Every day, the news cycle floods us with stories about dramatic environmental degradation that endangers life on earth. We hear about environmental threats to humanity, the urgency of climate change, and the ongoing pillaging of Earth’s natural wealth—its soils, water, wildlife, air, and more. Earth’s present reality is indeed sobering and daunting.
Given the dire situation, it is no surprise that environmental education is surging in popularity worldwide. Knowledge and passion are power in the fight against the vast array of environmental issues we face.
Environmental education’s core tenets can be encompassed as: education about the environment, education for the environment, and education in, with, and from the environment.
Classroom curricula and studying from books, while important, are simply not enough to bring about changes. Simultaneously, the key is to take learning out of the classroom and into the community and outdoors. Partnering with like-minded public and private organizations opens the door for schools and colleges to create meaningful programs that are mutually beneficial.
Done well, environmental education empowers young people with the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to tackle environmental issues. Just as important, students cultivate positive, ethical attitudes that are mindful of the plights of nature.
Knowledge is not to be limited to the hard sciences. A deeper appreciation for varied cultural understanding and indigenous ecological knowledge enriches environmental education.
There is no school or college subject that cannot support the exploration of environmental concepts or problem-solving opportunities and solutions. Over the years, everything from conservation to peace to sustainability to human rights education has been included in the study of environmental issues as complementary elements. These mergers are practical in bringing environmental education into real-world contexts.
This inclusivity appeals to a wide range of constituencies committed to dealing with issues related to air, water, energy, soil, food, transportation, waste management, wildlife, biocultural diversity, social justice, and indigenous and native cultures, among others.
Effectively engaged students can revitalize humanity’s relationships with nature. Promoting systems and complex thinking, appreciation of the arts through creative ventures, and opportunities to physically experience nature all awaken the senses. Hands-on practical engagement with real-life problems and the outdoors further enriches a holistic approach to environmental education. Through this, students come to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness of their lives, their communities, and the world.
The “environment” in which we learn impacts how authentic we find our engagement with environmental education.
For example, the study in and of “green buildings” is a legitimate avenue of environmental inquiry. Their design, construction, and operation encompass environmental, economic, and social impacts. In Portland, Oregon, the Portland State University campus has several “green buildings” that are LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Not only are resources in the construction of buildings used with care, but also how these buildings generate waste and conserve energy is part of the sustainability equation and learning. The study of the life cycle of a building, consumption of resources, conservation, waste management, and issues related to harmful environmental impacts is undertaken out of necessity for the health and well-being of people and the planet.
‘Groundedness’ Inspires Action
A sense of place—a “groundedness” in one’s local area—creates reciprocal relationships and critical engagement with the local social and ecological environment. Students with a developed sense of place take action in numerous ways that serve their local communities while supporting nature. In urban areas where access to nature is scarce, students stake out green spaces and community gardens by digging up lawns and de-paving parking lots. They test water quality in local watersheds, monitor their neighborhoods’ air quality, plant native vegetation to restore degraded areas, reduce their waste, use alternative modes of transportation, and become interested in biocultural diversity and indigenous/native cultures in their regions.
Students are change-makers. In my experience, one excellent means of engaging students is through cultivating and nurturing gardens. When students actively create healthy soil, grow food with care, and promote wildlife relationships in places where they learn, they experience being active participants in bettering the world.
Children’s latent curiosity and wonder must be nurtured. We all have heard young children and youth ask penetrating questions related to life-giving organisms, ranging from the wriggling of worms to eggs in the chicken coop to dewdrops on leaves. Natural settings motivate endless marvel, wonder, and questions. For adolescents, topics that emerge include global food trade, persistent use of indiscriminate life-killing chemicals in conventional agriculture and on school grounds, the high proportion of corn in the modern diet, and the ubiquity of grass lawns. Many of the questions that students raise have no simple or convincing answers. But questions are the language of wonder, and they are to be encouraged in environmental education.
Appreciation of interconnectedness as a defining characteristic of nature, along with realization of our inherent interdependence with one another and with nature, can have significant impacts on our behavior toward others. Understanding our role as part of the web of life binds our human health with that of endangered and polluted ecosystems. Recognizing the social dimension of interconnectedness may inform more peaceful and compassionate ways of relating with one another.
The Bright Future of Environmental Action
During these dire times of environmental degradation, love, not fear, will motivate humans to act. Successful stories and efforts of the myriad of children, youth, and adults can show us pathways to possibilities and human agency and empowerment.
While we cannot expect one mega-formula to deal with global environmental threats, and no single academic discipline can have explanatory monopoly, integration of environmental education into schools and colleges demonstrates promise despite its challenges. Just as the stream has many tributaries, we can submit with humility to the lessons we garner from one another in our quest for a greater quality of life for all of humanity, offering a multitude of commitments to resolve environmental threats. For this, schools and colleges offer a common playing field for the integration of environmental education and developing a sense of urgency and empowerment for action.
*Dilafruz Williams, PhD, is the chair of the Educational Leadership and Policy Department in the College of Education at Portland State University in Oregon, USA.