06/15/2010 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Is "Green Education" Possible?

"It isn't easy, being Green." - Kermit the Frog

One of the dilemmas I've noticed coming out of the environmental disaster that is still roiling the Gulf of Mexico is the interconnectedness of our economic system with toxic policies. By "toxic policies" I mean programs or planning that will lead to eventual destruction of human life on this planet, if not in the immediate future, than within several generations. The future drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico for instance, even if done carefully, will result in the pollution of the entire area from the "little disasters" at oil rigs where there are "dribbles" of oil escaping from the pumps that have a cumulative effect on marine life, not to mention other forms of pollution that are poisoning the oceans.

Fabien Cousteau, grandson of the famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, is himself involved in the environmental awareness movement with his programs about pollution in the Pacific Ocean. He warned, over a year ago:

"We have to start treating the oceans like a bank account," . . . . 70% of our food depends, directly or indirectly, on a healthy ocean, as do many of our medicines and much of the natural protection we enjoy against storms. Already, roughly half the commercial fish stocks of the world have collapsed since the 1950s, and 90% of certain types of fish, like tuna and swordfish have collapsed; the prognosis for the next 50 years is no better, at current levels of exploitation. "We have to stop eating the capital and start living on the interest," he said.

Now that the Gulf spill has concentrated our attention on the issue of ocean pollution, one would hope that there would be serious calls for an international meeting of the best scientists in the world to begin to address the problems inherent in a polluting-promotion economic system. One would hope that the result would be a "Manhattan Project" that had the same urgency that the United States and its Allies felt in developing the atomic bomb before Hitler would have a chance to develop it. One would hope, as well, that the major education organizations in this country and their counterparts in others would begin developing serious curricula changes that would address these issues and discuss their likely impact not only on future generations, but also on those young learners who will have to cope with the results of our short-sightedness and hedonism -- at least for the industrialized countries -- within their own lifetimes.

However, what we seem to be hearing from the press and political leaders is "blame-gaming," a very popular example of the "mind candy" that passes for political discourse today instead of serious problem-solving discussions; not just to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf, and collect it, but how to develop energy alternatives soon. I also hear the calls of the Gulf State political leaders that instead of putting a moratorium on drilling, that it be "business as usual" to give the needed jobs to those workers devastated by the disaster.

At least, if they also acknowledged the vital importance of finding alternative sources of energy, and perhaps even examined the paradox of demanding more of what caused their problems in the first place, I would be encouraged that political leaders were learning from their experiences. Yet, in addition to advocating for these "deadly-end" jobs, couldn't they suggest a more fruitful alternative to offer their constituents? Possibly a revival of the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) with hundreds of thousands of teenagers and adults around the country looking for jobs who could be trained to help in the massive clean-up of the oil damage being done in the Gulf? In the 1930's the CCC put millions of out-of-work men into jobs constructing public buildings such as post offices, cleaning and refurbishing parks, building roads and doing many public service works that would have been unprofitable for private enterprise. The results of that program are still with us today in many public parks and buildings.

One encouraging sign is a study summarized at a Washington news conference by Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt of GE, to sharply increase government spending for research into alternative energy sources. The group they represent, the American Energy Innovation Council, pointed out that less than $5 billion a year is spent on energy research and development compared to $80 billion on military R & D. (NYTimes, (6/10/10). If the Administration suggested that we begin a new "War," since the ones on Terrorism, Drugs and other issues seem to get political support, I would suggest the "War for Clean Energy" might be a title although it's hard to have a "War" for something.

In this "War" I would make the following suggestions as an educator:

  1. To create a more positive focus in the schools, first eliminate high-stakes testing and give federal funds to the neediest schools instead of punishing them for failures. And stop the destructive practice of closing "failing" schools. Schools "fail" largely because the social conditions in which they operate fail. Remedy those first before attacking the school and its teachers for failure.
  2. Establish a "war-footing" focus on harnessing the energy and idealism of young learners to develop ways of conserving energy; hold contests, nationally, state-wide, and locally for "best ideas" developed by students to deal with such issues as obesity, over-consumption and wasted resources. Instead of giving cash for grades, give recognition for ingenuity.
  3. Emphasize alternate forms of entertainment for students that don't rely on the addictive, high-tech forms. "Slam poetry" tournaments connected to rap music and hip hop can reach many disaffected young learners. Also put significant funding into music and art education, as the dynamic young Venezuelan conductor, Augusto Dudamel is doing right now in some of the inner city schools of L.A., Baltimore and New York.
  4. Begin structuring curricula that would encourage students to do gardening, develop healthy nutritional habits including low-fat cooking, basic energy-conscious hygiene, and socializing activities that don't focus on consumption.
  5. Give students culturally enriched curriculum connected to their work-centered projects so that their knowledge and enjoyment of the classics, philosophy, history, literature and other languages is wedded to a holistic approach to learning with lots of peer instruction and long-term projects channeled to students who are difficult learners.
  6. There are many out-of-work engineers, construction workers and planning specialists that can be put into a special "Urban-Rural Transition Corps" that can begin developing plans for alternative forms of living arrangements, more green spaces for urban dwellers and "social spaces" for otherwise isolated parts of the rural population. Give them the opportunity to skill-up their knowledge with tuition-free programs that connect them with the most advanced technologies at universities and research centers.

The problem, as Gates warns, is that the political culture has so blocked itself off from what is really needed to be done for the good of the nation and humanity, that there has to be a jolt somewhere to get it unstuck. Otherwise, the "business as usual" approach to political inaction will continue until the day when there will be no business, usual or otherwise.