Earth Day: Environmental education has failed. But we can fix it.

Los Angeles

We’ve both been at Earth Day events since they started in 1970. We’ve held booths that educate people about water pollution, we’ve held 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 Earth Day events and the increased awareness of the environmental problems they create, humanity continues to collectively degrade the Earth.

Since Earth Day began, 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 dead zones and patches of trash the size of Texas 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 and create measurable changes in our behavior. Our future and that of our children depend on it. Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce our consumption.

Where traditional environmental education has gone wrong

Everyone learns about pollution, whether at school or on television. Many of our K-12 schools teach children about the environment – ​​and how to respect it. Some schools even take children outside to learn about nature. But somehow, environmental education has uniformly failed to teach us how to change our unsustainable behavior.

Traditional environmental education assumes that environmental awareness will somehow result in action, but it does not teach how to take that action. Whatever action this education has produced, it has proven largely insufficient to keep pace with environmental degradation. If this traditional model of “raising 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 industry 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 cohesive society, along with respect for the law. If we breathe, if we consume something, then we are each responsible for our share of that consumption, whether we like it or not.

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Not just students, but all of us need to understand the consequences of drinking. Environmental educators must now develop ways to practically empower us to reduce it. Unbridled growth is simply not sustainable. Conservation is the simplest first step towards reducing humanity’s negative impacts on the Earth. No recycling, but true conservation. By using less. Reuse and reuse things.

We can learn a lot from the generations that survived the Great Depression. Frivolous consumption was unfathomable to them. They bought quality products and only replaced them when they could no longer be used or repaired. This simple lesson is a way to reduce our consumption. But there are many more.

Simple ways to reduce our consumption

A simple ten percent reduction in our consumption could happen virtually overnight and would not only lead to significant short-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but 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 we think. Keeping homes a little cooler in the winter and a little warmer in the summer would have significant impacts on energy use if we all did it – starting tomorrow.

Eventually, our lifestyles will likely have to undergo some real changes, but we can all make big, short-term differences 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 chair of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology and a professor at UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability. They are the authors of the forthcoming book “The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)”.