When Did 'Environmental Education' Become a Dirty Word?

For those of us who advocate on behalf of environmental education, June was a pretty good month. First, President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative led to the establishment on June 13 of the Federal Inter-agency Council on Outdoor Recreation, bringing together federal, state and tribal agencies to ensure that everyone has access to the great outdoors. Then, on June 21, the Maryland State School Board made the final vote in support of a high school graduation requirement for environmental literacy, the nation's first.

Environmental education is the only way to inspire the kind of long-lasting connections to the natural world that motivate action and behavior change. It is the single most important strategy toward conservation that we have at our disposal to minimize or prepare for future climate change, loss of ecosystems, wars over natural resources, etc. Nevertheless, despite the recent gains in June, environmental education in most states is becoming less of a priority, increasingly underfunded and just plain ignored, especially by the media. Why is this? When did environmental education suddenly morph into a dirty word?

The modern environmental education movement gained significant momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, and in 1971, the North American Association for Environmental Education was created to improve environmental literacy by providing resources to teachers. Perhaps it's because of this timing that environmental education is often equated with environmentalism, a movement that has seen its share of radicals and extremism. Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear the words "environmental education," and many will closely associate it with "crazy tree-huggers," "aging hippies" and "Birkenstock-wearing lefties." In terms of the nation's political narrative, many view environmental education as an issue belonging to the liberals -- another dirty word in today's modern American rhetoric.

Today, although environmental education is struggling, it has managed to survive in some schools and districts. Unfortunately, when it is actually implemented, many teachers haven't received proper training on this interdisciplinary subject matter. We know environmental literacy doesn't come from our "teach and test" culture. It comes from hands-on exploration of the natural world, consistent environmental education curricula led by well-trained, supported teachers with access to a broad array of resources. One way to successfully bridge this gap is through partnerships among nonprofit organizations, schools and communities committed to teaching youth about science in nature.

This is why we at NatureBridge teach. In addition to teaching more than 40,000 people environmental science in national parks each year, NatureBridge recently partnered with several organizations to provide classroom teachers with training on how to instruct today's youth about climate change. The Park's Climate Challenge program, funded by the National Park Foundation, reached 24 teachers in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area this week. Those teachers will reach almost 2,000 students next year alone, and thousands each year after that.

The passion we've seen in both the teachers and students who have gone through our programs prove to us that environmental education is not a partisan issue, an underground movement or a "red state/blue state" dividing topic. After all, it was Theodore Roosevelt, a staunch Republican, who put the conservationist issue high on the national agenda and set aside more Federal land for national parks and nature preserves than all of his predecessors combined. There is nothing dirty or obscene about environmental education. It doesn't belong to one political party or agenda --it belongs to everybody. It is the glue that ties everything and everyone together. It is a unifying concept for so much learning that is important for our children: science, history, math, technology. Environmental education makes these topics real and tangible for students who are thirsty for learning.

Our children must receive environmental education today to ensure that our leaders of tomorrow believe in and advocate strongly for mitigating environmental impact as a critical component to any strategy, rather than an afterthought or a topic for the lobbyists. For environmental education to be effective and to reach thousands more children, we need more support for organizations and initiatives that teach environmental education in schools and prepare teachers with the skills and resources they need. Everyone -- classroom teachers, nonprofit organizations, philanthropists and government agencies -- must work together to teach the next generation about the importance of conservation and their personal power to make a difference.