Environmental Education – It’s more than naming trees!


(Washington, DC) – Attending the first ever White House Summit on Environmental Education shed light on what’s wrong with the environmental movement: the generational balance of power. While I am extremely honored to have been invited to attend, I cannot help but be disappointed that there were not enough young environmental leaders sitting at the table next to leaders of government, business, academia and NGOs.


The White House - Washington, DC | Photo taken by Mitch Lowenthal

As I sat in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, I read on the agenda quite an exciting list of speakers including: EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, DOI Deputy Secretary David Hayes, and the widely experienced panelists. It was unfortunate that CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley was a no-show, especially when the CEQ was listed first on the invitation.

The President’s Environmental Youth Awards (PEYA) followed the opening introductions. Megan Rosenberger from Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, used her engineering skills to implement a hydroelectric system in her home and utilized a rain barrel system to save water. Ainsley Campbell of Frisco, Texas, concerned about the toxicity of pesticides, introduced bat boxes to control the dangerous level of disease-carrying insects in her community’s local parks. While these inspiring high-school students gave presentations during the breakout lunch session, I did not see any winner stay for the remainder of the Summit. Who better to give feedback on how their environmental education has positively impacted their community than the current generation of environmentally-conscious youth?

As a video camera in the back of the room streamed our discussions live, I kept wondering what other ways the Summit participants could use technology to reach those Americans who are outside of the Beltway. Is there a Facebook dialogue being moderated? Why are there no question and answer periods after the panel discussions? If we are thinking of solutions to reach the most people on the tightest budget, we have to be engaging. The fact that we were encouraged to tweet but no one around me could get phone service was embarrassing, though not as embarrassing as the President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

Cutting over $30 million in environmental education funds will put the United States of America behind on the path towards healthier citizens with good jobs. By cutting over half the budget for NOAA’s environmental education grants, which directly support science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning, our next generation of leaders will be at a competitive disadvantage. Green jobs are only possible when there is a skilled workforce able to meet occupational demands. Proposing budget cuts to environmental education inhibits youth from gaining the valuable skills they need to succeed in the global economy.

President Obama launched the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to “develop a 21st Century conservation and recreation agenda.” While going kayaking or hiking a mountain are certainly part of a healthy lifestyle they are not viable substitutes for comprehensive environmental education.

Akiima Price, author of What’s Good in my Hood, spoke the most sense when she explained, “the environment is not a place you go visit, it’s what’s around you.”

More than two-thirds of Americans live in urban areas in the United States. We must adapt our method of thinking when it comes to environmental education. Sure, the great outdoors in the visions of Aldo Leopold and Theodore Roosevelt still come to mind when thinking about environmental education, that’s fine. But it is important to open that vision to sustainable urban design, creating more spaces like The High Line and Bloomingdale Trail.

We must seek new ways to create lasting impacts on a large number of people for relatively little cost. I believe youth are the missing voice in a conversation that has gone on for too long. Environmental education is not meant to help others passively learn about nature, it is meant to empower everyone ‘K through Gray’ to make positive changes in our community. As stakeholders we cannot keep reminiscing about bucolic pastures, we must face the reality like the young PEYA winners and innovate.

About Mitch Lowenthal – As the External Communications Coordinator for SustainUS, he has spoken on the topics of environmental education and sustainable development.