Environmental Education Thinking

Is crisis all that Environmental Education has left?

the extinct
Creative Commons License photo credit: the|G|™

I just finished reading an article in The Walrus by Chris Turner titled The Age of Breathing Underwater. The hypothesis of the article, broadly stated, is that we’ve irrevocably entered the Anthropocene and nature, as the Romantics knew it, or as the prototypical environmentalist tries to protect today, is no longer. Based around twinning the lament of loosing coral reefs and realizing that it is only through the (highly industrialized) technology of scuba diving that we have the first-hand experience of this loss, Turner makes the argument that it is not the beauty of the reefs, per se, that need to be preserved. Rather, it is the “ungainly apparatus” (otherwise known as Western culture) that needs the preservation.

Which brings me to my question: What is environmental education for? I’ve been contemplating this question since I attended the 5th World Environmental Education conference, held earlier this year in Montréal, Québec. One of the keynotes for the 5th WEEC was Stephen Lewis and he spoke about global climate change—he has special insight on this given his role as chair of the first international conference on Climate Change—and the connection to social justice. In a sense, the keynote was a lament: Lewis suggested that our jobs, as educators, was to now go forth and prepare the world for the crisis that global climate change will precipitate.

If this is our jobs as environmental educators, then I want out.

So, we’re presented with fact: the world is irrevocably changed by humans and consequently we’re in the “midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war” (Turner’s words). Do we then say that environmental education is about learning to preserve the “apparatus” that allows us to experience the sublime first-hand? Is it teaching about crisis—extinction, environmental degradation, climate change and the like?

I do feel like, in practice, much of environmental education’s domain is marking change—we tend to embrace a declensionist narrative of the more-than-human world. I do want to clarify that I’m not suggesting that environmental education ignores the human. I am interested in kinds of environmental education that acknowledges that we’re an integral to natural world. In relation (however asymmetric) with many kinds of others. But we (and this is a Western we) need to do more than react to impending doom.

I’m somewhat concerned—and this may strike you as silly—about what happens to environmental education after the crisis is over. So, a challenge then: how do we move beyond crisis in environmental education?


The abstract I submitted to the 5th World Environmental Education Congress

Hosted in Montreal next spring, this congress is kind of like the Olympics of the environmental education world: held biennially, it draws together academics and practitioners from around the world. I just submitted an abstract for a paper that is largely based on my dissertation research. Here’s the 250 words-or-less abstract:

Bird-watching remains one of the few ways that people continue to have direct experiences with wild animals; animals which are increasingly recognized as indicators for the overall health of ecosystems worldwide. Birders, as a community of practice, offer an opportunity to investigate how adults engage with non-formal environmental learning about the more-than-human world. With little more than an interest in birds and the right kind of technology, a motivated person has the opportunity to participate in citizen-science projects, the likes of which have been recognized as a source of “good” scientific information about bird populations. Yet, birders are not a heterogeneous group and birding is not a heterogeneous act. Echoing Haraway’s notion of partial perspectives, local knowledge about birds is created within a mediating web of relations. This paper describes the preliminary findings of a qualitative research project, using a modified approach based on grounded theory, which investigates the multiple practices of birding. Looking behind official accounts of birdwatching, the project describes the multiple ways that birds, places, practices and knowledges are produced. Meaningful bird conservation and by extension, a sustainable relationship with the more-than-human will require the committed attention and action of a wide variety of human stakeholders. The results of this research offer an opportunity to examine the varied motivations and behaviours that citizens of our Western society engage with bird life.

We’ll see if it gets a nod…