Three things you must teach your kids if you care about the environment

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Ensia

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” is a good start. But what the next generation really needs to know is how to overcome political polarization, science phobia and lazy thinking.

When you’re thinking about having a baby, people are all up in your business with unsolicited advice about everything from how to breastfeed to how many diapers end up in landfills, but strangely vague about more important big picture issues — like whether it’s even responsible to have children in this day and age.

I just became a mom for the first time, and making the decision to go bravely into babyland involved an analysis of environmental issues, especially carbon dioxide impacts. A 2009 Oregon State University study particularly caught my eye. This study found that having a child increases a U.S. woman’s CO2 legacy by 9,441 metric tons (10,406 tons), nearly seven times more than for an average woman in China. The takeaway? Even if you do “everything right” — compost, public transit, hybrids, energy-efficient appliances — the impact of having a child is staggering.

When I started asking how friends, family and colleagues justified children in this context, the tepid consensus (aside from some outlier suggestions) was “teach your children well” — essentially, pass on the notion that if we reduce, reuse and recycle we are doing our part for the planet.

The idea of individual environmental stewardship is important, but we need to move past this mind-set to address the underlying, systemic ways in which we are failing to teach our children well: deep polarization in politics, the war on science and the death of critical thinking skills.

These three points may seem disconnected, but they cumulatively exert a powerful force on our society. And while social change can sometimes ripple through our country quickly, inspiring hope for change, there is still a lot of work to do in the environmental realm — work that could be bolstered by combating these three trends.

Political Polarization

Climate change has become so politicized in the U.S. that we are seen as a “very serious [global] hand brake” on progress by top United Nations officials. The filter bubble surrounding us results in a growing reluctance to find common ground. Dinner table conversations, once a bastion of civil discourse that had the power of changing opinions on politics and global affairs, now more frequently revolve around the Kardashians or some other less polemical topic, if they happen at all. Combine this with far more money in politics than ever before, and the result is a lack of meaningful debate in homes and in government, with little will to change anything. But, as we’ve seen recently, society’s views can change startlingly quickly, and we owe it to our children to familiarize them with meaningful conversation that has the power to change viewpoints.

Politically, many American mind-sets are still paralyzed in “left vs. right” tribal warfare. There are some fighting this polarization — the “transpartisan” movement is one example — but overall, this schism continues to sow rifts between people, hamstringing our ability to demand meaningful policy change.

War on Science

The “War on Science” might sound hyperbolic, but how else should we characterize the sometimes 50-point gap between the general public’s and scientists’ stances on issues such as genetically modified organisms, vaccines and climate change? Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a systematic effort by some to discredit not only reputable scientific data, but also science itself. Scientists are discredited because they refuse to assert something with “absolute certainty,” even though the very nature of science is to continue to question itself in the service of progress. And because of an all-too-human yearning for certainty, we give disproportionate influence to the George W. Bushes, Jenny McCarthys and Food Babes of America, whose opinions on scientific matters are at best debatable and often laughable, yet nonetheless exert undue influence on policy.

Critical Thinking Skills

The ability to critically think is on the decline — see the popularity of “click-bait” headlines, the decline in literacy rates, and even outright opposition to teaching higher order thinking skills. The media’s ineptitude on scientific reporting exacerbates the trend. If we can’t think critically, we can’t demand the kinds of nuanced, complex solutions needed to solve the pressing problems at hand.

Ultimately, I fear for my daughter, even as she inevitably fills me with hope. What kind of world will she live in? One filled with widespread drought, famine, resource wars or an Interstellar-like unstable climate? No one can predict exactly what will happen, but one thing we do know is that the future holds a higher degree of uncertainty than we’ve ever seen, and we are not adequately addressing that.

So, it’s not just the reluctant inaction on climate change and other pressing environmental problems that troubles me as a first-time mom — it’s these three trends in American thought. Anti-intellectual, anti-elitist undercurrents have long been palpable in America; however, these three trends are contributing to a society unable to take necessary leadership on environmental issues. While we can’t control what and how our children think, we can try to inspire them — with science or ecology stories before bedtime, enough time in labs and planetariums, and plenty of exposure to wild places to inspire responsible stewardship.

Perhaps the consensus answer people gave me as I was deciding to have a baby wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. We do need to teach our children well, but that means expanding our definition beyond individual environmental stewardship. Most importantly, we can teach our children how to think critically so that they are armed with the ability to discover nuanced solutions to the complex problems they will undoubtedly face.

The U.S. was once a nation prized for its thought leadership on difficult issues. We need to again start teaching our children the skills that will allow them to see and understand what really matters — before it’s too late.

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