Let's teach our kids the way of the land


March 3, 2005

This month the United Nations officially begins the "Decade of Education for Sustainable Development."Should we promote this decade on Long Island? Most students would respond no, skeptical about the topic's relevance to their lives. Young people are educated to believe they are separate from and superior to the natural world. Yet this attitude is the root cause of our environmental problems.

To change this attitude, the heart and spirit of each young person must be touched and become part of the education process. Engaging the heart and spirit is essential for students to feel their connection to nature, which creates the passion to live more sustainable lives.

These ideas need to inform our educational mission. Among our primary tasks as citizens, teachers and students is constructing a new narrative for ourselves with a new set of dreams. Understanding and healing our separation from nature is the most critical part of this process.

In science classes, students are trained to observe nature dispassionately. While youth need an understanding of science, they also need to connect emotionally with the natural world. At a biophysical level we are all intimately connected to everything that surrounds us. Instead of exploring the implications of this reality, students are taught to objectify and dominate the world. The results are all around us: overdevelopment, overexploited fisheries, endangered species and so on.

The environmental crisis is not abating. We have made strides at reducing pollution levels on Long Island and in the United States, but we face even more serious threats, such as global climate change and natural resource wars. How many students understand, for instance, how the projected climate change affects Long Island?

The story we tell our young people is that the modern world, with all of its wondrous technologies, makes us happier. However, much of the latest research argues that wealth does not bring happiness; widening economic inequalities erode our sense of security and well-being; and it will take the resources of five Earths to support the American lifestyle globally. How many of us understand the global effects of our lifestyle?

Our collective well-being depends upon developing new models of learning and living. Many sustainable development entrepreneurs rely upon new technologies to solve today's environmental crisis. We disagree. While technologies like hybrid cars and solar and wind power are important, technology alone is not going to overcome the more fundamental problem - our cultural separation from nature. We need to explore new forms of living and new forms of technology with our students. But we must also commit to experimenting with deeper educational reforms.

Most indigenous cultures celebrate their love for the natural world. How are indigenous cultures able to sustain themselves for thousands of years? What lessons do we still need to learn from them? Is our culture, with all of its extraordinary achievements, sustainable?

Our new organization, Renewing Community Earth, has begun to address these questions. Students in our programs will examine these cultural assumptions and be given opportunities to enrich their relationship to the natural world and creative opportunities to express this awareness. It is these emotional experiences that form the basis of the most profound learning.

We believe that education programs addressing sustainable development must be designed carefully. Teachers, parents and students should work together as co-learners and all should be considered teachers. Many programs should take place in the natural world, where students can experience nature's richness. Beaches, forests and farm fields are just some of the places where students can discover a sense of inner peace or a spark of creativity and be directed toward more sustainable practices.

These personal insights and transformations are the key to successful sustainable education projects. Long Island is a place of environmental innovation and our hope is that through such initiatives, today's students will lead their peers to a more sustainable future.

Scott Carlin is an environmental studies professor at Southampton College and Peter Maniscalco is coordinator of Renewing Community Earth, which is based at Southampton College.

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