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What Does Gratitude Have To Do With The Environment?

By Patricia Newman

Expressions of gratitude for nature rarely make headlines.

Yet a growing body of research tells us that we feel better when we’re outdoors. Connections to nature improve our physical and psychological health and define our cultural identities. Perhaps we cultivate respectful values by following nature’s lead: nothing in nature lives for itself. The survival of one species depends on the survival of all species within an ecosystem.

As an award-winning author of environmental children’s books, I have spent the last eight years visiting classrooms across the U.S. sharing my passion for nature. During those visits students have shared their projects with me that included endangered species, the ocean, school gardens, school-wide composting programs, and lunchroom audits for single-use plastic. These projects warm my heart, but I often wonder if children know why their efforts matter.

In the last fifteen years, the number of instructional hours spent on environmental education has increased significantly. A report from the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) recorded twenty-one states have implemented or adopted environmental literacy programs for school-age children. For example, California’s A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy, integrates environmental education into the curriculum with both classroom- and community-based lessons.

Of the remaining states, all but four are either drafting an environmental education plan or have a plan awaiting implementation. The plans seek to transform children into environmentally literate members of society who coexist with nature in a sustainable, fair, and just way that allows us to meet our present and future needs. At the same time, climate-related wildfires, floods, droughts, melting ice, pestilence, and ocean acidification have put a spotlight on our climate crisis like never before. The overwhelming nature of these problems can leave children—and adults—feeling hopeless. 

In a white paper on the science of gratitude, the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley defines gratitude as “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome and recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.” With that definition in mind, understanding our connection to oxygen-making ocean plants called phytoplankton and terrestrial trees and plants inspires gratitude for the air we breathe. Tracing the source of the food on our dinner plates encourages us to feel grateful for the many habitats involved in feeding the world. A sip of cold water from a mountain stream connects us to rain (or snow) and the life-giving gifts the water cycle showers upon us. Gratitude is the antidote to hopelessness and the key to empowerment. I am optimistic because nature makes everything I need to stay healthy. As humans, we learn by making connections to the world, including the crucial role we play in nature’s complexity. When understanding dawns, gratitude emerges, and people are galvanized to act. 

My school presentations focus on our connections to nature. I share why various endangered species support their ecosystems and why we must save them. For instance, endangered forest elephants are the architects of the Central African rain forest. When we save elephants we protect the forest’s biodiversity for the animals, plants, and people who depend on it. Like elephants, orangutans help maintain the forests of Southeast Asia, and yet vast swaths of forest are burned to establish palm oil plantations. When I connect palm oil to the products we use (think breakfast cereal, toothpaste, and shampoo), children see immediately how their habits impact apes thousands of miles away. When kids and teens see the why, their faces shine with understanding.

We don’t have to search across the world for connections to nature. We can find them locally too. Children and I discuss how their local river formed, where it flows, and when it meets the sea. We trace the path of trash and chemicals and discover how these pollutants affect the health of fish, trees, and drinking water. At the mouth of the river, we find the ocean making our oxygen and our weather. With understanding, their gratitude blossoms for the benefits of a healthy planet, which motivates them to act on nature’s behalf. Like a fourth grader and a second grader who made a video PSA about ways to reduce single-use plastic. Or a third grader who created an online petition to save sea otters. Or the sixth grader who spoke before the U.N. about creating elephant-friendly regulations. 

More than forty years ago V. Ram Ramanathan, a climate and atmospheric scientist currently with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, predicted global warming from excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. He was right. And in a recent study, he gave humans a 1 in 20 chance of facing extinction in 50 years. Every time I speak with children, I try to beat those odds. I expose the invisible threads that connect us to nature’s complexity to help children understand the why. Understanding nature gives rise to gratitude. More than a feel-good moment, our gratitude buoys hope and empowers action. 

Our planet depends on it.

Resources

Allen, Summer – Ph.D. “The Science of Gratitude.” The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley for the John Templeton Foundation, May 2018.

Ramanathan, V. “PK-12 Education as a Pillar of the Solution for Bending the Global Warming Curve.” California Journal of Science Education, 2021.

Sibert Honoree and two-time Green Earth Book Award winner Patricia Newman is the author of several environmental nonfiction books for children, including A River’s Gifts: The Mighty Elwha River Reborn (Millbrook Press/Lerner).

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