Ecoliteracy – Empowering Our Youth

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The challenge of environmental educators and their students, our youth,  is to build a new social order in which citizens seek to achieve the well-being of all life on Earth that is in harmony with Nature.

We, modern adults, are robbing from the future. We are leaving our children, our grandchildren, and all future human generations with an ethical and ecological mess that could spell disaster for the human race by the year 2100.  The Worldwatch Institute says:

“We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying…. We act as we do because we can get away with it; future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions. International law traditionally has been spatially oriented: many court rulings relate to the spaces we occupy and the borders we define, but few legal decisions focus on past generations, and almost none on upcoming ones.”


“Dissatisfaction among many people is rising as their overall well-being declines in response to population growth, the intensifying impacts of climate change and other forms of environmental damage, the rising cost of extracting “natural resources,” the growing concentration of wealth, and slowing economic growth. It is increasingly apparent that existing international and national governance systems are incapable of responding effectively to these challenges. Public faith in the development models and solutions that governments and the international community have proposed to address these challenges effectively is declining… most civil society organizations do not believe that the significant challenges of the twenty-first century can be addressed by employing the same market-oriented thinking that created them.”

“The Seventh Generation principle of the Iroquois peoples, states that any action or decision should take into account its consequences for up to seven generations to come. Judging by our current course of development, we are, as a species, incapable of preserving the ecological well-being of one or two generations down the road, let alone seven.  Fortunately, issues of inter-generational equity and governance have gained significant traction at the global level and have a growing presence in national and international texts. Several organizations, such as the World Future Council, have made it their mission to make inter-generational equity a reality. Related declarations, commissions, and policy recommendations are multiplying … At the national level, several countries have embedded future generations and inter-generational governance into their constitutions, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Germany, Kenya, Norway, and South Africa. The Norwegian constitution states that “natural resources should be managed on the basis of comprehensive long-term consideration whereby this right will be safeguarded for future generations as well.”


The greatest gift that we can give our own children and our world’s youth is a safe and sustainable Earth. This is not the case right now because we adults of the “me generation” are incapable of modifying our worldview that is focused on economics and consumerism. We are using up the finite resources of our planet. We are leaving nothing for future human generations. The hopes of a sustainable future for humans on earth may cease to exist by 2050 — only some 30 years away. The power to change this trend must come from our youth and from the environmental education community that guides our youth. One of the failures of the current concept of ecoliteracy is that it focuses only on the acquisition of knowledge. It fails to provide equal emphasis on the application of that knowledge to future generations.

The hope for a sustainable future for human beings is possible by empowering our youth to actively apply their ecoliteracy. That empowerment can come from the guidance of the world’s environmental educators. This essay suggests some of the options that are available.

Legacy oriented environmental education

Creating a chain of influential students or groups is an essential method for expanding sustainable environmental practices beyond place and time. An example of a legacy building that we use at the high school where I am a teacher is called the “Green Team”. The Green Team consists of senior-level high school students who are trained to provide hands-on, place-based environmental education to primary and junior high school students. There is a certain magic that takes place when my Green Team students teach younger students. Normally frisky primary and secondary students listen with great attention when the Green Team is doing the teaching and allowing everyone to touch, feel, and listen. The young students listen and respond with zeal. In doing their work, my high school students are building their legacy in hopes that, someday, the young students will become the teachers. This program works particularly well in schools that offer primary, secondary, and high school education within one organization. It is a program that also works well with cooperative programs between separate school organizations.

A Green Team teaching session consists of two parts — all taught by student-specialists.

First, the Green Team provides a 45-minute introductory talk to the young students in their classroom about interdependency in Nature as well as what to expect during the upcoming field trip. A box of specimens (plant parts, skeletons, rocks, etc), previously collected by my students, are brought into the classroom so that the young students can view, touch, taste, and smell while the talk is being given.  This session ends with instructions about safety and behavior during the field trip.

Within a week of the introductory talk, the young students will go to the local estuary for a hands-on experience.

At the estuary, the young students first play the “string game”. The string game is an activity that can be used as a demonstration and simulation of interdependency in Nature. In this simulation,  students represent plants and animals living in the habitat which is being visited. Each student has a picture of who he or she is representing in Nature. Sitting in a circle, students connect themselves to each other using a ball of string to represent the ways in which they depend on each other for their energy flow. As they make connections, the string forms a visual web of life. In the final part of the simulation game, the students will experience what happens when a connection is destroyed. Here is an excellent 8 page PDF document that describes the process.

The young students then visit the nearby mangrove forest and focus on the flow of energy from the sun, through the mangrove leaves, and on to the local food chain. Near the end of the field trip experience, the young students will review what they have learned by sitting in a circle and answering the question: “What Did You See?

Throughout this experience, the teachers and the learners are building a legacy. My Green Team teachers are passing on what they know to a group of younger students. The hope is that someday the younger students will pass on their inspired knowledge to others. The Green Team program is conducted at a local private kinder through 12th-grade school. So, there is an opportunity for younger students to become teachers when they reach high school. Furthermore, we are hoping to expand the Green Team program to other schools in the community.

Community Education By Volunteer Teachers

Another form of the legacy building can be implemented by untrained environmental teachers.  This kind of program is implemented in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico by a federal government conservation organization called CONANP.  Environmental teaching sessions have been created in advance by skilled and experienced CONANP employees and volunteers. Each teaching session has a specific theme such as wetland ecology or desert ecology. A complete and very detailed self-contained lesson plan is created in advance. In addition, a box of items from Nature is assembled. This box might contain seashells, plant parts, rocks, bones, and other natural materials. The purpose behind the box of natural things is to give a student something to touch, feel, taste, or smell while a talk is being given by an instructor.  On occasion, I have asked my environmental education students to assemble items in these boxes. This process becomes an environmental treasure hunt that is enjoyed by all.

The entire teaching kit consists of a detailed lesson plan and a box of natural items. The teacher can be a volunteer, a parent, or a high school student. Lessons can be given anywhere. On occasion, a lesson is given to a group of young students at nearby fishing villages. The idea is to create a legacy with a young student influencing the family of a fisherman.

One important role of the volunteer teacher is to recruit students in his/her programs to become volunteers. In doing so, a legacy is created.

Letting The Voices And Influence of Young and Future Generations Be Heard

One of the challenges of effective ecoliteracy is moving from stating broad ecological principles to ensuring their implementation. Our youth and their mentors have the power to make their voices effectively heard through student-created and operated environmental organizations. One example is the web site entitled “Young Professionals For Agricultural Development [ ] (YPARD) . One blog essay offered by this web site is Role of Youth for A Cleaner and Greener Environment   [ ] .

This web site facilitates online discussions, provides the opportunity for participants to publish blog essays, and describes youth success stories.What follows is some important quotes from this essay:

“Young people can play an active role in protecting and improving the environment. They can change their lifestyle and how it affects the environment. They can make their homes, schools, and youth organizations more environmentally friendly by adopting environmentally friendly practices, recycling of different materials as well as preserving resources such as water and electricity. Engaging youth in environmental protection not only creates a direct impact on changing youth behaviors and attitudes, but possibly influence their parents, relatives, and families. Youth are the backbone of the nation. They can change the future of society with their well being and courageous behavior. “

Another youth organization is Climates [] which is a student-led, international think-and-do-tank striving to research and implement innovative solutions to climate change.

“CliMates is an international youth-led think-and-do tank on climate change gathering together volunteers, both students, and young professionals.

The goal of our NGO (non-governmental organization) is to take on the climate challenge by developing and promoting innovative ideas and tools, training youth to become change-makers, and influencing decision-makers.  

We are youthful souls: crazy and innovative, sharing a collective vision for a transition towards a low carbon society by informing, empowering, and engaging youth in collaborative research, global advocacy, and grassroots mobilization.

CliMates gathers youth from all around the world who aim at facing climate challenges. Our global network represents various countries, identities, backgrounds, and cultures.

We want to stand up, shout out, be heard, and create something different through the alliance of thought and action!

CliMates’ project was born in France in 2011 and has spread all around the world with members in more than 30 countries. You can join us and/or collaborate with us from everywhere!”

Both Climates and YPARD are excellent examples of influential projects where ANY environmental education class can participate. They are also examples of what can be started by any environmental education program at any school.

If, in reading this essay, you have other examples of empowering youth to change the current deadly trends that can incapacitate the human race, please offer your comments in the section provided at the end of this essay.

Here is a current list of essays about ecoliteracy for your consideration. This list will expand with time.

For Your Further Consideration

This essay is part of a series of essays about ecoliteracy that present ideas to environmental educators, students,  and all stewards of Nature.   These ideas come from some of our modern great thinkers. The emphasis in these essays will be on two key ideas:

  1. Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy to all life. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview is based on the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  2. Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and take place outdoors if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the passing of this consciousness to future generations.

Please Comment

The purpose of my essays is to develop a dialog with my readers. You are strongly encouraged to comment on this essay in the space provided below. 

My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.