Historian Daniel Boorstin once said, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know,” and that applies to the threats to our oceans and global environment. The threats are not always obvious. Before you protest that they are, let me put it this way. I agree that plastic debris are a major threat, but how can we educate our communities that this is the case? Many people on this planet may not have seen the plastic pollution in the world that we have. Maybe a littered beach, but how do folks learn that it’s a global, not local, problem? It is clear from data-driven temperature and climate graphs that average global temperatures are rising, but how do we help our communities accept that this is an urgent, very real problem – that the upward temperature change rate is unprecedented and has continued steadily since we’ve started measuring it? Similarly, we know that recycling helps, and dumping motor oil on the street hurts, but how do we know?
The reality is that it is difficult to see global problems and solutions alone because they’re too big. We make them visible together, communicating and consolidating what we learn locally into the worldwide mosaic that shows us what’s going on globally. It’s how we know the problems, their magnitude and what works or should work to solve them. The scale of global threats means that education isn’t merely important, but essential in bringing about the social changes needed to restore and protect the environment. Unless we’re taught, most of us can’t know about them, much less our roles in solving them.
Thankfully, education is happening and it works. In a previous blog, I highlighted PADI Pros who educate youngsters about threats to the seas and teach rising generations to prioritize ocean health – after all, saving the seas is really saving us. And, studies find that teaching conservation can start effectively establishing these essential values as young as age four.
In 2015, the Global Education Monitoring report published by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) found that “improving knowledge, instilling values, fostering beliefs and shifting attitudes, education has considerable power to help individual reconsider environmentally harmful lifestyles and behavior.” Educating across age ranges is particularly important amid cultures that have not traditionally needed to worry about the environment, but fortunately, recognizing that today we all have to worry about it, a growing number of countries require environmental education, and it’s working. Among them, India has environmental education programs targeted for learners from preschool through adult. It’s estimated that since 2003, in some form or other, these programs have reached 300 million students. The results have been varied and mixed, but generally good and trending positive, these programs are shaping attitudes about individual behaviors, choices and sustainability.
Admittedly, some have questioned the ability to reshape values past adolescence, but a 2017 study in People’s Republic of China studied the effect of environmental education on 287 older (college age) students at Minzu University, Beijing, and found “notable positive effects on environmental attitude.” Beyond this study, China has demonstrated the difference education can make when it supports, and is supported by, government efforts and policy. Formerly the number one consumer of shark fin soup (shark fin soup accounts for about 73 million sharks killed annually), a Wild Aid report says that since 2011 consumption has fallen 80 percent in China.
According to the report, declines in public shark fin demand in China resulted from awareness campaigns (education) coupled with the government’s ban on it for official functions and general discouragement of consuming shark fin. Retired pro basketball player Yao Ming is particularly credited with helping through a highly publicized public education outreach in his home country. Apparently, many people living in China didn’t even know what shark fin soup is (the translated name is “fish-wing-soup”), but now surveys show that more than 90 percent support banning it. Although this is good news for sharks, the Wild Aid report also shows that shark fin consumption is still high and increasing in other countries. Why? As many as half of the consumers/potential consumers are unaware that shark consumption is threatening the animals and poses health hazards. The fix? China shows that education – similar campaigns in these countries – would likely be a great start.
This highlights a crucial point: We’re not all scuba instructors, college professors nor school teachers, but we are all educators. Whether it’s a dinner conversation with friends or gently correcting misconceptions in social media, it’s our responsibility as the oceans’ ambassadors to inform and influence others to see and understand the problems, and how we can make better choices to keep Earth sustainable.
Don’t underestimate your influence in doing this – as a diver, you’ve seen the underwater world’s wonder and fragility, and likely some of the damage, first-hand. What you can teach is compelling, and passes the sustainability imperative to our rising generation of educators. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Dr. Drew Richardson
PADI President & CEO