Climate and Environmental Literacy
Sustainable Natives: Building Community for the Next Generation
April 3, 2023
What comes to mind when you think of Generation Z? If your mind jumps to tech-savvy teens, gamers, and iPad kids, you’re not the only one. In the United States, young people have become so widely associated with the technology they grew up with at their fingertips they’ve been nicknamed digital natives.
However, it’s not just about Nintendo games and TikTok dances. Digital natives are entering education systems and the workforce only to surpass boundaries we thought existed in AI, tech, and computer science. Their innovative capability has become an integral part of the way the world moves forward. What if we can replicate this with environmental sustainability? Can the next generation be climate fluent sustainable natives?
- What does sustainable actually mean in the context of climate change?
Before exploring this possibility, it’s important to clarify exactly what we mean when we say sustainable. The term has been distorted by persistent corporate greenwashing campaigns which claim one action or product is more sustainable than another. This dangerous rhetoric deeply individualizes the idea of sustainability in relation to climate action.
In reality, environmental sustainability requires longevity, accessibility, and radical community care practices. Instead of debating which of your individual choices are more sustainable, consider what it actually means for the earth and all of the communities inhabiting it to be sustained and healthy for years to come.
With this understanding of sustainability, take a moment to imagine a climate fluent generation of sustainable natives. If you’re envisioning toddlers who know whether or not milk cartons can be recycled, you’re not necessarily wrong, but the true impact is much larger. These toddlers will grow up to be the voters, organizers, and leaders of a world increasingly impacted by climate change. In this sense, a generation of sustainable natives isn’t so much an array of individuals making environmentally-friendly choices as it is a politically powerful community engaged in the struggle for an equitable future.
- How can we foster climate fluency in the next generation?
If we use digital natives as a model for establishing climate fluency, we have to understand the critical shortcomings of the digital native phenomenon: primarily, it’s an identity exclusive to those with access to technology and education. Climate fluency needs to be accessible to everyone and conducive to specific experiences of diverse communities. This requires systemic and individual action.
- Systemic actions
The recent IPCC AR6 Synthesis Report warned global policymakers that if they don’t implement more aggressive climate legislation, we won’t be able to stay under the Paris Agreement target of 1.5° C of warming above pre-industrial temperatures. This legislation can include policies mandating climate education along with substantial government funding to ensure teachers are sufficiently trained and compensated, curriculum is appropriate to students of diverse backgrounds, and lessons are interdisciplinary.
The early integration of climate education is essential for establishing fluency as opposed to just literacy. A climate fluent person doesn’t think twice about sustainable action because their learning curve was mitigated at such a young age, just as a digital native inherently knows how to access the internet rather than consciously recalling it from their memory.
There’s a reported positive correlation between environmental education and action, so under standardized climate education, the next generation would grow up with a natural understanding of climate change and therefore be more active in environmentally sustainable counteraction.
- Individual actions
While the bulk of this effort requires systemic change, we invite you to consider your own positionality in the push towards climate fluency. If you interact with kids at home, at school, or in social circles, initiate a climate conversation with them (check out this blog for tips on talking about climate change with kids). We encourage you to go beyond talking, too; engaging kids in climate action can accelerate their understanding of the issue and empower them to join the fight. Rallies, speaker events, and group actions are great ways to show young people that they’re part of a larger community fighting for their future– find an Earth Day 2023 event near you.
- Join the campaign
You can join our Climate Literacy Campaign to push for the adoption of climate change curricula in schools around the world. If you’re an educator, you can also access our Education Resource Library for helpful toolkits and lessons.