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Not Your Parent’s Ecology: What Is Wrong with Environmental Education and What It Will Take to Fix It

aphorisnt's picture

    Ecology (noun): a science that deals with the relationships between groups of living things and their environments. Nearly anyone could make sense of and would feel they understand Merriam-Webster’s definition of ecology, that discipline which examines how all the biotic factors of an ecosystem–trees, shrubs, birds, fish, reptiles/amphibians, mammals, and so on–relate to and interact with both each other and the abiotic factors–air, water, soil, rocks, temperature–within that ecosystem. Unfortunately, the average human most often makes two key mistakes when trying to make sense of ecology: first, humans seem to forget that as a mammal the homo sapien falls under kingdom animalia and therefore under the jurisdiction of an ecosystem’s biotic factors, and second–and arguably most importantly–the last two words of Webster’s definition. Ecology studies living things in “their environment,” that is, where the living things are located. Nature holds the connotation of some magical far-off place free from any human touch or impact and where living things remain wild and unkempt as part of what may be the oldest piece of western mythology still widely adhered to today. In actuality, those last two words get at the key failings of environmental education, the tendency to paint nature as something far away and separate from humanity and divorce the ideas of nature and environment from the locations in which organisms, even people, actually live. Humans inhabit farms, mountains, cities, suburbs, slums, private estates, boats, space stations, every type of environment under (or orbiting near) the sun. What is more, the people, and the animals (squirrels, opossums, dogs, cats, pigeons, house flies), that inhabit those environments all have unique ways of relating to and communicating about and within those environments and amongst each other. Ecology and environmental education need an extreme overhaul, a restructuring so that education and discussion center on the environments in which those receiving the education actually live, play, and work and taught in a manner to which they can connect and understand. Until that restructuring takes place, environmental education will always fall short of its ultimate goal: teaching an understanding of and appreciation for the environment and the world.
    The very word ecology provides a clue into the actual intent of the discipline: ecology comes from “oecologie,” the term coined by Ernst Haeckel based upon the Greek root words oikos, meaning “home” (Bowers 2010). It seems unlikely that many humans could call the “wilderness” home so ecology certainly must broaden its horizons beyond the “pristine” forests and mountain ranges and “wild” jungles and outbacks that dominate cultural perspective of nature. “Cities are mythologized,” state Freeman and Tratner, “as places devoid of nature, as a rapacious sprawling spider whose tentacles are ever increasing and gobbling up the countryside, depleting it’s natural treasures” (2011). Cities have long been vilified as the “anti-nature,” anathema to all that is environmental and green and sustainable and they therefore cannot possibly possess anything that falls inside the realm of ecology or environmental education. While skyscrapers and streets may not necessarily be “natural” in the common sense of the word, their presence in no way diminishes the existence of other forms of nature. Rather, these urban fringe environments have become “refuges for species, some no longer able to survive in the countryside or who have opted for the urban life” (Freeman and Tratner 2011).  One certainly sees a number of organisms in urban and suburban areas: pigeons gathered around bread-tossing tourists, alley cats rummaging through dumpsters for a meal, squirrels performing their (sometimes) death-defying street-crossing routine, cougars taking a swim in a community water feature. Certain flora, particularly grasses and weeds, also thrive best in more human populated areas where they do not face the competition for space or nutrients from other more established species or the onslaught of pesticides championed by a sizable contingent of the agricultural population. Children see these organisms most every day during mundane activities like going to school or to the store and during instances of outdoor play, so exposure to nature is not the issue at hand. In actuality, the pedagogy behind environmental education forms the barrier between lived experience and perceptions of nature. Since urban, particularly inner-city children lack direct access to “nature” of the farr-off mythological persuasion, so schools and different organizations take it upon themselves to organize back-to-nature field trips wherein children can spend a number of days camping in the forest or the mountains or in some sort of national park area and experience nature for what western culture assumes it must be. However, if children only participate in these occasional field trips to far away and unfamiliar places, how are they to develop a connection to and relationship with nature? In creating environmental education, “visits to local places where children can develop a lasting relationship will be more beneficial than one-off visits to more exotic and impressive environments” (Freeman and Tratner 2011). If environmental education is to achieve its goal and inculcate a long-standing love of and respect for the planet and a sense of responsibility in caring for and protecting the planet, educators need to dial back the emphasis on national parks, mountains, glaciers, forests and jungles and instead restructure environmental education with a focus on the home environment and advocate towards environmental stewardship in a student’s own backyard.
    Connecting with students runs deeper than just focusing education on the home environment. In addition to discussing familiar places, educators should also utilize lessons in familiar native languages. Yvette Lapayese describes the effect of current American educational system upon Latin@ students as one of “linguistic genocide” as schools “forcibly mov[e] Latino/a children from one language group to the dominant language group though linguistic and cultural forced assimilation” (2013). The dominant movement in the modern educational system is one to make English the language of instruction, a process that therefore marginalizes students who do speak primarily other languages and minimizes the experiences of those students. This move towards English-only instruction is particularly unacceptable, and frankly a little ironic, in the realm of environmental education, the very discipline meant to build connections between students and the environment. An ecology course can consist of the exact same basic material and mode of instruction regardless of language, but when one translates the course, both linguistically and culturally, to suit only one group of students, those not in the majority group will receive few benefits and the course will ultimately fall short of its educational goals. “Environmental education is a socially situated, multidimensional activity that requires students’ cognitive and affective engagement,” hold Arreguín-Anderson and Kennedy, and “cognitive engagement determines success or failure of any academic program” (2013). As with any course of study engaging in social issues, a student’s lived experience–particularly how those experiences parallel the course content–play a major role in how much a subject resonates with a student, how well they grasp the material, and if the material can hold the student’s interest. Environmental education, more than maybe any other subject then, needs to be taught in a way that privileges no language, culture, or experience as the ultimate though often unspecified goal of such education is to increase among students an awareness of environmental issues, teach ways to combat environmental problems on all scales from local to global, and give rise to a new generation of environmental leaders who live in concert with the natural world, not opposition, and adopt a culture of collaboration instead of the current global narrative which favors dominance. To achieve this long-term goal, “environmentalism needs to be sensitive to local issues, economically empowering, and respectful of ethnic and cultural diversity” (Lapayese 2013). Such education is not impossible, its creation just relies on a complete paradigm shift in how educators teach environmentalism.
    An all-inclusive, meaningful, and worthwhile method of environmental education would not seek to relay the information of various texts or instill a sense of wonder towards the mountains but no better than apathy toward the local park, nor would it rely on only the single narrative of the dominant culture. Instead, when designing a method of teaching environmentalism, consider the audience, the students and their experiences, and what could best establish an understanding of the subject matter. Take, for example, students living in inner-city Dallas, Texas. Teaching about mountains would mean nothing to these children for whom a slight incline in the street or the ramp leading to a freeway overpass would be the closest experience many have to anything mountain-like given the flat, urban topography (or lack thereof) within the city. Flowery descriptions of natural parks, enclaves of the wealthy white tourist who had money to burn at R.E.I. would do nothing as far as building connections to and interest in the environment. Instead, instructors could take children on a trip to the dog park in Deep Ellum where they could explore the large field that, though bisected by a freeway overpass, could certainly not be called devoid of nature. Squirrels and small mammals abound, weeds and hardy native plants poke their way up through the grass, murals along freeway supports and free-standing sculptures offer a look at the role humans played in the environment. Students could take samples of soil or water in the area to test for the presence of different compounds or collect data on waste–if people throw away trash, how much, presence of recycling bins, if people pick up after their dogs–without so much as leaving the city. What is more, lessons could be offered in a variety of languages and with an eye to numerous cultural experiences. In Dallas, special attention could be given to Spanish instruction and Latin@ narratives given the state’s large Latin@ population, and efforts should be made to include the experiences and personal narratives of many people of color to allow lessons to resonate with all students rather than the assumed white western majority (one that is fast-fading in southwestern states like Texas). Such processes would surely require significant work and effort on the part of educators and the educational system as a whole, but such restructuring is worth the time and energy if and when this new generation of students takes on the world championing environmental causes and continuing such work in a way that always takes time to consider the community with which they work.
    Environmental education has long privileged a single (often English-only) narrative: humans need to change their ways to protect the wilderness and keep nature clean and pristine. Cities are the awful scourge of the planet, here to pollute and destroy. Save the trees. Save the whales. Reduce, reuse, recycle. While some of the above messages certainly do contain some important truths and laudable actions, they will do little to inspire much less help a classroom full of students to really work towards environmental change. Depicting environmentalism as something that can only be done in some remote “natural” area minimizes the role of such efforts as helping with community clean-up, working against the establishment of another polluting industry near someone’s home, developing a recycling program as one’s school, home, or place of work, or any other small-scale local actions. Moreover, privileging one language and one culture completely excludes the experiences and stories of minority groups, particularly people of color, eliminating those pieces from instruction and the larger environmental narrative. To make environmental education meaningful, worthwhile, and effective, educators need to shift the focus of lessons from the distant the the local and from the single story to the multifaceted narrative. Then, and only then, can environmental education begin to really connect with students and establish a deep love of and concern for the natural world.

*also, some pictures of the dog park I mentioned


sara.gladwin's picture

some thoughts on falling short and on the origins of ecology

aphorisnt- first of all, an apology… upon re-reading my response I realized that I really only fixated on two different sentences from your essay and just sort of ran away with where they took me- which somewhat diverges from your original focus. But! I found the places I ended up very illuminating both personally and educationally- so thank you!


I was struck by your assertion that “environmental education will always fall short” until it is capable of making the necessary overhaul; there is a way in which to me, I have come to feel that education will always, no matter what efforts we make, fall short. Several things have brought me to this “conclusion” but before I write about that, I need to note that my feeling in drawing this conclusion is not necessarily negative or one of hopelessness.


First, Elizabeth Ellsworth’s ideas on the disconnections between teacher intention/student responses helped shape the recognition that what you impart will never always be exactly what you think. Secondly, my experiences working at Riverside Correctional Facility, where the institution itself continuously provides barriers to a “smooth” educational experience- has driven home that there is no “perfect” classroom experience in prison- and there never will be, so long as education is required to work around an institution that is hostile to it’s presence; as education for incarcerated people exists in contradiction to the Prison system’s project of dehumanizing those imprisoned. Constantly planning with the expectation that there will be obstacles has been disheartening but also important… because recognizing that we will never reach a state of “perfectionism” in the classroom is not a message of hopelessness. It is the recognition that the work is never done, and there always more room to continue growing, changing, improving. Falling short is never a reason to give up- it is the reason we need to continue moving forward. It seems to me to be similar in the case of environmental education; there is endless room for improvement and endless need for thinkers/educators (such as yourself) to work toward something better.


Anyway, on a really different note…

Your sentence that it “seems unlikely that many humans could call the ‘wilderness’ home” made me curious about the context in which the word ecology was born.

I did a little “research” of my own because I was really curious about not just the roots of the word, but the particular context in which it arose; especially in whether or not the word was originally used to encompass human life as well… have we always conceptualized “nature” and “humanness” as separate? And if not, where did the two concepts diverge?


I started first with the Oxford English Dictionary, which as expected, began with the familiar definition of ecology. The second definition was solely about the study of human relationships, and was labeled “chiefly sociological” by the OED. The third definition (which began with the phrase “In extended use”) expanded to include the relationships between “any system and its environment.” My second favorite place to look when surveying the OED is at the examples provided below each definition, which are sampled from historical and present texts. The first example was taken from Ernst Haeckel’s History of Creation (translated from German), which you mentioned as the man who coined the word ecology. This lead me inevitably to wikipedia, and a brief scan of the page on Haeckel. I was quickly reminded that biological studies during this time were very much intertwined with theory of the evolution of the humans, and that these theories were permeated by deep-rooted, racially biased understandings of our species. As an example, I pulled this gem from the History of Creation (found online here):


“If man wishes to understand his position in nature, and to comprehend as natural fact his relations to the phenomena of the world cognizable by him, it is absolutely necessary that he should compare humans with extra-human phenomena, and above all, with animal phenomena. We have already seen that the exceedingly important physiological laws of Inheritance and Adaptation apply to the human organism in the same manner as to the animal and vegetable kingdoms, and in both cases interact with one another. Consequently, natural selection in the struggle for life transforms human society, just as it modifies animals and plants, and in both cases constantly produces new forms.”


So right off the bat, reading this, there was a definite recognition that humans are intertwined and part of the rest of nature. However, it is also clear that there is hierarchy in this analysis (continuing on in the paragraph):

“… A comparative survey of the history of nations, or what is called ‘universal history,’ will readily yield to us, as the first and most general result, evidence of a continually increasing variety of human activities… This differentiation or separation, this constantly increasing divergence of human character… is caused by the ever-advancing and more complete division of labour amoung individuals. While the most ancient and lowest stages of human civilization show us throughout the same rude and simple conditions, we see in every succeeding period of history, among different nations, a greater variety… this is expressed even in the formation of the human face. Among the lowest tribes of nations, most individuals resemble one another so much that European travellers often cannot distinguish them at all. With increasing civilization the physiognomy of individuals becomes so differentiated, that, even among individuals of the same race, we rarely mistake one face for another.” 


(Taking a moment before continuing to just be completely and utterly disgusted with what I’m reading)


Reading these studies of our human existence and our relationship to the environment/other species seemed to lead me to the answer to my second question, which asked at what point and why the study of nature separated from the study of humans. How could ecology and biology not become separated from humans? Historically, the theories that linked human life to biology also perpetuated and justified racial superiority, and like many other current realms of study, had to incorporate a color-blind attitude toward the field. Studying humans was not sustainable in the field of biology, because to do so would also be to uncover a more than unsavory foundation of racism, and to admit that those assumptions still permeate our culture today. It would seem that we are unable to fully address this piece of the origins of biology/ecology- as to talk about it would be acknowledging the reality that we still live in racist environment.

jccohen's picture

more than a single story


Your assertion that environmental education needs “a restructuring so that education and discussion center on the environments in which those receiving the education actually live, play, and work and taught in a manner to which they can connect and understand” is a succinct redirection of our attention and a crucial and viable starting point.  You then go on to assert, “(T)he pedagogy behind environmental education forms the barrier between lived experience and perceptions of nature,” raising this question of education as contested terrain.  To what degree do our approaches to education reflect and perpetuate the status quo, and in what ways can/should education challenge that and help to create new pathways?  You might look back at Bowers for some provocative thinking on this question.  And of course you turn to Lapayese to point up the issue of language, and Arreguin-Anderson and Kennedy on engagement…


You describe the “ultimate though often unspecified goal of (environmental) education” as this: “to increase among students an awareness of environmental issues, teach ways to combat environmental problems on all scales from local to global, and give rise to a new generation of environmental leaders who live in concert with the natural world, not opposition, and adopt a culture of collaboration instead of the current global narrative which favors dominance.”  But I think that your paper suggests an even more expansive vision, which has to do with enlarging/reframing educators’ and students’ sense of what counts as “environment” and “environmental issues,” and thus what it means to be “aware” of these.  If a key concern is engagement --  “how much a subject resonates with a student, how well they grasp the material, and if the material can hold the student’s interest” – and we start with the root of “ecology” as “home,” might students and communities be educators’ first sources for “multifaceted narratives”?