Environmental Revolution

Getting to the root of the problem

Unfortunately, you've got to understand a problem to deal with it effectively.

by Paul Davis

oxic waste sites, overconsumption, global warming, destruction of pristine lands these are all issues traditionally addressed by the environmental movement. Environmentalists have always pursued a simple strategy: pick a single issue and run with it. While this may generate enough publicity to push through individual pieces of legislation, several questions remain: is this piecemeal process what environmentalism should be about? Does the environmental movement actually emerge from one of these campaigns victoriously? And do these campaigns move the environmental movement and, for that matter, the world, closer to our ultimate goal: the establishment of a sustainable society?

The answer is simple.

The answer is no.


Winning the battle, losing the war


Despite the invaluable commitment of thousands of individuals, the environmental movement has never really emerged from one of their campaigns victorious. They have never, in all honesty, really moved themselves closer to the creation of a sustainable society. Examples of environmental failures include the Superfund Act, Agenda 21 from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Clean Air Act, the list goes on and on. Each one of these pieces of legislation was born out of intense campaigns sponsored by the environmental movement. Yet each of these acts have been disappointingly unsuccessful in fulfilling their expectations.

Why has the environmental movement been so unsuccessful in moving society toward a more sustainable state? Because they have not addressed the heart of our environmental problem. Past environmental campaigns have failed to attack the real problem: our cultural inability to understand environmental problems. All present day citizens are cursed with the inability to see and understand the environmental impact of their decisions, a naive mind-set that leads to environmentally costly outcomes. The environmental movement has been unable to accomplish many of its objectives not because of a lack of commitment, but because it has failed to address the most pressing environmental dilemma of all: the fact that our present system is run by individuals who do not possess the cultural values or know-how necessary to make decisions about the environment (in the broadest possible sense).

So how do we escape this dilemma? Mankind, as it stands, seems to be (excuse the cliche) stuck between a rock and a hard place. We are presently faced with a vast array of environmental problems, yet we live in a society that is largely unconcerned with and unaware of the environmental problems and dilemmas confronting us. Faced with such bleak social conditions, the environmental movement has traditionally pursued moral victories such as saving a little land here, cleaning up a little toxic waste there, in hopes that by some stroke of luck these small victories will magically add up to the realization of a sustainable society. To put it simply, such an approach is highly ineffective in its attempts to resolve our environmental problems.

So, the question remains: how do we, as a society, go about resolving our environmental problems? How can we realize an environmentally sustainable society? By recognizing, attacking and then reforming the heart of our environmental dilemma.


Back to schools


The heart of our environmental crisis is our inability to see, understand and resolve our environmental problems. At the most basic level, this is the result of a system that raises environmentally ignorant individuals. The problem begins with our educational system.

It is no wonder the environmental movement has been ineffective in its attempts to resolve environmental issues, when our education system ignores the existence of environmental problems. In our present education system, we are taught how to be successful (i.e., make money), we are taught how to consume, we are ingrained with the ideals and beliefs that in order for society to succeed we must design more, build more and buy more products and services. While this may be true, to a certain extent, what is lacking in our education is an in depth look, or for that matter any look, at our environmental problems or the environmental impacts of our decisions. How can we expect people, governments and industry to understand and function within the limits of our ecosystem if the individuals that run them were never taught the skills necessary to deal with environmental problems? We can't, plain and simple. We can't expect our present day society to be able to deal with problems that only a hand full of scientists understand. It has thus become evident to us at Environmental Revolution that real change can only be realized through the creation of an education system that gives students the skills necessary to recognize and resolve the environmentally costly decisions of our everyday actions.

In sum, it has become apparent that solutions to our environmental problems can be accomplished only after we have an environmentally educated public. Moreover, it has become evident to us at Environmental Revolution that the realization of an environmentally educated society demands a change in the material and skills taught to our children throughout their education. In short, in order to resolve our environmental problems, we must correct the root of the problem: we must reform the skills taught by our education system.

  Paul Davis is a cofounder of Environmental Revolution; visit their Project Education Web Site to learn more and contribute to the discussion of environmental education: www.erev.org. Email: pmdavisucsd.edu. Copyright © 1997, by Chenghuan Chu, Chris Cutler, Paul Davis, and Bryan Keefer.