Environmental Education Enticements to Sustainability Learning and Action

Environmental education enticements are the ways we teach about the Earth that lead to deeper, more transformative learning as well as effective action towards sustainability.

Dr. Mostafa Kamal Tolba, former Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme [cited in 60] said that education is necessary to ensure appropriate action, through motivation, widespread understanding, and sound information and technical skills. According to Donella Meadows, the job of environmental education is to provide these key understandings, information, skills, and inspiration [60].

Although I was focusing on environmental adult education when I did research into enticements to environmental learning and action for my master's degree, these environmental education enticements to sustainability can be applied to school-based environmental education as well.

I have divided these environmental education enticements into five categories.

(Numbers in square brackets refer to the References page. Feel free to contact me if you need exact page references.)

1. Eco-Conscientization and Eco-Metaphors

Paulo Freire defines "conscientization" as learning to perceive sociocultural and economic contradictions, and to take action to transform the oppressive elements of reality [35]. Jack Mezirow defines it further as learning to "negotiate meanings, purposes, and values critically, reflectively, and rationally ... [rather than] passively accepting the social realities defined by others" [63]. What I call eco-conscientization takes Freire's concept into the realm of environmental education.

As Darlene Clover and her colleagues explain, environmental educators need to "actively, critically and creatively engage people, challenging ideas and assumptions" [21] to create new knowledge together. As illustration, they point out that Nature "cannot state its case or needs" within an environmental education setting, no matter how nurturing, creative, or challenging that setting is for human participants.

For this reason, they suggest using facilitation techniques that give Nature a voice: continually using examples from the rest of Nature, using Nature-friendly language and natural metaphors, reinforcing Nature's existence and our inclusion in it, engaging with Nature directly [21]. Heaney and Horton point out that strategies such as these can entice the critical reflection and conscientization essential to transformative action [46].

As part of the process of eco-conscientization, environmental educators should examine and carefully choose the metaphors they use in their teaching, as explained by Clover et al [21], and Chet Bowers [10].

David Lake suggests that environmental educators should pay more attention to the emotional links in the metaphors they employ, because "the words we use do matter; they shape the way we look at the world" [52]. Mezirow contends that searching out new themes and metaphors is part of the transformative learning process [63].

For more on eco-metaphors and how they serve as transformative environmental education enticements, visit GreenHeart's Nature Friendly Language and Metaphors page. For an example of eco-conscientization, try the guided experience on the Enticements page.

2. Direct Sensory and Earth-Bonding Experiences Outdoors

Numerous authors agree that direct experience in the natural world is a vital environmental education enticement. For example, David Orr believes that the way education occurs is as important, and as telling, as its content. "Students taught environmental awareness in a setting that does not alter their relationship to basic life-support systems learn that it is sufficient to intellectualize, emote, or posture about such things without having to live differently.... Real learning is participatory and experiential" [68].

Mitchell Thomashow has found that the "direct experience of wild place" has a transformational effect on many people [89]. Clover and her colleagues advise letting the rest of Nature and the community become partners, co-teachers, and co-facilitators in environmental adult education [21].

Enticing people to care about the environment must entail opportunities for sensory awareness, what Bill Devall calls "earth-bonding" experiences [27], and Steve Van Matre calls "barrier-breaking sensory and conceptual experiences" [91]. Learners of all ages can hear facts and information with little transformative impact, but fully using the senses can provide motivation, inspiration, and empowerment to change, according to Clover et al [21].

Ecologist E. O. Wilson [cited in Roszak et al, 76] coined and defined "biophilia" as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms." This intrinsic attraction to natural beauty provides a direct path to Earth bonding. For example, Brave Buffalo, a Teton Sioux [cited in Hughes, 47], advises building on the connection that all people have for "some special animal, tree, plant, or spot of earth" in order to teach respect for the wisdom of the natural world.

3. Bioregional or Place-Based Learning

Bioregionalism is defined by David Orr as a celebration of a region's ecology, and efforts to create a local culture based on regionally appropriate "economies, technologies, material flows and educational systems" [68].

Learning about "home" or one's local watershed is an environmental education enticement recommended by several authors, who name it variously "locality education" or "sense of place" [O'Sullivan, 69], "bioregional consciousness" or "spirit-of-place" [Devall, 27]. O'Sullivan believes that educational institutions must take on the role of cultivating a community's sense of place [69], and Meadows urges environmental educators to integrate nearby surroundings into their teaching [60].

"A child educated only at school is an uneducated child."

— George Santayana

4. Remove Disguises

Helping learners cut through euphemism, illusion, fallacy, and other misperceptions can hasten transformation to environmentally friendly behaviour. Steve Van Matre suggests "emphasizing magic and meaning instead of names and numbers," calling things by names that reveal their hidden nature or underlying reality, and tracing things to their true origins or destinations, as ways of helping learners remove disguises [91].

Rowe believes that because "thought goes wherever words chart the way," creating "a language and vocabulary of the commons" will help reclaim the concept of the commons. He cites economist John Ruskin, who said, "If there are goods, there must be bads. If there are services, there must be disservices. If there is productivity, there must be destructivity." Rowe adds, "We must give words and therefore reality to this invisible side of the ledger" [77].

Removing disguises entails pointing out what people do not or cannot see. For example, Ray and Anderson say that Cultural Creatives — described as people who want to see deep, integral change in the culture of America — are leading the way in concern for the natural world. "The environmental movement is the most successful of all the new social movements. It has succeeded in changing the central beliefs and desires of the population — not just in the United States or even the West but in the entire world. In opinion surveys, 70 to 90 percent of people in most countries world-wide are deeply concerned about the environment" [74].

But a change in beliefs, desires, and concerns is not equivalent to a change in behaviours. At GreenHeart Education, we talk instead about "Cultural Destructives" to point out that the typical North American lifestyle is not normal, and is still ecologically devastating despite the Cultural Creatives, whose complicity in the destructiveness of the North American way of life is not acknowledged by Ray and Anderson.

5. Focus on Personal Action

Environmental action is easier to entice when the educational focus is on concrete and local changes. Personal lifestyle changes are the easiest to make, according to Steve Van Matre, because people can control their lifestyle choices, whereas they cannot "absorb and utilize all the multidimensional understandings of any major environmental issue" [91].

Anne Camozzi talks of the need to help adult learners adopt new ideas and change their behaviours [17]. Mark Burch suggests helping adults "make a psychologically meaningful linkage between their present behavior, which is personal, immediate and concrete, and its long-term ecological consequences, which are impersonal, far off in time, and seemingly quite abstract" [14]. (Except not so far-off-in-time anymore!)

Personal action also serves as an antidote to the overwhelming nature of environmental issues. Barry Lopez [cited in Dauncey and Mazza, 26] says, "I know of no restorative of heart, body, and soul that is more effective against hopelessness than the restoration of the Earth."

Brian Nattrass and Mary Altomare refer to practical ideas for change as "low-hanging fruit" that should be plucked first [65]. Van Matre suggests getting abstract ecological concepts into a concrete context for learners [91], and Donella Meadows suggests applying "the general planetary laws to local problems and opportunities" [60], a notion summarized by the environmental motto "Think globally, act locally."

Finally, contrary to popular belief, a change in beliefs or attitude is not a prerequisite to environmental action. As Suzuki and McConnell explain, "action invariably precedes a profound shift in values, so actually doing something is important. In the process, one learns and becomes committed" [88]. Call it "the greening of self-esteem"!

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