Eco-education: Why we must prioritize environmental learning—before it’s too late
Choate Rosemary Hall
Barely half a year since it was first reported in Wuhan, the novel coronavirus has infected upwards of 12 million people worldwide. On top of the direct threat the virus poses to public health, COVID-19 has hobbled the global economy and transborder mobility. It has also jeopardized the livelihoods and mental health of millions of people around the world, who are currently coping with the economic downturn and with lockdown or stay-at-home orders. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic provides a sobering example of how imprudent human actions that strain the environment can come back to haunt us. According to scientists from institutions such as Stanford University and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, prioritizing profits over the ecosystem and failing to stringently execute regulations can lead to environmental disasters, including deforestation. These disasters, in turn, facilitate the emergence of zoonotic diseases, such as COVID-19 (Stanford University, 2020; Wolfe et al., 2005).
Simply put, human activities have consequences. When we act without regard to our environment, the effects do not stop at harming Mother Nature. Ultimately, those actions and their environmental repercussions boomerang back to harm us, too. As demonstrated by the spread of COVID-19, our decisions affect the environment, and environmental consequences impact our society, our economy, and our public health. Thus, more prudent environmental decision-making is not only eco-friendly but also healthful for society in general.
Fortunately, many of the environmental issues plaguing our planet, including deforestation, climate change, and pollution, seem to be entering the realm of common knowledge. However, this increasing awareness is not enough to achieve sustainable development. Simply realizing that humans contribute to environmental issues does not necessarily mean people understand that the next step in the feedback cycle is negative impact on humans, nor does awareness equate to a willingness to make environmentally sustainable decisions (Iizuka, 2000; Postigo et al., 2007).
This is precisely why eco-education is important. Eco-education, also referred to as environmental education, does not stop at enhancing awareness of environmental issues. As a process, eco-education helps individuals cultivate a deeper understanding of the natural environment, environmental issues, and their impact. Its objective is to develop attitudes, behaviors, and critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills that encourage individuals to act more responsibly and contribute to resolving environmental challenges (EPA, n.d.). In other words, eco-education strives to support students in making informed, environmentally sustainable decisions. Such informed decision-making need not be constrained to pivotal, newsworthy moments. Environmentally responsible decisions in everyday situations matter, too. For instance, greater knowledge of environmental consequences prompts consumers to select eco-labeled products out of environmental concern (Göçer & Oflaç, 2017).
Eco-education can be implemented for all age groups, ranging from early childhood to those in tertiary education. While programs aimed at enhancing the eco-literacy of older students have considerable benefits, it is particularly advantageous to begin eco-education at a young age. First, spending time outdoors is beneficial to the cognitive development and physical and mental health of young children (Taylor et al., 2006; Wells & Evans, 2003). Participative eco-education may also enhance prosocial behavior in toddlers (Mizuuchi & Kim, 2013). Furthermore, research finds that childhood experiences in nature are positively linked with a propensity for environmentally protective attitudes in adults (Wells & Lekies, 2006). Time spent outdoors has also been shown to contribute to feelings of connectivity with nature and environmental stewardship (Andrejewski et al., 2011; Kals et al., 1999). The positive effects of eco-education for young children are not even limited to the children themselves. The parents of children receiving eco-education have also been found to exhibit greater eco-literacy, suggesting that child recipients of eco-education may act as agents in facilitating inter-generational learning (Istead & Shapiro, 2014; Vaughan et al., 2003). Thus, it is especially beneficial to encourage eco-education beginning in early childhood.
With the COVID-19 pandemic at the top of the list, the current suffering caused by harrowing global issues could have been ameliorated if more people were aware of environmental challenges and had been trained to help resolve them. The list of possibilities is extensive. Deforestation leads to flooding, drought, loss of water sources for drinking and agriculture, and climate change (Derouin, 2019). The effects of climate change are numerous, among them threats to our food supply and public health, floods, drought, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019). Recent calamities caused in part by man-made environmental problems include the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires that killed one billion animals and the ongoing locust plague, which could threaten the livelihoods of a tenth of the world’s population, according to the UN (Baskar, 2020; The University of Sydney, 2020). Stronger implementation of eco-education could contribute to lessening the impact of, or perhaps even outright avoiding, similar problems in the future.
Governments are increasingly showing enthusiasm in supporting eco-education. In countries ranging from India to Italy, movements to integrate eco-education into formal education are a step towards a higher average of eco-literacy. Additionally, non-governmental institutions, such as the Foundation for Environmental Education and the National Wildlife Foundation, provide eco-school programs. Corporations such as EPSON also provide environmental education for employees. One way to further enhance the effectiveness of eco-education policies is to align national policies in other sectors, forming a holistic and cohesive policy structure that promotes sustainable decision-making (Iovan, 2014). In addition, utilizing new technologies may provide additional methods to enhance students’ learning experience in eco-education (Huang et al., 2016). Considering the inevitability of online teaching in the near future, now may be a good time to investigate how to effectively conduct eco-education online.
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