Environmental Education

The idea of specifically environmental education entered the public discourse in the late 1960s. Among the recommendations of the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was to ''establish an international programme in environmental education.'' UNESCO and UNEP subsequently undertook to prepare curricular materials, establish priorities, develop pilot projects, and organize meetings. The result was a UN-sponsored Conference at Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1978 that produced a consensus statement including the words:

Environmental education .. . should constitute a comprehensive lifelong education... it should prepare the individual for life through an understanding of the major problems of the contemporary world, and the provision of skills and attributes needed to play a productive role towards improving life and protecting the environment with due regard given to ethical values. By adopting a holistic approach, rooted in a broad interdisciplinary base, it recreates an overall perspective which acknowledges the fact that natural environment and manmade environment are profoundly interdependent. ...

The Tbilisi Conference produced 41 recommendations spanning the needs for environmental education between developed and less-developed countries. In the subsequent decades, initiatives, including those spawned by Agenda 21 and discussions about the Earth Charter, have advanced the discussion ofenvironmental education into a major part of the dialog about the role of education relative to the human prospect. There is no serious discussion about the transition to sustainability launched by the Brundtland Report in 1987 that does not include changing the goals and methods of education. From Tbilisi (1978), Talloires (1990), and subsequent international gatherings, a strong consensus about the importance of environment in higher education is clearly apparent.

Despite considerable progress, both conceptually and practically, there are serious differences about the goals and methods of environmental education that reflect and, in some ways, amplify larger disagreements about education. At the lowest level, there is a general consensus that the young ought to know something about how nature works as a physical system - the rudiments of biology and planetary science. There is considerably less agreement about how this should be incorporated into the standard curriculum or at what level. Most elementary schools include curricular components such as 'Project Learning Tree' or 'Wet and Wild' that introduce children to what was once called natural history along with some field experience and practical outdoor skills. But the later inclusion of values or discussion about the causes of environmental ills has often been controversial, especially when it has led to questions about conventional economic or political wisdom.

In important respects, all education is environmental education, that is, by what is included or excluded students are taught that they are part of or apart from ecological systems. The standard, discipline-centric curriculum may have contributed to a mindset that helped to create environmental problems by separating subjects into boxes and conceptually by separating people from nature. As a result, graduates are often ignorant of ecological relationships or why they are worthy of consideration. Not surprisingly, the first response to proposals for environmental education attempted to accommodate environmental issues and ecology into formal education as a kind of add-on. More radical critics proposed that formal education ought to be reformed along ecological lines, raising another and no less contentious issues. From either perspective, environmental mismanagement and the larger discussion of sustainability raise questions about the meaning of human mastery over nature, or more accurately as C. S. Lewis once put it: what does it mean for some men to control other men through the mastery of some parts of nature? What is the core knowledge of the environment that ought to be standard in an educational curriculum? At the heart of such questions are important differences about what it means to be human, what part of that definition ought to remain inviolable, and about the manipulation of natural systems through technological means such as genetic engineering. Is the problem, in other words, one in education or one of education?

What can be said with certainty is that public schooling and higher education have been underachievers in the task of inculcating essential knowledge about the environment. Public opinion surveys show high levels of support for environmental quality but little ecological knowledge. In the words of one typical survey, people have acquired a ''substantial familiarity with environmental issues, but [have] a long way to go in developing a working environmental/energy knowledge.'' Much of what people know about the environment is derived from television in bits and pieces and not through direct experience with nature or through cultural transmission.

One particularly encouraging aspect is the development of environmental education in institutions of higher education. Stemming from innovations in the 1980s, a vibrant campus ecology movement has emerged in Europe, Australasia, and the USA, along with a wide discussion of sustainability of educational institutions. Beginning with the studies of college food, energy use, and pollution, the movement has grown in subsequent decades to a worldwide scale. Hundreds of colleges and universities globally have organized efforts to systematically reduce energy use, water consumption, and material flows. Campus sustain-ability and climate stability have come to the center of institutional planning, purchasing, and construction. Beginning in the late 1990s with the advent of means to promote and measure environmental performance of buildings, the construction of academic facilities is undergoing a rapid revolution. Green or high-performance building standards are increasingly regarded as necessary to reduce energy and maintenance costs as well as laboratories for research and education. Many of the problems of sustainability - ecological design, applications of solar energy, water purification, food production, ecological restoration, and landscape management - can be studied in buildings and adjacent landscapes at a scale that is both significant yet manageable. Given recent developments on many campuses, it is not inconceivable that educational institutions at all levels will one day become models of ecological design mirroring the larger solutions necessary to the transition to sustainability.

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