Climate and Environmental Literacy
Fighting Climate Change with Green Muscle Memory
October 12, 2023
In a significant stride towards advancing climate education, India’s Ministry of Education recently announced a groundbreaking partnership with UNICEF under their ‘Green Capacities Initiative’. This initiative aims to equip teachers with expertise in climate education, empowering them to instill critical knowledge in their schools. This collaborative effort marks the initial stride in providing children with the essential tools to tackle climate change and foster a more sustainable future, fostering the development of an innate “green muscle memory”.
Reflecting on this, I witnessed my friend’s son tackle a major milestone just last week – the moment the training wheels came off his bike. Initially, he grappled with balancing, pedaling, and steering simultaneously, resulting in more than a few tumbles. However, he persevered. Days later, I was astonished to find him effortlessly maneuvering his bike, having already transformed the process into sheer muscle memory. It was a testament to how swiftly organic learning can occur; through repetition and practice, riding a bike had become second nature to him.
Days later, I stopped by and there he was, riding around like a professional without any difficulties and little thought — riding a bike had already become pure muscle memory for him. I was amazed at how quickly this organic learning occurred. Repetition and practice had made riding a bike second nature to him.
This experience made me realize the incredible capacity of the human brain to learn quickly, and for that learning to remain ingrained in us for decades. With this power in mind, I considered how developing “Green Muscle Memory” could help us combat the climate crisis.
Every day, we all take actions either contributing to or combating the climate crisis. We might grab a single-use plastic cup from a coffee shop or decide to take public transit over driving our car. We make the effort to recycle, or to turn the air conditioning off to conserve energy. Yet, most of us are not consistent; we don’t automatically have a saving-the-planet default position we gravitate towards.
But what if we did? What if we could train the next generation to always make the right choice? To grow, flex, and exercise a truly green muscle memory that makes doing the right thing for the planet our norm? So our everyday behaviors become so ingrained in our lives we are able to perform them thoughtlessly, just like riding a bike.
What is Green Muscle Memory?
Green Muscle Memory is the term for when behaviors that move us towards net-zero carbon occur with little or no conscious effort. We know that individuals are not responsible for, nor will single-handedly solve, the climate crisis. However, these actions add up over time and have network effects that influence our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers.
Additionally, individuals who make design and programming decisions can be influenced by their green muscle memory. For example, architects can design greener buildings, city planners can make biking more accessible and safer, and landlords can install energy efficient appliances. If we use climate education to develop green muscle memory in children today, these green behaviors will work their way into all industries in the future.
How do we develop Green Muscle Memory?
The key to developing any muscle memory is learning and repetition: learning slowly to forget slowly. That is why, to develop green muscle memory, climate education needs to be taught consistently to children across all subjects, from kindergarten to graduation. Currently, U.S. students only spend two hours per school year learning about the climate crisis. It is critical for our children to learn the causes of climate change so they can develop the instinctive behaviors needed to mitigate and avoid more climate disasters.
The data supports the connection between climate education and decreases in carbon emissions. If 16% of secondary school students around the world in middle and high income countries studied climate change, it would result in cutting almost 19 gigatons of CO2 by 2050. The equivalent to removing the emissions that power nearly 80 million homes. While these metrics do need further analysis, it is clear climate education in our schools will have a direct impact on carbon emissions across the planet and initiate real change.
At first glance, it may be difficult to connect these individual climate lessons to a meaningful decrease in CO2 emissions but learning leads to real awareness and measurable behavioral changes. For example, following Greta Thunberg’s protests that raised awareness around climate change, 30% of Swiss residents surveyed said they had made changes to their transportation, buying and recycling habits. In one country alone, that is millions of individuals making daily decisions to combat the climate crisis, or at least not add to it.
Why We Can’t Wait
Most of us have a lot of unlearning to do. We have grown accustomed to receiving single-use plastic bags, plastic utensils and straws without asking, underutilizing public transport, or contributing to the staggering amount of daily food waste. We didn’t develop these behaviors because we actively wanted to contribute to climate change; we fell victim to choosing convenience which led to bad habits harming our planet.
Luckily, we do know how we can change and prepare the next generation to fight to solve the climate crisis. Climate education is key to developing green muscle memory. And green muscle memory is critical if we want to solve the climate crisis.
If our goal is to be net zero by 2050, we need formally integrated climate education today. And, if we do this, every child who is just learning to ride his or her bike right now will have developed green muscle memory to combat the climate crisis and make a green, livable future for generations to come.