Environmental Mathematics and
Transformative Tools in Sustainability Education
"We're in a bad situation, here on our small planet. The perfect storm. No mastery of the multiplication tables is going to see us through this crisis."
— Joanne Sales
To most educators, environmental math may sound strange, but the two go together well. Scientific literacy requires skill in math, as does learning about ecology and environmental systems. There is plenty of math to be discovered in the natural world, from patterns in Nature to Nature's engineering, and a symbiosis exists between basic scientific principles and their mathematical expressions in Nature (Adam, 2003).
Excluding Nature from the math classroom is unnatural. Including Nature would enliven the subject. The Mathematical Association of America has a
Mathematics and the Environment
website to guide this integration.
Young students can be taught sustainability using simple math, such as sharing. Basic mathematics—percents, ratios, graphs and charts, sequences, sampling, averages, growth, calculus, variability and probability—all relate to current, critical issues such as pollution and the sustainable availability of resources. Understanding the math of exponential growth and limits to growth is essential for environmental literacy. Mathematical modelling is essential in assessing global environmental change.
Online curricula teach math through current global issues, including population growth, biodiversity, climate change, natural resource use, and ecological footprint (see, for example, the
Quantitative Environmental Learning Project
Economic thinking ... is peculiarly unable to consider the long term and to appreciate man's dependence on the natural world.
— E. F. Schumacher
The absence of Nature in math is extended to the math of economic accounting. To most economists, Nature does not count because it is an externality, and GDPs are calculated by counting environmental losses as economic benefits. This is despite new environmental accounting methodologies and the application of ethics in modern academic economics (Stern, 2006; Stiglitz, 2002).
Exponential, limitless economic growth continues, so environmental depletion, degradation, and pollution have now exceeded the planet's carrying capacity (World Wildlife Fund, 2006). Global warming is the worst market failure ever (Stern, 2006). Conventional economics is terrible math, devastating for Nature, and fatal for the future.
One solution is to start teaching the mathematics of sustainable development by insisting on integrating social and environmental costs into the teaching of economics.
Adam, JA (2003). Mathematics in Nature: Modeling Patterns in the Natural World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 416 pp.
Stern, N (2006). Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Accessed 4/1/2013 at
Stiglitz, JE (2002, December). Ethics, Economic Advice, and Economic Policy. Paper presented at the Inter-American Development Bank Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Accessed 4/1/2013 at
World Wildlife Fund (2006, October 23). New WWF Report Details Global Impact on Natural Resources. Accessed 4/1/2013 at
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