I’ve spent a lot of my time teaching environmental education to kids in a variety of settings and age groups. A pretty typical situation has me walking into the job and being given a sheaf of lesson plans on a variety of topics, adjusted for the age of the students I’ll be working with. No matter where I am or who I’m teaching, from preschoolers at a nature center in rural Ohio to middle schoolers at a public school in Washington, DC, one thing was always true: the content of existing lessons completely left out any mentions of environmental justice and environmental inequalities. This leaves a huge gap in children’s conceptions of the environmental issues facing us today.

Some cuties I used to teach

A couple of the cuties I used to teach

For those not familiar with the term, environmental justice is a movement and a school of thought that focuses on the way that environmental issues are related to existing social inequalities. To list just a few examples: low-income communities and communities of color are exposed to more pollution; the people who are most negatively affected by climate change are overwhelmingly in developing countries; women are more affected by habitat degradation and resource exhaustion; helping them gain power can turn back the tide on those problems. These are just a few of the huge issues that environmental justice tackles. It provides a more complete picture of environmental issues than can be found in the traditional view. By avoiding this subject, we’re failing to accomplish the very aim of environmental education, which is to prepare kids for the responsibility of dealing with the environmental messes they’ve been left and making decisions to carry us into the future.

Unfortunately, the lack of a social justice viewpoint is evident in everything we teach students. History classes leave out the stories of marginalized groups and science classes hold up the scientific method as infallible and fail to teach about the effects of social bias on results. But finding this omission in environmental education is especially surprising and disappointing because it is, arguably, an inherently progressive discipline, requiring an acknowledgement of the state of our world and humanity’s effects that state. However, the reality is that none of the environmental education programs I’ve worked for have had a precedent of including social justice.

There are a few main flaws in the way lessons are usually presented, and some simple solutions to those flaws. First of all, environmental issues, whether taught to children or talked about on the news, tend to focus on a very simple equation that points out that we have limited resources that are being taxed by a growing population. This is not, on its face, inaccurate, but it inevitably puts the blame on poor women in developing nations for having too many children. It tends to point out population explosions in parts of Asia and Africa as the primary cause of environmental stresses, rather than placing blame on western cultures of consumerism and western corporations. Doing the latter – recognizing that the exploitation of the earth is more because of rich westerners than poor people of color – can completely change the way environmental issues are framed and what actions people take against them. In this vein, when lessons turn toward what children can do to help the environment, they usually give instructions to change very simple individual actions, like turning off the lights to save electricity. While it’s important to take personal responsibility for environmental problems, why not also teach our kids to push electrical companies to invest more in sustainable energy or write to a governmental official about passing laws that regulate pollution from coal plants? We need to be dealing with the systemic roots of environmental problems, not just the tiny contributions of individuals.

The traditional way of teaching environmental education also ignores the experiences of the students. When I was teaching in Southeast DC, we were expected to cover pollution on a worldwide level but weren’t urged to talk about the dangerously polluted Anacostia River just next door, or the reasons why the students in that neighborhood are statistically likely to be exposed to far higher levels of environmental toxins than in more affluent areas nearby. At the outdoor classroom program I helped with in San Francisco, the negative environmental effects of the tech industries that many of the children’s parents worked for were never mentioned. When I was teaching in a Title 1 school in Ohio we talked about the benefits of organic food, but only in later revisions of that lesson did we mention how that food was inaccessible to the vast majority of the class we were teaching. By centering the lived experiences of oppression (or privilege) that students have, we make them more likely to listen to what we’re saying and more committed to actually working towards change.

The main arguments I’ve heard against teaching environmental justice are that it’s too complex for kids to understand or that it takes up time that could be used for teaching more important information. To address the first part of that, while lessons do have to be simplified for younger children, issues can be approached from a systemic, environmental justice perspective without necessarily explaining the ins and outs of privilege and oppression. It’s also easy to underestimate kids; I’ve seen from experience that by the time they reach late elementary school they are fully able to comprehend environmental justice. And perhaps the reason that, to us, these ideas seem harder to understand is because they are not how we’re used to seeing environmental issues presented. By teaching this in the first place, it becomes a given instead of some complex addition to the norm.

The second point – that teaching environmental justice isn’t an effective use of time – just shows the issues with our priorities. Why is learning facts more important than learning the way those facts affect our society? Is it more important to know how many acres of rainforest are destroyed each year or to know the way that USA consumers create the demand fueling that destruction? I would say that the latter is more useful and will create far more positive change in our world than simply knowing “impartial” facts.

Luckily, whenever I’ve been provided lesson plans, they were generally just meant to be used as resource rather than followed strictly. I was able to edit them or write my own to include perspectives that I thought were important. In the environmental education program I now manage, I do my best to encourage instructors to incorporate environmental justice into their lessons, even in small doses.

If you have children or interact with them often, there are things you can do to help them see the environment from a social justice perspective. To start with, educate yourself. Look up resources on environmental justice. Then try to find ways to mention environmental justice issues that affect kids’ everyday life. Even offhanded mentions can make them more aware. On a similar note, do the same with social justice. Use random topics of conversation as an opportunity to help children see the inequalities that lie all around us. And when you’re trying to push your child to be more environmentally friendly, think of the bigger picture. Don’t just tell kids to recycle – teach them how to resist consumerism. Push for more and better environmental education in schools; even if you can’t get a cohesive program, teachers are often willing to include it in regular classes.

We need a shift in the way we view environmental issues as a society. A good way to start is by ensuring that future generations are ready to tackle them in all their complexity.