Saturday, May 21, 2011

Environmental Enlightenment

Thomas Jefferson's first of four basic principles laying out the importance of education states that "... democracy cannot long exist without enlightenment." Today we face a threat to that enlightenment from those who point to the honorable Mr. Jefferson as an icon of their cause. From Washington, D.C. to Raleigh, North Carolina, politicians eager to establish their conservative credentials strive to eliminate educational and research programs designed to conserve Earth's life-supporting ecological and environmental systems.

From the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), budget cuts proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives would restrict or eliminate research efforts to improve our understanding of climate and our impacts on it. One way to overcome findings of fact which conflict with your ideology is to simply stop the research. Ignorance may not be bliss in this case, but it could silence dissent.

Here in North Carolina, the political wing that ironically claims the conservative label is hard at work finding ways to keep fellow citizens and patriots ignorant about the ways in which the conservation of this state's natural resources benefit our economic well-being, our quality of life, and our health. This state's House of Representatives seeks to divide and conquer the conservation efforts of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Among the myriad proposals is one to move the Division of Soil and Water Conservation into the Department of Agriculture, where presumably, agricultural interests could stem the state's efforts to enlighten us all about an industry often cited as a major source of nutrient pollution in North Carolina's waterways.

But perhaps Mr. Jefferson would find most alarming one of the smallest cuts proposed by the North Carolina State House, one of just $221,000 to gut the state's Office of Environmental Education. Here is a program that coordinates and creates environmental education efforts that cut across departmental and philosophical divides and works on that most subversive activity, education.

The state's Office of Environmental Education brings in at least $221,000 in outside grants and in-kind support to more than match it's tiny state appropriation. But it may not be the dollar figure that draws the ire of "conservatives," but rather the program's goal.

That goal is understanding how ecosystems function - how humans and the environment are interconnected - how conservation may help us live healthier and richer lives. Environmental education strives for a populace that can address complex environmental problems with knowledge and the scientific method rather than with emotional and misleading appeals to ideology.

The Office of Environmental Education created an award-winning and nationally touted environmental education certification program to ensure that those teaching about the Earth's environment not only know of which they speak, but truly educate rather than engage in issue advocacy.

Equally as valuable, the Office leverages private funding and job creation at outdoor educational and recreational facilities across the state - each promoting environmental stewardship. But as a former member of the Office, and most recently, a high school science teacher, my favorite programs are those for teachers.

The Office of Environmental Education spearheaded efforts to enrich K-12 classrooms with the educational and scientific power of technology, specifically geographic information systems (GIS) and the Internet, in partnership with N.C. State University and the EPA. Efforts such as this highlight environmental education's role preparing future citizens for 21st Century jobs in high-tech careers.

Enlightenment may not be expensive, but the lack of enlightenment could bankrupt any economy or country. Mr. Jefferson understood this.

Our natural ecosystems provide us with clean water, breathable air, fertile soil, a climate in which we can grow food and live comfortably, and an attractive environment - all at little or no cost. Threats to those natural ecosystems, and threats to our efforts to better understand them, imperil our economic well-being and our quality of life. Those threats, abounding today from Raleigh to Washington, could damage our democracy in ways at least one of our founding fathers appreciated.

The North Carolina Senate is now considering such proposals sent over from the State House. In the spirit of Mr. Jefferson, you might wish to enlighten your state senator about the values of environmental education in a democracy.

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