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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993


Five centuries after the arrival of the Western Europeans in the “New World,” the record of development in this hemisphere has been both positive and negative. For a long time and for many people, industrialization, urbanization, economic growth and technological advance have meant a secular trend toward an improved quality of life. In the past twenty years, however, the trend has begun to shift and falter. The costs to the natural environment of continued economic growth for its own sake, of population increase and concentration, of resource exploitation and unlimited waste creation have finally undermined in a fundamental way the generalized benefits of this kind of development. But the erosion of benefits associated with development, or modernization, has been uneven just as the distribution of these benefits has always been. Although we are all both victims and agents of environmental deterioration, some of us are more victimized than others.

The challenge of changing the trend, of arresting the tendency to proceed in the same direction, is a matter of awareness, action, and education. But the challenge becomes more complex when we recognize that education itself is part of the social system that has transformed the natural world so destructively and voraciously. Like ecological systems, educational systems are related components of a larger whole. They are produced and reproduced by the social structures in which they are located. In turn, they produce and reproduce certain ideas, beliefs, goals, and values from generation to generation. Legitimacy is bestowed on certain ideas and not on others by formal education. When trying to advocate the regulation of private property rights, limited economic growth, restrained population increase, and restricted consumption, teachers and curriculum planners can expect to encounter resistance.

Resistance will materialize because the plunder of the natural world is not simply an inconvenient and unexpected byproduct of development but is rather an axis of economic growth and “progress.” In the Western hemisphere, there is a long history of this kind of development. It is a process that is not sustainable, and it cannot be made sustainable by simple shifts in budget priorities or by better planning. The challenge for environmental education, therefore, is the confrontation with five centuries of material development through social, political, and economic structures that both perpetuate and legitimate themselves.

The environmental conditions that facilitated and allowed such development, however, have now changed, and the assumption that unlimited economic activity could proceed without regard for the scale of the Earth’s ecology has been definitively disproved.
It is inevitable that growth in the physical throughput of the human economy will stop within the lifetimes of people already born. Either people will choose to stop it as an act of human intelligence, or the natural processes of a disrupted ecology will stop it, possibly by eliminating the species that persists in violating its natural limits.35
Here is the most urgent task, then, for environmental education: to expose the limits of ecological systems relative to human economic pursuits and reveal the growing gap between established processes of production, distribution and consumption and the absorptive capacity of the natural world. Because the task is an ideological one, it is extremely complex; although the environment has been irreparably changed, the ideas and values that justified and explained established social structures remain, along with the structures themselves.

The impulse to develop a new kind of education will come neither from the state nor from the market, but from democratic civil society: from the bottom up through networks of family, community and voluntary associations acting for social reform. Through these channels it is possible that pressure may be brought to bear on state structures, including formal educational systems, forcing them to respond to a changed world.

But in order to act effectively and responsibly, governments must also be fundamentally transformed so that they no longer support great concentrations of wealth and power, unlimited waste, injustice, and exclusion. Environmental education must therefore mean civil organization and mobilization. In short, its effectiveness depends on the emergence of truly democratic participatory processes and mechanisms of political influence. For environmental deterioration is not the inevitable consequence of human progress, it is rather the result of oppression, alienation and exploitation promoted through entrenched social values that are in a large measure destructive. Given the advanced state of environmental disturbance, the tremendous political power of private wealth, and the great distance between most governments and their people, the challenge for environmental education is both immense and immediate. But action begins locally, where schools are accessible, and communities have influence through autonomous organizations. And the moment is propitious in Latin America, where education is undergoing a reform that includes flexible and decentralized curriculum design. So while it is possible that the challenge cannot be met, that it is too late and environmental destruction will simply run its dreadful course, there is also still a chance for change. We do not know the limits of historical possibilities. In 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, the world saw how civil society could dismantle apparently entrenched and all-powerful institutions which deformed economies and destroyed the environment. In the space of a few years, a rapid and definitive change took place and humankind backed away from the precipice of extinction. If it can happen once, it can happen once again.