UI needs to take reigns in environmental education

BY SAM CLEARY | APRIL 25, 2012 6:30 AM

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Earth Day has passed, but at the University of Iowa, Earth Week is in full swing. From the Sustainability Festival this Friday to the recent designation of the UI as an Arbor Day Foundation "Tree Campus USA," things are looking up.

Yet, while campus and community initiatives play a huge role in raising environmental awareness at the local level, Earth Month as a whole reminds us of the bigger picture and pushes us to think long-term for the sake of the planet.

As a state university with a national reputation for progressivism — environmentally, culturally, and academically — the UI finds itself in a position of social and ethical responsibility: Students and faculty alike should remain wary of initiatives at the national level and take an active role in supporting federally funded environmental education initiatives in public schools.

This past Sunday, the Earth Day Network celebrated the 42nd-annual celebration of Earth Day by publicly urging Americans to petition the federal government to provide total funding for environmental-education initiatives nationwide.

Federal support of environmental education has been slight until recently: On April 16, the White House hosted the first ever summit on environmental education, organized as a joint effort by the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Education, and the White House Council on Environmental Quality. The triad also announced the organization of a newly created federal task force on environmental education.

This all seemed stunningly reassuring: an impressive demonstration of federal initiative after a near-decade of hype. But it also might be too good to be true.

Any real action on the behalf of the federal government now seems implausible — President Obama, who is scheduled to visit UI today, proposed in March to cut federal funding for the EPA's Environmental Education Program. 

It strikes me as a bit suspicious that budget cuts were proposed just before Earth Month, and a summit supporting such initiatives was held during Earth Month.

The importance of environmental education in public schools is in many ways similar to a push for technology education, though not yet as widely accepted (perhaps because 48 percent of Americans still believe that the threat of global climate change is an exaggerated one.) Education must change with an evolving global culture: Students need to be educated in order to deal with a constantly changing world. That means education for a changing environment. Environmental degradation becomes an increasingly prominent global issue every day. The education we provide students at the public school level needs to prepare the next generation for the problems of the future.

Members of the UI community and the Iowa City area should take up the reins. We can begin by petitioning our state legislators to pressure the federal government to implement aggressive and immediate funding initiatives for environmental education in public schools. 

This shouldn't be the sole concern of sustainability programs at the university. They do their part every day. It's the responsibility of every individual in our community — especially those who call themselves educated young individuals studying at a nationally renowned academic institution.

The federal government needs to step in and confront a problem that isn't only one of first world but the whole world. There's a reason why it's called Earth Day.

Change starts at the roots — change starts with each of us.

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