When we ponder the question ‘what is nature?’, it is usually through the lens of what we see today, not what nature was a decade or even 100 years ago. Think of the last experience you had with nature. What would these places have looked like during your grandparent’s time? Making this mental comparison can be difficult. Today, these places are often starkly different due to impacts of population growth, climate change, and other challenges. It becomes easy to accept these lower standards as normal. This is the problem of environmental generational amnesia. Will the next generation be accepting a lower perception of nature than you do?
The pattern of environmental generational amnesia indicates they most likely will. It is most notable in children of each new generation. They perceive the environment they grow up with as ‘normal’, despite nature becoming increasingly diminished or degraded. A cleared stream is as normal to them as when the waterway was pristine 25 years ago. Fewer trees on a streetscape is as normal as a full urban canopy. “Across generations, the baseline shifts downward for what counts as healthy nature.” – Khan and Weiss, 2017.
Environmental educators face this problem head-on. However, to broaden and deepen student’s interactions with nature and foster their agency to not accept lower environmental standards will require connections, additional resources, professional development of teachers, and most notoriously, time.
Conveying how this solution looks in practice, we need to draw from practitioners, academics, and government to develop an effective approach. One that enables the education system to facilitate self-actualisation in students as they discern the environmental standards and values they deserve.
One step is to provide students experiences to interact with ‘big nature’. This is not only vast untapped wetlands, soaring forest canopies, or cryptic wildlife like Chuditch or Bilbies. ‘Big nature’ is relative and can mean accessing what is available, while critically conveying an aspiring environmental outcome it may no longer meet. These consequential interactions can intrinsically motivate students to question the failing environment they witness, even if they have no memorable comparison to make. These interactions can incrementally reverse environmental amnesia by framing the context, action, and results for students to better understand environmental change.
Simple activities such as participating in adopt-a-beach programs or restoring a wetland make these concepts tangible and real, creating a lived connection with the student and a ‘new normal’, a sense of what can be reclaimed, regenerated or renewed.
Unfortunately, there are geographical gaps when mapping out the experiences offered to students across the region. In some cases, the opportunity for students to interact with their local environment is unavailable. A suitable environmental educator could be locally unavailable, and identifying this gap is critical for allocating or planning future capacity. Stakeholders and schools may be unconnected (if this is the case, check out Sustainable Schools WA* to start). Nonetheless, we need to investigate why these local disconnections occur. Identifying areas where schools do not or cannot access such experiences easily, provides strategic insight when designing new programs.
Lastly, a cultural barrier within a school could hinder the ability for students to access nature. It could be the environment is simply not a priority. A lack of resources, policy issues, or risk adverse staff are all other factors to consider. If this is the case, then teachers need to bring authentic and aligned environmental experiences in the classroom.
Jason Pitman is a Project Coordinator for Perth NRM’s Environment Program and has delivered environmental incursions with hundreds of students as part of his role. He was recently recognised with the Scott Print Environment and Sustainability Award at the Seven News Young Achiever Awards. Jason holds a BSc (Environmental Science and is currently completing his Grad. Dip. Secondary Education.
* Perth NRM is a member of the Sustainable Schools WA Alliance
ACARA. (2019). Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. Accessed June 12, 2019.
Bennett, N. J. (2016). Using perceptions as evidence to improve conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 30(3), 582-592.
Peter H. Kahn, Jr., & Thea Weiss. (2017). The Importance of Children Interacting with Big Nature. Children, Youth and Environments, 27(2), 7-24.