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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

Environmental Education

In the resolution of this crisis, education will have a critical role to play. Education as it relates to environmental problems will have a very specific objective, defined by the character of the crisis itself. Environmental education, if it is to be effective, must make clear the link that exists between social and natural processes. In general terms, we can say that social processes of overuse or misuse of natural elements have caused environmental deterioration. So, too, have inadequate protection measures, and insufficient efforts to regenerate the elements consumed. Finally, war, the deliberate concentrated destruction of the natural and built environment, has also played a part.

These poor adaptations create an imbalance in natural processes that threatens the ability of societies to maintain themselves in the long term and introduces the notion of “natural catastrophe.” But a natural catastrophe is not natural at all—it is social. After the cataclysm, the natural world will spin on, just as we have left it. What we mean when we say “natural catastrophe” is that the natural elements remaining available to us no longer allow us to reproduce social life at an acceptable quality level. And all indications are that the economic imperatives built into our social formations are so powerful that long after the quality of life has fallen well below an acceptable standard for a majority of people, dominant interests will persist in efforts to destroy what remains. For, unfortunately, those responsible for the problem are often the last to be directly injured by it.

As a consequence, proponents of environmental education face an immediate challenge: programs, if they are to be meaningful, cannot depart from idealistic assumptions of a universal willingness to change daily practices that may be harmful to the natural environment. Environmental educators must be prepared to identify and to question the social structures that cause environmental destruction.

This destruction has a range of manifestations that is well known, including erosion and contamination of soils, desertification, air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of plant and animal biodiversity, and depletion of energy resources. These problems are directly attributable to a series of specific actions taken by individuals, economic interests, and local and national governments. But at the level of determinant social relations, environmental problems are most often a consequence of injustice, inequity, exclusion, and centralized power. This is to say that imbalances in natural processes that threaten the quality of human life have their roots in imbalances—or inequities—in social processes.

The environmental crisis, therefore, is not going to be resolved through education alone, as education itself is a social process. The content of a curriculum is an expression of dominant social relations; it is a direct expression of what must be believed in order to reproduce a given society on its own terms. Indeed, the development of a curriculum, specifically with regard to subject matter that focuses on the allocation of resources, is itself the outcome of a conflict over what is important and what is true.27  For this reason, education is becoming a focal point of conflict between environmental protection and environmental destruction.

When we look at the traditional primary school curriculum, we see that students learn both cultural beliefs and historical/scientific facts in the classroom. Students learn the fundamentals of natural science, mathematics and language at the same time that they learn certain civic responsibilities and patriotic rituals. Learning science, mathematics and language prepares the child to function in the world of facts and things, while learning civics and culture allows him or her to be at home in civil society. In school, the child learns that there are certain laws of nature that must be understood if they are to be used effectively in order to dominate nature itself. At the same time, the student is taught that there are social and national laws which govern human activity, and that these laws are “right” and perpetual. Social laws and cultural expectations are right because they best adapt humans to master their environment, to apply the laws of nature for the purpose of advancing human interests, as human interests are understood within the existing social structures. In school, we learn that the link between social and natural processes is work, for it is through work that we appropriate the natural elements of the world and use them for our own socially created purposes.

The methods of teaching and learning, as traditionally conceived, are tailored to the social role of the student, to his or her age and abilities. In the early years, the child learns by rote, by memorization. In this stage, the student typically is subjected to authority and controlled by discipline. Skills of critical thinking, synthesizing information or making judgments are not generally valued, encouraged, or taught. The framework of information and values must be installed first. This framework contains the whole range of ideas that justifies existing social structures in terms of morality and permanence.

But the child is not a passive receiver; the mind that receives the message reflects the community the child knows, his or her family and neighborhood. The child reflects the social and cultural milieu in which he or she lives, often quite different from the one represented in the curriculum. For those who stay in school and succeed there, however, ideas that are incompatible with the prevailing values in the curriculum tend to wither away over time for lack of application, as the child comes to accept a new version of both the physical and the social world.

In later stages of education, in secondary and higher education, the emphasis may shift. Discipline has been internalized and need not be imposed. Now the student can be more autonomous for he or she possesses an internal gyroscope dictating what is right and moral according to an homogeneous social conscience that is carried within. Education is more dynamic and less controlled, although it is not necessarily more creative; the mature student has learned to limit himself or herself to the questions that are legitimate and the pursuits that are rewarding, given prevailing social relations. At this level, the good student has learned the dynamic application of a pre-established manner of thinking, in general.

This process of education produces citizens, a national population that upholds a certain set of values and a system of distribution. It also produces teachers, those special people who will contribute to the reproduction of the system itself, in terms of allegiance to designated attitudes and facts. The school is the instrument that produces teachers, who then locate themselves in schools in order to perpetuate the management and evaluation of ideas.  The teachers’ presentation of these ideas tends to conform to the way in which they see the world, which conforms, in turn, to the things that they themselves were taught. And because teachers explain and impart objective facts in the realm of natural science and mathematics, their management, editing and evaluation of social facts is obscured. The attachment of educators to a given alignment of social forces is often hidden, even from themselves.

Once the responsive position of the educational system in society is acknowledged, one sees clearly the de facto role and function of formal learning in reproducing existing socioeconomic structures. The content of a curriculum is an expression of the balance of social forces; it holds the ideas and beliefs that are consistent with maintaining this balance just as it is. But an environmental curriculum which seeks to reveal the relationship between social and ecological disequilibrium would tend to disturb this balance by posing fundamental questions concerning the consequences of unrestrained property rights, the destructiveness of extremes of poverty and wealth, and the ethical legitimacy of the use of public power for private gain. It is not surprising, then, to find that long after basic facts about environmental deterioration and its causes are well known, educational programs that treat the issue in Latin America are still lacking.

A survey of environmental education programs in Latin America and the Caribbean revealed certain significant patterns in this regard.28 Documents provided by the Caribbean Conservation Association and the Ministries of Education in 13 Latin American countries showed that, in virtually all countries surveyed, for the most part, efforts in the field of environmental education have been undertaken sporadically by specific individuals or agencies rather than as part of an institutionalized and integrated curriculum.29  

The report also found that the greatest obstacle confronted by advocates of environmental education has been a lack of awareness of environmental problems and the role that education might play in providing solutions to them. This is a difficulty not only among politicians, but also among educational administrators, educators, teachers, and other members of the academic community. While there were certain programs and projects that adopted an applied, local focus, particularly at the university level during the 1970s, these initiatives tended to founder during the past decade. In the meantime, at the basic and secondary level, few practical environmental considerations were incorporated into the school curriculum. Exercises tended to focus only on large-scale global problems rather than on more immediate and perhaps more tractable local concerns.30

The survey of educational systems in Latin America and the Caribbean found that the topic of environmental education is a particularly difficult one to incorporate into the curriculum because it is directly associated with national political power and the conflict of interests regarding the allocation of national wealth and resources. In order to avoid confronting this conflict, politicians and educators may simply elude the issue in its visible, local manifestations and focus on more distant, abstract environmental concerns, if they deal with the question at all. Environmental education thus becomes a victim of benign neglect, rendering it ineffective, unsystematic, and unapplied. “If there is no general policy concerning sustainable development and environment, there will be no policy concerning environmental education, except in an individual and idiosyncratic sense.”31

If, however, the application of explicit educational policies is lacking, well-developed opinions concerning creative pedagogical techniques in the field are not. In response to the survey, educators in the region repeatedly mentioned the following guidelines in formulating environmentally relevant curricula:
  • Material should be more practical and less theoretical;
  • Approach should link the immediate local view of the world to macro ecosystems and social systems;
  • Technique should emphasize inductive reasoning, allowing the student to interpret problems and formulate solutions to them;
  • Learning should be more recreational and should enable a student to use free time productively and constructively;
  • Learning should promote communication among all members of the educational community, such that the teacher ceases to be the sole dominant figure in the process;
  • Subject matter should be closely related to the knowledge requirements of everyday life;
  • The current time lapse between the production of scientific knowledge and its incorporation into the currculum should be minimized;
  • Organizational skills should be emphasized in order to enable students to initiate concrete responses to local environmental concerns on their own.32
These guidelines incorporate the two issues that must be considered in any curriculum development effort: what is to be taught and how it is to be learned. In both respects, the guidelines are remarkable. The curriculum content prescribed is applied rather than theoretical or abstract, and pedagogy is more egalitarian and cooperative than hierarchical and authoritarian. Such spontaneous agreement among survey respondents suggests that environmental education, by virtue of its material content, tends to promote democratic action in support of social reform. Survey responses suggest an awarness that the current state of the natural world has been brought about by existing social structures that allocate political power, national wealth, property rights, and ideological legitimacy to relatively few.

By its nature, then, environmental education presents the possibility of a fundamental transformation of society. It is a process that provides an individual with the elements necessary to understand the relations that exist between a society, its economy, its ideology and its dominant power structures in the context of the natural environment. Therefore, educational programs should consider the environment as a whole, emphasizing the participatory, integrated and applied aspects of education, as they relate to the complex, interrelated, practical and changing aspects of ecology. The preliminary objective of environmental education, in this sense, would be to contribute to an understanding of the existence and importance of the interdependence among the economic, political, ecological, and social dimensions of society. And the end result of this type of educational program would be to establish new patterns of behavior in individuals, social groups and in society as a whole, with respect to the natural environment. These new patterns would be developed through a learning process that would include awareness, knowledge, conduct, and participation.

If approached in this way, the features of environmental education make it a fundamentally distinctive aspect of the curriculum. Environmental education, linking social and natural processes, not only undermines the notion of “development,” as it has always been understood, but also countermands the purpose of education, as it has been traditionally conceptualized.

Economic development, as it has been pursued in Latin America until now, has been characterized by the widespread underutilization of human labor power, both physical and mental, concentration of wealth, unlimited and unregulated urban expansion, dependence on capital and consumer imports, and extensive use of nonrenewable energy-intensive technology. This pattern of development has created problems of waste disposal, pollution and contamination that are among the most serious in the world. “Economic growth and urban concentration, under the present style of development, are beginning to become self-defeating: The benefits of higher incomes and consumption levels are being increasingly undermined by deterioration of the quality of life and the higher expenditures needed to compensate for it.”33 In Latin America, this economic growth has been sustained by continuing technology imports financed by the exploitation of the region’s nonrenewable natural resources and the export of associated primary products. The strategy has been, then, to export limited resources under unpredictable international market conditions in exchange for an affluent lifestyle for the few that is nonsustainable in the end. A program of environmental education extending through all disciplines and levels should, therefore, fundamentally challenge the notion of development as it has heretofore been understood.

In order to establish an educational program of this scope, it will be necessary to recognize the seriousness of environmental deterioration and explore particular issues through an examination of their causes at different levels of analysis. For example, the application of polluting herbicides to certain crops in a specific area by peasants can be directly observed and explained, in the first instance, by a lack of knowledge or a lack of incentive to do otherwise. Secondly, it can be seen as a consequence of a lack of workable alternatives. At the level of local and national governments, allowing pollution with toxic herbicides to continue shows a lack of political will, a reluctance to commit financial resources to the issue, and a lack of democratic institutions. At the social level, the problem is the result of economic inequity, lack of vision, and exclusionary forms of policy making. To approach an issue in this way, the curriculum must be tailored to the student’s educational level; it must be current, flexible, locally focused, problem oriented, and community directed. Specific considerations should link ecological and socioeconomic processes in this way rather than analyzing only the chemical compounds of a particular herbicide and their potentially toxic effects on untargeted plant and animal species. Environmental education should not simply consist of another set of facts, but rather of a new awareness, an understanding of the interdependence of systems, a sensitivity to the fragility of the Earth and the relationship between all human beings and the natural world.

While environmental education programs must be developed throughout both the formal and the nonformal systems, the most important focus for the development of the curriculum is at the level of basic education. It is at this level that coverage is broadest and that general orientations and values have most impact. This approach is consistent with the prescriptions of Agenda 21, as finalized at UNCED:
A major priority is to reorient education toward sustainable development by improving each country’s capacity to address environment and development in its environmental programmes, particularly in basic learning. This is indispensable for enabling people to adapt to a swiftly changing world and to develop an ethical awareness consistent with the sustainable use of natural resources. Education should, in all disciplines, address the dynamics of the physical/biological and socio-economic environment and human development, including spiritual development.34
These are broad guidelines, but they are also practical. Their most obvious application is the identification of visible cases of environmental deterioration that lend themselves to at least partial solution through local action with the participation of primary school students.