Lily Cole, Michael Gove and the Amazon Rainforest

Why the secretary of state should listen to the eco-conscious supermodel

22 Feb 2013, 14:32

Earlier this week, I attended a premiere at a plush Mayfair hotel of a short documentary fronted by the supermodel Lily Cole and soon to be broadcast on Sky Arts. I know, I know, and before you complain let me make it clear that no one holds my southern, metropolitan, media existence in higher disregard than I do myself.

The documentary, Lily Cole's Amazon Adventure, is part of Sky's Rainforest Rescue initiative, which has already seen £4m invested in a highly innovative forest protection programme and will see a further £4m of funding provided over the next three years. It is, as you'd expect given its location and presenter, a beautiful piece of television, and if it at times falls victim to a little bit too much celebrity hippy esotericism for my tastes, it also provides a fascinating insight into how green economic models are being harnessed to ensure the rainforest is worth more to Brazilian farmers standing than it is felled.

I'm working on a feature on how Sky's Rainforest Rescue initiative is working with WWF and the Acre state government in Brazil, but one of the most interesting aspects of the premiere was not directly related to the project, the documentary, or indeed the rainforest.

Asked during a Q&A session hosted by Mariella Frostrup after the screening (again, I know) about her visit to a local school in Acre, Cole revealed how students at the school have a day a week devoted to environmental issues as part of efforts to ensure people understand the global importance of the rainforest they are responsible for from an early age.

Frostrup and Cole concurred that the approach was in stark contrast to the UK, where kids are "lucky to get a day a year" in the classroom explicitly devoted to environmental topics. Cole then argued that while it might seem that in the UK we do not need to focus as much educational time on the environment as schools in the Amazon, there is actually a pretty compelling case for emulating the Acre model and devoting a day a week of school time to environmental topics.

It's a thought-provoking suggestion and I was left wondering why it has not been aired more widely in the past. Could it work? Would it be beneficial? Should environmental topics be incorporated more heavily in the curriculum?

The first thing to note is that Frostrup is obviously wrong to suggest children in the UK only get a day a year on environmental topics. Climate change and a wide array of green issues are a key part of the national curriculum at primary school level, while at secondary school subjects such as geography, biology and chemistry all address a wide variety of important environmental topics. Education secretary Michael Gove's Free School experiment may have opened the door for scientifically deluded creationists and climate change deniers to run some of our children's schools, but green issues are still widely taught in schools – so much so that the climate sceptic community is prone to intermittent paroxysms of rage over the "green brainwashing" of our children.

However, Cole is right that nowhere near as much school time is devoted to environmental issues in the UK as is the case in the Acre school she visited. I also think she is right to suggest this is a badly missed opportunity. Without embracing too many "the children are our future" style clichés, it is true that young people today will grow up in a world increasingly defined by environmental challenges. From climate change to ocean acidification, biodiversity loss to the nitrogen crisis, the emergence of clean technologies to new sustainable economic models, there are countless issues that our education system could and should be preparing people for.

There are strong environmental reasons for seeing a greater focus on green topics in our schools, not least the fact that studies have shown an early engagement with the natural world provides both a boost to educational development, and tends to result in a lifelong engagement with environmental issues. But there are also powerful economic arguments for such an approach. David Cameron keeps warning that the UK needs to become more competitive in a "global race" with emerging economies – schools that help deliver the knowledge and skills necessary to work on clean technologies and new green economic models will significantly bolster that competitiveness.

I'm a little baffled as to why this point has not been subject to more public debate. Obviously, the Education Department responds to all calls for the curriculum to be changed by accurately noting that there are only so many hours in the day. But that does not stop the arts lobby's perennial calls for more time to be devoted to drama and dance, nor does it stop business leaders warning something has to be done to address the relatively low numbers of British students graduating school and university with expertise in science, maths and engineering. And nothing will ever halt the lamentations about the seemingly inexorable decline in school sports. These are all worthy campaigns. After all, just in case we needed reminding, Michael Gove and his nostalgic love for a 1950s style education has spent the past two years highlighting how the school curriculum is about nothing if not political choices.

And yet green businesses and NGOs have hardly tried to make the case for an increased focus on environmental education. Perhaps they are fearful of the accusations of "eco-brainwashing" that would inevitably follow, but it is a shame that an opportunity to make more young people more fully aware of the forces that will increasingly shape the world that they live in.

At BusinessGreen we sometimes joke that in covering the environment and the economy we set ourselves the impossible goal of covering quite literally everything. But it is true that the environment in its broadest sense does underpin everything. Culture, economics, biology, politics, language, physics, chemistry, geography, history - in short, the entire school curriculum is shaped by the environment. Understanding this is central to the continued development of the environmentally sustainable economic models we so desperately need to address the existential risks society now faces. Cole is right, it is vital children understand the risks and opportunities, not to mentioned the rights and responsibilities, that relate to the natural world. A day a week of school time dedicated to exploring these issues is as good a place to start as any.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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