“Thinking Globally, Acting Locally”
Using the Local Environment to Learn About Global Issues

Deborah Simmons

Water is one of the basic needs of all life. But in many parts of the world it has become contaminated by fertilizers, pesticides, erosion from poor land use practices, industrial wastes, raw sewage and household wastes. G. Tyler Miller (1990) points out that “of India’s 3,119 towns and cities, only 218 have any type of sewage treatment facilities. In China, only 2% of the wastewater is treated. In Latin America and Africa many rivers are severely polluted. ...Lake Baikal — the world’s largest and deepest body of fresh water — is threatened with pollution” (p. 523).

Worldwide it is estimated that 85% of people live near rivers or other waterways. One in seven United States citizens lives near the Great Lakes; half of Canada’s population lives within the Great Lakes basin. According to the Water Quality 2000 report (1992), “The fundamental causes of water quality problems lie in seemingly unrelated aspects of life: how we live; the way we farm, produce, and consume; transport people and goods; and plan for the future” (p. 147). We have all too often considered the adage the “solution to pollution is dilution” as a truism and, consequently, have used our waterways as disposal sites for our wastes. Because of where we live and how we live, water is a compelling subject for study. It affords us the opportunity to examine our own lifestyles and communities within the context of a global system, an interconnected web of life.

We are often lulled by figures of the amount of water on the planet (1.41 billion cubic kilometers), or the percentage of the earth’s surface covered by water (71%) (World Resources Institute, 1992). Coupling these statistics with the notion that water is a renewable resource, it is easy to understand why water is often taken for granted. However, consider using the following simple exercise with your students to demonstrate how precious our freshwater really is.

How Wet is our Planet?

1. Using a map of the earth, begin a discussion of how much water is present. After general discussion, provide the students with the following statistics:
Percentage of Water on Earth
Oceans 97.2
Icecaps/glaciers 2.0
Groundwater .62
Freshwater lakes .009
Inland seas/salt lakes .008
Atmosphere .001
All rivers .0001

2. Ask the students to calculate the estimated amount of fresh water potentially available for human use from groundwater, freshwater lakes, rivers, and icecaps/glaciers (answer 2.6291%)

3. Show the students an aquarium filled with five gallons of water. Tell them how much there is and provide them with the following quantity: 5 gallons = 1280 tablespoons.

4. Have the students assume that the five gallons represent all the water on earth. Do the calculations for them, or ask the students to calculate the volume of all the quantities on the water percentage list:
5-Gallon Equivalents
Oceans 1244.16
Icecaps/glaciers 25.60
Groundwater 7.93
Freshwater lakes .11
Inland seas/salt lakes .10
Atmosphere .0128
All rivers .0012

5. Ask the students to calculate the volume of freshwater potentially available for human use. (It is approximately 34 tablespoons.) Ask them to divide up into teams of three and put 34 tablespoons of water in a container and take it to their workplaces.

6. At their workplaces, ask the students to remove the amount of water represented by all freshwater lakes and rivers (approximately one tenth of a tablespoon). Then ask them to extract the amount represented by rivers (one thousandth of a tablespoon or less than a drop). Discuss the relative proportions with the students.

7. Discuss how all species depend upon this minute percentage of water for their survival.

Once the students have a better understanding of the limited amount of freshwater available, have them continue their explorations by looking closely at their own community. The following two activities are adapted from the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN) project (see Figure 1). In the first activity, students begin to trace where their own community’s water comes from. Utilizing maps, students sketch their own watershed, locate various natural features, and document local land uses. In the second activity, students interview parents, other relatives, and neighbors to learn how the river has affected their lives.

Mapping a Watershed

1. Locate a local stream or river on a map.

2. Select a spot on the map, as far downstream as possible, for your starting point. Next, locate the upstream ends of all channels that flow into your river above that point.

3. Draw a line that includes all of the branches or tributaries of your stream or river. This is your watershed. Be sure to separate it from other watersheds.

4. Locate or draw on the map significant natural features (including forests, grasslands, deserts, mountains, valleys, lakes, marshes, etc.).

5. Identify on the map the major land uses within the watershed (e.g., industry, agriculture, residential neighborhoods, or commercial development).

6. Consider the following questions for discussion:
• Where does the water in your watershed come from? Are the streams and rivers in the watershed present all year round, or do they dry up during hot seasons?
• What are some of the major land uses in your watershed (consult your map)?
• How would human activities in one part of the watershed (for example, dumping of sewage or industrial wastes) affect other parts of the watershed?

Rivers and People

1. Have students work alone or in groups to develop a series of questions they would like to ask someone about their river of stream. Below are some sample questions:
• How long have you lived in this area?
• What was the river like when you were my age?
• Did you use the river in different ways than we use it now?
• What are your hopes for the river in the next century?

2. Have students interview several people about the river (e.g., neighbors, relatives, business people).

3. Have students discuss their results. Consider some of the following questions:
• How do the students’ views of the river differ from those of the people whom they interviewed?
• In what ways is the river of today like the river of yesterday (10, 20, 30, 40 years ago)? How is it different?
• How do the people who were interviewed feel about the river?
• Were there any commonalities in their experiences with the river? How did their experiences differ?
• Compare and contrast the ways in which people use the river today from how it was used in the past.

Water quality is only one of a myriad of environmental issues that can be discussed in the classroom. But by exposing children to environmental problems, we risk the very real danger of overwhelming them. When faced with the immensity of global issues, it is easy to feel that there is nothing that can be done. We need to teach lessons that introduce children to the issues, but also allow them to discover their own power and abilities to address these problems.

GREEN is one example of a project that encourages students to solve problems. Another is Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions developed by a team from Southern Illinois University led by Harold Hungerford. Through this curriculum, adopted by the National Diffusion Network, students examine the role of beliefs and values in environmental issues, use questionnaires to investigate an issue, and develop environmental action strategies to address that issue. The program is predicated on the belief that in order to study environmental issues effectively, students need to be engaged in a sequence of activities that develop knowledge, higher order thinking skills, the ability to evaluate and clarify value positions, the ability to analyze ecological and cultural implications of various value perspectives, and apply citizenship action skills.

Another program designed to help students analyze environmental problems is the Environmental Issues Forums (EIF) sponsored by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and modeled after the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums. Environmental Issues Forums are designed to help students and others critically examine controversial environmental issues. Forums provide students the opportunity to learn more about complex environmental issues, consider a broad range of choices, and to work toward a common definition of the issue and of the solutions.

Through guided discussions, students gain a deeper understanding of a particular issue, consider a broad range of personal and policy choices, and talk with each other to identify the concerns they share. EIF does not advocate any specific point of view on environmental issues, but encourages students to clarify their own values. NAAEE has produced two EIF discussion guides, one on solid waste and the second on wetlands, and is in the process of writing three more discussion guides focusing on water quality, biodiversity, and forests. The Kettering Foundation has also developed two environmental guides, one on air pollution and the other on energy issues.

An additional resource for teachers wishing to explore environmental issues is the newly published Rescue Mission Plant Earth: A Children’s Edition of Agenda 21 (Children of the World, 1994). This book, written by 100 children from all over the world, explains the recommendations of the Rio Earth Summit in terms that children can understand. But more importantly, through their own poems, stories, and case studies, the children have developed an action handbook designed to motivate others to work towards environmental quality.
A common saying of the environmental movement is “think globally and act locally.” Involving your students in investigating environmental issues and developing citizenship action projects provides a unique opportunity to teach about global concerns and constructively work toward solving environmental problems.

Environmental Issues Forums
North American Association for Environmental Education
1255 23rd St., NW, Suite 400
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 467-8754

GREEN (Global Rivers Environmental Education Network)
721 E Huron Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
(313) 761-8142

National Issues Forums
Kettering Foundation
100 Commons Road
Dayton, OH 45459-2777
(800) 433-7834

Peace Child International
The White House
Buntington, Herts SG9 9AH
United Kingdom

A national water agenda for the 21st century: Water quality 2000 a final report. (1992). Alexandria, VA: Water Environment Federation.
Cromwell, M., Flanagan, R., Mitchell, M., Newman, J., Stapp, W., Susskind, Y., Wals, A., & Zogg, G. (1992). Investigating streams and rivers. Ann Arbor, MI: GREEN.
Hungerford, H., Litherland, R. A., Peyton, R. B., Ramsey, J. M., & Volk, T. L. (1991). Investigating and evaluating environmental issues and actions. Champaign, IL: Stipes Pub. Co.
North American Association for Environmental Education. (1992). The solid waste mess: What should we do with the garbage? Troy, OH: Author.
North American Association for Environmental Education. (1993). The wetlands issue: What should we do with our bogs, swamps, and marshes? Troy, OH: Author.
Children of the World. (1994). Rescue mission planet earth: A children’s edition of Agenda 21. London, England: Kingfisher Books.
U.S. E.P.A. (1991). Always a river: Supplemental environmental education curriculum on the Ohio River and water (Grades K-12). Cincinnati, OH: U.S. E.P.A. Office of Research and Development.
Western Regional Environmental Education Council. (1987). Aquatic WILD. Boulder, CO: Author.
Miller, G. T. (1990). Living in the environment, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
World Resources Institute. (1992). World resources 1992-93: A guide to the global environment. New York: Oxford University Press.

The activity How Wet is Our Planet? is adapted with permission from Western Regional Environmental Education Council, Aquatic WILD (Boulder, CO: WREEC, copyright 1987).

The activities Mapping a Watershed and Rivers and People are adapted with permission from M. Cromwell et al. Investigating Streams and Rivers (Ann Arbor, MI: GREEN, copyright 1992).
About the Author
Deborah Simmons is an Associate Professor in Outdoor Teacher Education at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois.

Figure 1. GREEN — Learning about the World through Our Rivers

What do students along the Ganges River in India, the Murray-Darling in Australia, and the Rouge in Michigan have in common? They and thousands of others around the world belong to the Global Rivers Environmental Education Network (GREEN). Developed by Dr. Bill Stapp, GREEN teaches students to nurse our ailing rivers, “One out of four hospital beds in the third world is occupied by people suffering from water-borne diseases,” he told this author.

The GREEN Project teaches students how to monitor the water quality of the rivers in their own communities. Saginaw, Michigan schools, for instance, hold a “River Walk Day” with canoe races and other water activities. But with their monitoring program, students found that the river had unsafe coliform levels (a bacteria found in human and animal feces), a sign of sewage contamination. “The students took their data to the city council and suggested an alternative site for the river walk,” Stapp said. “But it didn’t end there. They discovered why the fecal coliform levels were so high — the city’s storm water and sewage ran through a combined sewer overflow system.” Whenever rainstorms overloaded the system, untreated sewage would flow right into the river. Due to the students’ efforts, the city council placed a bond issue for a revamped sewer system on the ballot. Saginaw is now building a separate sanitation system.

GREEN programs now exist in 41 countries, so students can learn not only from their own rivers, but from others in their network. Eastern and Western Europe are beginning to look at the whole Danube River system as a common resource. Students on both sides of the Rio Grande River monitor its quality. “It’s a people-to-people exchange of thoughts and ideas,” Stapp said. “It’s built on the idea that rivers know no political boundaries.”