Oh, the dichotomy of Generation Z (today’s teen, tween and kid)! Described as both selfish and altruistic, GenZs live in a world they believe is doomed, but they are also ecstatic about the possibility of their own impact. Burdened by the enormity of climate change, many are emerging as eco-warriors.

With nearly one-in-five mammal, reptile, bird or amphibian species facing extinction, it’s perhaps not surprising that the relationship today’s youth have with animals is altering from anthropocentrismthe tendency for humans to regard themselves as the central and most significant beings in the universe – to stewardship.

But to sociologists, who have proven that the loss of contact with nature … is nature’s loss, the biggest pardox is whether “natural world” experiences will remain the primary driver of biocentrismthe belief that nature does not exist to be consumed by mankind – or whether “virtual & online world” experiences will also prove their merit in cultivating GenZ’s compassion for animals and concern for the world?

Meet 9 year old Carter Ries and his 8 year old sister, Olivia. This brother and sister team are the founders of OMG, a non-profit dedicated to helping all endangered species survive at least One More Generation… and beyond.

Inspired to make a difference after learning that animals are dying because “we keep taking their land and polluting their environment,” explains Carter, the duo turned to the internet to learn what they could do to help. With each new devastating fact, the kids kept saying “Oh My Gosh, oh my gosh…” or OMG.

KooDooZ youth advisory board member, Danielle Beauregard, interviewed Carter and Olivia to learn how they are saving the lives of species half way around the world. Listen to the podcast:

While our nation’s current environmental educational practices have been criticized as fostering reactive and alarmist views — rather than a proactive and preventative perspectives – GenZ eco-warriors are proving otherwise.

 A Harvard Education Letter, entitled “The Greening of Environmental Education” stated the number-one rule for teaching young elementary school students about the environment is to veer away from the darker side of the equation. (NOTE: This is in contradiction to Carter and Olivia’s world view)

When every other facet in a child’s life paints such a bleak picture about global warming, deforestation, endangered species and access to clean water, how much should schools really “soften the blow”?

Our kids do not live in a bubble.

If marketers are going to float polar bears on a shrinking iceberg to advertise their product, educators should not have any trepidation about having the same green conversations in their classrooms, with school-aged kids.

In particular, environmental educators should focus on the period from 2nd to 5th grades.  For it is this age group that is most significantly characterized by a major increase in emotional concern and affection for animals. Any time later, and we’re hitting them too late. Research suggests attitudes toward wildlife have been firmly established by the 8th grade.

What are some scary facts about animals?

Pyschologists believe that giving children scary environmental facts will serve to (i) make problems seem unsolvable; (ii) label individual action as unimportant; and (iii) convey an overall sense of hopelessness and helplessness to children.

How true is this in light of GenZ’s proven tenacity as eco-warriors? Consider the impact these young social entrepreneurs have had:

  1. Ben Workinger, at the age of 8 started a way station for Monarch Butterflies at his school
  2. Colin Carlson, at the age of 11 created a multi-pronged project (with a website) to educate people in his community about global warming
  3. Nathan Moos, at the age of 11 recruited eighteen other 6th graders to help him get parents to adopt car idling restrictions as a way to prevent air pollution
  4. Alec Loorz, at the age of 12, organized Kids-vs-Global-Warming action teams who pledged to green their schools and get involved in local environmental projects
  5. Alexander Lin, at the of 12 learned that consumer electronics and heavy metals that end up in the landfill will irreversibly poison groundwater and promoted legislation to ban the dumping of e-waste.

Do not belittle the little children.

Not unlike the eco-warriors before them, Carter and Olivia have had measurable impact. Since building OMG from the ground up in their hometown in Fayetteville, Georgia, Carter and Olivia have involved their friends, family, and members of their community in their cause.

During the Gulf oil spill crisis, the siblings collected supplies to assist in the rehabilitation of animals affected by the spill. After 4 months of planning and collection, the OMG founders took a 1,248 (round) trip journey to the Gulf, on Olivia’s birthday. “When we saw the first report on CNN showing the oiled sea turtles and birds, it hurt our hearts and we knew we had to help,” Carter explained. “Once we arrived and saw all the sick sea turtles and how the veterinarians and volunteers were working so hard, it was obvious that we didn’t just collect soap and rags and other stuff… we were actually saving sea turtles,” Olivia added.

Olivia and Carter have shown in more ways than one that they are a force to be reckoned with, for example, they have:

  1. Met with the Deputy District Director for Congressman Lynn Westmoreland to urge the consideration of co-sponsoring H.R.-14, the Ocean Acidification Act.
  2. Raised money to help support the Ann van Dyk Cheeta Rescue in South Africa, which has spent the last 40-years tirelessly working towards helping keep Cheetah, African Wild Dog, Brown Hyena, Serval, Suni Antelope and Riverine Rabbits from becoming extinct
  3. Written to their local Governor’s office to help:
    • stop Rattlesnake Roundups stopped and legislation amended to allow venomous snakes to be protected under local law
    • help the Gopher Tortoises that are being senselessly killed via the snake-hunter gassings during the Roundups
  4. Spoken with the local Southeastern Reptile Rescue organization about joining forces to help spread the word about how vital snakes and other misunderstood reptiles are to the eco system
  5. Coordinated the first annual OMG Day at their school which offered:
    • educational material from a local nature center to heighten awareness around the pressing issue of endangered species
    • hands-on opportunities to interact with animals threatened with extinction and learn why they are so important to the eco-system

Caught in a web.

For generation Z, interacting online is “second nature” and is as important as interacting in the “real world.” The fact is, the world wide web gives people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to become more “worldly” and savvy to the plight of all living things. Animals that we can’t even find at our local zoo can be discovered online, and when coupled with interactive multimedia components, these far-away creatures can come to life.

Personally, I believe learning about “abstract concepts,” such as the loss of rainforests and endangered species, should happen in conjunction with a child’s use of media and digital assets.

Generation Z demands transparency and meaningful engagement. If our environmental education sugar-coats the world’s biggest and most public concerns, we will further put our schools in risk of staying relevant.

If we are to “save the world,” we should embrace the mission of teaching kids how to be active citizens and stewards of the environment, by giving them as many hands-on and peer-to-peer learning opportunities as possible, both online and real-world.