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Higher Still, an Environmental Awakening at the Grassroots Level

The following is an edited talk given by Bruce Johnson, PhD, Professor of Environmental Learning, University of Arizona, and International Program and Research Coordinator, The Institute for Earth Education, at the 28th International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, in April 2022.

Holding hands together while standing on the globe   ©iStock/Professor 25
©iStock/Professor 25

Accomplishing meaningful change and sustainable development requires a multi-faceted, continuing educational approach, both formal and informal, addressing various aspects of our approach to environmental issues—aspects such as technology, policy, and personal vs collective behavior.

To effectively resolve the critical environmental crises we face, an ever-deepening, comprehensive educational response is needed. Improved formal and informal education is needed towards a Great Awakening on these matters such as environmental science as well as hands-on immersive outdoors experiences—for more deeply learning about the environment and more intimately exploring ways to successfully encourage people, both individually and collectively, to adopt more environmentally friendly behaviors.

Young people demonstrating for environmental system change.  ©
Young people demonstrating for environmental system change. ©

For this generation to make meaningful change, greater emphasis needs to be placed on education that can affect values, attitudes, and behavioral intentions. Key educational factors instrumental in fine-tuning that greater awakening and awareness involve research in three areas: (1) the relationships between knowledge, attitudes, and environmental behavior; (2) psychological research on values and environmental identity; and (3) the efficacy of Earth education programs designed to influence environmental action and behavior.

Relationships Between Knowledge, Attitudes, and Environmental Behavior

One of the clearest models of the most productive relationships between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior in this field is the Competence Model for Environmental Education (Roczen, Kaiser, Bogner & Wilson, 2013). The first part of the model differentiates between three different types of knowledge—system, action-related, and effectiveness (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Knowledge Model
Figure 1. Knowledge Model
  • System knowledge is the dominant type of environmental knowledge that is taught and forms the basis for the other knowledge dimensions. This knowledge can include how ecological systems work and natural systems operate (ecological concepts) and can also include information about environmental issues and impacts, e.g., “knowing what” the problems are.

  • Action-related knowledge concerns behavioral options and possible courses of action or “knowing how” to be more environmentally friendly. This includes individual actions (like reducing electricity use, recycling, etc.,) and group actions (such as working to change policies).

  • Effectiveness knowledge is about the relative gain or benefit that is associated with a particular behavior or action or “knowing which”—building on action-related knowledge, going from knowing how to lessen impact to knowing the relative benefits of different behaviors and actions. This element is taught even less than action-related knowledge, which is taught less than system knowledge.

Self-Enhancing vs Self-Transcendent Values and Environmental Identity

People’s values and life goals are one aspect of human identity that plays a significant role in the development of pro-environmental attitudes and behavior (Crompton & Kasser, 2009). Values and life goals are critically important to consider when deciding how to convince people to act. Psychological research on values has shown that there are universal values, though they play out differently in both individuals and societies (Schwartz, 1992).

Some goals are extrinsic and are related to self-enhancement; these include achievement, power, status, and wealth (Kasser, 2005, 2011; Sheldon & McGregor, 2000). Another set of opposing goals are more intrinsic and self-transcendent, including universalism and benevolence (Crompton & Kasser, 2009, 2010; Grouzet, et al. 2005). People with strong self-enhancement values and goals tend to have negative environmental attitudes and behaviors. Those with strong self-transcendent values and goals tend to be more concerned about the environment and more motivated to engage in pro-environmental behaviors.

Earth Education: A Programmatic Approach to Environmental Learning

Earth education grew out of the groundbreaking work of Steve Van Matre in his Acclimatization summer camp programs to help young people build a love affair with the Earth (Van Matre, 1972). An international non-profit educational organization, The Institute for Earth Education, was formed in 1974 and continues to this day. The purpose of Earth education is to nurture the process of “helping people to live more harmoniously and joyously with the Earth and its life.” (Van Matre, 1990, p. 87)

Earth education programs are magical learning adventures, holistic programs designed to help learners construct understandings of the systems of life that support us, develop positive feelings for the natural world and our place in it, and begin to craft lifestyles that lessen impact. There are several earth education programs for different ages and contexts, including three for 10-11 year-olds: Sunship Earth (Van Matre, 1977), Earthkeepers (Van Matre & Johnson, 1988); and Rangers of the Earth (Van Matre & Farber, 2005); and one for 13-14 year-olds Sunship III (Van Matre & Johnson, 1997).

Other programs are in development. All are focused on helping participants grow in three general ways:

  • Construct understandings of fundamental ecological concepts, such as flow of energy, cycling of materials, interrelating of life, and changing of forms;

  • Develop positive feelings, such as joy, at being in touch with the elements of life, kinship with all living things, reverence for natural communities, and love for the Earth; and

  • Processing what they learn and experience into action by internalizing understandings for how life works on the Earth, enhancing feelings for the Earth and its life, crafting more harmonious lifestyles, and participating in environmental planning and action.

All earth education programs include substantial time for participants to experience nature first-hand through highly participatory activities. As an example, Sunship III: Perception and Choice for the Journey Ahead, is designed to help young adolescents begin to craft lifestyles that will have less impact on the natural systems of our planet. The program is designed around the nature of young people at this stage of life, becoming more independent, making more decisions, and interacting with peers in new ways.

Participants are invited to a three-day residential “Commencement Exercises,” held away from school and home. To learn about the ecological systems that support us, four ecological concepts are explored through outdoor, participatory activities designed to take these abstract concepts into reality.

For instance, to learn about energy, they visit “Solarville” to order a pizza, discovering the often-hidden ways energy is used in our daily lives. To learn about the cycling of materials, they become workers at the “Cycle Factory,” operating the air, water, and soil cycles. Feelings are enhanced through activities like “Objet Trouve,” an exhibit of nature’s art that participants create as well as view, and at Magic Spots,” where they can experience solitude with the elements of life.

Applying their new understandings, perceptions, and choices in their homes and schools is the focus of the “Quest” they embark on after the three-day commencement exercises. Participants, who are encouraged to seek truth, adventure, and harmony, work together in small sharing groups to support each other. For instance, they interview role models in their community who are using energy and materials wisely, demonstrating care for natural places and things, and developing a deep personal relationship with the Earth.

Research on Earth education programs has investigated changes in participants’ understandings, values and attitudes, and pro-environmental behaviors. Results consistently demonstrate increased understandings, more pro-environmental attitudes, and more environmentally positive behaviors.

Next Steps

Individuals can change their own behaviors, engage in group actions, and vote for candidates and policies that will lessen our impact on the environment. Many people across the globe have taken these and other steps. How do we encourage even more to do so?

Education is a key, but it must be more than just formal schooling. To be successful, we need to keep in mind what we know about why people act as they do and how we can encourage pro-environmental views and actions.

  1. First, we must recognize that simply providing information about environmental issues is not enough. We need to pay attention to developing pro-environmental concern and attitudes. We need to help people learn about environmentally positive actions they can take and their effectiveness. Information without the corresponding attitudes and skills is unlikely to result in change.

  2. Second, we must recognize that people’s environmental identity—or how they see themselves in relation to the environment and non-human nature—matters. We can encourage pro-environmental views through appealing to self-transcendent values and life goals, while avoiding reinforcement of self-enhancing values and goals.

  3. Finally, education programs that take a comprehensive approach to address ecological understandings, feelings, and behavior can result in increased knowledge, more pro-environmental attitudes, and the adoption of more pro-environmental behaviors.


Editorial Note

The Institute for Earth Education, Greenville, WV is an international non-profit that creates holistic earth education programs and trains learners of all ages to live more lightly on the earth. Its education programs emphasize understanding basic ecological processes, developing positive feelings for the natural world, and making personal lifestyle changes. The institute published following books by Steve Van Matre: Acclimatization (1972); Sunship Earth (1977); Earth education: A new beginning (1990); Earthkeepers: Four Keys to Helping Young People Live in Harmony with the Earth by Van Matre, S., & Johnson B. (1988); Sunship III: Perception and choice for the journey ahead by Van Matre, S., & Johnson, B. (1997); Ranger of the Earth: Young People Responding to the Planet’s Call for Help by Van Matre, S., & Farber, L. (2005). A complete bibliography will be included in the edited transcript of Dr. Johnson’s presentation in the ICUS XXVIII conference proceedings publication.


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