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Environmental Education Is Essential

WE tell our kids that it's important to exercise. We encourage them to eat right. We tell them not to take drugs. All so they can take control of their bodies and lead a healthy life. Then we send them out to play in smog-choked air. We let them drink water laced with lead, eat apples tainted with pesticides, and swim in waters contaminated with medical waste. The decisions we've made about the environment, whether conscious or not, have left our children with a deadly legacy. The problems our environment is facing are potentially much more damaging to their well being than excesses of cholesterol, calories, or even cocaine. It will be up to our children to correct the environmental mistakes we've made. So how are we, as a nation, going to prepare them for this task?

We must make environmental education as vital a part of the curriculum as physical fitness, drug education, and computer literacy have become. Our challenge is to make future generations environmentally literate.

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In an environmentally literate society, every citizen has an understanding of how the world works - how ecological, technological, and social systems interact. Every citizen values the environment as the basis of human well-being. Every citizen understands that the earth's life support systems are fragile, and that each of us makes decisions every day that affect these support systems. And every citizen possesses the skills and commitment to make informed and environmentally sound decisions.

Just as the drug crisis has prompted us to move quickly and effectively to develop drug education programs, the environmental crisis demands the same call for an immediate and comprehensive environmental education program.

Environmental education is not new. It has been with us since our environmental consciousness was raised in the '60s and '70s. But environmental education has continually suffered from a lack of funding, a lack of support from mainstream educators, a lack of serious attention from parents, and a lack of coordination at federal, state, and local levels. And it has been inappropriately labeled as a nonessential or back-burner subject - even more so than art, music, or geography.

Fortunately, environmental education has not been completely neglected. Many not-for-profit organizations, museums, zoos, aquariums, universities, state departments of education, teachers, and naturalists have shown foresight in implementing effective environmental education programs. But we can't afford to rely on isolated voluntary and often underfunded programs to mainstream environmental education. It must be a part of every curriculum, from preschool to college, and it must be integrated into science, social studies, language arts, history, health, art, and every other subject. Additionally, it must be taught as a separate course in upper grades, such as an environmental science course in middle school or an environmental issues course in high school. And it must be made relevant to the diverse audiences that make up our nation's classrooms.

Recognizing the urgency and need for federal direction and funding, Sen. Quentin N. Burdick (D) of North Dakota recently introduced and conducted hearings on Senate legislation that would establish a National Office of Environmental Education.

The office would be housed in the Environmental Protection Agency and funded through appropriations from penalties collected in response to the violations of key environmental protection regulations. It would help train teachers and other environmental professionals; support the development and dissemination of innovative curricular and supplementary materials; provide opportunities for environmental internships; and recognize outstanding achievement in the environmental education field by sponsoring an awards program. Rep. George Miller (D) of California, along with more than 50 cosponsors, has introduced a companion House bill. Hearings are scheduled for April 19.

This bill is an important beginning. It provides a federal mandate for environmental education. But we cannot expect the anticipated $15 million in annual revenue for this legislation, which is a fraction of our total federal education budget, to meet our nation's environmental education needs. The responsibility for creating an environmentally literate citizenry lies with each of us, as parents, textbook publishers, business leaders, school administrators, teachers, politicians, and simply concerned citizens. We all need to demand that environmental education become a national education priority.

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In the next decade alone, more than 25 million young people are expected to graduate from our educational system, including the first graduating class of the 21st century. Environmental education can help them understand the connections between a healthy mind, a healthy body, and a healthy planet - connections that we've too often failed to see ourselves.

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