We are living in unprecedented times. As Donald Trump began his assault on environmental and climate protection in the U.S., we were reeling from a series of frightening revelations about the scope and scale of our global ecological crisis—from the mass bleaching of corals, to extreme weather events like severe droughts and hurricanes taking the lives of thousands, to the news that we are currently living through the world’s sixth mass extinction, or that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts we only have 60 harvests left.
It is clear that young people face a profoundly dangerous future. As Naomi Klein has observed, the scale of intergenerational theft is staggering, leading many of us to believe that we have failed our children. And environmental degradation simply sharpens inequality of all kinds.
The world’s population has more children and youth than ever before, with 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24. More than 1.5 billion live in middle income and developing countries, and are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Their health can worsen from malnutrition or respiratory problems; their education can suffer when the extra miles they must walk to get clean water keeps them out of school; they can be forced to abandon their homes after a flood.
Meanwhile, in Western countries, we’re witnessing a collapse of children’s engagement with nature, as many grow up indoors, disconnected from the natural world. In one generation the proportion of children regularly playing in wild places in the UK has fallen from more than half, to fewer than one in 10.
For educators and environmentalists, a crucial part of empowering our children to confront this crisis is to help them develop an understanding of our natural world.
At the World Future Council, where I work on the rights of children, we identify and promote policies that give us the best collective chance of a fairer future.
Over the years, I have seen a great deal to celebrate. In 2015, we awarded the State of Maryland with a Silver Future Policy Award, in recognition of its ground-breaking position as the first state to require students to be environmentally literate as a high school graduation requirement.
Linked in part to widespread concern for the health of Chesapeake Bay, and as a result of collaborative partnerships working to conserve and restore the Bay, Maryland put their Environmental Literacy Standards (E-lit) policy into action in 2011.
During a WFC-hosted workshop in Maryland last fall, which brought together delegates from 16 countries in the global North and South to discuss what works when it comes to ecological education, we ran a series of field trips with some of the E-lit program’s organizational partners to show the innovative policy in action.
One field trip took our delegates out on a boat trip on the Chesapeake Bay, where students worked with the ship crew to take water samples and monitor the continued improvement of the health of the Bay, which at one point was so polluted that the impacts could be seen from space.
Today, we see an engaged community, working to actively protect the local environment. The Baltimore Sun reported that the Bay met a key cleanup goal almost ten years ahead of schedule, with the levels of nitrogen flowing from sewage plants down 27 percent since 2010.
Maryland legislators are not alone in seeing the power of training our future leaders.
One delegate from the Dominican Republic told me that “as a country highly vulnerable to environmental shifts and extreme weather events, the Dominican Republic became one of only a handful of nations in the world to have written climate change into its constitution. We do not have the capacity to fight all the problems caused by climate change, so we must think long term. We have chosen to invest much of our resources into environmental education. We have trained journalists, NGOs and over 4000 teachers so far.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Environmental education is being woven into country plans around the world, spurred on by implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include a call to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.”
Delegates from Kenya, Germany, Mongolia or the United Arab Emirates, for example, are working on national policies that will meaningfully position ecological education in curricula. As one delegate summed it up, “youth are our most important agent of change. We must create a nation of environmental leaders, ready for 2030. But we must do our job well right now, or we won’t have strong leaders in the future when we need them most.”
We are hearing from our Maryland colleagues that the policy’s ripple effects have been incredibly positive. Not only is an entire generation of children growing up with a better understanding of their environment and the threats it faces, they are also going home and getting their parents involved.
The links being established between schools, parents, and local NGOs across the state are now leading to further grassroots engagement with education politics. And other states such as Kentucky and Utah have developed education plans based on Maryland’s Environmental Literacy Standards.
This clearly demonstrates the importance of long-term policy frameworks in shaping a safer and healthier future for our children. So the WFC is now calling for widespread, comprehensive, and mandatory environmental education as a vital way of combatting the climate crisis and ecological degradation. It is not too late for our children, but we need to prepare them to be courageous leaders.
Top photograph: WFC and delegates joined field experiences with Maryland school kids testing river pollution levels and relating the findings to surrounding land use, identifying wildlife and plant species in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.