair's breath out of reach of the younger boy's desperately wiggling fingers.

I smile at the subtle way kids reinforce the pecking order. The fact that bigger kids, no matter how well socialized or gentle at heart, still lord it over littler kids strikes me as reassuring: it's the way the world works, the way it's always been. Perhaps that's why I find the educational point of the diorama so unsettling. It's messing with the age-old tradition that play is fun and that the good guys eventually win. For the next eight hours, each child who stops by for a friendly squirt of the bottle leaves with a single, simple message: the ocean is fucked and it's your fault.

It's not that I think the ocean isn't in trouble or that environmental issues aren't urgent. I feel those things so deeply that I've spent the past twenty years designing conservation exhibits and education programs for aquariums, writing books about nature and sustainability, and helping my graduate students earn master's degrees in environmental education. It's just that I think it is wrong to lay the worries of the world on the very young.

This isn't a new argument, but it's one that bears repeating in the current and, to my mind, welcome frenzy over climate change. "Children will be put on the front line of the battle to save the planet under radical proposals to shake up the way that geography is taught in schools," begins a recent article in the British newspaper The Independent. We have a war on drugs. A war on terror. And now, we're asking kids to lead the charge in the war on global warming.

For most of human history, people have lived lives that were not appreciably different from their parents. But over the past few centuries, and increasingly over the past generation, that pattern has changed: we are constantly dealing with change. Species extinction, logging of old-growth forests, elimination of wetlands and wild places, growth of the ozone hole: one essential response to these changes is a sense of loss. And we experience a sense of loss through, in part, the emotion of grief.

Yet, environmental education research is strangely silent about dealing with the emotional implications of the environmental crisis on kids. There is virtually nothing in the literature addressing appropriate ways to deal with the emotions associated with environmental degradation. words like grief, despair, or anger rarely appear in our writings. Do we have any ideas as to whether children grieve and mourn for the lost species, despair for us and the rest of the living world, and then take a stance of detachment or denial in response to the overwhelming-ness of the issue before them?

Nearly a decade ago, David Sobel, director of the teacher certification program at Antioch New England Graduate School coined the phrase "ecophobia" to describe what really happens when we lay the weight of the world's environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature. "Ecophobia," he writes "[is] a fear of ecological problems and the natural world.

Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength. In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don't want to have to deal with it.

Recently I attended an international summit of environmental and health education researchers from 14 countries; we met in Ascona, Switzerland. The urgency of climate change and the need for responsible educational reforms were much discussed at this meeting. So, too were a growing number of studies, such as those conducted by Dr. Albert Zeyer, a physician and health educator at the University of Zurich, demonstrating that high school students today are fully aware of the looming environmental crises, yet they feel powerless to change things. "They suffer latent environmental depression," he says, the result of decades of "gloom and doom" messages. This is a generation of informed but disillusioned and depressed youth. As one teenager in Dr. Zeyer's study put it: "We don't have a chance."

Presenting issues to kids that they can do nothing about and yet are held personally responsible for results in a loss of self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, depression and despair. In her book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before, Jean Twenge, associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, claims those born after 1970 are more confident than previous generations, but more depressed. They lack social connectedness and fear the environment. Her findings suggest an element of learned helplessness, a well-established phenomenon in clinical psychology.

My concern is that something as apparently playful as having kids spray imaginary pollution into a make believe ocean inadvertently has all the attributes of the three "P's" associated with the theory of learned helplessness:

  • It's Personal. Kids are shown that they are the problem.

  • It's Pervasive. The diorama links the problem of ocean pollution to many aspects of a child's daily life, and reinforces persistent messages of environmental demise.

  • It's Permanent. By explaining how plastic remains in the ocean "forever" for instance, kids see the problem of ocean pollution as unchangeable.

So what's a parent at a fairground to do? Let the kid spray and pray it doesn't cause permanent damage? Clearly a one-off experience is no big deal; it's the pervasiveness of the message that worries me.

One of the most effective responses, according to research in the field of significant life experiences is to nurture connections with the earth. Spend time in nature with your little ones. Send your kids outside to play with someone who loves the woods or is happy to overturn rocks in the vacant lot in search of bugs. Create space and time for childhood adventures and share the wonder of their discoveries. "Healing the broken bond between our young and nature is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demand it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depend upon it," writes Richard Louv, best-selling author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In a world filled with well-intentioned parents driving their kids from Little League to piano to gymnastics, such moments of unallocated time may be difficult to find. Yet they are precious.

So too is the innocence of a child's imagination. "No tragedies before ten years of age," says David Sobel. "If we want children to flourish, we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it."

I do not mean to imply that we shield children from environmental threats, to create a Pollyanna view of the world. Environmental threats are too pressing for that. What I am calling for is an awareness of what is appropriate for young children, sort of a personal PG rating for environmental experiences. Paired with this sensitivity to the importance of wonder and hope must come a commitment to honesty. Just as kids know that a balloon can't expand forever, they intuitively understand what we adults try so vigorously to deny through all kinds of institutions. We can't expand forever on a limited planet. Yet the best we often offer kids is simplistic directives like "change the light bulbs" or "recycle cans". Our tendency to equate environmental education with behavioural modification is moralistic. Indeed it is so similar to religious castigation, an Italian senator once remarked "How come environmental education is so much like Sunday school instead of business school?"

Kids know much more than they can put into words. They understand, "I need to look after myself. I need money." Instead of condemning them for being bad each time they sin against the environment, we need to be more honest about the fact that behaviors exist within societal contexts. And we need to be more forthright about not only how ecology but also how world economies and political structures currently work. We need to invite kids to question what is and to imagine different futures. "How can we live a one planet life? What does it look like?"

But none of this is easy. We are becoming clearer about the nature of global environmental issues. We are becoming clearer about the causes of them and what needs to be done about them. We need to become clearer about the correct locus of action. That it is not always at the individual level, but instead there are necessary collective actions, actions taken by governments and by large corporations in the battle for sustainable environments. What we do not know is what to do about the kids who are inheriting this world. These are adult issues. They are ours to tackle. Our children are counting on us to rise to the occasion. It is we, not them, who belong on the front lines.

Elin Kelsey, Ph.D. can be reached at elin AT iname DOT com, or via his web site,

Removing Our Kids from the Front Lines of Climate Change is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Posted by: kulveer on 25 Sep 08

What we need to do is create a world we don't have to hide from the children. They should know all about it and that these are the problems they should be addressing and will have to address. They shouldn't be condemned and they shouldn't have to shoulder all the responsibility, but i think that children have the greatest spirit and perhaps that is what we need most. If the children are excited about it, perhaps we all will be. Then maybe we will globally stop kidding ourselves, stop seeking private interest and help our kids to have the world they should have.

Posted by: Darin Lang on 26 Sep 08



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