Today is Earth Day – designated as such because it marks the date signifying the beginning of the environmental movement in 1970. Since then, it has become a nationally recognized opportunity to engage in environmentally conscious activities like tree planting, energy conservation, political debates, fundraising, and countless other events designed to pay tribute to our planet.
Classrooms across the country today are likely commemorating this occasion with themed lessons to engage students in discussions about topics ranging from conservation of resources to overpopulation. And President Obama is celebrating with a visit to Florida’s Everglades to highlight some of the environmental destruction being caused as a result of climate change. Many have suggested that this public spectacle may not be a strong political move for the President given recent negative comments by Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott regarding President Obama’s lack of commitment to the Everglades (after having previously declared a ban on the use of the phrase “climate change” by all state employees).
Many environmental issues – and particularly climate change – have been hotly debated among political parties, and as an environmental science teacher I constantly sought ways to introduce such topics to students in ways that allowed them to evaluate and draw conclusions for themselves. But there are at least a few lessons that transcend party lines that we can hope to impart on our children as we discuss controversial topics with them.
Do your research. With each contentious topic, there are misconceptions. Climate change is one example, where even prominent political figures are still in denial about the scientific evidence at hand, but there are countless others our kids will encounter throughout their lifetimes. So the key lesson for them here is to investigate everything to the best of their ability, and to never let one person’s opinion pass for evidence.
Keep an open mind. Sometimes, the information we think qualifies as evidence ends up being refuted by a body of information that is uncovered at a later time. And sometimes, there is enough evidence to support multiple theories of how an event of the past took place, and not enough evidence to actually prove one of them is correct. As scholars, our kids need to understand this and be open to hearing the ideas of others and genuinely taking them into consideration.
Don’t let anyone tell you that your beliefs aren’t important. In some cases, scientific evidence isn’t the only thing that matters when determining someone’s beliefs. It can certainly be confusing, for instance, when such evidence tends to refute an important religious belief that one has been taught to hold dear. It is important to remember that each person’s set of experiences is valuable, and that each of us is entitled to our own thoughts and opinions about the world, but to do this in tandem with keeping an open mind. Healthy debate is productive, but criticizing others for their beliefs is not.
Care for yourself, others, and our planet. No matter what your thoughts are on the science of climate change and the evidence that links it to human behavior, it would be remiss to deny that caring for our planet is important. The technology and innovations of the past several decades have fundamentally changed our relationship with our environment and its natural resources, and we need to understand that the way we handle them now will have profound implications for our future.
So as you consider today how to recognize the importance of Earth Day, remember the lessons above. None of them is topic specific, but all have the possibility of driving our children to a more critical understanding of how to approach the world. For no matter our environmental beliefs, we can all agree on the importance of preparing our kids for the future.