Essential Education for Maine
My father and grandfather believed, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, that everything on earth was put here for the use of mankind. “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26)
To me, that’s a scary thought and a huge responsibility. So why am I thinking about it? Because my mind works in mysterious ways. This week I was talking with Colin Holme, my co-worker at the Lakes Environmental Association, about environmental education. I’ve been wondering if teaching kids about the environment – just like teaching art, music and physical education -- will seem like a luxury item in these tough economic times. Even Wikipedia matter-of-factly states, “Environmental education has been considered an additional or elective subject in much of traditional K-12 curriculum.”
Non-profit organizations such as the Lakes Environmental Association, Maine Audubon, Chewonki, and many others try to complement and increase environmental education in communities all across Maine. But non-profits are struggling, too, in this economy.
If there’s an upside to budget cuts, it’s that they force you to think about what really matters. Over the past year, I’ve probably weighed more pros and more cons than ever before, from how long to stick with my beloved Jeep (310,000-plus miles) to whether or not to gamble on locking in a price for heating oil.
But even though I accept the need to economize, publicly and privately, I still think we need more environmental education, not less. And I speak from personal experience, since I consider myself environmentally challenged.
To my co-worker Colin, who is in his 30s, environmental education is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you teach children about the world in which they live and how to protect it? He benefitted from the environmental awakening in the 1960s and 1970s, which led more people and more groups, from schools to nonprofits, to consider environmental education as a long-term investment in all our futures. And they were right. If you don’t understand something, how can you protect it?
But as we talked, I realized I can’t recall one moment in my K-12 education in which anyone mentioned the environment other than as the backdrop for some other lesson. I know my fifth-grade teacher talked about tornadoes, because I remember her story about being pinned against the wall by a refrigerator when a tornado struck her home. But the point was to help us know what to do in case of tornadoes. I remember a talk about the danger of birds to airplanes, but we were living on Midway Island at the time and most of our fathers were flying for the U.S. Navy. Again, the point was about danger.
For Baby Boomers, environmental education depended pretty much on chance. My husband fondly recalled one teacher who not only taught about the environment, but took the kids outside to experience it. I’m sure there were other teachers like him who tried to spread the word. Other routes to learn about and appreciate the natural world were scouting and summer camps. Still, there was no system. Some got it. Some didn’t. Some had families who loved the outdoors and some had families who struggled against it.
My family, which has been farming for generations, saw nature as unpredictable and often malevolent. Insects and animals stole the crops you needed. Weather could make or break you. You prayed to God that rain or sun would come when needed and, if not, that you’d have the strength and guts to keep working. The environment wasn’t a political issue, it was a life-or-death proposition.
And it still is. It’s just a question of how we approach it. Today, thanks to efforts to understand how the natural world is connected, we are trying harder to work with the environment, rather than fight against it.
So let’s not forget that this economic downturn is temporary. The need to protect the environment is permanent. Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie argued that point persuasively in 1972, when trying successfully to overturn President Nixon's veto of the Clean Water Act. Back then everything flushed down a toilet, washed into a storm drain, or discharged by a factory ended up in Maine’s waters. We just didn’t know enough or care enough to clean up our own mess.
“Can we afford clean water? Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make life possible on this planet? Can we afford life itself?” Muskie said then. “These questions answer themselves.”
Can we afford environmental education? That question also answers itself.