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Canada - Environmental Education and the Sustainable-development Perspective

1997, by Lucie Sauvé

The concept of environmental education (EE) proposed in this text first needs to be clarified. EE aims to rebuild the network of relations between the person, the social group and the environment (the relationship of people to the environment being essentially mediated by the social group). The environment corresponds here to the whole of the biophysical elements of the living environment (natural and anthropic), in close connection with the sociocultural elements of this environment, thus forming what Louis Goffin (1993) calls an eco-socio-system. Depending on the angle from which one considers it, the environment corresponds to one or the other of the following representations: nature (to be preserved), resource (to be managed), problem (to be solved), a place to live (to be known and learn about, to plan for, to take care of), the biosphere (in which to live together), community project (in which to get involved) (Sauvé, 1997a). The environmental relations network is woven out of numerous, varied and overlapping components, such that EE calls upon educational elements of a political, economic, scientific, ethical, aesthetic, etc. nature. EE has as a premise that the development of societies is very closely linked to the relationship that they have with the environment.

Environmental education therefore has its own object, of an extreme complexity, which requires the integration of knowledge; it has specific aims for which many models of appropriate action have been developed. But precisely because of the multi-dimensional character of its object (dealing with socio-environmental realities), EE is closely associated to other dimensions of contemporary education: in particular, health education, population education, human-rights education, and development education. The integration of these educational concerns is essential to a global education. It cannot be achieved, however, without understanding the specific stakes and methods of each of these dimensions, without clarifying the areas in which they overlap, and without identifying their common features, essentially of an ethical and strategic order. Research in this direction is needed.

The question here will be that of the educational concern with which EE has been more closely associated in the last ten years: sustainable development. Depending on the link that one establishes between EE and sustainable development, one speaks of environmental education in a sustainable-development perspective, or of environmental education and sustainable development, or still yet of sustainable-development education. In the wake of the Rio Summit, UNESCO (1992) proposed nothing less than to « reshape » education for sustainable development, stating that sustainable development was humankind’s ultimate goal (1995a). It seems that EE henceforth has had no sense except in terms of this purpose. The importance of this proposal requires critical consideration, even though for some, the emergency of the action makes discussions on the subject vain and “useless” (UNESCO, 1995b, p. 3). Following are some leads for considerations on the subject, which could probably feed some teacher professional development workshops.

The concept of sustainable development attempts to meet the need to consider environmental and social realities jointly and in particular, to take economic factors into account. The concept, developed first by the World Conservation Union (UICN) and put forward by the Brundtland Report (1997), refers above all to the rational use of resources in order to ensure their sustainability. This proposal, resulting from a historically negotiated compromise amongst certain actors from the world of economics and the environment (Vaillancourt, 1991), had the great merit of starting a dialogue between these two worlds, which until then had been relatively impenetrable. Jean-Guy Vaillancourt (1992) reports that term ecodevelopment (less ambiguous) had first been proposed. “If the term ‘sustainable development’ was chosen, it was because it didn’t refer explicitly to the ecology or the environment. It was less of an irritant to the traditional defenders of development, who were horrified by the word ‘ecology’.”

There is no doubt that the concept of sustainable development (essentially strategic) proved successful within the political and the business worlds, where it responded to the need to ensure the sustainability of resources, a positive social image, and the sustainability of profits. In this sense, it is advisable to promote it amongst those who are sensitive to its message: at least it makes it possible to make headway while waiting for a more fundamental (utopian?) ethical change. Nonetheless, the concept was highly criticized, as much by development agencies as by economists and educators:

1) The concept is fuzzy. Deliberately fuzzy according to some, since the point is to rally the greatest possible number of initiates to this new creed of modern times. Sustainable development proposes the sustainability of development itself. But what development are we talking about? There is room for various conceptions (Sauvé, 1996, 1997b), the most recent of which justifies the maintenance, even the globalization, of a single free-market development model, the very one that causes problems, provided that it is given some technical correctives and that the boomerang effect of human poverty is successfully avoided.

2) The concept of sustainable development proposes an economic vision of the relationship to environment and development. It has to do essentially with a conception of environment as a resource, considered in a management perspective. The other aspects of the relationship to the environment are overlooked or subordinated to this aim. The conceptual schema of sustainable development demonstrates consent to the ambient economism. This schema presents three inter-related spheres: the economy, the society and the environment (the triangle figure is also used). The economy is not perceived as an integral aspect of the social reality, nor as an artefact of society, but as a distinct entity of the society, which imposes its laws on it and presides over its relationship with the environment. Although this vision translates the present social alienation to economic inevitability, does it actually have to be presented as the representation of a “normal” reality, at the heart of which is found sustainable development, the “ultimate goal of humankind”? Is it not precisely against this situation that it is important to educate and to act? Yet UNESCO (1992, p. 3) published and circulated a text that adopts this economistic vision for “reshaping education”: education for sustainable development, one of the tools of which is EE, must promote the “creative an effective use of all forms of capital (including human capital) to achieve rapid, more equitable economic growth while reducing the impacts on the environment.” Education is perceived as a “central economic investment for the development of creativity, productivity and competitiveness.”

3) The limits of the sustainable-development concept were perceived very early on. For this reason, its promoters adopted an astute strategy of semantic inflation: the sustainable-development concept was turned into a sponge (to use an image by Albert Jacquard, quoted by Lenoir) to absorb all of the best intentions of the world: responsibility, sharing, solidarity, equity, peace, etc. And to put these together, sustainability was raised as a supreme value for which all other values become instrumental. However, is not sustainability, together with the Judeo-Christian conception of a viable future, one of the numerous features (and certainly not the first) of the alternative development that it is imperious to invent, of this "beyond development" (Wolfgang Sachs, 1996) in which we should henceforth have to be placed? Is not the value of responsibility broader and more effective that the calculating value of sustainability or the minimalist value of viability? And might not the notion of a viable future, often used as a surrogate for that of sustainable development, justify the invitation to sacrifice the already poor populations and generations in an attempt to ensure the economic future of those that the present forms of development already favor?

4) Moreover, the concepts of sustainable development and a viable future are in essence culturally branded. For example, it doesn’t seem that the notion of sustainability has any meaning for so-called autochthonous cultures, from which we should take inspiration to consider new models of relations to the environment and development. “Survival insurance” (at which sustainable development is aimed) “can only become a dominating imperative in a society that cannot keep itself from constantly testing the limits of nature. For any other society, this has no importance,” states Wolfgang Sachs (1996). One can also question, for instance, the significance of the notion of future among the Eastern cultures, which do not have the same relationship to time as the Western cultures. Sustainable development is a NorthWestern project.

Thus, not only is the notion of sustainable development conceptually problematic, it also lacks ethical scope and displays an obvious cultural slant. Educational action must be based on clear conceptual schemas and on ethical proposals that have no other aim than the optimal development of people and social groups in the direction of autonomy and the critical construction of relevant knowledge. As highlighted by Bob Jickling (1992), all education FOR something becomes in this sense suspicious, and all the more so education for sustainable development, proposed as a human goal . On the other hand, continues Jickling (1994), since this concept is henceforth part of the ambient culture, it is advisable to teach sustainable development as a phenomenon of contemporary society, so that young people and other learners can determine their conceptual and ethical positions for themselves (Sauvé, 1996). But it is important to stress that EE offers a more essential contribution to basic education than education in (for) sustainable development. Indeed, it deals with the optimal (and multi-dimensional) development of people in respect to their relationship to the living environment. We also need to recall that the issues of what is henceforth being called sustainable development were already explicitly found in the Tbilissi declaration (UNESCO, 1978), which formulated the axiological foundations of EE: consideration of the close connection between the economy and the environment, adoption of a local and global perspective, promotion of international solidarity, etc. EE includes concern for the sustainable-development issue, but is not locked into it.

Without any doubt, some excessively radical practices derived from a badly understood EE that were focused on environment-nature (for its aesthetic, economic, scientific or other value) without taking into account the associated human populations, have justified the desire to reframe the EE concept in a more suitable, broader perspective. However, is the perspective of sustainable development of an adequate nature to meet this need? Other perspectives have been proposed. Among others, those of Education in a global perspective (associated to Global education) or a world perspective (with a geopolitical connotation), which integrate cross-cultural education, peace education, human-rights and environmental education, stressing the biospheric aspect of current socio-environmental phenomena. Now then, is it advisable to begin by adopting, whatever the context, such a global perspective? There remains the proposal of education to citizenship (focused essentially on education to democracy and human rights), which attempts to include the different forms of Education in ... Once again, this notion of citizenship, a Western concept inherited from the Ancient Greeks, which lingers on in the public character (politics) of things and people, appears to be highly promising, even essential, but also carries a limit and a cultural slant that makes it foreign to numerous societies.

Finally, it has to be acknowledged that although environmental education has a niche in these various forms of Education with global perspectives, its present position remains, all things said and done, secondary, as testified by the founding texts of these educational proposals. Aware of the importance and the specificity of EE, but also of the limits of its object from the perspective of the whole of the issues of our contemporary societies, we are seeking the right name for it, which would include a broad and relevant educational project. Michel Maldague’s Mesological education (1984) is, to this effect, highly judicious: it denotes an education to the living environment, taking into account the whole of socio-environmental components, for a social development that avoids alienation. The proposal for an education for the development of responsible societies, inspired by the NGO Treaty at the Global Forum (on the margin of the Rio Summit, 1992) also appears to be adequate: the word ‘development’ is not restricted to the economic sphere; the development of people is perceived in a socio-constructivist and social perspective; it has to do with responsibility, a broader ethical foundation than that of sustainability, and in terms of which the very parameters of sustainability can be contextually and culturally defined: sustainability of what? Why? For whom? By whom? How? Remains to be clarified the concept of responsibility!

SOURCE: Lucie Sauvé, 1997, "L’éducation relative à l’environnement et la perspective du développement durable", in Aménagement et nature, No 127, Association pour les Espaces Naturels, Paris, France, pp. 17-22

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KEY WORDS: Environmental Education; Sustainable development; Resource management; Citizenship.
AUTHOR: Lucie Sauvé, Ph.D., Department of education science, University of Quebec in Montreal, C.P. 8888, Succ. Centre-ville, Montreal (Quebec), Canada H3C 3P8, Tel.: (514) 987-6992, fax: (514) 987-4608
CIRADE - Centre de recherche interdisciplinaire sur l’apprentissage et le développement en éducation, Institut des sciences de l’environnement, University of Quebec in Montreal