What environmental education gets wrong

Elizabeth Meade interrogates environmental education and its efficacy.

Elizabeth Meade
1st April 2021
Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Ever since I read the book 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth by the Earthworks Group when I was seven, I've taken it upon myself to do whatever I can to protect the environment. Despite the topic's general positive connotations in the zeitgeist every since the general public figured out sometime in the 60's or the 70's that the Earth does, in fact, need saving, I've faced resistance to nearly every environmental movement I've tried to promote--even from mature, critically-thinking adults who claim that they "care about the environment" and "want students to get involved in the community." So it shouldn't surprise you that I'm a bit cynical whenever some school, department, educational organization or teacher brings up concern for the environment and attempts to teach students of its importance.

It's not productive to expect students to change habits that they haven't even formed yet, while ignoring the main causes of environmental destruction that tie back to industrial and governmental action.

The main problem with environmental education is that its focus lies in fostering relatively insignificant lifestyle changes in students who, in primary school, have little to no control over their family's lifestyle habits and, in university, are largely still living on a student budget and figuring out how to live independently. It's not productive to expect students to change habits that they haven't even formed yet, while ignoring the main causes of environmental destruction that tie back to industrial and governmental action. For young age groups, it's crucial to instill the values of loving nature and being less wasteful in one's daily life in children who aren't mature enough to parse abstract sociopolitical schemata. However, students in the 16-25 age group--at whom most serious environmental education programs are aimed--are consistently misinformed at best, or talked down to and deliberately deceived at worst, on matters of environmental activism and sustainability.

If I had a pound for every time I've heard "Well, that's a nice idea, but it's not in the budget/we can't do that/it's never been done before/there's not enough time/I don't think people will support that," I could build an amphibian sanctuary on top of NUSU.

Despite years of being informed of the importance of recycling and solar power, any attempts I've made to encourage recycling at a school level or to obtain funding and community support of environmental groups that is equal with that of school sports teams have been met with silence, begrudging token concessions and resistance. If I had a pound for every time I've heard "Well, that's a nice idea, but it's not in the budget/we can't do that/it's never been done before/there's not enough time/I don't think people will support that," I could build an amphibian sanctuary on top of NUSU. Here lies the fundamental flaw of environmental education: it promotes the message of "do what you can, but don't spend any time or energy pressuring institutions for change, because that makes people uncomfortable and requires that we actually do something." It comes from the same conservative-masquerading-as-liberal school of thought that brings us events that claim to celebrate the accomplishments of women in science while ensuring that they don't challenge the obstacles women face in the field in any meaningful way, because surface-level social awareness is a good marketing tool but making misogynistic men uncomfortable is a step too far.

Environmental education is a way for schools to pretend they are making major steps, while stifling and ignoring actual student voices who criticize the institution itself.

Environmental education is a way for schools to pretend they are making major steps, while stifling and ignoring actual student voices who criticize the institution itself. For instance, I was able to attend a session on the environment during International Welcome Week which highlighted the university's attempts to deal with the climate emergency, only to find upon joining an actual campus environmental group that the uni hadn't divested from fossil fuels despite four years of student campaigning. When the university finally divested, they took credit for the idea themselves and said nothing about the students who had campaigned for these changes. Apparently, highlighting student innovation and community involvement is only palatable if it doesn't reveal one's own negligence.

Ultimately, environmental education should aim not to teach students to be eco-friendly individuals, but to show them how to be members of a society that assigns an inherent value to the environment.

Despite these factors, I'm not against environmental education as a concept. Indeed, I think it's a necessary part of any curriculum. Environmental education should treat the environment as a factor to be considered in all fields as a mandatory duty to care for the Earth, not as a token "service learning experience" or a way to look progressive. Additionally, civic and community action to craft sound environmental policy, changes to existing policies or sustainable efforts that will remain in place when the first cohort of students leaves should be prioritized. Current efforts focus on small groups of students with no lasting power beyond a small initiative, such as class projects to research green chemistry principles that are rarely, if ever, emphasized in the larger curriculum. Ultimately, environmental education should aim not to teach students to be eco-friendly individuals, but to show them how to be members of a society that assigns an inherent value to the environment.

(Visited 26 times, 1 visits today)
AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ReLated Articles
magnifiercross
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap