Earth Day 2009: Teaching Children Environmentalism

Once again, I spent a very fun Earth Day morning “teaching” at my kids’ elementary school. It gave me all new appreciation for their teachers.


I actually spent two consecutive mornings at local elementary schools talking about Earth Day, and then I was pretty ready to resume my day job. I believe a great part of my work each day includes educating children (and families) about health and wellness, but it’s nothing like a two straight hours entertaining second graders. And that was just the second day! Both days, in the context of Earth Day, I repeated my “natural hand sanitizer” presentation that I wrote about last year. It really is amazing to connect with children in this way. They are much more knowledgeable and worldly than I was at that age. Concepts like recycling, composting, and deforesting are part of their vocabulary at the age of 7 or 8 years old. I continue to believe the best way to motivate change, especially regarding hard lifestyle choices for future gains, is to tie in the impact on health. That’s something tangible that allows us to feel good about caring for the Earth while at the same time feeling OK with being concerned about ourselves; more on this concept below. Kids get it, and I think my approach worked again this year – though I may have come up with a new shtick next year, as both of my kids have seen this one a few times now.

Two articles in this Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine addressed the concept of psychological barriers to eco-conscious action. Jon Gertner’s lead article,
Why Isn’t the Brain Green?,” profiles the CRED (Center for Research on Environmental Decisions), an academic group studying eco-psychological barriers to environmental change. Gertner notes, “Among other things, CRED’s researchers consider global warming a singular opportunity to study how we react to long-term trade-offs, in the form of sacrifices we might make now in exchange for uncertain climate benefits far off in the future.” This research should also prove applicable to health care system transformation – also requiring serious short-term action for sustainable long-term benefit. Of equal interest in this issue, Paul Bloom’s essay, “Natural Happiness: The self-centered case for environmentalism,” discusses why the best way to “sell” eco might be to highlight its connection to the “pleasure principle.”

“Put aside for the moment practical considerations like the need for clean air and water, and ignore as well spiritual worries about the sanctity of Mother Earth or religious claims that we are the stewards of creation. Look at it from the coldblooded standpoint of the enhancement of the happiness of our everyday lives. Real natural habitats provide significant sources of pleasure for modern humans. We intuitively grasp this, and this knowledge underlies the anxiety that we feel about nature’s loss. It might be that one day we will be able to replace the experience of nature with “Star Trek” holodecks and robotic animals. But until then, this basic fact about human pleasure is an excellent argument for keeping the real thing.”

One of the most interesting efforts to promote eco education for children is led by Fritjof Capra’s Center for Ecoliteracy. One of their publications, “Big Ideas: Linking Food, Culture, Health, and the Environment,” provides practical solutions for K-12 educators aiming to more effectively integrate environmentalism in the school curriculum. Another, “Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World,” includes a series of essays that should be required reading for anyone teaching kids about ecological sustainability. The Center’s web site also has numerous on-line articles free to download. Check it out.

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