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Where are Schools on Climate Change?

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I met a teenager recently who I cannot get out of my mind--a 16-year-old who seemed to have everything going for him. He was handsome, smart, likeable, a good student, and comfortable in his lanky frame. The kind of kid whom one instantly feels will do well in life. Except for one thing: He didn't think so.

In the future he envisioned, his whole generation was hurtling toward catastrophe. Few adults seemed to care enough to stop it. And the best he could do, he naively reasoned, was plan to move to the Midwest, which at least would protect him from rising sea levels (if not heat waves, droughts, and economic disasters).

When this is how some of our best and brightest view their future, isn't it time for schools to start doing something different? And I don't mean just a token nod to "Education for Sustainability Week" (Nov. 9-13). I mean something truly, radically different.

Schools, like the rest of us, need to acknowledge the part they have played in perpetuating the ignorance that has gotten us into our environmental messes. And they need to step up to the plate to offer young people the chance at a better future.

Why schools?

Because all of our environmental crises are essentially symptoms of a larger underlying problem, which is our collective failure to understand and practice sustainable living. And if school is not the obvious place to root out that ignorance and replace it with something better, I don't know what is.

While world leaders prepare to address climate change in Copenhagen next month, we also need to look to schools to do their part. Schools have a responsibility to prepare young people to understand and deal with the growing challenges that will come with climate change, as well as the depletion of natural resources, population growth, and other issues. But perhaps even more important, they need to offer students an education that will enable them to live in better relationship to the natural world than we have done.

How schools teach young people about climate change, of course, must be age-appropriate and empowering. Elementary school kids, for example, are too young to be burdened with melting ice caps and drowning polar bears. Not only do they lack the intellectual capacity to understand the implications, they have a fundamental psychological need to trust their world--and deserve to simply enjoy nature before anyone calls on them to protect it.

High school students have the capacity to study climate change but an equally strong psychological need to do so constructively. The harsh facts, in other words, need to be balanced with the hopeful ones--those that demonstrate progress and ways they too can make a difference.

But teaching young people about sustainability--or, more generally, the laws of nature and how we might best interact with it--can and should take place in every grade.

And the good news is that, in recent years, a growing number of schools have begun doing just this. I know of schools in Maine, Wisconsin, and Oregon, for example, that are getting students outdoors to tend school gardens, restore creeks and watersheds, and develop a genuine sense of caring about nature, which almost inevitably comes with having experiences within it.

I've seen students in fast-growing suburbs deeply engaged in examining the impact that our insatiable consumption habits have had on the natural world and fascinated by their studies of the new and inspiring alternatives of sustainable energy, agriculture, housing, development, and transportation.

There is a long way to go, but so far the results should be encouraging to educators and parents alike. A growing body of research shows that engaging students in the experiential or place-based learning that is central to this kind of education leads to better test scores and classroom behavior.

Equally important, these schools are helping young people envision a future that includes not only climate change but also the development of wind, solar, and thermal power. Not only the loss of vital natural resources, such as oil and water, but also the gain of brilliant new inventions that allow us to take less from nature and live more peaceably within it.

Selfishly, I think to myself that schools may also enable young people to design solutions that we cannot yet even dream of. A little less selfishly, I think of that 16-year-old and how easy it really would be to show him that there is plausible hope for a promising future.

Lisa Bennett is the communications director for the Center for Ecoliteracy (www.ecoliteracy.org), a Berkeley-based nonprofit dedicated to sustainability education, and a contributor to the new book, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability (Watershed Media/U.C. Press, 2009).

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