STOCKHOLM — That 17-year-old Greta Thunberg has become the face of action against climate change may have taken the world by surprise, but in Sweden young people have long been the champions of the environment.
As Thunberg traveled to the United Nations climate talks in Madrid earlier this month, pupils at a primary school in suburban Stockholm removed their trainers 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.
Environmental protection is integrated into every aspect of the students’ day at Orminge Skola Elementary School, where bright classrooms are decorated with world maps and animal pictures. Students scrape their leftover meals from reusable dishes into a compost bin, remove their shoes at the door before entering, and learn about the impact of plastic pollution on the oceans.
“I have two different visions of the world. It’s either a beautiful world and we fixed everything and we saved the climate and the environment, or it’s just getting worse and we can’t do anything and everyone thinks they’re going to die because we don’t. ‘didn’t do anything sooner,’ said 11-year-old Liv Emfel, who didn’t seem shy about speaking to reporters in English, which is not her first language.
“I hope it will be a beautiful world, but you can’t know, (so) you have to do something now (to make it) 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 occupies long a prominent place in Swedish culture.
“My family has been recycling my whole life and (when) I heard that some people weren’t doing it, I thought that was weird,” Emfel said, before joining his class of under 25 students. .
The country’s eco-conscious culture is attributed by many to the fact that over 80% of Swedes live within 3 miles of one of its 30 national parks, 4,000 nature reserves or numerous other conservation sites. The use of public lands for hiking, camping and other recreational activities is not only encouraged, but is also a legislated right.
Instead of being outstanding, Thunberg, who was named Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, reflects the culmination of decades of government education policies, said Kajsa Holm, 26, a social science professor at Vårbyskolan Middle School in the southwest of Stockholm for 10 year olds. at 16.
“She is a representative of this generation. Many children feel that they have to change, that something has to change,” she said.
Lessons on the environment are not compressed into a single lesson, but covered in all subjects, from science to home economics, and at every level from preschool. Given the breadth of education, interest in environmentalism comes as no surprise to teachers, but the level of action among young people 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.
Sitting in a large music classroom lined with forest green curtains to muffle the sound, 14-year-old Ayat Mahdi said she was compelled to take action on climate change after learning about the global ecological crisis at school .
“I wanted to know more so when I came home after 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 shops when she really needs something and prefers to buy second-hand clothes or swap them with her cousin and mother. She also dives avidly – a Swedish trend of picking up litter while jogging.
Like many of her classmates, she brings home lessons learned in class. Mahdi said she taught her mother how to use less water for washing dishes and advocated vegetarianism. Although she won the water battle, her mother is still reluctant to reduce her meat intake, believing that growing children need nutrition, Mahdi said with an annoyed tone.
“We need all humans to change because if one person does, what’s going to happen?” she says.
Such action is what the education system has set out to achieve by inculcating values of democratic engagement and citizenship, said Johan Öhman, professor of education at Sweden’s Örebro University.
“Encouraging independent and critical thinking, encouraging student voice, encouraging students to take a stand, that’s an important goal in education in general in Sweden,” he said.
This philosophy has also influenced the way ecology and environmentalism are taught. Fact-based lessons developed in the 1980s to frame the issue 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,” Öhman said.
However, the modern approach to education that Thunberg and his peers grew up with is more nuanced. Students are encouraged to think critically, examine policy challenges associated with environmentalism and sustainability, and craft their own arguments, Öhman said.
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. By 2013, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions had been reduced by 22% from 1990 levels.
In comparison, total US greenhouse gas emissions increased by 1.3% between 1990 and 2017.
However, climate-conscious policies, which often require lifestyle changes and additional costs, are not embraced by everyone.
While protecting the environment, the carbon tax is one of the contributing factors to high gas pump prices, which have hit people living in more remote and rural communities hard. A Facebook group against gasoline taxes has more than 616,000 members, a notable figure for a country of 10 million people.
“Everyone wants a better environment and better weather, but at the same time people don’t want it at a price,” said Martin Kinnunen, MP for the Swedish Democrats, a far-right anti-immigrant party that experienced a sharp rise. in popularity in the 2018 general election.
Sweden’s Democrats, while not opposed to the environmental focus in education, are critical of the country’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045.
“We don’t know how to fill it 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 fewer carbon emissions than fossil fuels when burned, the Indonesian palm oil it is made from requires harmful deforestation and creates emissions when imported, it said. -he declares.
Although Kinnunen calls the targets “extreme”, others believe the country is not doing enough. Many citizens are taking their own steps to fight climate change, from reducing theft to reducing waste at home.
In a cozy log house on a quiet street surrounded by forest about 62 km north of Stockholm, 45-year-old Ismahni Björkman teaches her children to garden and compost.
Instilling in her children a passion for lessening their impact on the planet is a priority, she said, after suffering a ‘crisis’ as a teenager learning about the effects of pollution and environmental degradation. environment.
“I had a lot of climate anxiety,” she said.
She said she managed to cope with her anxiety by deciding to “be a steward of the planet instead of 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 foods, and opting only for natural soaps rather than chemicals for cleaning the house.
She is comforted to see these values reflected in the classroom where her sons learn about ecosystems, the water cycle and wildlife.
“When that knowledge and that way of life is supported in school, you learn why it’s important,” she said.