Teaching sustainability

Illustration by Kali Ciesemier
Illustration by Kali Ciesemier

It’s been two years since I left my post at Corporate Knights to pursue a career in environmental education.

Today, as program manager of EcoMentors, the environmental youth leadership program established by Earth Day Canada (EDC), I work with people between the ages of 14 and 25 who have no shortage of ideas to change the status quo.

The energy and ingenuity of young generations has carried me to peaks of optimism in the bipolar emotional terrain of the environmentalist. For now at least, it looks to me that our hopes of someday getting this right aren’t yet vanquished.

Admittedly, I’m looking out from inside an oasis. The youth I work with are outliers championing environmental and social sustainability to their peers and the community.

Their biggest limitation, contrary to popular perception, is not apathy. Rather, it’s a model of education in Canada and the United States that doesn’t empower them to take action; it’s an institutional structure that offers little guidance on how to carry a sustainability mindset into a future career. What skills are needed? What post-graduate programs are available? What kind of jobs can be pursued that allow an individual to make a positive change in the world?

As Simon Jackson, founder of the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, tells me: “If today’s youth are given a positive and tangible opportunity to take a stand for nature, major progress can be made towards sustainability.”

But without the proper institutional support, their ideas are at risk of burning out. Which is why programs like EcoMentors or Jackson’s new international campaign, CoalitionWILD, are striving to provide platforms for bringing youth-led sustainability solutions “from dream concepts to reality.”

The impetus is there. Young people are connecting in great numbers at events like EDC’s Beyond Green Youth Summit, organizing at pivotal Keystone XL and divestment rallies across the U.S., and courageously leading grassroots movements such as Canada’s Idle No More.

Still, despite this increasing engagement, sustainability is barely addressed in the formal curriculum outside of a few modules in a biology or geography course.

Jayden Rae is a high school student and founder of the Whitby Environmental Youth Alliance in Ontario. She has grown frustrated with schools’ inability to educate for sustainability.

“The curriculum is outdated and limits teachers’ ability to teach students about current issues,” she says. “Most lesson plans are based on events or issues of the past when it’s more important to be considering the future.”

Her recommendations on how it could be improved are noteworthy.

“We need to get outside of the classroom to learn about sustainability,” Rae says. “Teachers need to make real life connections to what it’s all about so we can understand how it impacts us now and how it will in the future.”

The non-profit organization Learning for a Sustainable Future (LSF) seeks to accomplish exactly this, working with students, educators and administrators to create a model of education that uses experiential learning across subjects.

“The current method of education has prevented students from exploring and understanding the interconnectedness of these complex issues,” says Angela Kielbowski, project coordinator at LSF. “Sustainability, by its nature, is interdisciplinary – so it requires interdisciplinary education to understand it.”

In the U.S., the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, California, is leading the way on embedding sustainability into the classroom within the K-12 range through active consulting, complementary resources and a national food reform program in schools. Its guiding principles reflect a need for what it refers to as a “systems perspective” in the classroom. To deal with what it calls a “host of pressing and often escalating issues” the center stresses that students need to understand “the patterns of relationship that connect them.” Until schools deal seriously with sustainability in such a way, they are relying on students to make the necessary connections.

Of course this is not unique to high schools. As students enter the post-secondary system it’s also common to encounter a lack of dialogue or research across academic borders.

Blair Feltmate, associate professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development (SEED) and chair of Climate Change Adaptation Project Canada, echoes Kielbowski when he tells me an interdisciplinary approach is our best hope at adapting to climate change.

Unfortunately, he says, that kind of skill set is “virtually non-existent” in corporations and most research.

“We’re lacking broad-based generalists who can look at climate change from multiple angles and perspectives,” says Feltmate. “We still need a specialized depth of analysis – but we’ve unfortunately got a system that favours the specialist at the expense of the generalist.”

Tyler Hunt, project coordinator at the University of Toronto St. George campus sustainability office, tells me that in addition to an interdisciplinary effort by the institution, many collaborations and initiatives are happening at the student level.

“There has been a significant growth in environmentally-focused student clubs and groups organized across disciplines,” says Hunt. “There is a strong beekeeping group who produces honey, a campus agriculture group that uses vacant spaces on campus to grow produce, a student-run food co-op cafe that sells local and organic food – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

He is eager to illustrate the student-driven initiatives on campus, and I completely identify. When looking for hope in this space, I’ve also seen it most prominently in the hearts and minds of groups he is describing. But Hunt’s final metaphor has me thinking, because it may be more apt than he intended. Icebergs melt. They calve off from receding ice-sheets and take shape as dynamic marvels. While they impress and inspire onlookers, they are heading into waters they can’t possibly endure alone.

What we need, it strikes me, is an amassing of glaciers – an accumulation of energies that if supported by a solid base will eventually reshape the lay of the land.

If our schools could commit to dealing with sustainability as an interdisciplinary and deeply embedded subject right from the start, it might just provide that platform youth need to carve out a new course.

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