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Education and Environment: building hope without naivety

2002, by Lucie Sauvé

Teaching relations with the environment

Environmental Education (EE) aims at rebuilding the network of relations between persons, the social groups to which they belong and the environment. The latter corresponds to a number of complementary realities: it includes nature (its appreciation, respect and preservation), resources (to be managed and shared), a complex of problems (to be solved), a system of relations (to be understood for better decision-making), the entire biosphere (in which we live together in the long term), but above all, closer to home, it is a living environment (that we must know and develop) and a community project (in which we must commit ourselves). The objectives of EE are to develop competencies of critical, ethical, strategic and aesthetic analysis, etc. related to the environment. It is an extremely vast educational project based on many, diverse well-documented theoretical and strategic proposals. It is not just an additional subject or a “form of education” in a long list of subjects, rather it is a fundamental dimension of education as a whole.

The "space" occupied by EE corresponds to one of three spheres of interaction at the basis of personal development: 1) the central sphere is that of the relation with one-self, the building of identity; 2) then there is the sphere of relations with the other, that of the development of otherness (indissociable from question of identity); 3) lastly, in close relation with the two former spheres is that of the relation with living environment, with Oïkos, the “house” that we share together and with other living beings. Oïkos is the Greek root word from which stem eco-logy (knowledge of the "house", the definition of one’s human ecological niche”) and eco-nomy (the management of relations of consumption and fitting out the common "house"). The environment is formed and transformed at the junction between nature and culture. It is composed of biophysical elements, in close interaction with the socio-cultural elements of the populations that live in the environment. This brings into question another kind of otherness, different from human otherness, and which calls for another dimension of solidarity; the sense of responsibility is widened by the incorporation of eco-centric ethics. It is precisely this third sphere of relations that concerns EE.

Such a view of education related to the environment goes far beyond current conceptions that restrict it to the role of tool for solving problems, "managing" the environment” or a simple strategy for diffusing the results of "scientific" research to ensure that their derivatives affect human behavior. EE is an essential process of human development and of social development as a whole. Thus it requires making appropriate pedagogical choices.

Current trends in EE

Numerous proposals have been developed for EE over the last thirty years. Nonetheless, some of the trends that have emerged appear particularly pertinent for dealing with contemporary socio-environmental problems and for inciting responsible social development. Among these trends in particular are social criticism and bio-regionalism. These trends go beyond reactive and pragmatic approaches to problem solving; they propose a pro-active approach to environmental issues and condemn the short-sightedness of the "management" oriented conception of the environment that considers it as a mere pool of resources. On the contrary, they consider it as a genuine project for the entire community; EE is open to the needs and possibilities of the milieu and calls on various partners of the "education community".

Social criticism related to environment related education was above all developed in Australia at the end of the eighties. Its supporters adopted proposals for EE that originally came from critical theory formulated in the area of social sciences. What mattered here was to develop a critical approach to socio-environmental realities. In particular, attempts were made to update the close links between school, society and the environment. Schools act too often as mirrors of society rather as crucibles for social change. It is important to identify the intentions, interests and values of the protagonists both in the school and in society: Who decides what? For whom? Why? As a function of what interests? Ian Robottom and Paul Hart (1993) also suggested other examples of critical questions: How is the relationship with the environment and education influenced by prevailing social values? Why isn’t the environment taken into account? Why isn’t EE integrated in schools? However, this critical investigation is not carried out in thin air. On the contrary, it is part of projects for action or, to be more precise, research-action aimed at changing socio-environmental and educational realities. Thus it does not entail starting with research followed by action, rather it entails acting together in a project of meaningful action permanently associated with critical reflection: praxis in practice – action and reflection. The hegemony of scientific expertise is called into question to the advantage of dialogue between different areas of knowledge within which different types of know-how confront each other, conflict, question and complete each other.

The bioregionalist trend is also very critical, though it takes a less political and more economics oriented approach to socio-environmental problems, in keeping with the original meaning of eco-nomy: “management of the house”. In this case, environmental problems are seen as essentially related to economic choices and our modes of production and consumption. This trend in EE encourages people to be responsible for themselves and seek new, responsible and social modes of development rooted in their local milieu and culture. More concretely, EE is applied in eco-management projects.

The expression “grassroots Environmental Education ” describes a more radical type of bioregionalism. It goes to the roots of things, insisting on the need to avoid economic alienation and the need for social groups to acquire relative autonomy in terms of subsistence reliant on bioregional resources. This runs counter to the slogan of sustainable development, “think globally, act locally”, which belongs more to the premises of globalization, encouraging us to act as if we belonged to a huge "global village" project over which, all said and done, we have no influence. Its supporters denounce the arrogance and utopianism of those that propose planetary management. The idea of a "globe of inter-related villages" (in Morris’s words) is more pertinent. Initially, one can only be responsible for what one knows in one’s own living environment and in the crucible of one’s own culture. Populations must stop alienating themselves from food by developing alternative production and consumption methods. This entails throwing off the straightjacket of globalization and escaping from the erosion of one’s own cultural identity. Although the grassroots movement has taken firm hold in the countries of the South where populations live in closer contact with the earth, concrete projects have been proposed in the North too, such as "community supported farming" which encourages ecological production methods by making advance purchases of harvests and by doing seasonal work. It is one way of forging links between the town and country.

The bioregionalist current is also closely related to that known as "place-based Environmental Education which emphasizes the need for people to become genuine inhabitants of their districts, villages, and workplaces. As David Orr says, we often behave like residents, i.e. more like people who live in a place temporarily, as if abroad or on business or for work. We use services, take, exploit and consume in exchange for money, but in return we pay no attention or care about the quality of our immediate environment. Often living like nomads, we grow no roots, except temporarily or symbolically. This trend in EE proposes that we should learn to know and live in our environment and take full responsibility for it.

Mention should be made of other trends. In particular, there is the feminist current in EE, developed among others by Annette Gough, an Australian. This trend borrows many elements from previous ones, including criticism of social relationships, particularly regarding the relationship between women and the environment and the importance of changing our relations with the earth, which is subjected to harmful exploitation. However, emphasis is placed on commitment, hospitality and care regarding beings and things around us. For example, the feminists reproach the social critics for their purely rational approach bereft of any emotive aspects in their relations with the environment.

We could go on describing contemporary trends in EE that contribute to what could be called educational diversity”. However, the examples above sufficiently illustrate the vigor of EE, which has adapted to changing socio-environmental realities. Unfortunately, too little is known about this wealth and the image of EE remains tinted by naïve methods that have given rise to examples such as stereotypical lessons on natural science and school waste management.

Source: Extract from an article written for the journal “Possible”, 2001.

References: Robottom, I. and Hart, P. in Research in Environmental Education, Geelong, Deakin University Press, 1993 (Victoria, Australia).
Orr, D. in Ecological Literacy, Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, State of New York Press, 1992 (New York).
Sauvé, L., in Pour une éducation relative à l’environnement, Guérin, 2nd edition, 1997 (Montreal).