If you could give just one thing to school-age kids who one day will confront the increasingly dramatic effects of environmental degradation, what would it be? How about an education that helps them meet these ecological challenges, advances their academic success, and develops strength, hope, and resilience?
That’s the idea behind Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, a new book by Daniel Goleman, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence; Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy; and myself.
Ecoliterate tells stories of California students who are working on the cutting edge of habitat restoration by building in resiliency to reduce vulnerability to climate change; a South Carolina class that traveled hundreds of miles to see what mountaintop mining was doing to the people and ecosystems of Appalachia—and what they could do to stop it; and a group of young people in New Orleans who came together after Hurricane Katrina and are now dreaming up oil-free schools.
The results can be striking and a moving reminder of the fundamental optimism, creativity, and maturity of young people. Case-in-point: the Rethinkers, a New Orleans student group that came together under the leadership of founding director Jane Wholey in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help rethink New Orleans schools. The secret to the success of the leaders, educators, and young people portrayed in Ecoliterate is simple: They bring together emotional, social, and ecological intelligence—in the process, developing empathy for all of life and an understanding of how nature sustains it.
Just five years after that disaster, the region was, of course, hit by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. But these two tragedies didn’t stop New Orleans young people from marshaling their feelings and knowledge of the spill’s impact into positive action.
“If we want to prevent another oil spill,” said then ninth-grader Danny Do, the son of a shrimper, “we need to start weaning ourselves off this product and begin searching for new ideas. Now is the perfect time to get moving, and schools are a great place to start!”
New Orleans schools, the students announced on the day BP finally capped the spill, should take steps toward becoming oil-free by 2015. The students then set out to identify some of the ways they could contribute.
“We know that ‘oil-free schools’ sounds easy to dismiss, because it’s such a big vision,” said Mallory Falk, a community organizer who works with the Rethinkers. “That is why our focus is to come up with realistic, practical ways for schools to move toward being oil-free.”
And just last month, the Rethinkers’ new executive director, Thena Robinson-Mock, issued an invitation to architects and alternative technology buffs who might be willing to visit with New Orleans students to help them continue to conceive and plan oil-free schools.
In the meantime, even the focus on making positive change helps, said Wholey. “This was the great lesson of our first year after Katrina: It is, in fact, therapeutic to get people to act to right the wrong done to them,” she said. “It can be big or little. But the act itself is therapeutic. Pushing to make schools oil-free is our way of contributing.”
Is the environment a topic you discuss with your children? If so, why? Tell us in the comments.