A number of years ago, my kids went to camp in a beautiful forested setting. I was excited they could have this experience — for them and also for me. As a marine biologist, I had spent many hours with them in the ocean — giving them a good understanding of coral reefs, kelp beds, and other marine ecosystems, but terrestrial ecosystems were not my specialty — and hoped they would return and give me some insights to temperate forest ecology. After their camp experience, I was pleased to learn that they had a fantastic time, were involved in a variety of sports, had wonderful outings, and participated in valuable team-building experiences. But to my astonishment, they could tell me almost nothing about the ecology of the ecosystem where they had resided for weeks. They knew the names of some species, but had no real understanding of how the natural community actually worked. I thought this was a major missed opportunity and began to think about what I would have liked them to learn — appreciating the fact that this was not school but a time to put the books aside and be enriched outside the walls of the classroom.
So began my quest to create educational experiences for kids that don’t feel like education at all. It wasn’t as though I had no experience. In 1973, Jean-Michel Cousteau and I responded to an ocean of interest from the public when he and his father, Jacques Cousteau, created the Cousteau Society. Our new members volunteered in droves to join us on expeditions as cooks, divers, doctors, etc. We realized that people wanted to experience the ocean through the eyes of our expedition teams. Our response was to create mini-expeditions for our members where we taught them about the ocean, connections between land and sea, the wisdom embodied in native culture, and responsible living. During the following twenty years, we conducted programs in the Caribbean, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Society Islands, and many other paradise destinations.
But who wanted to go to paradise with a bunch of environmentalists? Only people who were already concerned about the environment and only people who could afford to get to paradise. My kids’ experience at camp caused me to rethink our educational programming. Shouldn’t we be reaching out to people who do not know much about the environment and who are not relatively wealthy? In fact, shouldn’t we be focusing on the most important asset of our entire civilization — the next generation?
From these musings, I began to design educational programs that would give our children knowledge about and personal connections to the natural world. It is this world of nature that keeps this planet habitable, and it has many lessons to teach us about how we humans can create a sustainable future for our species. Students need to learn from nature as much as they are taught about nature.
Obviously, such educational experiences will be most effective if they take place in a natural setting. The question was — where should we create such experiences? The Santa Catalina Island Company introduced me to the Horner family who operates Catalina Island Camps at Howlands Landing. Their camp was not full during the school year, and there was an opportunity to create programs during the fall and spring where I might test these ideas. Camp became the perfect place to connect the wonders of nature to the practical realities of living more gently on the planet. I would like to share with you the foundation of Ambassadors of the Environment and how you might implement such a program at your camp.
Presently, the health and vitality of the planet itself are in jeopardy. Sustainability and quality of life for humans are linked to the sustainability and environmental quality of nature itself. Over-consumption, pollution, the loss of species and habitats, and mismanagement of natural resources are undermining global habitability. The sole cause of these problems is us — our state of mind, worldview, beliefs, and behavior. The ultimate solution is not to engage in an eternal mode of crisis management, searching for quick fixes to each problem as it arises, but to avoid the problems in the first place. This requires our embracing a completely different perspective of humanity’s relationship to its surroundings. This is far larger than a scientific search for new technology.
Ours is a crisis of the heart, not the head. Wisdom is knowledge run through the heart. Our priorities too often are first the individual, then the community, and finally the environment and earth. We need to realize we are members of the earth’s living community. It is important to understand the connections among various components of the biosphere (land, sea, atmosphere), connections among people and the environment, connections among ourselves and other human beings, and finally our connections to the future as today’s decisions can have profound impacts on future generations. If all humans understood their connection to the planet and all life forms, we might discover there are more options for sustainable living than we presently perceive. Bringing young people into a nurturing environment and connecting them to nature will provide a setting where real growth can take place and where the next generation can realign themselves with their future in the most productive and inspirational way.
On the subject of science, I concur with Henri Poincare (1902), “Science is built of facts the way a house is built of bricks; but an accumulation of facts is no more science than a pile of bricks is a house.” We approach science in a holistic context, to help our campers understand nature and make sure that we use everyone’s natural curiosity to drive our learning about and from nature.
Thus, the Ambassadors program is not dedicated to turning our campers into scientists but rather to preparing them to be responsible stewards of our planet through understanding the fundamental principles of ecology and how they can be used to wisely manage nature and create more sustainable human communities. This is conveyed through practical, hands-on activities that involve campers working and learning as well as participating in maintaining camp as a model sustainable community. Ultimately, the curriculum and the extended periods of time campers are immersed in nature give them a sense of connection to the natural world. In this way, we reach the heart, affecting how each camper sees himself or herself in relation to other species, the environment, and the future.
The curriculum is implemented through experiential learning. Understanding what marine and terrestrial ecosystems are and how they function comes from daily, instructor-guided dives and nature walks wherein campers are shown how the organisms of these ecosystems survive and collectively create functioning ecosystems. An important aspect of the program is how people are trying to sustainably manage and protect the unique living resources of the region in which the program is implemented. This is emphasized through hands-on monitoring and restoration activities. Collaboration with local institutions involved in such activities enables campers to become part of current research projects by assisting in the collection of data in a working partnership.
This working knowledge is then applied to the human domain as discussion sessions focus on the similarities and differences between how nature achieves sustainability and how our communities fall short. These principles of sustainability are reinforced through campers’ daily activities as they attend to their own survival, managing their energy, water, food, and waste in a manner that is consistent with environmental responsibility. Campers are challenged to deal with issues of development and environmental protection. Finally, we conduct sessions and provide resources to empower students to become Ambassadors of the Environment when they return to their home communities. This training includes not only sessions with an environmental-science focus but also with challenges that build the camper’s confidence and ability to implement and share ideas with others. This connection is maintained through our Web site, www.aote.org , which offers a number of resources.
We intend to return young people to their daily lives with not only the factual knowledge of life sciences and ecology, but with a deeper understanding of themselves as participants in the planet’s living system and with a willingness to strive for sustainability between humanity and nature.
The goals of our program are:
More specifically, the Ambassadors program addresses the following general areas:
Appreciation of Nature and Ecological Connections
As a species, we are connected to all other species through the constant flow of energy, matter, and life. Although our outer forms may appear different, we are all made of the same stuff and share a common evolutionary heritage. People do not exist outside the domain of nature but are part of it and inseparable from it. Our well-being is linked to the health of our environment. We create a learning environment in which campers can experience and internalize these connections at the most fundamental level. In addition, self-esteem and team-building exercises help campers connect with their own inner selves and connect with others in their immediate community.
Principles of Sustainability
From a broader perspective, there are existing solutions for many of society’s problems and, remarkably, they are not as drastic or painful as people might expect. Living sustainably requires the use of renewable energy, consuming less, reducing waste, and recycling more. We believe that the free services of nature can provide for much of our needs, as passive and active solar collectors provide power, as living machines treat our wastes, and as edible landscapes provide food and products. Our exploration of solutions focuses on how the camp can operate more environmentally and then on what individuals can do in their own communities to make them more sustainable.
It is our intent to create a sustainable, model community where we use the latest and most appropriate technology to demonstrate how we can live more gently on the planet. We use photovoltaic cells for electricity, solar water heating, a solar still for fresh water, composting toilets, composting areas for kitchen waste that will be used to fertilize our gardens, and, in general, create an integrated system where resources are used efficiently and wastes are recycled within the community. Benefits are both educational and economic.
An important part of this aspect of the program is guiding campers through a process of introspection to think about what an individual’s responsibility is and how one person can make a difference. Resources on our Web site are designed to enable students to become Ambassadors of the Environment:
We encourage students to develop personal goals and skills to live a productive and fulfilled life.
Relevance to the educational curri-cula in the United States and the State Department of Education is an integral part of the program, ensuring that campers will have an opportunity to receive credit from the educational experience of the program. We are aware that schools already have obligations to existing educational standards and thus must focus field trips on these subject requirements. We have designed our educational program to include subjects in national and state curriculum guidelines.
Our approach is to create partnerships with existing organizations that share our goal and then work together in creating Ambassadors programs uniquely tailored to each region’s culture and ecology. In adapting the core Ambassadors program, we need to work very closely with the educational community to insure we meet the national and regional educational curriculum standards.
From teacher, administrator, and student feedback, we know that the Ambassadors of the Environment program is effective in reaching its goal of engaging youth in the issues relevant to developing a sustainable living ethic. In addition, the program has proven profitable for camps and an excellent resource for schools to give their students a new experience in learning. The challenges we face today are expanding the program to have significant impact so that more young people will have the knowledge, tools, and motivation to create the kind of future they want.
Richard Murphy, Ph.D., is the director of Science and Education, at the Ocean Futures Society. Read more about the author in the sidebar on this page. For more information about Ambassadors of the Environment, e-mail the author at email@example.com. 
Originally published in the 2004 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.