06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How to Usher in a New Decade of Environmental Action

There was a extraordinary gathering just north of San Francisco last week--including Nobel, Pulitzer, and Goldman prize-winners; famous doctors, writers, and chefs; and inspiring individuals such as Martin Strel, a Guinness World Record marathon swimmer from Slovenia who has been bringing attention to some of the world's most polluted rivers by swimming them, and Bryant Austin, whose life-sized photos of whales (taken from six feet away) are changing public opinion in holdout whaling nations like Japan.

The question they came together to explore at Turning the Tide, hosted by the Institute for the Golden Gate (a project of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy in partnership with the National Parks Service) was: How do we usher in a new decade of environmental action--one that guides leaders in business, government and society to create a conscious capitalism, sustainable communities, and preservation of wild places?

It's a big question. But one simple, even old-fashioned word repeatedly came up in response.


Dr. Andrew Weil, the integrative medicine guru, said it, as did Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant and vice president of Slow Food International, and Dr. David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In dialogues about changing social norms around food because of the vital role it plays in human health and the health of the planet, it was the word that seemed to inspire the greatest hope.

"I think education is our best hope in all these issues," said Weil.

"One thing that works is to educate the children," said Dr. Bradley Jacobs, founding medical director of the University of California San Francisco's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

"I think you're exactly right [about education]," said Kessler. "But we have a ways to go to get there."

Indeed we do.

For the past 15 years, the Center for Ecoliteracy has worked to advance sustainability education in K-12 schools, including efforts to improve school food (through the Rethinking School Lunch program), promote school gardens, and integrate an ecological perspective into the curriculum. In 2009, we documented a growing national trend in Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, a book that tells stories of independent, public, and charter schools that are doing this across the nation.

But we are far from where we need to be--perhaps tragically, unconscionably far from embracing the potential education has to make a vital difference at this critical turning point in history.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, the depletion of natural resources, and other significant ecological trends mean that today's young people are poised to inherit a world that can no longer be counted on to offer the basic environmental stability enjoyed throughout most of human civilization. How can schools not prepare young people for these unprecedented challenges? How not teach them a better way rooted in the knowledge, skills, and values essential to sustainable living?

Jamie Oliver has recently shown millions of Americans what school lunch looks like in the new reality program, "Food Revolution." And it ain't good--not only in Huntington, West Virginia, the unhealthiest community in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control--but in many communities nationwide.

The Child Nutrition Act, which pays for school food and other nutrition programs for lower-income children, is headed to the Senate floor this year, with some improvements (such as, authorizing regulation of "a la carte" food sold at schools and restrictions on the sale of whole and two-percent milk because of the high saturated fat content).

But on the bottom line--the $2.68 that schools receive for each lunch served--not too much is slated to change. Despite Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, funding provided in the current version of the bill would only average an increase of six cents for each meal served, far less than the $1 most school reform groups say is needed to provide the kind of food that promotes personal health, lower health costs, and better academic achievement.

The government clearly needs to do better than this. So do educators and the general public. To realize the genuine hope education offers, we need to stand up for an education system that helps today's young people eat healthy foods and develop the knowledge, skills, and values essential to sustainable living.

After all, we may just be surprised at what we all gain in return.

As Alex Bogusky, who built what Fast Company described as "arguably the hottest ad agency in the country," asked the gathering at Turning the Tide:

"Lost in the wild, guess which group has the greatest chance of survival?"

The answer: Young children, because they have no experience. They don't believe they know.

"Experience only helps when the immediate future is the same as the past. That's almost never the case," said Bogusky.

It certainly isn't now.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director of the Center for Ecoliteracy and a former fellow at Harvard University's Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. She is a contributor to the Center's book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/University of California Press, 2009).