What is EE About?
What is EE About?
The Association's constitution is based on the foundations of environmental education developed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, in association with the United Nations Environment Project, UNEP. This material evolved through a set of conferences held in the 1970s and remains the blueprint for environmental education in many countries.
The first conference, the UN Conference on the Human Environment was in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. A follow-up conference of educators at Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1975 developed a framework of understandings for the field. The Belgrade Charter produced at this identified poverty as a key environmental problem and called for a new global ethic in establishing the goal:
To develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and prevention of new ones.
The ideas from Belgrade were carried forward to an intergovernmental conference held in Tbilisi (Bee-lee-see), Russia, in 1977. This produced the Tbilisi Declaration that contains goals, Objectives, Criteria and Principles for the field. The Tbilisi declaration has been criticised and is by no means perfect. It has an authoritarian tone and underneath its statements of purpose it is rather vague about what should actually be done. This is perhaps not surprising in a document signed by governments.
Central to Tbilisi though is the linking of social, cultural, economic and political aspects of human behaviour with the way we treat the environment and each other. This idea has become known by the term, 'interdependence'. Environmental education is not just about nature. Environmental problems are social problems, caused by the behaviour of people. The Tbilisi Declaration makes this clear. It needs to be understood in the context of the series of conferences that developed the ideas that appear in it.
In the early 1980s the term 'sustainability' emerged and was popularised by a report from the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. Entitled Our Common Future, and known as the Bruntland report after the Commission's chair, who currently heads the World Health Organisation, the report defined sustainable development as:
Development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This is a widely quoted definition. The notion of sustainable development is very tricky though. Some people argue that current understandings of development render the term a contradiction. Another issue is, what constitutes 'needs'? Current behaviour that is clearly using irreplaceable resources is considered by some to be sustainable because, they claim, by the time the resource runs out we will have found replacements. There are hundreds of definitions of sustainability and these usually reflect the values positions held by those who developed them.
In short, while the idea of sustainability has become a popular slogan, there is little clarity about what it actually means. A cynic might say that the current decade for education for sustainability is ten years dedicated to more talking while 'business as usual' prevails. I have attempted to summarise the key ideas from the documents mentioned above in the table that follows.
Environmental Education is directed towards establishing new patterns of behaviour by individuals, groups and society as a whole toward the environment.
Programmes should assist learners to understand the complex nature of the natural and built environments, the social, political and cultural factors that influence them and their interdependence including that between urban and rural environments.
Programmes need to develop Awareness, Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills and Commitment to participate in the solution of environmental problems.
Important in this process are positive environmental values, self-discipline, critical thinking, data interpretation and practical problem-solving skills. Influential factors in developing these abilities are:
- an approach which integrates traditional subject disciplines using real local problems, particularly in early years; develops knowledge and considers national issues whilst balancing current and historical perspectives; and
- identifying and analysing the values positions that inform behaviour while also discovering the symptoms and real causes of environmental problems;
- utilising a wide range of learning situations and approaches which stress practical activity and first-hand experience, allow learners to have a role in planning their learning experiences, making real decisions, taking action and accepting the consequences.
Environmental education should be a life long endeavour towards a sustainable future in which resources are not used faster than they are replaced, wastes are not produced in excess of the planet's capacity to dispose of them, other living things are not jeopodised, and the physical environment is minimally disturbed.
The sections in normal type are a summary of material from the Tbilisi Declaration. In italics is a section that I have added. In it I have attempted to say what sustainability might mean and I am conscious that it is idealised, but then, so are most such attempts. Rather than focus on the 'needs' of current or future generations I have used the principle of leaving things as we found them. I am very, very suspicious of some of the ways in which the term 'sustainability' is used but the term is in such wide usage it cannot be ignored.
The main points are that environmental education is about changing behaviour and that it acknowledges the complex and interdependent nature of the environment. It needs to be remembered though, that this is a summary, and that the Tbilisi Declaration is one view of environmental education that is by no means ideal.
The Tbilisi Declaration is the foundation of the association's constitution however, and it has been influential in shaping the NewZealand Guidelines for Environmental Education, published by the Ministry of Education. Having said that, I need to add that what I have put here in a few hundred words is nothing more than a touchstone. It cannot possibly summarise the wide range of perspectives and thinking from all around the world that have influenced and continue to change our understandings. Perhaps it might provide a starting point for some further thinking and exploration if you wish to develop a deeper understanding of the field.
One of the sets of ideas that is most commonly discussed is the idea of education in, about and for the environment. This does not come directly from Tbilisi and was developed in the early 1970s. This idea too needs some thought. It has been widely argued that unless environmental education has an action component, for the environment, the goals of the field are not being met. Action by itself might need to be thought about more carefully. You could plant trees around a sewage outfall that serve simply to hide the problem.
The summary above suggests that analysing the values that lie behind issues and problems, and discovering the real causes are important. I am going to suggest here, for argument's sake, that this may be more important than action alone. For school-based programmes, taking action on environmental issues is a political process and may be inappropriate.
In summary then, environmental education is about developing new behaviours, not just at the individual level, but also by society as a whole. Central to this is acknowledging that environmental problems are social problems and addressing them is linked to social values, economic and political processes. It is therefore vital to examine the underlying values and the real causes behind environmental problems. Understanding these, rather than action alone, is the core of environmental education.