A Reflection on School Education & Attitudes to Sustainability

Photo by Miriam Espacio on Unsplash

By Beth Goodman, SEEd Youth Ambassador

My choices during education reflected my passion for the environment and wildlife, culminating in my recently finished biology degree. But until the age of 16 my peers and I studied, for the most part, the same subjects. This blog is a reflection on my school education, coupled with the feedback from young people collected in SEEd’s recent survey, on Attitudes to Sustainability. 

Education for sustainable development, or ESD, may be the most important and underrated aspect of what we learn. Sustainability means maximising pay off in both the short and long term. There is a tendency for humans to focus on short-term pay off and much of our society is set up this way. Politicians work to get elected by offering short-term incentives which has led to a mindset that the problems we face now can be dealt with by someone else in the future. By teaching the importance of preserving future benefits, we would avoid many issues I see today. For example, the overfishing of the North Sea cod. The North Sea borders several countries, all of whom rely on fishing as a major source of economic growth, compounded by an increase in demand for fish; their Governments therefore set high quotas. The quotas are there to protect the fish population from decline, but short-term payoff gets prioritised and now many species are at risk of extinction. It is important not only to teach ways we can act sustainably, but also to impress upon people how urgent this is and what is at risk if we don’t. This should be applied in every area of our lives. It is not just an important concept in environmental terms, but in other areas like our finances, future careers, and lifestyle choices. 

As things are, I feel I was only taught about sustainability in the terms of the environment, and only as small modules in Geography and Biology. Almost as a side note. 

In 2014 only 36% of students took GCSE Geography, whereas Biology is a core subject, required at the very least as part of Combined Sciences. This means that Biology is the perfect platform to educate young minds about sustainability and the affect of humans on the planet. However, my experience of this subject area was sparse, with some focus on acid rain damaging land and buildings from burning fossil fuels, eutrophication causing death in rivers from fertilising farm crops, and how greenhouse gases released by human activities were leading to climate change. The subject of renewable energies was taught but it came across as some sort of futuristic technology, that almost shouldn’t be taken seriously.

When protecting the environment came up, I feel that it was viewed the same way as animal welfare, as something good but optional to worry about, to be advocated by the more nurturing people. I don’t think it’s ever been stressed enough just how reliant humans are on the natural environment. Ecosystems provide oxygen, clean water, fuel, and materials which we need. They regulate and support our climate, air, soil, nutrients, pollinators, and water, so that we can grow crops, raise animals, and continue to breathe. They also regulate our waste and protect us from natural hazards like flooding or fires. The natural world is culturally important and is linked to happiness. Being outside more often raises our mood and provides spiritual and cultural benefits. We cannot survive without a healthy natural world. It is crucial that we protect the environment, and everyone should be taught just how important it is for humans.

Since graduating from University, I have learned so much more about sustainable practises and ways that I can make a difference, and I strongly feel this is what should be taught to young minds from an early stage. Sustainable practises should be incorporated into teaching across almost all subjects and when it comes to the environment a more personal and productive route should be used. It is obvious that there is a motivation among young people to learn about and work towards a sustainable future. The recent school strikes and Extinction Rebellion have demonstrated this. They are building momentum but seem to lack the knowledge of what they can and should be targeting for change. 

In SEEd’s Attitudes to Sustainability survey a question was set up to rank twelve sustainability issues which were initially identified by a focus group of young people. The issues ranked highest by young people were pollution and littering, animal extinction, and deforestation. Lowest ranked by young people was changing business operations, while adults who answered the survey ranked this as second only to changing people’s behaviours. I think the answers given by young people reflect the information we see most often, typically through the media. We are told by everyone that littering is wrong. And seeing animals in suffering and habitat being destroyed is extremely emotive. But considering that only 9% of the plastic ever made has been recycled, and that Coca Cola alone produces 3 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, it’s clear that big companies need to be under pressure to change. We are told that we are responsible as consumers, that we need to stop buying plastic, but it’s on almost everything. We are not taught how to stop this, or who is responsible for the abundance of plastic in supermarkets, and we are even told that as consumers we are the most to blame. This is not right; it is causing widespread guilt without leading to effective action. 

Teaching the base facts, while valuable, is not a proactive route to help make society better. Our society is not sustainable as it is and feedback from both adults and young people in the Attitudes to Sustainability survey portray the current sense that what we need is change. 75% of young people surveyed, and almost all adults, believe that our society is not sustainable. The climate crisis is a very real threat to our way of life, and we need to change our ways now. Schools should take an emotive approach to teach children about the lack of sustainability now, to instil some of the sense of urgency that reflects our current trajectories. This is useless without giving them information on how they can continue to strive for improvements to our society. We have become lazy and settled in our ways, but we need to become advocates now to protect our planet and our future. Plain facts about what humans are doing and have done are valuable, but not a priority for everyone to learn about, as they will quickly be forgotten by most people as negative and irrelevant information for their own lives. What will really affect everyone is how population-wide opinions, lifestyles and choices can bring about necessary system changes for the benefit of all. 

Education is the greatest tool with which we shape our society and children now are becoming advocates for the change we need to see.  Let’s give them the tools to shape their own future.