On April 22, 1970, one of us (Blumstein) went down to the notoriously foul Schuylkill River and collected a water sample for a display highlighting air and water pollution in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square. Blumstein remembers being surprised that polluted water could be clear. On that first Earth Day, pollution was rampant, and environmental literacy was limited in our rapidly urbanizing culture—and efforts to raise awareness met significant resistance.
Environmental education and legislation grew out of a grassroots movement that was generally regarded as counter-culture. The claims and research of early environmentalists, like “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson, were vigorously attacked and discounted by the chemical industry and their political cronies. Today, attacks on environmentally sound and sustainable policies have largely shifted from the personal to the economic, with critics arguing that sustainable practices would place too high a burden on various economic sectors. Economic hardship is one of the main reasons cited by President George W. Bush for the United States' withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.
While the environmental community's persistence under such adversarial pressure is admirable, we believe that years of constant conflict created a bunker mentality, causing the environmental community to remain exclusively focused on its ideological goals and on self-protection. Even pragmatic evaluations of efficacy were viewed as an assault against the movement, and they were often rejected without acknowledging important criticisms.
With some trepidation, we would like to argue that it is time for the environmental education community to take stock of itself. Problems lie not only with what has been taught, we believe, but also with the way environmental education curricula have been developed and evaluated. We will challenge the hypothesis that environmental education is successful, and we will suggest ways that an “evidence-based” approach can improve environmental education. Finally, we suggest that to create environmentally aware citizens, some difficult lessons must be taught.[...]
We believe these measures—some designed to help us overcome our wasteful tendencies—will help ensure that kindergarten–through–12th grade environmental education has a measurable impact on the environment.
- Design environmental education programs that can be properly evaluated, for example, with before-after, treatment-control designs. Such approaches represent a sea change from programs today, and we expect considerable resistance from environmental educators. But the environmental community at large must stop rejecting criticism as negative and must embark on a policy of continuing self-evaluation and assessment. To be deemed effective, environmental education and the funding process that supports it must also work backward from specific environmental problems by evaluating the degree of actual impact on a specific issue versus the amount of money and energy spent on public education. We may find that a portion of the money and effort now directed toward education would be better spent on legislation and lobbying.
- Many environmental issues facing us today are caused by over-consumption—primarily by developed countries. Changing consumption patterns is not generally a targeted outcome of environmental education, but we believe it is one of the most important lessons that must be taught. The magnitude of our impact, as first proposed in 1971 by Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren, can be viewed as dependent upon population size, affluence (specifically, per capita economic output), and technology (specifically, the environmental output per unit of economic impact). As countries develop, their environmental footprint may expand, and consumption control may become more important. For instance, the recent rapid growth in China has increased the demand for wood, steel, and fossil fuels throughout the world. Unchecked, such growth is simply unsustainable and will have a profound negative effect on the global environment. Thus, we need to radically overhaul curricula to teach the conservation of consumable products. Teaching where and how resources come from—that food, clean water, and energy do not originate from supermarkets, taps, and power points—may be an important first step.
- We need to teach that nature is filled with nonlinear relationships, which are characterized by “tipping points” (called “phase shifts”): there may be little change in something of interest across a range of values, but above a particular threshold in a causal factor, change is rapid. For instance, ecology, which focuses on understanding the distribution and abundance of life on Earth, is a complex, nonlinear science. If environmental education is linear—in other words, if you teach that recycling one beer bottle will save “x” gallons of water—people will not have the foundation to think about linkages or nonlinear relationships. The return of wolves to the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which has had a remarkable number of unanticipated effects, is a compelling demonstration of ecological linkages. Wolves create a landscape of fear, changing the habitat-selection behavior of their prey. Rather than spending time in dense patches of willows by streams, deer, elk, and moose now spend more time in the open, where they can detect predatory wolves at a greater distance. This shift has led to a reduction in grazing pressure on the willows, which have literally exploded and now provide more habitat for songbirds. Thus, the introduction of wolves has had the unintended consequence of increasing songbird diversity in the willows of Yellowstone. Reconstructing past ecosystems can provide a thoroughly different view than the baseline data that each generation adopts as a basis for environmental policy and legislation. For instance, when European sailors first came to the Caribbean, sea turtles were extremely common. After intensive exploitation, turtle populations and the vital ecological roles they play have never been fully recovered. Without a historical component, these baselines will shift as we ratchet our way to inevitable ecological collapse.
- We need to teach a world view. Americans know little of world history and are geographically illiterate. A 2002 poll of 18–24 year olds in nine western countries, ranked the US next to last in geographic literacy. A greater appreciation of the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world should help us realize the selfish consequences of our consumption. “Not in my backyard” is not a sustainable rallying cry in an interconnected world when we are faced with global climate change. We are too late for “think globally and act locally” to work. And, contrary to the statements of President George W. Bush, the American way of life must become negotiable if it is to be sustainable. We have little trouble suffering security-related inconveniences; we should be willing to accept some inconveniences for the opportunity to live in a sustainable environment.
- We must teach how governments work and how to effect change within a given socio-political structure. We suspect that many individuals will be offended by the thought that large industries have so much sway on the wording of state and federal legislation. We all suffer from polluted water and greenhouse gasses, but lobbyists are very effective in diluting potentially costly legislation meant to safeguard our water supplies or prevent rampant climate change. Understanding how the system works will empower subsequent generations to change it.
- We must teach that conservation-minded legislation may deprive us of some of the goods and services that we previously enjoyed. Inexpensive airline flights make flying routine, but planes create more greenhouse gases than trains or buses. Self-sacrifice will be necessary to some degree if we are to avoid or minimize adverse effects of imminent environmental threats with truly global consequences.
- Finally, we must teach critical thinking. Environmentally aware citizens must be able to evaluate complex information and make decisions about things that we can't currently envision. True scientific literacy means that people have a conceptual tool kit that can be applied to a variety of questions. Unfortunately, much science education is not inspired, and students are required to learn facts without being given the ability to manipulate and analyze those facts. Without the ability to ask questions, identify assumptions, and make well-reasoned decisions, we're left with a population ripe for exploitation by less-than-honest industries and politicians.
Blumstein DT, Saylan C (2007) The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It). PLoS Biol 5(5): e120. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050120
Accesible en: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/fetchObjectAttachment.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0050120&representation=PDF