nvironmental education has failed to bring about the changes in attitude and behavior necessary to stave off the detrimental effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation that our planet is experiencing at an alarmingly accelerating rate.
For decades, scientists have warned of the potentially devastating consequences of climate change, and although it has become a highly politicized issue, serious problems still loom in earth’s near future. A conservative approach would dictate that our societies act expediently to mitigate these potential threats. But that is not happening. Instead, we are all paralyzed by indecision, argument, misplaced politicization of the issues, and a widespread lack of commitment to change. The pace of environmental degradation, however, is not slowing.
This collective inability to act is brought about in part by educational institutions that generally do not provide the tools necessary for critical thinking and for understanding the modern world. Nor do they teach individual responsibility and social engagement, two fundamental tenets of free and democratic societies.
So what exactly is it that is failing? Is it environmental education or education as a whole? We believe they may, in fact, be one and the same. Although many consider environmental education to be a subheading of science education, it must be more than that. Not only must environmental education teach people about their physical environment, it must go further to teach how to live and flourish in sustainable ways. Environmental education has failed in part because of its limitations.
Who can be held responsible for this inefficacy? In fairness, the blame must be borne by everyone, as we are all responsible citizens of earth, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. Each of us bears a moral responsibility to protect the resources that support life on our planet, not only for those we share the planet with, but also for those who will come after us. If our societies fail to do this, they fail humanity. People have the collective power to effect change on local and national levels alike. But that power must be realized and acted on by individuals, and we believe that education has a role in providing the skills to do so.
As parents, we must work to assure a safe and healthy future for our children. A future that includes time spent exploring wild places and learning about the creatures that inhabit them. A future that helps children learn who they are by connecting them to where they live.
As teachers, we should work toward providing students with the creative and analytical skills they will need to live good lives within whatever communities they choose. We should also strive to instill a creative curiosity about the world and an interest in learning that will remain with students throughout their lives. Just as important, we need to stay focused on improving the institutions in which we teach and our personal skills and abilities as well.
As students, we must hunger for more exposure to new and broader concepts. We must understand that we are authors of the future of our communities and nations, and that we possess the power to make ourselves heard and to effect change.
And as policy makers, we must listen carefully for the voice of the people and encourage participatory good citizenry at every opportunity.
What is needed is a modern, practical redefinition of environmental education. One that encompasses multidisciplinary teaching approaches. One that seeks to cultivate scientific and civic literacy. One that stimulates community engagement, fosters an understanding of moral systems, and reinforces the appreciation of aesthetics. We believe it is time for a full integration of environmental education in a form that inspires practical and critical reevaluation of education as a whole. We believe this reevaluation will lead to synergistic action and real impact.
The obstacles to such an educational approach are many and diverse. Understanding the complexity of the environmental problems facing our world requires a working knowledge of politics, consumption, the nature and state of educational and legislative institutions, effective metrics for measuring successes and failures, and a healthy dose of background information. Together, these ideas and disciplines will create a new vision of environmental education and environmental literacy.