“Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Leonardo da Vinci
Trying to answer that question is a difficult task, especially today, and especially from the perspective of teachers who work within the public, formal system of education. In most countries they are underpaid, overwhelmed by the amount of hours and/or pupils, and behind with technology. Their task of catching up with reality is rarely supported by local systems. But they are not alone: if you check global trends you notice that to some extent we all are tackling the same issue. We all try constantly to adapt while having in mind the well-being of our planet. What you are going to read now is my personal perspective, painting a very specific picture based on my individual experience, research, and observations, coming from an educator and a youth worker who dreams of a sustainable environment.
The meaning of all this
Before I move on to the core subject, though, you need to understand what education means to me, and the answer is very simple – everything. It means life. Of course it is part of a much bigger matrix but definitely the most crucial one. The one that in the end defines who we are. It gives a sense of belonging, the ability to communicate, and it serves as a base for employment. We are who we are, because of education, our brains are shaped from the moment we can perceive the outside world.
In general, the reason why the word relationship is so important is that the matrix of our lives is not floating in a vacuum, just the opposite. Every action we take sends waves across nature, across habitats, and around the planet that is our home. Every step we take influences our future, seen both individually and collectively, globally. All in a green version of chaos theory. Like metaphorical butterflies making hurricanes, our trash literally kills a living being every second of every minute.
Sir David Attenborough, the TV presenter who has brought nature closer to many generations, including the undersigned, said in 2013 that humans are a plague on the Earth that needs to be controlled by limiting population growth. And, frankly, it is difficult not to agree with him. We are a greedy species, always hungry for more. Just take a look at the statistics collected by the OECD or the National Geographic. To simplify it: should the bees disappear from Earth, all life might stop; but should we, all of mankind, disappear, then nature would blossom. Please do not get me wrong here, I do not wish to advocate any kind of green totalitarianism. On a contrary, I believe that it is not too late to make needed changes with the existing population, and in my eyes education seems to be a basic answer.
My recommendation when it comes to building a happy and long lasting relationship between education and the environment is fairly simple – a blended methodology, a collaboration of all three sectors of education with the active involvement of all people, of all nationalities and ages.
From the perspective of formal education it means a global recognition of the importance of environmental protection as a multi-dimensional issue, which should lead to a cross- and multi-disciplinary change of curriculum. That eventually might lead to recognition of competencies enhancing environmental protection.
When I was still a pupil among peers in a classroom, information about the environment – its protection and preservation – was delivered by our Biology and Geography teachers. Today, after years of teaching myself, I raise the question of nature’s importance in discussions within other subjects. Especially the humanities. It might be quite common to speak about and analyze beautiful flora and fauna celebrated in poetry, but too rarely is another step is taken, the one that moves us towards connecting the surroundings with our culture, with language itself. It might be quite common to discuss the history of a nation’s development, but oh how rarely the dates are set in an environmental context, how rarely the numbers regarding resources are shown in relation to the impact on our homelands. A wider vision, thinking outside of the box, would lead us to finding paths connecting the dots.
The non-formal framework already provides anyone interested with a map showing how environmental issues can be woven into the fabric of education. Therefore, I can recommend following its example. Let’s start by raising awareness among multinational groups with activities done outdoors in many countries. This would send our youth a signal that the environment is not confined to any given nation state and doesn’t recognize or even know the borders drawn by men.
I have been part of such an initiative. How does it look? The details might vary from programme to programme, but generally the idea is as follows. You take a group of young people from various countries, you put them in a place far away from civilization (just cutting Internet access will sometimes do the trick) and introduce them to the subject while forming a group that will work together. Afterwards, you take that group outdoors and let them live and cooperate in the mountains, forests, alongside lakes, on the deck of a boat… you choose. You shake and stir all those things by adding educational activities, games, and simulations. The outcomes of such exercises, properly encouraged, can be extraordinary. I know it worked for me, leading me to change my personal curriculum.
Another thing in the non-formal area that has worked very effectively and has already been implemented in some countries (e.g. Finland) is Project Based Learning (PBL) in the form of gardening.
I am one of the lucky ones. I came from a Polish village and was raised in a house surrounded by gardens, with a forest just a short walk away. My granny showed me how to plant and look after plants, my dad taught me about the trees and animals that lived close by. That made me appreciate and understand nature and my place in it. Our rapidly urbanizing, global population is with each year further and further removed from this kind of upbringing. Before green cities can become a standard, the young people who are growing up in cities need to be reintroduced to the world outside of their towns, to see the bigger picture and the environment in which they live, not on computer screens or in books but from within, standing in a meadow and listening to the lack of city noise.
Lastly, and most likely most importantly – in-formal education. This one is in the hands of all of us. It is based on our own actions, the knowledge and values connected to environmental protection that we bring to the basic building blocks of our society – our families, our personal networks of friends, and our colleagues. And all that can be enforced institutionally by supporting cultural endeavors designed to promote sustainable, green development. We need global superheroes who can be role models for our children. We can wait for those to appear, and some celebrities are already on the right track (vide Leonardo di Caprio), or we can become role models ourselves.
It is clear that we in fact need education to build our future effectively within the existing reality of our contemporary world, also on the job market. Sadly, or not, that’s how the big mechanism was designed and set into motion – to make us a cost effective-labor force. But then again, except for our incomes and our place in society, nature is the next essential element for living happy lives, it is also incredibly important when looking at it from the perspective of our cubicles. We all, even if subconsciously, understand how modern ways of living influence us, how much stress it brings, and how it strains our bodies and forces them to do things which they were not meant to do (e.g. too much sitting). Many scholars have found that nature in and of itself is a great antidote on its own. The benefits of walking in the woods have been widely and closely examined. But that is not all.
David Strayer’s hypothesis is even broader and says that being generally in nature allows the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s command center, to dial down and rest, like an overused muscle. Unlike some muscles, the brain never stops working. It constantly learns and adapts, it is a powerful tool which needs proper maintenance. I believe that educating us about how to take care of that tool while working in any profession can increase our productivity. I mention this, thinking about ways to convince stakeholders of the importance of environmental protection. Making it an integral part of securing the mental health of employees and all the world’s citizens, in order to make them more creative thanks to nurturing healthier brains, can be an attractive incentive, communicating through one of the most universal languages – money. This way nature would break through the defenses of its biggest adversary – greed.
The hopeful struggle
Many educators and students are facing high anxiety and diminished morale which is fueled by general uncertainty about tomorrow and worries about income and livelihood. We struggle with anything that life throws at us – economic crises, migration crises, armed conflicts, inequality… To tackle all this while constantly thinking about environmental sustainability, we need to change our mindsets. We can do so much more if we understand and believe in why we are doing what we are doing. We need hope, we need to have a healthy environment to grow in; we need to have faith that change is possible, that we can cultivate our common future. Environmental protection cannot be secured without well-educated populations, its importance should be written into the DNA of global culture. I have hope we can do it together.
Education is the key. We must think globally but act locally (panic only internally), to be the change we want to see in the world. Everything must be done step by step, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we need to start laying bricks. Cliches? Perhaps. Never enough, though, not when it comes to the sustainability of our little blue planet, it’s about time for us to stop taking it for granted. It’s a struggle, yes! But then … What do we believe in? Why are we here if not to build the future. What are we willing to fight and struggle for? Let’s learn and teach how to do it together. Nature talks to me more clearly than any master, do you hear its voice?