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The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)

The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520265394
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/25/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Charles Saylan is Executive Director of the Ocean Conservation Society. Daniel T. Blumstein is Professor and Chair in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Professor at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. His previous books include A Primer of Conservation Behavior.

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The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)

By Charles Saylan, Daniel T. Blumstein


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94872-3


The Problem(s)

Environmental 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.

Our societies increasingly seem to hunger for information in the form of distilled snippets and simple solutions, quickly expressed and easily digested. Perhaps, because of the barrage of information that confronts us all daily, the trend seems to be toward a synoptic world of bullet points and "elevator speeches." But the problems affecting education, and consequently society, are too diverse to be assimilated quickly. If the solutions were simple, the problems would have been solved by now, and this book would not be necessary.

The arguments we will develop require some short-term faith on the part of the reader. We will, at times, go against the typical definitions and responsibilities of education. We may sometimes sound utopian as we offer diverse ideas on our duties as parents, educators, scientists, and citizens. Nevertheless, we strongly believe these things must be said and that a new approach for environmental education must emerge. We believe a comprehensive, integrated, revitalized, and revised environmental education is essential for the survival of us all.

We hope that humanity will flourish in increasing harmony with its surroundings. Humans are creatures of remarkable capacity and, without question, have the ability to find a sustainable place in this world. People need only the collective will to do it. So, how can this metamorphosis come about? We think environmental education is a logical and essential step in the process. But we must qualify this statement by emphasizing that the education of which we speak must be responsive, self-critical, flexible, and focused on the common goal of immediately reducing our destructive human impact on the ecological systems that support us.

We want to provide a sort of manifesto for addressing how people think about environmental education, rather than a fixit list for troubled, politicized, and overly bureaucratic educational systems. But to do that, we'll need to look deeper into those educational systems and the political climates in which many exist. Readers need to understand why education is not providing the tools and skills that people need in order to mitigate or circumvent the grave environmental problems our societies now face.

Has environmental education really failed? Imagine a graph on which the horizontal axis represents all the effort and resources expended toward making the public aware of the degradation of the environment, and the vertical axis represents the progress of the degradation itself. It would be great if efforts tended to decrease degradation, such that the line on the graph sloped down and to the right. We do not believe that is happening. This is not to say that there has not been tremendous public awareness derived from the efforts to date. Without environmental education, the planet would likely be in an even bigger, more incomprehensible mess. Even so, we believe environmental education is simply not effective enough or sufficiently available to change individual and collective behavior enough to affect the problems at hand. And we are firmly convinced that time is running out.

The problems with education are systemic, and we aim to offer a new perspective and synthesis to people at all levels of the educational process: teachers, parents, students, administrators, and those who make public policy. We hope that the "people in the trenches"—the educators our societies rely on to teach responsible stewardship—will find our ideas useful in shaping their own approach to an uncertain future. They make up a talented, passionate, and committed group of people, many of whom have been the groundbreakers for helping to establish the levels of public awareness that make a book like this one possible.

In writing this book we wished to put forth a positive and proactive message. There is increasing sentiment both within and outside the environmental-education community that taking a "doom and gloom" approach turns people off to any message that actions can make positive impacts on the world around us. Perhaps there is some truth to that, and we attempt herein to frame our argument in terms we hope will inspire thought and action, rather than leaving readers feeling helpless and overwhelmed.

There are, however, some emerging discoveries and data about the problems we are likely to face in the near future that warrant elucidation. They are neither pleasant nor positive. Yet they set the context in which we write this book, and we believe that readers must understand what the world may look like if humanity continues its business as usual. This realization should help readers understand why we believe environmental education, as it presently stands, does not serve the purposes for which it is intended, and that this is a most urgent matter worthy of collective attention.

There is little doubt our planet is getting warmer. In its most recent report, released in 2007, the Nobel Prize–winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal," and, quite notably, that "most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." Greenhouse gasses are not new, but the biophysical and geochemical cycles that regulate them have been affected by how energy has been used since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon from the earth into the atmosphere, and the sum total of these anthropogenic sources is heating the earth's atmosphere. How much? How fast? That is what the IPCC seeks to understand.

The IPCC is an organization made up of contributors from 130 countries that work under strict consensus. This means that any country has veto power over statements and conclusions made in the final report. Stop and think about that for a moment. Take, for example, a major industrial country that doesn't like an interpretation of the rate at which polar sea ice is melting because it might contribute to actions that spark national unemployment if profitable but "dirty" industries are cleaned up, or are cleaned up too quickly. Or, consider a rapidly developing country that views the prediction of sea level rise tied directly to greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to the development that is helping reduce poverty and disease and increase longevity within its borders. Either, or both, of these countries' IPCC representatives might veto a strong environmental statement in favor of a statement of milder predictions that will have less of an economic impact in its respective country. Practically speaking, that means the IPCC consensus report is a very conservative estimate of the likely consequences of rising atmospheric greenhouse gasses. And even in its "watered down" consensus form, it's a truly frightening read.

In the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, former U.S. vice president Al Gore explained the mechanics of greenhouse gas emissions for a popular audience. It became the fourth-highest-grossing U.S. documentary film of all time. The film helped lift the veil of misinformation surrounding global warming issues perpetrated on the public by political naysayers and special interest lobbyists. It also brought new acceptance and discussion of the problems associated with climate change into the international limelight.

Another important milestone was the publication in 2006 of The Economics of Climate Change by the eminent British economist Lord Nicholas Stern. The report focused on the assessment of future impacts of global warming on world economies. Essentially, the report states that the benefits of concise and early action, on the part of world governments, to reduce the effects of global warming far outweigh the costs. Lord Stern went on to say that an immediate and continued investment of 1 percent per annum of the global gross domestic product (GDP) is necessary to off set the worst effects of climate change, which include a "major disruption of economic and social activities" on a scale that could rival the effects of both world wars or the Great Depression. In 2008, Stern emended his recommendation to a 2 percent investment of GDP, based on data that showed global warming trends were increasing at levels greater than previously estimated.

As a result of increasing media coverage, we all know that carbon dioxide emissions are a major cause of climate change. We also know that these emissions, despite years of negotiations and discussion by the world's nations about how to reduce their release, are still increasing, not decreasing. Although there is still a good amount of debate and discussion as to how much is too much and whether and where the tipping points—that is, the atmospheric CO2 levels beyond which there will be massive and irreversible changes in the global temperature—might be, considerable effort is being expended to find new sources of sustainable energy, ways to reduce automobile and industrial emissions, and scenarios by which carbon emissions can be capped and traded commercially. These are positive steps, but because they are based on a consensus view that is intrinsically biased toward underestimating the severity of the problem, they are just not enough.

Indeed, if one believes the political rhetoric and mainstream media, it might seem we have turned the corner on global warming and are taking the necessary steps to mitigate its effects. This is especially true if one holds an unshakeable faith in human ingenuity or subscribes to the "humanity can fix anything with technology" school. Despite increased public awareness, most people still believe the effects of climate change will appear sometime in the vague future, when in actuality the effects are visible today. It seems when things deteriorate gradually, people tend not to notice them. The image of shifting baselines is a compelling one: a little change here, a little change there, and it all starts to seem normal. Thus, people do not see the potential for catastrophe unless something dramatic and immediate occurs. In the time frame of global warming issues, it would probably be too late to do much about the effects or causes of such an event.

The major public focus has been on industrial carbon emissions and sources of efficient energy, but some other serious issues associated with climate change require attention as well. Scientists are learning more every day, and some of what we have been reading in the primary scientific literature indicates potential negative impacts of a magnitude far greater than previously thought.

There has been widespread discussion of melting polar ice and what effects it might have on our world. The effects discussed range from the loss of polar bear habitats to potential economic benefits of new, less costly shipping routes, but there is more. In May 2008, researchers from the University of California at Riverside and Flinders University in Australia published findings revealing a relatively sudden release of methane, a greenhouse gas some twenty-three times more potent than CO2. This release occurred 635 million years ago, causing an abrupt shift in planetary climate from the stable "snowball" ice age to a much warmer, stable state, with little time in between. The study shows how methane was initially released gradually through destabilization of ice sheets, which, as they melted, released pressure on clathrates—a form of methane ice held stable by temperature and pressure—triggering substantially increased levels of the gas. Clathrates remain present today in their dormant state, both in arctic permafrost and in sediments on the ocean floor. The concern here is that small increases in global temperatures, such as those we are currently experiencing as a consequence of our widespread addiction to oil and coal, may trigger a similar release of methane gas. One scenario by which this could happen would result from the polar regions absorbing more heat if the reflective snow melts sooner each year both over the arctic tundra and the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Snow and ice, because they are white, reflect light and therefore heat. This reflectance is lost when the snow and ice melt and resulting darker earth and water surfaces absorb the sun's energy as heat. Thus, permafrost, which contains frozen methane, would melt and clathrates would release their methane. The ramifications of these events, which could happen very quickly, would be catastrophic and are thought to be irreversible. The resulting substantial increase in methane outgassing could overshadow all benefits gained from current attempts to reduce anthropogenic carbon emissions.


Excerpted from The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It) by Charles Saylan, Daniel T. Blumstein. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. The Problem(s)
2. Foundations
3. What Went Wrong
4. Accountability and
Institutional Mind-Set
5. The Needs of Environmentally Active Citizens
6. Between Awareness and Action
7. A Political Primer
8. Consumption, Conservation, and Change
9. An Evolving Metric
10. And How We Can Fix It

Appendix: Greening Schools for Alternative Education

Selected Bibliography


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"They're asking the right questions"—Time Magazine

"Their vision is inspiring: environmental education freed from partisan squabbling, and made creative, flexible, and powerful enough to reach citizens of all abilities and interests."—Audubon Magazine

"Arguing for a paradigm shift in the way we view education, The Failure of Environmental Education demonstrates how our education system can create new levels of awareness and action and work toward a sustainable future."—Take Part

"A manifesto of sorts — part science, part politics, part moral persuasion."—Miller-Mccune

"A great diversity of exciting insights."—Electronic Green Journal

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