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Brazil - Environmental Education: Autonomy, Citizenship and Social Justice

1999, by Marcos REIGOTA

In this article, we present an approach to environmental education that gives priority to political, philosophical and cultural concepts and to autonomy, citizenship and social justice.

Brazilian environmental educators have opened up and conquered significant areas for environmental education as political education aimed at citizen participation and in the search for the alternatives and solutions to serious local, regional and global environmental problems. Although insistence on the above points continues to be an essential point of departure, environmental education as political education has had various interpretations, as if it were a well-known melody that is repeated and continuously renewed, incorporating readings and possibilities brought by shifts in our present day-to-day reality.

Environmental education should not lose sight of the complex political, ecological, social, economic and cultural challenges facing it, whether thy lie in the short, medium or long term. The ideas and conditions of autonomy, citizenship and social justice are not goals to be attained in the distant future; they should be built on a daily basis in our affective, educational and social relationships. Through that statement, I want to convey that autonomy, citizenship and social justice are existential and political elements of a continuous and unrelenting search, and that we run the risk of never attaining them completely, rapidly and definitively, since we are always confronting continuous movements that accompany the victories, challenges, setbacks and progress inherent in any society.

The autonomy of individuals involves the search for unique and singular action and thought, which characterize a person in his specific historical, cultural and political context. Thus, education, whether it be formal, informal, familial or environmental, is only complete when the person learning can, at the major moments in his life, think for himself, act in accordance with his principles and live on the basis of his own criteria. Being autonomous and being independent, or even better, simply being.

The quest for autonomy involves running the risk of being alone, which, contrary to being lonely, is an affirmation of the uniqueness of the individual who is no longer an amorphous multitude, but a person who is clearly aware of his specificity in collective society. Anyone familiar with the path taken in the search for autonomy knows how difficult it is and how gratifying and irreversible it can be.

We consider autonomy to be one of the basic principles of education. However, it would be naïve to think that this same consideration in developed and included in the main educational institutions and that all those who participate in education are adepts of this principle. There are many factors that prompt numerous people and institutions to opt for comfortableness in the ideas, behavior, habits and actions considered most suitable by society as a matter of common sense.

Citizenship occupies an important place in the education debates in Brazil. When we talk about citizenship, we are attempting to place the human being in the political sphere, in contrast with other viewpoints emphasized principally in mass media that sometimes consider the citizen a "taxpayer" and, at other times, a "consumer". Citizens are more than mere consumers (and more than their rights and obligations in relation to the products they buy) or taxpayers (and more than their rights and obligations in relation to the taxes they pay).

We cannot think of citizenship without thinking of school, but of a school that is not only a place where students spend several hours a day for various years. We must think of an educational, political and philosophical project in which teachers have a decent salary and students are given suitable training to enable them to address the political and ecological challenges of our times.

"Schooling for all", a cliché of the Enlightenment, continues to be valid in postmodern times, even though we know that young people with access to schooling are capable of such barbaric acts as, for example, setting helpless people on fire to relieve the boredom of Saturday night in any place. Others, representatives of the intellectual and political elite, have attitudes that are no less barbaric, when, in order to remain in power for at least 20 years, they are capable of scorning hard-won democracy or using all their power and (economic) arguments to manipulate decisions that affect the lives of millions of people.

The idea of citizenship, based on political equality among all members of a nation, has been enriched by claims for the right to be different, resulting from the ever-increasing political participation of social groups (homosexuals, blacks, women, indigenous peoples, youth, the elderly, etc.) who have organized on the basis of specific proposals and have broken with the hegemony of a uniform discourse.

In our continuous demand for local and immediate citizenship, we must incorporate the perspective of a more abstract, extensive and scattered citizenship as the idea of planetary citizenship. We need to expand the real and imaginary frontiers and limits of the specific space for our local intervention and responsibility in order to enter into the modern space and time of global intervention and responsibility. In that "glocal" (global and local at the same time) context, environmental education involves expanding our citizenship, as well as our immediate limits for political action and participation.

Much has been said about social justice, principally when we face the barbarisms that we encounter every day in Brazil. In the academic sphere, political philosophy has exhaustively examined the issue, which we can synthesize through some questions that we should analyze: What does social justice mean? What are the steps needed to obtain it? How can ecologist thought introduce new issues into the debate?

A society such as that in Brazil, characterized by enormous social, economic and cultural differences, will only become a just society when there is equitable distribution of the social and cultural goods that it produces. This means that we must consider those who are "different" as such, and not as "equals". An example of this argument is that it is a mistake to believe that all Brazilians who complete the second stage of education equality) have the same intellectual and social conditions (rights) to study a profession at a public university free of charge.

A just society would take into account the actual economic and social differences among those who complete the second stage of education, and would give priority, or would reserve a certain number of scholarships for those with a lower level of social conditions, in order to obtain a common asset (the free and public university). This example is controversial, just as nearly all positions that view the standardization and equitable distribution of social goods for the implementation and maintenance of social justice.

The idea of social justice also appears in the definition of sustainable development, which implicitly includes concern for justice and ethics of the present and future generations. This argument has been the most cited definition in the report "Our Common Future". However, the report itself emphasizes that, in order to attain sustainable development, priority must be given to the poorest sectors of the population. Thus, we have a development proposal that incorporates many of the suggestions and debates on social justice, but the term "sustainable development" has become banal and has camouflaged its deeper meaning for the vast majority of the world’s population.

If we were to understand social justice as simply a national or local problem, we would miss the opportunity to situate it in the globalized world in which all relationships have distinct results and consequences in different parts of the world. In that sense, diverse actions aimed at attaining worldwide sustainability will only respond to the political and ecological challenges of our times if they include claims for social justice in their arguments.

The political thought and actions of those who are seeking autonomy and uniqueness in harmony with what occurs in "glocal" space have a basic role to play in deconstructing and fighting against the monolithic, homogenous, conformist and neocolonialist thought that has once again gained dominance at the present time. Much work lies ahead for environmental education that underscores the three inseparable elements of autonomy, citizenship and social justice, and it must increasingly expand its arguments and practices. It is our only hope for considering the possibility of building a sustainable society.

SOURCE: Marcos Reigota, 1998, "Environmental Education: Autonomy, Citizenship and Social Justice", in Environmental Training, Vol. 10, No 22, UNEP, Mexico

KEY WORDS: Environmental Education; Methodology; Autonomy; Citizenship; Social Justice.
AUTHOR: Dr Marcos Reigota (Universidad de Sorocaba, Sao Paulo) rua Nhambiquaras 11, 17 605 030 Tupa, Sao Paulo, Brazil, e-mail: