Why Environmental Education?

By Venkataraman, Bhawani

By the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962,1 alerting the world to the impacts pesticides had on the natural environment, the seeds of the modern environmental movement had been sown. The Donora, Pennsylvania, smog in 1948 and the London smog of 1952 had heightened concern for a public already worried about nuclear war and the effects of fallout radiation. With all this in the backdrop, two large oil spills, one off the coast of England in 1967 and the other off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in 1969, helped push the modern environmental movement forward. In the United States, it coalesced at the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970. Two years later, at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, world governments issued a declaration proclaiming, Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.2

More explicitly, the declaration called for “education in environmental matters, for the younger generation as well as adults” as essential for “an enlightened opinion and responsible conduct by individuals, enterprises and communities in protecting and improving the environment in its full human dimension.”3

In the decades that have followed, communities from local to global have faced increasingly complex and interconnected problems, requiring unprecedented innovation, knowledge, and motivation. The need for “enlightened opinion” and “responsible conduct” has never been stronger. How has the world responded to this call?

Defining Environmental Education

Following on the heels of the Stockholm Conference, the United Nations held an International Workshop on Environmental Education in Belgrade in 1975. Its culminating document, The Belgrade Charter, set out a global framework for environmental education, asserting that it is an active process that can ultimately lead to a society that has the “knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.”4

Most definitions of “effective” environmental education continue this trend, emphasizing an understanding of environmental issues and the responsibility of the individual and society to take appropriate actions. A seminal article in the Journal of Environmental Education, for example, lists the goals of environmental education as:

* a working knowledge of environmental issues,

* specific knowledge of approaches to address those issues,

* the ability to make appropriate decisions, and

* possession of certain affective qualities (attitudes) that make people care about and pay more attention to environmental conditions.5

At the 1992 UN Earth Summit, member countries took this one step farther, incorporating the concept of sustainable development introduced in the Brundtland report five years earlier.6 Chapter 36 of the summit’s Agenda 21 called for “reorienting education toward sustainable development.”7 Such an approach would be essential “to achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making.”8

Environmental Education on the Ground

Environmental education programs developed slowly in the first 20 years after the Stockholm Conference. At the 1977 Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education, participants noted that while many countries had “made significant advances towards implementing environmental education programmes,” progress remained slow in secondary education, and there were too few teachers and professors trained in ecology and multidisciplinary teaching styles.9 A follow- up report 10 years later lamented,

Despite increasing awareness of environmental problems and the undeniable efforts of many countries to develop the technical and institutional means to cope with them, we are bound to acknowledge that, in general, the actions undertaken to date have proved insufficient to counteract the steady deterioration in the quality of the environment.10

More promising, the last 15 years have seen an explosion in environmental education programs. While environmental education programs initially focused largely on environmental cleanup and good waste management practices, schools, colleges, and universities are beginning to embrace elements of environmental education with increasing numbers, emphasizing environmentalism as a core principle of their education.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Education and organizations like the National Environmental Education Foundation have accelerated curriculum development and professional development for teachers. As a result, primary, secondary, and higher education has been increasing efforts to integrate environmental topics across curricula and as real-world applications of scientific principles. The numbers of environmental studies schools and programs at the secondary and higher education levels continue to grow, and so does support for events that engage communities around local environmental issues. In fact, “activism” on some campuses today is associated with a commitment to the environment.11

Similar efforts are taking place in other nations as well. For example, the UK national curriculum for primary and secondary levels includes education for sustainable development.12 In India, organizations such as the Indian Environmental Society are actively involved in establishing public and school environmental education programs13 and a National Green Corps.

Strong evidence suggests that well-designed environmental education programs can lead to the desired outcomes articulated in The Belgrade Charter. A 10-year study by the National Environmental Education Foundation and Roper Public Affairs of the achievements of U.S. environmental education programs in primary and secondary schools shows that in some schools that use curricula with an environmental focus, students’ performance has improved, they were more effective in transferring knowledge to new situations, and classroom discipline was less of an issue.14 A specific successful example is a curriculum called “Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions.” The curriculum emphasizes a “critical thinking approach to environmental issues” and requires students to gather information and data to evaluate environmental issues and develop solutions. The program has improved students’ reading, writing, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills; their knowledge of ecology and environmental issues; and “their ability to analyze issues, including the key players, salient positions, and underlying beliefs and values.”15 Importantly, “students in the program were better able to identify actions appropriate for issue resolution.”16

Challenges for Environmental Education

As citizens become increasingly aware of environmental problems, the challenge for environmental education remains to foster a sense of responsibility and environmental stewardship. Awareness of environmental issues is of course essential, but it does not guarantee action. Unless people see risks at the individual or societal level, it is unlikely they will support government efforts at regulation, let alone make changes in their personal lifestyle to mitigate environmental impact.17 Surveys conducted by GlobeScan in 2000 and 2006 revealed a 10 percent increase in the number of Americans who thought that “climate change is a serious problem”;18 however, at the same time, a 2003 study found that just 13 percent were concerned about the impact of global warming on themselves or their community.19 Even as recently as 2007, a study of U.S. opinion by the Pew Research Center found that only 47 percent acknowledged that human activities are a major contributor to global temperature trends.20

As highlighted in a paper by Yale University Professor Anthony Leiserowitz, it will take acknowledgement of risks at the individual or societal level to motivate change:

Public opinion can fundamentally compel or constrain political, economic and social action to address particular risks. For example, public support or opposition to climate policies . . . will be greatly influenced by public perceptions of the risks and dangers of climate change. Further, successfully mitigating or adapting to global warming will require changes in the behavior of billions of human beings, who each day make individual choices that collectively have enormous impacts on the Earth’s climate.21

There is still much to be done to find the most effective ways to teach about the environment and impart personal responsibility and action. Embracing environmental stewardship and sustainable practices on college and university campuses are clearly positive moves. But competing campus initiatives, such as expanding the student body to increase revenues or building new facilities, increase environmental impact.22 The challenge is to balance the need to modernize and grow without degrading the environment. As the higher education community becomes more vested in integrating environmental stewardship at all levels, it also will be important to assess whether graduates are translating their education into their lifestyles and work practice.23 Environmental issues are complex and draw on many disciplines. To teach practical problem solving, the curriculum must be “hands-on” and include in-and out- of-class activities. 24 To motivate personal responsibility, it must emphasize the impact of human consumption patterns.25 To inspire action, it must consider culture, diversity, ethics, and justice.26 Further complicating matters is the need for studies that evaluate the efficacy of environmental programs.27

Yet the work that has been done gives us reasons to be optimistic. This column is the first in a series that will look at different approaches to environmental education and the successes and challenges of each in meeting its objectives.

Most definitions of “effective” environmental education emphasize the responsibility of the individual and society to take appropriate actions.

1. R. Carson, Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

2. United Nations, Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, adopted at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, Sweden, 5-16 June 1972, http:// www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/ Default.asp?DocumentID=97&ArticleID=1503 (accessed 3 July 2008).

3. Ibid.

4. United Nations Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), The Belgrade Charter, adopted at the International Workshop on Environmental Education, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 13-22 October 1975.

5. J. E. Hines, H. R. Hungerford, and A. N. Tomera, “Analysis and Synthesis of Research in Responsible Environmental Behavior: A Meta- analysis,” Journal of Environmental Education 18, no. 2 (Winter 1986- 1987): 1-8.

6. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

7. United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, Agenda 21, adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3-14 June 1992, 36.3

8. Ibid.

9. UNESCO, Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education: Final Report (Paris: UNESCO, 1978), 12.

10. UNESCO, International Strategy for Action in the Field of Environmental Education and Training for the 1990s (Paris: UNESCO, 1987), 5.

11. T. Egan, “The Greening of America’s Campuses,” New York Times, 8 January 2006; and T. L. Friedman, “The Greenest Generation,” New York Times, 21 April 2006.

12. This program “enables pupils to develop the knowledge, skills, understanding and values to participate in decisions about the way we do things individually and collectively, both locally and globally, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future” (http://curriculum.qca.org.uk/key-stages- 1-and-2/learning-across-the-curriculum/education-for-sustainable- development/index.aspx).

13. In particular, the Indian Environmental Society (http:// www.iesglobal.org/) is actively involving primary and secondary schools in the worldwide GLOBE program (http://www.globe.gov).

14. K. Coyle, Environmental Literacy in America: What Ten Years of NEETF/Roper Research and Related Studies Say About Environmental Literacy in the U.S. (Washington, DC: National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, 2005).

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. A. Leiserowitz, International Public Opinion, Perception, and Understanding of Global Climate Change (New Haven, CT: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Project on Climate Change, 2007), http://environment.yale.edu/uploads/IntlPublicOpinion.pdf (accessed July 2008)

18. GlobeScan, Environics International Environmental Monitor Survey Dataset (Toronto: GlobeScan, 2000); and GlobeScan, “30- country Poll Finds Worldwide Consensus That Climate Change Is a Serious Problem,” GlobeScan press release, 24 April 2006.

19. A. Leiserowitz, “Global Warming in the American Mind: The Roles of Affect, Imagery, and Worldviews in Risk Perception, Policy Preferences and Behavior” (PhD dissertation, University of Oregon, 2003).

20. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Global Warming: A Divide on Causes and Solutions, Public Views Unchanged by Unusual Weather (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007), http://pewresearch.org/pubs/282/global-warming- a-divide-on-causes-and-solutions (accessed July 2008).

21. Leiserowitz, note 17.

22. A. Rappaport, “Campus Greening: Behind the Headlines,” Environment 50, no. 1 (January/February 2008): 6-16.

23. Leiserowitz, note 17.

24. Coyle, note 14.

25. D. Blumstein and C. Saylan, “The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It),” PLoS Biology 5 (2007): 973-77.

26. A. G. Cole, “Expanding the Field: Revisiting Environmental Education Principles Through Multidisciplinary Frameworks,” Journal of Environmental Education 38 (2007): 35-44.

27. Coyle, note 14; and Leiserowitz, note 17.

BHAWANI VENKATARAMAN is chair of the Interdisciplinary Science Program at Eugene Lang College, The New School. She may be reached at [email protected]

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