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Environmental Education is in decline Activism Can Help
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Environmental Education is in decline Activism Can Help


The teacher takes students outside to enjoy the fall day in an environmental studies class at a secondary school in a South African township. She shows them how to plant trees and ensure they survive. The students seem to be captivated as she shows them how to plant a tree and ensure it survives. This outdoor class is rare because it allows the students to experience hands-on learning outside.

This class is just one of many environmental-oriented classes that have appeared around the globe in the last decade as part government efforts to integrate sustainability into school curriculums. How realistic is it to expect schools and universities to solve the world’s environmental problems? After watching the class, a question arose: Did the teacher link her hands-on lessons to larger discussions on climate change? She explained that the purpose of the class was to move beyond theoretical discussions about global environment issues and to help students take concrete action.

This is not surprising considering how public education systems are run. They are usually under direct control by governments, which are doing little to address the environmental crisis.As COP26 demonstrated. Why would governments encourage young people to question the state’s inaction? It is not in their interests to do so. This is the biggest flaw in the idea we can educate the entire world about the climate crisis.

Technology innovation should be celebrated green growthas the central solution and reiterating those lessons in their public schoolgovernments around the globe largely Fail to recognize the need of fundamental shiftsYou can find them at DegrowthAnd Intergenerational Justice legislation. Even though countries are moving away from fossil fuels they continue to be dependent on them. Continue to treat the Earth as a source for raw materials.Continued economic expansion

The main political response to the crisis, in other words is to merely address the symptoms, rather than the causes. Root causes of environmental decay. These issues must be addressed head-on by environmental education.

What is Action?

As the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental crises increase, leaders around the world look to education for solutions. This idea has been embraced at the highest levels in policymaking in recent years. The The Sustainable Development Goals are one of the most important international agreements that shape the world’s approach to environmental education.. For example, Goal 47 aims at ensuring that all learners by 2030 have the knowledge and skills to promote sustainable growth, including through education for sustainable livelihoods and education for sustainable development.

A lot of what passes as environmental education uses the Sustainable Development Goals for its justification. These educations often end up being depoliticized and restricting the agency of young people living in low-income nations. Many public environmental education programs claim to be action-oriented. But what does it mean to be action in the contexts of education geared towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since 2016, I have spent many years studying environmental education programs in Africa, Asia and Europe. I have learned that planting trees, fixing a leaking faucet in the schools’ bathroom, and reducing water waste are all actions. However, writing a letter or participating in a demonstration or march to a politician is not something that many people do. These programs seem to think that students are capable of influencing their immediate environments, rather than engaging in larger political conversations.

These classes had a particular view on citizenship as in which the citizen follows blueprints drawn by others and does not help to design their future.. These observations led to me searching for other ways to teach young people about environmental solutions.

The Power of Activism

In the communities where I have worked, activism has been a clear contender. Activist movements are often attracted by young people. They create a space for dialogue among generations and offer opportunities to discuss and act on the issues. PoliticsThe effects of environmental decay

This was clear to me at one of my community meetings in South Africa during my research. The South Durban Environmental Community AllianceAlthough the organization’s primary mission is to combat air pollution from the petrochemical sector in the city, it has also been involved in many other environmental and civic issues over the past three decades. I attended the April 2017 meeting in a hall that was rented to community members. It was a cloudy Saturday morning with about three dozen people from different backgrounds and generations.

A group of activists asked residents to imagine the future they wanted for their community during the meeting. The residents shared many different ideas with the group, ranging from less trash in the streets to tackling financial inequality. The discussion soon turned to how the community could come together to make a difference. The young people at the meeting, unlike the environmental lessons I saw in South Africa’s public schools, grappled with the politics and thought about how they could work together to achieve environmental change.

Activism is not only a tool for social change, but it can also be used to educate others. If we want to tap into education’s potential to help us achieve more sustainable futures, we must recognize activists as educators. We need to build bridges between schools and them. 

This means that policymakers will fund activist-led education efforts and incorporate activist-inspired teaching methods into teacher training programs. It is important for activist organizations to highlight their contributions in educating young people about environmental solutions and share their best practices.

Beyond Greenwashing

None of this is easy. Activists and teachers are often on opposing sides of the barricade. The first step towards recognizing the similarities between the two groups is to recognize them.

It is not that teachers don’t want students to see themselves as changemakers. In most cases, teachers fear the repercussions. Many teachers I met said they weren’t fully on board with the curriculum that they were teaching, but felt they had to do their job. After all, the government was paying their salaries. In interviews, I heard that teachers who wanted to become involved in politics in the classroom were too dangerous for their job security.

These are the exact issues that our education systems need to address if they are to contribute meaningfully to environmental solutions at a larger scale. We might find out that our sluggish efforts in environmental education are just another form greenwashing. Ultimately, educationself-discovery and the discovery of the worldis an end in itself, not a means to any end, including sustainability. We can’t afford to let education systems get in the way of sustainability, given the urgency of environmental degradation.

Peter Sutoris
An environmental anthropologist, he is based at University College London. He is the author of Visions of Development, Oxford University Press, and Educating For the Anthropocene, MIT Press. His work has been featured in The Guardian, Scientific American and Undark as well as Politico. Dr. Peter is based London, UK. He speaks English, Czech and Slovakian, as well as Nepali. You can reach him through his website

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