But, important as it is, Environmental Education is not concerned with biodiversity alone. The Tbilisi Declaration, emanating from a 1977 UNESCO Conference, defined Environmental Education as ‘a process aimed at developing a world population that is aware of, and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, attitudes, skills, motivation and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones’
In 1997, I co-opted some LVI students to attempt a rudimentary assessment of the state of Environmental Education in our Schools. 462 randomly selected students or recent graduates of our nation’s schools were questioned. While 89% were personally concerned about our Environment, only 32% believed they had been provided with sufficient information in School; an understanding of the concept of sustainable development was almost universally lacking. In summary, the survey seemed to suggest that, while it is clear that some Environmental Education is indeed taking place in our Schools, it is generally failing to meet the full expectations and needs of the students.
The students who administered the survey instrument were themselves exposed to Environmental Studies in Form III. One noted the apparent embarrassment of many students, when faced with the reality of their lack of specific information about the environmental degradation, which they acknowledge to be a serious issue and one which will threaten them personally. Concerning the environmental problems their education left them feeling motivated to work on, most felt that this referred to litter and garbage only - a truly alarming revelation! One of my students expressed surprise that those she had questioned seemed to see Environmental Education as ‘just another school subject’ while she herself regarded it as the ‘Earth’s life-insurance policy’ - her words, written in 1997.
Environmental Education - Earth’s Life Insurance Policy: what an interesting concept, especially for this Guardian Life gathering here today! What premiums would we be prepared to pay…and with what returns? However, this is an analogy that must not be taken too far.
Returning to the Tbilisi Declaration, it is clear that Environmental Studies is not just about the assimilation of knowledge; it can be viewed as a vehicle for values or character education - currently a very real concern of the Ministry of Education. We can teach about such environmental issues as poverty, global climatic change, waste management, urbanization, desertification, loss of biodiversity etc in such a way as to show how these will impact on the lives of our students.
In constructing a simple population pyramid in class, I have seen students’ eyes suddenly opened to the realities of population growth when they recognise that, by the time they reach my age, Trinidad and Tobago will have to support more than double its present population, most of them in the dependent age groups. And, in a closely related topic, they come to understand why the rainy and dry seasons experienced by preceding generations have become the flood and fire seasons we know today.
And that is the point - all environmental issues are closely inter-related.
‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good’ (Genesis 1:31) We must educate our students to become citizens who understand and accept their responsibility as stewards of the good earth that God gave to us. They must be taught to reconcile the often-conflicting needs of the individual, the society and the Environment. It might also be of value to note, in the context of our diverse, multi-religious and multi-ethnic population, that Environmental matters will ultimately affect us all equally - no one group has any greater interest than any other. In a society that is truly environmentally literate, there would be no place for any manner of racism, religious intolerance or the poverty that results from the inequitable distribution of resources.
And so, in the often-quoted words Chief Seattle is alleged to have spoken a century ago:
‘Teach your children what we have taught our children ...
That whatever befalls the Earth
Befalls the sons and daughters of the Earth.....
The Earth does not belong to us;
We belong to the Earth.
We did not weave the web of life;
We are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web,
we do to ourselves...
Teach the children: The 1993 White Paper on Education noted that ‘while Environmental Education might not be a new ‘subject’ or ‘concern’, the immediacy and urgency of environmental issues demand that we address it anew in our School Curriculum’. The overall goals of the new SEMP curriculum include ‘to promote national development and economic sustainability’ and ‘to promote the preservation and protection of the environment’ - I hope there is recognition of a possible conflict there. The specific aims of both the Science and Social Studies syllabi are laudable and include giving students ‘experiences in Science that would lead them to a conceptual understanding of the natural world, of man’s place in it and of his responsibility to maintain and preserve it’. Unfortunately, the details of the content currently available do not live up to the promise of these goals and aims. I hold strongly to the view that, unless we teach Environmental Studies holistically, as a single all embracing subject, our efforts are doomed to failure.
Yes, ‘Nature is very tired’ but the challenge we face is now clear. The profound implications of a well-known saying, variously attributed to the Kayapo Indians of the Amazon, the Amish people of West Virginia and others, should be considered by all who make decisions about the Environment and Environmental Education: ‘We did not inherit the Earth from our forefathers; we borrowed it from our children’.