Environmental news is not exactly recommended reading for anyone hoping to remain optimistic these days. Here in the United States, all one has to do is look at our most recent hurricane season for an example of the extreme weather events occurring with increasing frequency around the world. Combined with other devastating news, such as accelerating rates of species extinction and the widespread death of our world’s coral reefs, and it’s clear our planet faces an uncertain future.
I’m an environmental politics and global development professor, and for several years I taught an undergraduate geography course on environment and society. The students in my class were a mostly self-selected pool of smart, eco-aware environmental studies majors eager to change the world. So I was surprised, semester after semester, at how little thought they had given to a critically important component of a sustainability mindset: an environmental ethic.
American ecologist and philosopher Aldo Leopold noted in 1949 that while we have clear moral codes for how we interact with other people in our society, we have no equivalent when it comes to our interaction with the non-human world. In calling for an environmental ethic, Leopold said we should stop placing ourselves at the pinnacle of the biotic pyramid and instead operate as “plain old members” of a wider community that includes humans, plants, animals and soil. In this model, humans are placed on a more equal footing with other living things in our ecosystems.
It’s crucial that we work to create a more sustainable future for ourselves and upcoming generations, and the work must begin now ― not with young adults, but with young children. A large body of empirical social science work conducted over the last two decades supports this. According to a 2006 study, when children play in nature before age 11, they are “more likely to grow up to be environmentalists than other children.” Additional research has suggested that kids who engage with the natural world alongside “significant others” like family members and teachers are more likely to protect that nature later in life.
From curiosity comes learning, from learning comes respect, and from respect comes stewardship and advocacy.
As a parent, I have witnessed first-hand the naturally open mind of a child. Babies are born with instincts critical to their survival, but much of what children come to know and understand is gained through social learning. As kids, we learn how to appropriately interact with one another and in society. We are taught not to hit or bite; we can’t simply take whatever we want from the toy store’s shelves.
Children are also conditioned ― sometimes with purpose but usually without much thought ― to interact in certain ways with the non-human world. When a child sees an insect, for example, she looks to those around her for guidance on how to respond. When my oldest daughter was 4 years old, she discovered the larva of a green fig beetle buried beneath the dirt in our garden, and it practically became a family event. The experience only lasted a few minutes, but the questions persisted for weeks: How does the green beetle grow? How does it move? What does it eat? What eats it? This kind of curiosity and respect, when encouraged and allowed to develop, can later extend to spiders, bees, birds, forests and, eventually, entire ecosystems.
How a child treats a new insect or interesting plant may seem insignificant, but these early, entry-level and everyday opportunities to connect with non-human nature are critically important. They scale up. They encourage children to consider their own position within the enlarged boundaries of a community and weigh the impact of their actions. As kids grow into adulthood, this mindset will be brought to bear on larger-scale questions and decisions that affect the world we live in. From curiosity comes learning, from learning comes respect, and from respect comes stewardship and advocacy.
Operating under an environmental ethic may sound unrealistic, but it’s less complicated than it seems. Fostering a child’s curiosity is simple. Spend time outdoors; even a walk to the store is an opportunity for children to observe and be curious about their natural surroundings. If you’re a city-dweller without much land to call your own, plant some potted vegetables or herbs. The process of planting, growing and harvesting something they can actually eat is a powerful tool for connecting kids to nature. Let them get their hands dirty.
Furthermore, most kids are fascinated by things adults consider gross and pick up on the idea very early on that certain things are “yucky.” Don’t scream and run away when an insect approaches. Show the child you are curious about the world around you, too. And remember: Sometimes less is more. You don’t need to drag your child on a long hike every weekend to teach them to appreciate the environment. A nature scavenger hunt around the local park can be equally impactful. When weather doesn’t permit, watch nature shows as a family.
Parents and educators at every level have not only an incredible opportunity but a moral responsibility to make an environmental ethic part of our collective culture. We have reached a planetary tipping point at the precise time when connecting with nature is more difficult than ever, given the allure of screens, shrinking green spaces in urban areas and the loss of public lands. We no longer connect our behaviors and decisions to their consequences in our broader human and non-human communities.
Each of us must become leaders in our homes and in our schools to foster the development of a new mindset surrounding how we interact with nature. We must learn to recognize our interconnectedness. The spider in the garden, the crow dropping nuts from the telephone line and the squirrel in the park are all opportunities to empower children to respect our environment. We cannot afford another generation of kids growing into leadership positions or constituting the majority of the global consumer market without a sense of obligation to the non-human world.
Britt Crow-Miller is an assistant professor and senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University and founding executive director of CityWildPDX, an environmental education non-profit based in Portland, Oregon.