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IT'S TIME TO REDEFINE GREEN JOBS: Thoughts Following the First-Ever White House Summit on Environmental Education

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

On Monday, April 16, the first-ever White House Summit on Environmental Education was held in Washington. This summit came at a precarious moment for environmental education and an economy that depends more than ever on environmental literacy.

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Not only is such literacy required because healthy businesses must be energy efficient, but because a new generation of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities emerging from growing evidence that mental and physical health, as well as greater capacity to learn, create, and produce, is linked to our positive and direct experience of nature.

The conference, to be reported in more detail elsewhere, was attended by leaders in environmental education, as well as Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Arne Duncan, Education Secretary, and senior officials from the White House and other federal agencies.

It was an honor to be asked to present a keynote address. Here are some additional thoughts, specific to emerging economic potential.

In 2004, Kevin Coyle, then president of the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation, and now vice president for education for the National Wildlife Federation, offered a concise summary of the economic benefits of environmental literacy: “There is growing evidence that an environmentally educated business manager will manage greater profits. Some of this margin will come from the natural cost savings that sound environmental management affords businesses. Some will also come from positive ways that businesses influence profits.”

At that time, he added, 45 million Americans thought the ocean was a source of freshwater, and 130 million Americans believed that hydropower was America’s top energy source — though it accounted for just 10 percent of the total. “Our years of Roper data show a steady pattern of environmental ignorance even among the most educated and influential members of society,” he wrote.

Since then, some increases of public knowledge may have occurred, on some topics, but recent polls paint a troubling picture of public commitment to the environment. One of them suggests that Millennials, young people of high school and college age, are less committed than their elders to taking personal action to protect the environment. Some skepticism may be warranted; the word “environment” is politically loaded, and other polls suggest that Millennials volunteer more than earlier generations, and there’s plenty of activity going on in the weeks surrounding Earth Day.

Still, nature doesn’t seem to be getting the respect it deserves. The slippage goes beyond politics, to what appears to be fading cultural esteem for the natural world: in some dictionaries, words describing nature are disappearing; in children’s picture books, depictions of nature, which once accounted for half of the illustrations, have fallen precipitously since 1938; they’re being replaced by images of the human-built and electronic environment, according to a recent study. Children may know a lot about recycling and the Amazon rain forest, and that’s good, but their connection to the nature in their own back yards lags, if it exists at all.

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Reasonable people may disagree about the role of government, but no one can reasonably deny that the health of the natural world, and our relationship with it, will affect every future business and every individual no matter where they stand in the political spectrum.

We all stand, in fact, on the threshold of a new world of potential businesses, jobs, careers and roles: educators, architects and builders who employ nature-based programs and biophilic design to increase health, learning and productivity; urban designers and others who transform cities into engines of biodiversity and human health; residential builders who weave nature into future neighborhoods (including redeveloped neighborhoods in inner-cities and suburbs in need of an uplift); businesses and services that help homeowners integrate native plants and natural pools into their yards and remodeled homes; “new agrarians” who revive families’ farms, bring food closer to home, and help create vertical farms in dense urban neighborhood; physicians and mental health professionals who prescribe nature, and park rangers who act as health paraprofessionals; industrial designers who specialize in biomimicry.

There’s much more to say about this nature-nurtured economy. Some examples of it are already on the ground. But here, as they say in the corporate boardrooms, is the bottom line: We could be entering one of the most creative periods in human history, precisely because of the environmental challenges we face. To help our children and future generations prepare for a better and not just survivable future, we need to build the foundation of environmental literacy, and expand the definition of that literacy.

We need to support the environmental educators and all the other natural teachers who are working harder than ever, often overcoming considerable obstacles, to connect children to the natural world and to that better future.
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Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” from which this piece is adapted, and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”  He gave the keynote address to the first White House Summit on Environmental Education.

Related: New Nature-Smart Careers: 11 for the Future and Right Now


 

 

7 Comments

  1. You are absolutely right Richard on how important nature is to our children and for the survival of our planet. It sounds like a great program. I am personally reconnecting with nature once again and practicing bush skills to bring me back to the basics of life.

    Reply
  2. I must confess that I’m more than a bit concerned to witness the pervasive pairing of business interests and profitability with the health and well-being of the encompassing ecosystem. The common refrain is that a false dichotomy exists between economic and environmental considerations, that we should, or rather must, simultaneously concern ourselves with profit and planet. Yet, a growing body of research suggests that this perspective is potentially damaging. Insights drawn from social psychology indicates that human values are placed on a circumplex (see Schwartz, 1992; 2008). Those values clustered closer together are highly related, whereas those located on opposite ends of the circumplex tend to oppose each other. In practice, this means that when a self-transcendent value like “benevolence” is evoked, self-enhancing values like “achievement” are suppressed. Alternatively, when a value such as “power” is primed, values including “universalism” – or care for appreciation for the welfare of people and nature – are thwarted. Thus, it is likely that evoking images of business-derived power and achievement have potential to suppress expressions of self-direction, universalism, and benevolence. Further, values constitute integral elements of our developing identities. If we place greater or even equal value on money-making, we run the risk of facilitating the development of self-serving identities. In this case, we would be doing more harm than good. If you’d care to engage more with the literature on values, frames, and identity formation, I encourage you to check out the “Common Cause” website (http://valuesandframes.org), and specifically to take a close look at the resource entitled, “Limitations of Environmental Campaigning Based on Values for Money, Image, and Status” (downloaded here: http://valuesandframes.org/downloads/).

    Thank you.

    Reply
  3. John Thielbahr

    I don’t know Seth LaJeunesse or whether he has spent much time in nature, and I certainly don’t understand anything he said in his comment above. What is so complicated about understanding this basic and very practical idea:

    “Reasonable people may disagree about the role of government, but no one can reasonably deny that the health of the natural world, and our relationship with it, will affect every future business and every individual no matter where they stand in the political spectrum.”

    This is just common sense, but based on a growing body of research that can be accessed on The Children & Nature Network website. Environmental literacy may or may not arrive in every school environment. I would submit it also needs to be emphasized in libraries, the cornerstone of every community and neighborhood. Nature books and environmental literacy resources should be grouped together to be found easily. Libraries should encourage their patrons and community partners to disconnect from electronics and engage nature in play and discovery. We need more common sense and grassroots actions.

    Reply
  4. re the last reply: “In practice, this means that when a self-transcendent value like “benevolence” is evoked, self-enhancing values like “achievement” are suppressed.” Think about this statement! It only takes one example of the opposite to refute this validation. Off the top of my head, I can think of several. If a person doesn’t believe that profit and planet will always co-exist on this planet, they are living in a theorem. This in and of itself, is not so bad, but I’m not sure how useful toward real problem-solving. Thanks for
    putting forth some practical solutions, Richard!

    Reply
  5. Thank you so much for tackling this topic. We had the pleasure of seeing you speak last night at DePaul University in Lincoln Park last night and love the perspective and topics that you are so passionate about. We continue to try to do our part through our company (www.theroadlesstraveled.com) to create these types of jobs and introduce kids to the outdoors and are always looking for young people to teach each summer who are passionate and share a similar vision for nature and our future.

    Reply
  6. Thank you so much for tackling this topic. We had the pleasure of seeing you speak last night at DePaul University in Lincoln Park and love the perspective and topics that you are so passionate about. We continue to try to do our part through our company (www.theroadlesstraveled.com) to create these types of jobs and introduce kids to the outdoors and are always looking for young people to teach each summer who are passionate and share a similar vision for nature and our future.

    Reply
  7. I love this line of thought. To move even one step further, we also need to learn FROM nature, not just ABOUT nature.

    It is one thing to see a need to “green” our businesses because we are causing environmental harm; it is quite another to change our stance toward the natural world, to relearn how deeply connected we are, how much we need nature in our lives–indeed, need our lives to be in nature.

    “Green” is not a niche or an enhancement; it is in our very core as human beings to be connected with the rest of the earth.

    Reply

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