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19.8: Environmental Education and Leadership

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    Every year, conservation biologists acquire a vast body of knowledge from projects all over the world. Yet, this information is often only communicated at small working groups and specialized meetings, published as technical papers in scientific journals with expensive subscription fees, or worse, not communicated at all. This leaves the general public detached from conservation work which, in turn, gives them (especially people living in urban centers) a sense that they live independent from nature and the knowledge gained by scientists. It also creates opportunities for willful ignorance, where citizens can normalize the environmental damage caused by their activities. To avoid these scenarios, conservation biologists need to be more proactive in outreach and environmental education, which aims to raise the public’s awareness and knowledge about the environment so they can adjust to live more sustainably.

    The National Park System in the United States consists of more than 80 million acres nationwide. Their mission is to "preserve unimpaired the natural & cultural resources & values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this & future generations". Science, conservation, and outreach are a big part of the National Park (Figure 19.8.1).

    A photograph of Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson in the uniform of a "Buffalo Soldier" as part of a living history re-enactment.
    Figure 19.8.1: Shelton Johnson, a National Park Service Park Ranger, has dedicated his work at the park on connecting minorities, especially African Americans, to the natural world. He is famous for his work in sharing the history of the Buffalo Soldiers who protection public lands. (Wikipedia; Public domain)

    One of the best ways to raise the public’s environmental awareness is to involve them in local conservation projects, especially those that include fieldwork and site visits. Citizen science projects, as discussed above, present one of the most effective strategies. The public could also be invited to a guided tour where they are introduced to your organization’s activities or provided with volunteer opportunities for stewardship workdays at a local protected area. During such workdays, ordinary citizens might help with tasks, such as invasive plant control, nest box installation, and recording wildlife behaviors. An effective public relations program can also connect people who want to engage with conservation; such a program may involve conservation exhibits in public spaces, articles written by conservation biologists for local magazines and newspapers, or public presentations.

    Children and youth are one of the most important audiences for environmental education and outreach efforts. Exposing children to the wonders of the natural world instills in them a personal sense of competence, ethics, and environmental awareness that will last a lifetime (Johnson et al., 2013). These children can also influence their parents’ attitudes and behavior towards environmental issues (Damerell et al., 2013). Ignoring children during outreach events, or recruiting ill-prepared teachers (Nkambwe and Essilfie, 2012), may however turn children against the environment, which they may see as a dangerous place detached from their own lives (Adams and Savahl, 2013). It could also lead to nature deficit disorder, a situation where spending less time in nature leads to behavioral problems (Louv, 2005). Consequently, many conservation organizations are now sponsoring and establishing schools to ensure young children are exposed to the importance of the environment. Others are working with children by hosting school groups, screening documentaries, publishing children’s books, and offering field programs and school outings to nearby protected areas.

    Reaching people who are not usually attracted to nature-based activities remains a challenge. One option is to blend conservation education and outreach with attractions and activities without an obvious conservation link. Sporting events have proven very successful in this regard. Music concerts at botanical gardens (Figure 19.8.2) and national parks have also successfully exposed new audiences to environmental issues.

    Figure 19.8.2 Conservation facilities such as Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, South Africa, are attracting new people to their work by hosting concerts and other types of entertainment offers. Photograph by Ivan Hendricks, courtesy of Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, CC BY 4.0.

    The earth is in desperate need of the next generation of conservation heroes who are up to the task of addressing a growing list of complex problems. We have learnt much over the past few decades about how to better protect the natural environment in the face of growing human populations, increased consumption, and socio-economic transformations. We have also developed strong foundations in environmental education and leadership that will help us reach more people and cultivate stronger leaders. But many ecosystems continue to be in a state of distress, many species are facing extinction, and many people continue to live indifferent to their environment. The time for action is now.

    This page titled 19.8: Environmental Education and Leadership is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.