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Heartland Institute’s Climate Skeptics vs Children: Bet on the Kids

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 21, 2012 5:00:00 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last week, someone posing as a Heartland Institute board member persuaded  a staff member to send him a “new email” board package, which he then released to environmental activist websites. The package contained descriptions of Heartland’s intention to develop curriculum for K-12 children that would recast current teachings on global warming as a scientific controversy.

This change in basic science curriculum is surely as doomed to failure as the challenge to teaching evolution. Already, a group of climate scientists has urged Heartland to “recognize how its attacks on science and scientists have helped poison the debate over climate change policy.” But it is interesting to consider what might happen if such a change were instituted. How vulnerable are children to misinformation about the environment? Do they even care?

Kids_vs_HeartlandIt’s a fair question. Children have never been more remote from nature. As a Children and Nature Networks paper summarizing 45 studies on the topic reported:

  • In the early 2000s, 71 percent of mothers recalled playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 percent of them said their kids play outdoors daily.
  • In 2007, 42 percent of children ages 6 to 17 participated in outdoor activity less than 30 times a year.
  • Between 1975 and 2005, walking and bicycling to school dropped nearly 25 percent.
  • In 2005-2006, children between 8 and 18 spent an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media, though 1.75 of those hours are spent with music.

I first considered whether my daughter’s generation would carry the environmental torch in 2005 when I heard talk given by Richard Louv at a Conservation International event. Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and coiner of the term “nature deficit disorder,” told us a story about when he took his children to a party at a park that sat above a river. His children bounded out of the car towards the water. The party’s host shrieked in fear – they would be unsupervised! and exposed to God knows what! Louv used this story to illustrate that children are raised to see nature as something scary rather than as a source of wonder. Making his nature-deprived argument even more urgent, Louv asked, where will we find the people with the will to safeguard our National Parks and Forests? To run the EPA? Who in future generations will have the visceral love of nature that underscores its protection, even when that protection impedes growth?

Two things give me hope. First, the trend seems to be reversing. Though visits to US National Parks fell in recent decades, there are now signs of rebound, possibly due to the recession or greater public awareness about the benefits of nature for children. A 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research demonstrated that students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent.  Participation in outdoor education was directly associated with improved conflict resolution skills and cooperation. Michele Obama’s Let’s Move campaign against obesity is focused on getting kids outdoors again. The National Wildlife Federation has a parallel effort called Be Out There, citing research that connects the lack of outdoor time to not only increased obesity, but also depression, stress, diabetes, ADD and poor performance in the classroom. PTAs are insisting recess be reinstated into the school day.

And I wonder if kids would even buy a teacher telling them that our behavior is not causing climate change. In her blog for CSRHub (my sponsor), Cynthia Figge posits that “(Those under 30) have an innate understanding of the ecological and social issues facing the planet. They do not debate whether these challenges exist or are an imperative for their generation.”

Figge calls them “sustainability natives,” arguing that just as citizens under 30 are digital natives for having grown up in an era where it is hardly an option not to be digital, so today’s young people consider sustainability an immutable part of their culture.

At a very early age, society teaches children to act as-if they understand what their older siblings learn in school about climate change in simple acts like separating the recycling at home and outside too, at places like McDonald’s and the movies.

So even if children are faced with a curriculum that demotes climate change to a scientific controversy, they will still act as-if because it’s their native culture. It’s built in to their screen time: the code for bad-guys is someone who smokes or doesn’t recycle. WALL E was their first hero. They cheered in Avatar as much for the aliens as for the natural beauty that man was set to destroy. My bet is that Heartland will be hard-pressed to convince this generation otherwise.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Landwehr.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHUB.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in climate change, Uncategorized, youth, nature, science education, Carol Pierson Holding, children

Sustainability Natives

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 9, 2012 4:00:00 AM / by Cynthia Figge

By Cynthia Figge

This past weekend I participated in a program at my alma mater, Lawrence University, to connect college students with alumni in business, law, the arts and medicine. As the entrepeneur “role model,” I spoke alongside two other professionals about their journey post-Lawrence. Maybe it’s because I have a “save the world” gene and attract others who share this passion, but it seemed like a considerable number of students are involved in sustainability. They are planting gardens on campus, volunteering in the community, designing new ventures to help homeless people make the transition to a viable livelihood, traveling to China to study sustainability, lobbying for the greening of campus buildings, instigating recycling programs to close the loop, and leading many other independent study and senior projects with a focus in ecological and social issues.

SustainabilitynativesThis is why I deem the emerging cohort graduating from college in the past and current decade “sustainability natives.” I borrow the term from Marc Prensky’s “digital natives” – the notion that people under 30-something have come of age after the Internet was made accessible to all. Consequently, their expectations for how the world functions differs significantly from only a generation prior. Just like digital natives, sustainability natives have an innate understanding of the ecological and social issues facing the planet. They do not debate whether these challenges exist or are an imperative for their generation. They instead take for granted the need to creatively solve sustainability’s challenges of efficiency (reduced material and energy throughput and reduced waste), and sufficiency (what does society need to truly create a sustainable economic equilibrium for 7 to 10 billion people).

Furthermore, their expectation that business takes a lead in tackling these issues is a given. This means that for the sustainability native, they will expect more from the corporate world around them. According to Cone Communications, “83% of Americans want MORE of the products, services and retailers they use to support causes.” And in their day to day job, 88% of sustainability natives will choose employers based on their CSR and 86% would consider leaving their job if CSR no longer held up (according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers). Born into a certain assumption about the imperative of sustainability, this generation bridges the professional and personal and marries their values and their dollars spent.

But what caught my attention was the following. At a brainstorming workshop on business solutions to societal problems, this question was raised: are companies truly are becoming sustainable if the highest rated companies on CSRHub are in the low 70s (out of 100)? Surely the best cannot be only a C+. But even more concerning to the students was the question of sufficiency – do we even need the unsustainable products and services that we are trying to make more sustainable? Isn’t this an exercise straight from the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Far beyond dreaded greenwashing, this harkens to a deeper point: can capitalism be sustainable if it’s driving force is consumption? Aren’t the two necessarily at odds? After all, even if we lightweight a 12 ounce soda can and recycle it after consumption, we still have a product that combines water – a precious resource - with an average of 10 packets of sugar to create a drink with no nutritional value. And how many pairs of shoes or numbers of iPods do we really need?

Many of us who are not digital natives do fairly well learning and adapting to all things digital, and many of us who are not sustainability natives work hard to create a more sustainable world. However, the sustainability natives may address and solve the underlying challenges of efficiency and sufficiency in a way that “sustainability immigrants” (like me) may not. The question of what do we really need to consume may rattle the sustainability field – and it should. It may be these sustainability natives that are the most disruptive; challenging our attempts thus far to “sustain” the unsustainable. Their call is to challenge the consumption-centric economic model at its very core. After all, they must.

 Photo of Lawrence University students working in a garden (courtesy of Rachel Crowl). 

Cynthia Figge, Cofounder and COO of CSRHub is a forerunner and thought leader in the corporate sustainability movement. In 1996 she co-founded EKOS International, one of the first consultancies integrating sustainability and corporate strategy. Cynthia has worked with major organizations including BNSF, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Dow Jones, Noranda and REI to help craft sustainability strategy integrated with business. She was an Officer of LIN Broadcasting/McCaw Cellular leading new services development, and started a new “Greenfield” mill with Weyerhaeuser. She serves as Advisor to media and technology companies, and served as President of the Board of Sustainable Seattle. Cynthia has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Cynthia is based in the Seattle area.


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[fa icon="comment"] 4 Comments posted in corporate social responsibility, Cynthia Figge, generational gap, Uncategorized, youth, sustainability, digital natives

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