The perception of the environment has expanded in recent decades from fighting pollution to the management of natural resources. The increase in the world’s population from 1.5 billion at the beginning of the twentieth century to over eight billion today, together with a major shift in production and consumption patterns, has led to a doubling of the demand on resources. This requires proper and balanced management, coupled with fair distribution of natural resources, to ensure that these billions of people obtain their basic needs. In parallel, pollution has increased in intensity and diversity, with the expansion of the uncontrolled use of some toxic synthetic products, which not only harm human health but also limit consumable resources themselves.
Defining environmental challenges was at the heart of discussions at the 12th World Environmental Education Conference, which was hosted this week by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi. While the topic of environment in education systems used to be limited to cleanliness and the splendor of nature, today it has expanded to broader areas concerned with everything that affects life on Earth and beyond. This does not mean underestimating the importance of keeping public places clean and green; rather, it goes beyond that towards the concept of integrated waste management and planting trees not only for beautification, but to preserve the natural balance and biodiversity.
Therefore, it is no longer sufficient for students to organize campaigns to clean streets and beaches and plant trees, if this is not part of an integrated educational plan. Waste returns to the streets and beaches the day after occasional cleaning drives, and trees die within a short period of thirst and lack of care, or simply as soon as the photographers finish taking shots for public relations campaigns.
Introducing waste management into education must be based on the concept of reduction, reuse and recycling, with practical programs to train students. The starting point is to reduce waste at the source, by modifying production and consumption patterns to become less wasteful and generate less waste. The second stage is based on reusing what we no longer need, such as exchanging clothes, books, and electronic devices, after using them for the longest period possible, including repairing clothes and appliances whenever possible instead of replacing them with new ones. This is followed by the recycling phase, encompassing reusing the components of a device, machine, piece of clothing, or building rubble, to manufacture new products.
The introduction of these concepts as integral topics in the curricula should be accompanied by organizing extracurricular activities to practice them, including sorting waste, preparing a list of its components, and determining what is recyclable. It is also good to establish a permanent center in the school to collect used paper, clothes, and tools, from students and their families, as well as from neighborhood residents, for reuse, restoration, and recycling.
As for tree planting campaigns, it would be better if they are part of a broader educational program about the importance of forests in the natural system. Instead of planting seedlings in remote areas that are difficult for students to care for, they can be planted on campus, with responsibility for care divided among different classes. A corner of the classroom near the windows can also be allocated to planting seeds in small pots, each with the name of one of the students, who will take care of it until it becomes a seedling that can be planted in the school, garden or at home. This gives the feeling of ownership. It may also be useful to hold a competition among students and classes to choose the best seedling and the best garden.
The conference included a noteworthy presentation by NY Sun Works, an American NGO, about a program it is implementing in hundreds of schools to grow types of vegetables in nurseries using hydroponics technology that does not require soil. Thus, students are trained to produce food themselves in their schools within the cities. Under the name Hydroponic Classrooms, the program combines the joy of learning with the science of sustainability.
Any modern environmental education program must include subjects that reflect integration in resource management. A good example that was presented reflecting this trend was the environmental information and activities manual entitled “Environment in Schools,” which was issued by Environment & Development magazine in multiple editions starting in 1998, and was used as a reference for introducing environment into educational programs in several Arab countries, starting with the UAE.
Through it, initiatives included “A Garden for Every School,” “The Youth Environment Parliament,” and “Every Drop Counts.” In 2019, a revised version was produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in cooperation with the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, with new content that focused on the role of education in achieving the sustainable development goals. Following developments in the last decade, the topics of green economy, climate change, environmental footprint and sustainable consumption were added to the guide, in addition to air, energy, water, agriculture, biodiversity, seas, land degradation, desertification, waste and noise management.
The manual, meant to help teachers and inspire curricula, is freely available online. This approach experience was reflected in other initiatives around the world presented at the conference, making use of artificial intelligence to train larger audiences online.
While some of the early interventions at the conference were characterized by pessimistic warnings of “doom and gloom”, in stark contradiction with concepts of modern education, it concluded on positive notes. A preparatory paper warned of a “triple planetary crisis” presenting “code red for humanity”, indicating that the world has exceeded the limits of its ability to survive, placing “Earth outside of the operating space for humanity”.
In contrast with some of the older generation who presented their case as if the world had reached the point of no return, younger participants sounded geared towards practical solutions. Most important was the exchange of experiences from around the world.
Pessimistic tendencies, even if supported by certain evidence, threaten to obscure positive achievements by humanity in recent decades. These include a decline in extreme poverty, an increase in the number of people who have access to safe supplies of water and electricity, a decrease in child mortality, and decline in illiteracy. The number of victims of natural disasters is also lower than it was a hundred years ago. Carbon dioxide emissions have declined when measured per capita. The use of renewable and clean energies has doubled, while their cost has decreased.
In light of these facts, why wouldn’t education, while stating the shortcomings, incite solutions building on good things in view of doing better, such as modifying consumption patterns, starting with rich countries, and helping poor countries benefit from the fruits of development and distributing them fairly, instead of imposing restrictions and penalties on them? We need creative solutions outside the traditional rules. In many cases, the real problem is waste and unfair distribution rather than lack of resources.
Personal action alone will not save the environment. However, it is a first step, the goal of which is to spread environmental awareness among students, and through them to their families and the broader community, to form pressure groups triggering officials to make the right decisions, and to prepare the new generation to bear the burden of responsibility in the future. Major changes only occur through decisions by governments and policy makers in charge, through a set of targeted rules and regulations, whose implementation requires a set of deterrents and incentives, especially in the form of taxes and exemptions.
Instead of warning about inevitable doom and spreading fear, environmental education should focus on solutions, encouraging today’s students to search for how they can be the first generation to succeed in building a sustainable future, rather than threatening them of being the last generation living on this planet.