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Forget the “wisdom to know the difference.” There are real problems out there that need solving, and adopting serenity will do nothing to address that. That is the claim of a wonderful book I read this month called Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et al.
Why do I think this book is so wonderful? Well, because this book seems to offer solutions to many of the environmental issues that we face. And despite the work of many committed individuals, the message about the seriousness of the environmental problems we’re facing does not seem to be getting through. At least in a manner that is mainstream and quick enough to be truly helpful. As testimony to this situation, the very book I am discussing does not pause even once to consider its application to environmental matters. Weight loss, worker productivity, disease control in Africa, and so on, sure. But not the environment.
To ensure this invaluable book does not escape the radar of those wishing to bring about environmental change, I would like to summarize its main points and recommendations.
- Verbal persuasion alone rarely works. There are many reasons people resist change, and without addressing these reasons, any efforts to change people’s actions through the simple use of words will be unsuccessful.
- Identify the behaviours in need of changing. To rephrase the authors’ words to an environmental issue, people need to know that they should drive less rather than just saying, “Global Climate Change is coming! Global Climate Change is coming!” Doing the latter will do nothing but create worry.
- Inform people which behaviours are in greatest need of change. As an example, identify actions that can reduce the most garbage, whether that is through recycling or composting.
- Change personal motivation. After all, people will not alter their actions unless they desire to do so. A person may ask, for instance, why should I stop driving my gas-powered car even if it contributes to acid rain?
- Create opportunities for direct experience. For instance, provide people with the opportunity to participate in a community garden to learn as an aside about all the friends and acquaintances they can make. To encourage participation, why not make it a competition? As an example, see which city can reduce their per capita water consumption the most. In the process, it becomes fun to take a short shower, rather than being something that one deprives oneself of.
- Generate vicarious experiences. As an example, if someone is nervous about cycling in the city, let them see someone who is doing it. Or tell a story that does so. Stories can also help people envision ‘what if’ scenarios. An example that comes to mind is the movie, The Day After Tomorrow, that made vivid the potential impacts of global climate change. Stories are helpful because they provide the concrete, vivid and often emotional detail necessary to get ideas across while still maintaining people’s attention.
- Connect a desired behaviour to a person’s sense of self. Another way to influence personal motivation, an example would be to instill in children a love of nature. That way they will naturally want to protect it.
- Make people feel like they can positively answer the question, “Can I do it?” Without feeling enabled, people will give up in despair. This is tough for big issues like global change. But organizations like 350.org and the Transition Town movement which provide people with something to organize around can really help. They instill in people a feeling of hope that they are not alone and will eventually succeed.
- Harness the power of opinion leaders. The book cites how over 85 percent of people will not adopt a particular behaviour until leaders in their circle of peers do so. Clearly, environmentalists would do well to seek out opinion leaders in their community if they wish to effect change.
- Enlist the power of social capital. This basically means working together in a group to tackle problems that can seem daunting when working individually. That’s because people in groups can come up with solutions, see ‘blind spots’, perform tasks, and achieve solidarity (see point #8) that individuals alone could not. For instance, why not form a co-op to purchase solar panels in bulk, thereby reducing the price?
- Use incentives wisely. Provide rewards that come soon, are desirable, and are clearly tied to desired behaviours. An example could be a company that pays its employees not to drive to work, and instead arrive through alternate means. Despite the seemingly insurmountable problems of air pollution and global climate change, employees are given an immediate reward for helping address the problem.
- Employ punishments sparingly. Be careful when providing negative reinforcement. Although results may be achieved in the short term, eventually people may push back. Examples relating to the environment can include littering and car idling. People may become resentful for being reprimanded for such behaviours and just end up performing them still in secret.
- Change the structural environment. Three pieces of advice here: i) simplify, simplify, simplify; ii) make the “invisible visible”; and iii) bring people together. For instance, make the recycle bin accessible. Report people’s monthly water usage and run newspaper articles on ignored environmental problems. And finally, run events where people can get together (a rare occurrence nowadays in our culture of ‘cocooning’) to start identifying and working on solutions to environmental issues!
There. Whew! That about sums it up. Excuse the length, but there was a lot of material to get through.
What’s the basic message? Well, there’s no ‘magic pill’ to getting people to take action to fix the environment. But don’t give up and meekly accept feelings of serenity. Rather, boldly and thoughtfully seek to bring about change. The methods at your disposal are many and the potential benefits are endless!
It is a belief many of us hold dear. That is with respect to how the future is with our children. If we teach them about the importance of environmental protection, they will make the changes needed to ensure a sustainable future. Yes, we have made and continue to make many environmental blunders. And yes, without a doubt, there are many who do not care about these blunders. Or at least enough to do something about it. But the children will be able to fix all of this.
The Source of Frustration
Oh boy. Allow me to take a deep breath. Why, do you ask? Because I must admit this sort of thinking has been anathema to me for a long time. The environmental problems we are facing must be addressed now. If we wait for our children to become involved, it will likely be too late. Precious species and ecosystems will be permanently lost; people will suffer from often environmentally-linked health issues like cancer and asthma; and the climate may be irrevocably damaged as a result of global climate change.
Based on such thinking, surely the solution lies in targeting those who are making the critical decisions affecting our environment today. By that I mean the adults, or, from a child’s (by which I also mean a youth’s) perspective, the “grown ups.” Amongst them are the businesspeople, the politicians, the bureaucrats, the leaders, the volunteers, who carry much of the power to guide us towards making more environmentally-responsible choices.
But does focusing on such individuals really hold the solution? Should we really channel all of our efforts towards them, at the expense of children? Well, a few years later and hopefully somewhat wiser, I have rethought my position.
The Importance of Environmental Education
For one thing, children have tremendous power to affect change by their own actions. An example that comes to mind which is relevant to Ontario is “Reduce the Juice”, a youth-led climate change organization. In Waterloo, they held a number of great events aimed at educating the public and themselves on how to conserve and use renewable energy. Additionally, for Earth Day in Waterloo Region, students from both elementary and high schools have participated in a wide range of activities including garbage pick-up, planting and caring for trees, and conserving energy.
An additional matter is the ability of children to influence their parents. For this reason, David Suzuki regrets not focusing on educating children 20 years ago when he started his foundation. As he said recently on The Hour, “We still don’t have time for them [the children] to grow up. But [for] all of the young people, the two most important people on the planet are your moms and dads.” And they say to their moms, “I’m really worried” and to their dads, “What are you doing for me?”
There is yet another reason why we should educate our children about the environment. That has to do with the resiliency of the earth. Yes, we may foolishly wreak environmental havoc, and yes we need to take steps to stop this, but the earth has shown that it can repair itself (at least to a certain extent) if given sufficient opportunity. Examples are the improvements to the ozone layer and the recovery of species like the Bald Eagle. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, we need to look towards the future to find ways to mend it. And teaching our children to value the environment and how to care for it is an important part of the solution.
Putting these Ideas into Action
That just about summarizes my thoughts on environmental education. Except with regard to how exactly we can achieve this. Fortunately, a wealth of information exists on how to include the environment in a school curriculum. A brief exploration of my public library produced a number of reference books. (Some books I found that seemed particularly useful were True Green Kids by Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin, and As If Earth Matters by Thom Henley and Kenny Peavy.) A search on the Internet with the terms “environmental education for kids” also yields a plethora of information (including Kids for Saving Earth and EcoKids, both of which provide resources for teachers).
Also, with many universities offering degrees in environmental studies and Queen’s even having an Outdoor and Experiential Education program, there should be no shortage of people able to teach children about the environment (although, sadly, environmental studies does not qualify as a ‘teachable’ in teacher’s college, a situation that administrators would be wise to reconsider.)
Of course, from personal experience, I would say that all the teaching in the world about the environment will do little without enabling children to come into contact with nature firsthand. Only then can they develop a true understanding of the importance of protecting our “wild” spaces. This will require protecting our greenspaces (particularly those in urban spaces where children have less access to such areas), funding outdoor education programs like those associated with the Laurel Creek Nature Centre, and providing them with opportunities to join groups like the Waterloo Scout Group (which, by the way, is open to both girls and boys).
So. Environmental education for children. Is it important? Most definitely. Do we have the resources to rise to the challenge? Absolutely. Should we rely solely on children to do all the work for us? Not at all. But that doesn’t mean they should be left out of the equation. As for the time to act, as they say, no time is like the present. So let’s get going!