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?