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Environmental education needs political agency and social justice

Posted by pbio on 07 May 2009 at 22:19 GMT

Author: Kathryn Elmer
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher, Evolutionary Biology
Institution: University of Konstanz
Submitted Date: July 26, 2007
Published Date: July 27, 2007
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

In a recent issue of PLoS Biology, Blumstein and Saylan [1] critiqued the existing paradigm of American environmental education and offered a roadmap of seven ways to improve it. They optimistically argue that an improvement in environmental education and ecological literacy will ultimately solve our current environmental crisis. While I agree with the spirit of their argument and many details, my experience as an environmentalist and a biologist has taught me that Blumstein and Saylan’s strategy has an essential omission -- in tandem with creating environmentally concerned citizens, we also need to foster politically aware and critical citizens. For environmental educators, this means taking a global and political view with their students that encourages agency, engagement and personal responsibility.

Political engagement is required for environmental change, from the local level of taking responsibility for ourselves, up to the higher levels of government organising and international trade. Ignoring for the moment that there are real people who experience pain at the receiving end of bombs and guns, there are significant environmental impact of war and resource conflict. Conflict over resources in the industrial age has much more serious effects on the environment than we have ever been able to leverage in human history -- the pollution from industrial processes of weapons development, production and deployment, toxic spraying of rainforest against insurgents, emissions from military craft (to name but a few). Though we can surely take responsibility for personal actions -- for example, how often to drive our cars, sort our garbage, buy local organic, and ride a bike to work, as Blumstein and Saylan astutely discuss -- we should not ignore the environmental costs exercised by our governments acting in our name. Military aviation alone may be responsible for more than 1% of US affect on climate [2]. Consequently, your individual emission reductions by opting for a fuel efficient vehicle or reusing your water bottle are dwarfed by the jet fuel burned by your military’s jets nightly sorties. Though they may seem distant and out of our hands, military actions by governments are in our name and with our implicit consent.

Thus, environmental educators should support activism that addresses environmental issues while actively aiming for a socially just and more equitable world. As Blumstein and Saylan say, not-in-my-backyard environmentalism is no longer effective in a global world, nor is it ethically acceptable, strategic, or ecologically sustainable. I contend that, rather than being a subtext to environmental education, political engagement is equally as important and that citizenry will not become environmentally active without participating in political development and taking responsibility for the activities of the governments we suffer in our names.

[1] Blumstein DT, Saylan C (2007) The failure of environmental education (and how we can fix it). PLoS Biol 5(5): e120.
[2] Waitz IA, Lukachko SP, Lee JJ (2005) Military aviation and the environment: Historical trends and comparison to civil aviation: J. Aircraft 42(2): 329-340.

No competing interests declared.