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excerpt from a discussion paper on Environmental Education for a sustainable future
‘Today Shapes Tomorrow’, 1999,
Section 2
The Nature of Environmental Education
Defining Environnmental Education:
'Environmental Education' is used in this Discussion Paper in its broadest sense to encompass:
raising awareness;
acquiring new perspectives, values, knowledge and skills; and
formal and informal processes leading to changed behaviour in support of a sustainable
The term 'environmental education' has various connotations.
It has sometimes been interpreted narrowly to relate only to the scientific aspects of environmental
problems. Its placement therefore among the disciplines of formal education has been most prominently in
science and geography.
Yet these traditional disciplines do not necessarily capture the wide range of aspects which a holistic
education about environmental matters should incorporate. Public policy, electoral politics, economic, and
even diplomatic factors are just some of the many cross-disciplinary linkages which should be integral to
enviromnental education.
In contemporary international discussion, the term 'education for sustainability' has been used by some to
reinforce that the issues with which environmental education deals cut across and engage traditional
disciplines and areas of study. It must be a transdisciplinary process.
The widely accepted definition of 'sustainability' is that proposed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:
'Sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the
ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'
A detailed vision of what education for sustainability might mean in practice is likely to be the subject of
continuing discussion. But the following principles are likely to remain basic to its operation.
Principles of Environmental Education
1. Environmental Education must involve everyone.
Because of its very nature and importance, environmental education cannot be confined to any one group
in our society. It is a responsibility for everyone — government, industry, the media, educational
institutions, community groups — right down to the level of the individual.
2. Environmental Education must be lifelong.
Information about environmental problems is forever improving, as we learn from our past experiences
and mistakes. As we develop and apply better environmental technologies, the ability of society and
individuals to respond effectively also improves.
In order to move closer to achieving sustainable development as a nation, all Australians need to
continually refresh the knowledge and skills which they apply to the environmental challenges we face.
Just as workplace learning and retraining are essential to continued productivity, the same is true of
environmental education, whether in formal or non formal settings.
3. Environmental Education must be holistic and about connections.
In order to address environmental challenges, we need people who think broadly and who understand
systems, connections, patterns and causes. The challenges themselves frequently have social, scientific,
cultural, economic and ethical aspects, all of which must be considered for their effective management.
Specialist discipline-based knowledge, while contributing critically, is no longer adequate by itself holistic appreciation of the context of environmental problems is essential.
Meeting this need presents a dilemma to the formal education systems over whether environmental
education should be taught as a separate subject or incorporated into one or more particular subject areas.
The right answer may vary from situation to situation, depending on what is most practical — suffice to
say, a much stronger re-orientation of all relevant areas of formal education towards issues of sustainability
is required.
Equally important is the need to establish better communicative links between those people working on, or
learning about, similar or related environmental issues, but who come from different professional or
disciplinary backgrounds. Better grounds for communication and partnerships are also required between
formal and non formal education settings, and between various groups with competing interests on
environmental issues.
4. Environmental Education must be practical.
One of the most fundamental defining characteristics of effective environmental education is that it must
lead to actions which result in better environmental outcomes, not simply the accumulation of inert
knowledge or impractical skills.
This is ultimately the yardstick by which we are able to measure the effectiveness of our efforts in
environmental education.
5. Environmental Education must be in harmony with social and economic goals:
Effective environmental education must also encourage the pursuit of environmental goals in harmony
with other powerful and legitimate social and economic goals — it should not be taught in a vacuum, or
simply equip people to pursue an agenda on the margins of society.
Environmental education needs to incorporate this reality by providing people with the knowledge,
understanding and capacity to influence mainstream society in a way which progresses environmental
objectives along with other legitimate social and economic objectives.
The Components of Environmental Education
The evolution of environmental education has required closer and renewed investigation into learning
processes. It has become customary to define the components of learning relevant to environmental
sustainability. These are sometimes described, misleadingly, as'stages'. Even though they may seem to
follow a natural sequence and be discrete in themselves, people's encounter with issues of sustainability
can begin and develop from any of these components. They should be seen as cyclical and interactive, with
periods focused on reflection, research, development and action.
These components, which apply equally to formal and informal education, are adapted from the
international edition of 'Teaching for a Sustainable World', edited by John Fien, 1996 (Introduction
Awareness raising — 'Does it matter to me?'
Market research into environmental issues consistently confirms what educators have long held as a first
principle of operation: start from where the students (or consumers, farmers, industrialists, citizens,
decision makers and so on) are. What is it that matters to them most at this point in time? What do they
want to achieve? How do these attitudes relate to environmental issues? These are the starting points for
any useful process of problem solving as well as meaningful and enduring learning.
Awareness raising is not just a matter of shaping attitudes; it must also be about the development of
knowledge. Is this view legitimate? What information supports it'? Is that information relevant and
It is anticipated that from these initial steps of establishing and confirming the personal relevance of
environmental issues, there will be an evolution to understanding of issues on a larger scale: personal,
local, regional, national and global.
Shaping of values — 'Should I do something about it?'
Without appropriate and helpful underlying values and attitudes, environmental education is bound for
failure. These values include:
respect for and appreciation of the interdependence of all life forms and the resilience, fragility
and aesthetic qualities of the natural environment
appreciation of the dependence of human life on the finite resources of the earth
appreciation of the role of human ingenuity and creativity in ensuring survival and in the
search for appropriate and sustainable progress
Because of the way in which environmental education may challenge accepted practices and beliefs, it is
an area of some contestation. For this reason the process of developing values has a controversial aspect.
Thus the following values are also most important:
a sense of balance and fairness to all in deciding among conflicting priorities
an appreciation of the importance and value of individual responsibility and action.
Developing knowledge and skills — 'How can I do something about it?'
At its heart capacity building means acquiring relevant knowledge and skills, a process often seen as the
conventional function of any type of education.
It has been noted that the types of knowledge needed to participate effectively in environmental education
are wide ranging and not confined to any particular discipline. Some of the areas of knowledge which
environmental education must deal with however are:
the planet earth as a finite system
the resources of the earth, particularly air, soil, water, minerals, their distribution and their role
in supporting living organisms
the nature of ecosystems, their health and interdependence within the biosphere
the dependence of humans on the environmental resources for life and sustenance
sustainable relationships within the environment
the implications of resource distribution in determining the nature of societies and the rate and
character of economic development
the role and values of science and technology in the development of societies and the impact of
technologies on the environment
the interconnectedness of present political, economic, environmental and social issues, and
processes of planning, policy-making and acting to solve problems.
The skills which should be acquired include capacities to:
define and explain fundamental concepts such as environment, ecological systems, community,
development and technology and being able to apply them to specific situations using a range
of relevant resources and technologies
analyse problems, and frame and investigate relevant questions
assess and evaluate differing points of view
develop hypotheses based on balanced and accurate information, engage in critical analysis and
careful synthesis, and test new information and personal beliefs, explorations and experiences
against these hypotheses
communicate information and points of view effectively
develop partnerships and the foundation for cooperative and consensual action
develop strategies for action, including locating appropriate resources, and means for their
Making decisions and taking action — 'What will I do?'
Environmental education is not a passive process. In response to the new levels of awareness, knowledge
and skill, and on the basis of evolving values and attitudes (all suggested above), it is about changing
behaviour, whether one's own or as part of larger community changes.
As mentioned above, this is one of environmental education's defining characteristics. It is, above all,
practical in the sense that some result should and must come from it if our futures are to be as we would
The Evolution of Environmental Education
A model developed in the Netherlands (Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for sustainable living
IUCN,UNEP, WWF l991) suggests a series of stages in the evolution of environmental education. The
four stages suggested are:
Reactive: providing particular products and programs in response to limited demand. Education is
often instigated by isolated individuals, specialists, voluntary organisations, or the
information/community relations/education units of some government agencies. Education aims at
reducing ecological ignorance.
Receptive: in which organisations include environmental education objectives in their policies and
planning. School curriculum development bodies become involved, but programs are implemented
without reference to work elsewhere in the education field. Objectives emphasise changing
knowledge and attitudes.
Constructive: in which programs and objectives are more thoroughly implemented. There is wide
dissemination of developments, links are made across sectors. There is community participation and
objectives are oriented towards sustainable living.
Pro-active: in which the culture of all organisations is defined in terms of ecologically sustainable
living supported by comprehensive, lifelong environmental learning integrated within education
systems, industry, social organisations/neighbourhood groups and government.
It can be argued that environmental education in Australia is generally in the second stage described by this
model with some evidence of progress towards the third. Further substantial action is required to take us
towards the fourth stage.
Reproduced with the permission of Environment Australia.