The history of Pennsylvanians' relationship to the land is long and complex. For much of recent history, it has been characterized by the exploitation of natural "resources" — timber, oil, coal, iron and now natural gas. Though many of these industries have come and gone here, we are still paying the costs through deforestation, acid mine drainage, some of the worst air quality in the nation
and polluted drinking water
However, our environmental legacy has also been manifested as a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and an urge to protect and conserve it. Rachel Carson, the godmother of the environmental movement, was born and raised in southwestern Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania now claims one of the nation's most comprehensive and well managed state park systems
, with every citizen of the Commonwealth living within 25 miles of at least one state park. We obviously appreciate nature for the other myriad ways it benefits our lives, not simply the crude economic value of its resources.
Reconnecting with the natural world
How do we square these two seemingly contradictory understandings of the role and value of nature? How can we preserve and nurture the view that values nature for its intrinsic qualities over the materialistic view of nature that essentially privatizes a public good to generate massive amounts of short-term profit for a select few?
Education is the key to empowering future and current leaders with the knowledge and tools necessary to relate to a 21st century environment — one under enormous stress from human activities, yet one that is still the foundation of every aspect of our lives. Environmental education in particular is a powerful way of re-connecting children and adults to their natural world and teaching them about our role within the larger systems of life.
Born of the same spirit that launched the environmental movement, environmental education has sought to foster awareness of ecological interdependence and protect and improve the environment through education. As environmental education has become more mainstream in recent years, there has been a conscious effort to focus on education, not advocacy.
Through interaction with the environment, students of all ages are taught how to think critically and come to their own conclusions through exploration and problem-solving. Thus, the natural environment becomes the context through which all other subjects can be taught and explored in a very hands-on, learner-centered fashion.
Education funding under attack
For more than four decades now, environmental education (EE) has been serving citizens with high-quality programs that teach us a different way of relating to the natural environment. Unfortunately, like environmental protection in general, EE is now under attack from ideologues in Washington who see it as superfluous or some form of liberal propaganda. A recent act introduced in the House would cut all funding to the EPA Office of Environmental Education
, which has provided almost $50 million in grants since 1992 to programs across the country.
Locally, the Corbett administration has significantly cut general education funding, environmental protection funding, and thus not surprisingly, environmental education funding as well. As one example, the state-funded Pennsylvania Center for Environmental Education
, established by executive order in 1996 and by law in 2009, was completely zeroed out of the new budget and will likely close its doors on the thousands of Pennsylvanians it has served each year.
This comes at a particularly devastating time for many environmental education programs and centers. As public interest in environmental issues has grown dramatically in recent years, national and regional initiatives to expand and improve EE programming have taken significant strides forward. One particularly exciting initiative, launched by the Environmental Education and Training Partnership
with support from the US EPA's Environmental Education division, has sought to increase diversity in environmental education and make EE programming more culturally relevant. Efforts like this to broaden the scope and reach of EE will suffer dramatic setbacks if funding is indeed cut.
Environmental literacy for the 21st century
There are still many people fighting to strengthen environmental education across the country. The No Child Left Inside Coalition
, composed of businesses and organizations representing over 50 million people, recently helped get bipartisan legislation introduced into Congress that would support environmental literacy for all Americans.
Pennsylvania is among only a handful of states to have drafted a state Environmental Literacy Plan, which will help achieve specific goals in reaching a more environmentally-literate populace once it is finalized in the fall. Similarly, Pennsylvania is the only state in the nation to have specific environment and ecology academic standards that all students must learn before graduating high school. In fact, these have recently been updated and made increasingly rigorous by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The groundwork is being laid for future generations to shift the way our culture relates to the land. Without sustained investments in environmental literacy and education, though, how can we expect to understand and respond mindfully to the challenges facing our environment and our economy? If we do not understand our role within the larger community of life — as members of a community, not masters of it — it should come as no surprise when we continue to cut down our trees, foul our air with pollution and spoil our water with chemicals and methane gas.
By renewing our relationship directly with the land and learning from all it has to teach us, we may leave a hospital and just world for future generations. Environmental education is one important way of achieving this, just as education in general is seen as the most important means of preparing citizens to live meaningful and productive lives. But by clinging to the status quo and further rolling back support for proven ways of restoring our environment and our quality of life, we may be sealing our collective fate.