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Earth education is traditionally confined to specific topics: ecoliteracy, outdoor education, environmental science. But in the coming century, on track to be the warmest in human history, every aspect of human life will be affected by our changing planet. Emerging diseases, food shortages, drought, and waterlogged cities are just some of the unprecedented challenges that today’s students will face. How do we prepare 9.5 billion people for life in the Anthropocene, to thrive in this uncharted and more chaotic future? Answers are being developed in universities, preschools, professional schools, and even prisons around the world. In the latest volume of State of the World, a diverse group of education experts share innovative approaches to teaching and learning in a new era. Topics include systems thinking for kids; the importance of play in early education; social emotional learning; comprehensive sexuality education; indigenous knowledge; sustainable business; medical training to treat the whole person; teaching law in the Anthropocene; and more.EarthEd addresses schooling at all levels of development, from preschool to professional. Its lessons can inform teachers, policy makers, school administrators, community leaders, parents, and students alike. And its vision will inspire anyone who wants to prepare students not only for the storms ahead but to become the next generation of sustainability leaders.
About the Author
Through research and outreach that inspire action, the Worldwatch Institute works to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world that meets human needs. The Institute’s top objectives are universal access to renewable energy and nutritious food, expansion of environmentally sound jobs and development, transformation of cultures from consumerism to sustainability, and an early end to population growth through healthy and intentional childbearing. Recent editions of Worldwatch's landmark publication, State of the World, include Can a City Be Sustainable? (2016); Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability (2015); and Governing for Sustainability (2013).
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EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet
By Erik Assadourian, Lisa Mastny
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2017 Worldwatch Institute
All rights reserved.
EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet
What is education for? Education — the process of facilitating learning — has been an integral part of human societies since before we were even human. After all, humans are not the only species that transmits knowledge from one individual to another. Chimpanzees and dolphins, for example, both teach their young specialized foraging and hunting techniques that are known only to their communities and pods. Learning has been documented in numerous species, even in plants and bacteria. Because learning is a natural part of being alive — and increases the odds of staying alive — at its very root, the role of education may be to facilitate survival, both for the individual that is learning and for the social group (and species) of which it is a part.
As humans evolved — going beyond day-to-day survival and developing systems of writing, arts, tools, and the like — complex cultural systems formed and helped to shape educational priorities. As anthropologists David Lancy, John Bock, and Suzanne Gaskins explain, "the end points of learning ... are culturally defined." In other words, education prepares children for life in the cultures into which they are born, giving them the tools and knowledge that they need to survive in the physical and social realities in which they most likely will spend their entire lives.
This might have been fine throughout most of human history, where cultural knowledge correlated strongly with the knowledge that was needed to survive and thrive in the immediate environment (for example, how to identify which plants and animals are dangerous and which are edible; how to make fire, tools, clothing, and shelter; and how to coexist with neighboring populations). But the cultures that most humans are now born into are variations of consumer cultures — cultures that, through their profligate use of resources and promotion of unsustainable levels of consumption, are rapidly undermining the Earth's systems to the point that they now threaten the very survival of countless species and human communities around the world.
For humans to thrive in the future, we will need to systematically rethink education, helping students learn the knowledge that is most useful for their survival on a planet that is undergoing rapid ecological changes. We must provide them with the tools and strategies that they need to question the current sociocultural reality and to become bold leaders who will help pull us back from the brink of ecocide and usher in a sustainable future. But even that is not enough. Considering how much damage human civilization has already done to the Earth, students also must learn how to prepare for and adapt to the ecological shifts that are already locked in to their future — and ideally do this in ways that help both to restore Earth's systems and to preserve their own humanity.
State of the World 2017 explores how education — particularly formal education — will need to evolve to prepare students for life on a changing planet. Some priorities will not change much in this new "Earth Education" or "EarthEd" context: basic literacy, numeracy, multilingualism — these skills will continue to be as important in the future as they are today. But many new educational priorities must emerge: ecoliteracy, moral education, systems thinking, and critical thinking, to name a few. Without these and other key skills, today's youth will be ill-equipped for the dual challenges that they face of building a sustainable society and adapting to a changing planet.
Our Changing Planet
Over the past few hundred years, as humans have harnessed coal, oil, and natural gas to generate heat, steam power, electricity, liquid fuels, and new materials, we have unleashed the start of a climate shift that has never before been experienced in human history, with temperatures today already higher than during our last eleven thousand years of civilization. Moreover, we have enabled a massive spike in the human population, thanks to discoveries ranging from germ theory to the scientific developments behind the Green Revolution. As early innovations solidified into a complex industrial economic system based primarily on fossil fuels, humanity's impact on the planet has grown exponentially — to the point where most of the Earth's ecosystem services are now degraded or are being used unsustainably.
Worse yet, we have created a series of positive feedback loops that are further accelerating the damage. This includes the $579 billion a year spent around the world to promote the ever-increasing consumption of consumer goods — from fast food, soft drinks, and coffee to cars, computers, and smartphones. Amazingly, many of these goods are no longer seen as luxuries but as necessities, even entitlements — indicators of a basic level of prosperity — despite the planetary resource constraints that make it impossible for all Indians or Chinese, let alone the entire human population, to live like Americans or even Europeans. In the process of normalizing the consumer economy — and actively spreading it to people around the world (including to 220 million Chinese over the past fifteen years) — we have locked in a frightening series of ecological changes, whose tragic impacts are only starting to manifest today.
Let's look at climate change. In the past, as the Earth emerged from episodic ice ages, temperatures tended to rise 5 degrees Celsius over periods spanning some five thousand years. Now, models project that temperatures will increase 2 to 6 degrees Celsius in the next century and will continue rising beyond that. This translates to many meters of sea-level rise, rapid acidification of the world's oceans, and dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, causing, in turn, droughts, disasters, and famines — all within a very short time frame (from a human history perspective, let alone a geological perspective). In all probability, this will be catastrophic to human civilization as we know it today.
And climate change is not the only worrisome change looming. We are crossing several other planetary boundaries as well: disrupting the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, depleting biodiversity, and spewing enormous amounts of chemicals into the air, soil, and water, to the point that we have brought about a new, human-dominated, geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Meanwhile, the human family is adding 83 million members each year. At current projections — assuming that ecological catastrophes do not slow this growth — the global population is projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Of course, businesses and marketers will continue to work hard to sell this growing population ever more stuff, putting ever-greater pressure on Earth's overtaxed systems.
We have hit a point where climate scientists now question whether civilization — whether their own children and grandchildren — will actually survive. "It's clear the economic system is driving us toward an unsustainable future, and people of my daughter's generation will find it increasingly hard to survive," says Will Steffen, director of the Climate Change Institute at The Australian National University. "History has shown that civilizations have risen, stuck to their core values, and then collapsed because they didn't change. That's where we are today."
The defining quest for humanity today is how we will be able to provide fulfilling lives for 8–10 billion people even as Earth's systems are declining rapidly. These cannot be consumer lives, ecologically speaking, but decent lives that offer access to vital services, such as basic health care and education, to livelihood opportunities, and to essential freedoms. Unfortunately, few people today understand the urgency or magnitude of this quest — some even deny it — and few fully grasp the changes that are necessary to succeed. Far fewer have the skills that are required to help with this transition or, at least, to survive the ecological shifts if the quest for a sustainable future fails. Education will be essential in changing this.
Educational Reform on a Planetary Scale
Unfortunately, schooling today tends to ignore the massive changes that are looming and offers little in the form of preparation for slowing those changes or coping with them. Worse yet, many would argue that schools are often designed to "train children to be employees and consumers," only exacerbating our current problems. This comes as little surprise, given that consumerism is the dominant cultural context in which most students now grow up. Socializing them for that reality may be the "natural" role for education, even if, in the long term, it is maladaptive.
This maladapted role of education is made far worse when governments change the law to make it easier to mislead students about climate change, as lawmakers in the U.S. states of Tennessee and Louisiana have done, or when school boards allow corporations to shape the curriculum. In Chapter 13 of this book, Josh Golin and Melissa Campbell of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood discuss the expanding foothold that corporations have in schools around the world, from the oil giant Chevron sponsoring science education to fast-food purveyor McDonald's recruiting teachers to host school fundraisers in its restaurants. There are long lists of how students are indoctrinated into becoming unquestioning consumers in schools (let alone through the six or more hours on average that American youth spend watching television and interacting with computers, tablets, and smartphones each day). But even when schools guard themselves from these types of infiltrations, they are still doing very little to prepare students for the social and ecological realities that they will soon inherit.
Considering the present moment in history, it is clear that most schools are forgoing their responsibility to question the status quo — whether this is the dark history of colonization and genocide on which industrial civilization is founded, or the horrific ecological and societal abuses on which the consumer economy continues to be built. The current role of schools will have to change if we are to prepare students to slow down — and survive — the ecological transition ahead.
Specifically, we will need to redesign education to teach students to become sustainability champions: those who are willing to boldly step out of current realities and commit themselves to drive social, political, economic, and cultural change so that human societies can live sustainably on the planet. Almost as importantly, education must make students more resilient to the changes that are locked in to their future — offering them a variety of life skills (particularly skills that will increase in value as the consumer era comes to an end) and coping skills, such as social and emotional learning, which will enable them to more sanely navigate the tumultuous, conflict-ridden future. Ideally, given the limited hours in the school day, curricula will need to be designed around lessons and projects that maximize both education for sustainability and education for resilience, whenever possible. (See Figure 1–1.)
This is the necessary path forward, given that the precise future that the next generations will inherit remains uncertain. Will governments, corporations, and civil society find the will to significantly scale back economic and population growth, consumption, and the use of fossil fuels in order to stabilize the climate? Will agreements be "too little, too late" to stop climate change, but at least keep the transition to a hot state manageable (whatever that means)? Or will negotiations break down entirely, with business-as-usual and climate denial driving us to a rapid and out-of-control shift to a 4 degree or even 6 degree Celsius apocalyptic future, marked by devastating famines, inundated cities, mass migrations, and climate wars? Even in the best scenario of intentional economic degrowth, the skills and knowledge that students will need will be very different than what they are being taught today.
Principles of Earth Education
For humanity to get through the coming century, our schools must emphasize a new set of proficiencies — a Common Core-equivalent that will enable us to survive life on a changing planet. These Earth Education Core Principles, or EarthCore, include six broad tenets, each building on the former (although with considerable interlocking, as all sturdy construction has). (See Figure 1–2.) Redesigning education so that these principles are present in essentially every aspect of the school experience — from class lessons and field trips to lunch menus and school infrastructure — can ensure that students are better prepared both to become leaders in the sustainability transition and to navigate the disrupted future ahead. Many of these EarthCore principles are being taught already to some degree or another, but rarely to the extent needed, nor typically in combination with one another. The challenge will be finding ways to integrate these principles in education as quickly, and to as great an extent, as possible.
Principle 1: Earth-dependence
At the base of the EarthCore pyramid is a deep understanding that humanity, as a species and as a civilization (in all of its cultural variations), is completely and utterly dependent on the Earth, a lesson that most people seem to have forgotten in the modern era. This understanding — and the corresponding humility and awe (in both the joyous and fearful sense of the word) — is essential, for without this foundation, the pyramid, and the institution of education and human civilization, will collapse.
But how does one teach "Earth-dependence"? Ecoliteracy is a key piece of the puzzle. Without a strong understanding of both the environmental sciences (which includes the underlying basic sciences such as biology, ecology, chemistry, and physics) and the limits to growth, children will grow up with unrealistic expectations for what life in our closed planetary system can provide. The good news, as Michael K. Stone describes in Chapter 3, is that ecoliteracy can manifest in all aspects of education — even the school cafeteria, which Luis González Reyes explores in more depth in Chapter 6.
Ecoliteracy is not just a curricular add-on. It can, and must, be taught in in-depth ways and be embedded fully in the core curriculum. At the School for Examining Essential Questions of Sustainability (SEEQS), a middle school in Honolulu, Hawai'i, students devote two hours a day, four days a week, to exploring an "Essential Question of Sustainability," and they focus a full semester on a topic such as, "What are ways to restore and preserve native habitats in Hawai'i?" Rather than passively exploring this question by memorizing facts and figures, students learn this material actively, working on collaborative projects, receiving mentoring from local experts, and presenting their findings to the larger community. Through this, students not only learn about, but deeply internalize, the challenges — and solutions — to the sustainability crisis they face.
But learning about our dependence on the Earth academically is not enough. As David Sobel discusses in Chapter 2, before we can get children inspired to "save the rainforests," we need to nurture their own relationships with local forests, streams, and meadows. Nature-based and place-based learning opportunities — such as the forest schools now present in many countries around the world — are leading the way in creating educational experiences that cultivate deeper relationships with the broader ecological community. At the Wald Kindergarten (Forest Kindergarten) in Langnau am Albis, Switzerland, a score of four- to seven-year-olds spends all day in the woods — rain, shine, or snow — playing, learning, and connecting directly with the local ecosystem. This extended time in nature deeply affects children's development, from reducing attention-deficit disorders to improving confidence, cognitive functioning, and self-control. Most importantly, it helps reveal nature's role as "ultimate teacher," an insight that Indigenous education encapsulates and continues to provide today, as Melissa K. Nelson discusses in Chapter 4.
Finally, it is one thing to be ecologically literate and bonded to the Earth or a local environment, but another to remain dutiful in sustaining it — even in the face of social and cultural pressures to do the opposite. Cultivating stewardship, as Jacob Rodenburg and Nicole Bell discuss in Chapter 5, is essential. This cultivation occurs in many ways, from teaching young children to know their animal and plant neighbors in their "neighborwood," to getting teens to reach out to local conservation groups and volunteer with them.
Excerpted from EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet by Erik Assadourian, Lisa Mastny. Copyright © 2017 Worldwatch Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword \ David Orr Acknowledgments INTRODUCTION Chapter 1. EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet \ Erik Assadourian PART I. EARTH EDUCATION FUNDAMENTALS Chapter 2. Outdoor School for All: Reconnecting Children to Nature \ David Sobel Chapter 3. Ecoliteracy and Schooling for Sustainability \ Michael K. Stone Chapter 4. Education for the Eighth Fire: Indigeneity and Native Ways of Learning \ Melissa K. Nelson Chapter 5. Pathway to Stewardship: A Framework for Children and Youth \ Jacob Rodenburg and Nicole Bell Chapter 6. Growing a New School Food Culture \ Luis Gonzalez Reyes Chapter 7. The Centrality of Character Education for Creating and Sustaining a Just World \ Marvin W. Berkowitz Chapter 8. Social and Emotional Learning for a Challenging Century \ Pamela Barker and Amy McConnell Franklin Chapter 9. Prioritizing Play \ David Whitebread Chapter 10. Looking the Monster in the Eye: Drawing Comics for Sustainability \ Marilyn Mehlmann with Esbjorn Jorsater, Alexander Mehlmann, and Olena Pometun Chapter 11. Deeper Learning and the Future of Education \ Dennis McGrath and Monica M. Martinez Chapter 12. All Systems Go! Developing a Generation of "Systems-Smart" Kids \ Linda Booth Sweeney Chapter 13. Reining in the Commercialization of Childhood \ Josh Golin and Melissa Campbell Chapter 14. Home Economics Education: Preparation for a Sustainable and Healthy Future \ Helen Maguire and Amanda McCloat Chapter 15. Our Bodies, Our Future: Expanding Comprehensive Sexuality Education \ Mona Kaidbey and Robert Engelman Part II. HIGHER EDUCATION REIMAGINED Chapter 16. Suddenly More Than Academic: Higher Education for a Post-Growth World \ Michael Maniates Chapter 17. Bringing the Classroom Back to Life \ Jonathan Dawson and Hugo Oliveira Chapter 18. Preparing Vocational Training for the Eco-Technical Transition \ Nancy Lee Wood Chapter 19. Sustainability Education in Prisons: Transforming Lives, Transforming the World \ Joslyn Rose Trivett, Raquel Pinderhughes, Kelli Bush, Liliana Caughman, and Carri J. LeRoy Chapter 20. Bringing the Earth Back into Economics \ Joshua Farley Chapter 21. New Times, New Tools: Agricultural Education for the Twenty-First Century \ Laura Lengnick Chapter 22. Educating Engineers for the Anthropocene \ Daniel Hoornweg, Nadine Ibrahim, and Chibulu Luo Chapter 23. The Evolving Focus of Business Sustainability Education \ Andrew J. Hoffman Chapter 24. Teaching Doctors to Care for Patient and Planet \ Jessica Pierce CONCLUSION Chapter 25. The Future of Education: A Glimpse from 2030 \ Erik Assadourian Notes Index