The Failure of Environmental Education

Environmental educators may be put off by the main title of this book, but if they pick it up, they will find an inspiring and hopeful book focusing on the subtitle.

In The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It), the authors Charles Saylan and Daniel T. Blumstein – a non-profit educational society director and a university professor – bring a nice mix of historical information regarding environmental education, and a thoughtful discussion of the need for improvement and the barriers to be overcome. The main failure of environmental education, the authors contend, is that the lack of comprehensiveness, integration, flexibility and focus has resulted in a serious deficiency in public awareness of environmental problems. So they provide a “manifesto for addressing how people think about environmental education.”

Saylan and Blumstein’s main thesis is that environmentalism “is a responsibility and fundamental aspect of cohesive society, like respect for the law.” Indeed, perhaps “environmentalism as a label ought to be abandoned.” They argue that protecting ecosystems is not a political act, but “the necessary first step for promoting any given political or religious beliefs to future generations.” To succeed, we have to move away from the right wing/left wing dichotomy and emphasize co-operation. Everyone should be on board, they argue, particularly because, with looming tipping points in the climate crisis, we are running out of time. To that end, environmental education needs to broaden to include lessons in logic, history, literacy, media skills, aesthetics, social networks, the democratic process, exercising our buying and voting power, and the importance of community. This widening in focus should underline the lesson that “we the people hold the power to change the world.”

The book emphasizes the need to re-evaluate our definitions of success and our priorities, and to realize there is more to life than accumulating wealth and material goods. The authors sum up the problem: “We live in a society that has trouble accepting itself, where any sense of belonging to a common effort is muddled or lost entirely in our collective rush toward affluence.” Education, they say, is too focused on job training instead of life training.

Like the environmental education they promote, this book is truly interdisciplinary, drawing from theories of social networks, economics, education, history, psychology and sociology. It is evident that the authors themselves are good educators.  They use examples and analogies to bring the book to life, and while the book has an American focus, the lessons and information are applicable worldwide. The authors provide a self-described “wish list for what environmental education should provide,” which includes imaginative play, experimentation, hands-on activities, community engagement, motivated teachers, contact with nature, relevance to life and personal meaning. The new goal of environmental educators should be to teach “critical thinking and community awareness as survival tools” and to bridge “the gray area that exists between awareness and action.” The wide-ranging breadth of this book may inspire ideas for others to carry forward.

The book concludes with a laundry list of ideas stemming from the key concept of integrating environmental education into the wider curricula of education at all levels, in much the same way as reading, writing and arithmetic. The second key concept is that all of this needs to happen within a changed political context that would encourage implementation and expansion of existing environmental education programs. If we succeed in these goals, environmentalism will be seen as part of civic duty; environmental education will be integrated into all education; and we will continually celebrate human diversity, flexibility, and tolerance. Fixing the education system means communicating to students that we have a “co-operative responsibility” to adjust to a post-carbon society. Saylan and Blumstein help us along with this stimulating book.

(Book published by University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011. 241 pages.)

Emily McMillan is a PhD candidate in the interdisciplinary Human Studies program at Laurentian University. Her research is striving for a better understanding of the manner in which alternative forms of schooling shape a conscious critical and reflective attitude towards the environment.