Teaching about the environment: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”

Image: goodluz / Shutterstock.com

A changing lifestyle and consumerist attitude – the urge to have more, better, newer – make it necessary to update teaching about the environment and climate change. Learning approaches need to highlight the interaction between man and environment – to show how important a role each of us plays and what the consequences of our actions are. Anna Rabajczyk, from the University of Bielsko-Biala, argues that a new educational paradigm is important both for ourselves and for the places where we live.

From every side we are flooded with information – with photos and films showing the quality and condition of the environment. But society is indifferent to such forms of communication. There is just too many of it. According to Eurobarometer 2017 data, more than nine in ten respondents (94%) say that the protection of the environment is important to them personally, and among these, more than half (56%) say it is very important. However, the most important question was not asked: what can they do to protect the environment - without coercion, and every day?

Water around us - learning from a young age

Image: A.Rabajczyk. Water around us – learning from an early age.

Students of environmental protection or environmental engineering, or people with education in the direction of environmental management, often say that it is just a job – that they do not pay attention to the environment in everyday life. However, when looking for sources of savings, they are ecological. They install devices that use renewable energy resources or generate less waste because they buy less.

Of course, there are groups that are involved ecologically, but in the era of environmental change, this is not enough. It is necessary to engage each of us, regardless of our age and location. Therefore, environmental education must be adapted to what is important to people – in other words, what is important to us: money (let's talk openly), health, cleanliness of the places where we live or where we go to relax. We do not want to smell the unpleasant odour of rubbish; we want to have healthy food and clean water. The task of education is, therefore, to shape attitudes to connect these two worlds – the needs of everyday life and ecology.

Equipment for river testing

Image: Krzysztof Chrzan, PhD Student. Equipment for river testing.

Just talking about the need to protect the environment does not achieve anything. Talking about future generations also gets us nowhere. We need to show here and now how smog affects health, show the impact of our actions and decisions regarding our lives and finances. “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch” must be the guiding principle of meetings in the field of environmental protection.

You have to show through experiment what changes are taking place in the environment, what changes are happening inside us due to air pollution and climate change, and you have to show the way out. For example, the destruction of building facades, agricultural machines and cars caused by air pollution must be shown and compared with expenses for repair and renovation. Dirty and damaged clothes, skin problems and breathing difficulties must be balanced against drug costs, weakness and disease. There must be simple information: action – effect; pollute - you bear the consequences.

Shaping ecological responsibility cannot be selective, implemented in selected lessons from time to time or within “Green Schools” and additional activities meant only for a few people. The best solution would be to create an interdisciplinary programme implemented throughout the school year, combining knowledge from various fields, including practical classes, projects and cooperation with other schools and domestic or foreign centres.

Ecology must become our nature, not a choice.

Anna Rabajczyk is a professor at the University of Bielsko-Biala in Poland. As a Member of the Polish Ecology Club, she participated in the creation of various educational programmes. She has extensive teaching experience and deals with issues related to environmental engineering, chemical transformation under various environmental conditions, biotechnology and nanotechnology.