Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Neoliberalism and Environmental Education

  • Robert Fletcher
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_157



While environmental education (EE) has long been framed by proponents as a challenge to the type of mainstream economic thinking contributing to ecological degradation, increasingly such education has begun to integrate the very logic of neoliberal economics to achieve its aims. This entry summarizes a small but growing body of research that has recently arisen to document this trend. The genesis and characteristics of neoliberalism in general, understood both as a historical political-economic project (see esp. Harvey 2005) and associated form of discourse or ideology (Peck 2010), have been described at length elsewhere, including in other entries of this volume (see Cross-References below). The growing influence of neoliberalism in educational policies around the world, consequent to widespread cutbacks in State funding and increasing emphasis on accountability and quantitative measurement in student performance, has been thoroughly discussed both in this volume (see Cross-References) and elsewhere as well. Researchers have also documented a growing trend toward neoliberalization within global environmental politics as a whole in recent years, expressed in promotion of so-called market-based instruments such as ecotourism and carbon markets to address ecological degradation in terms of which nonhumans are primarily valued as providers of “ecosystem services” and repositories of “natural capital” (see esp. Büscher et al. 2014).

This entry builds on these discussions to describe the ways in which neoliberalization has gained increasing traction within EE and closely associated education for sustainable development (ESD) fields in particular. It draws on recent research characterizing neoliberalism as a confluence of a neoliberal political economy pursuing accumulation through dispossession (Harvey 2005) and a neoliberal governmentality that seeks to influence stakeholders’ decisions throughout the social sphere via creation and manipulation of external incentive structures (Foucault 2008; see also Cross-References). These two dynamics come together in environmental education and related mechanisms that seek to harness neoliberal forces in the quest for sustainability.

Neoliberalizing Environmental Education

Essentially, EE seeks to encourage “pro-environmental behavior” on the part of program participants in support of environmental protection and sustainable natural resource management. The closely associated ESD approach pursues this same aim within the framework of sustainable development specifically. As with the overarching global environmental movement, researchers describe a general historical trajectory within EE whereby what originated as a largely oppositional practice challenging dynamics of industrial capitalism contributing to environmental degradation has been increasingly superseded by the more recent trend to incorporate elements of neoliberal capitalism and discourse into EE curricula and delivery. The rise of ESD in particular is seen as part and parcel of this trend in its promotion of a sustainable development perspective that many view as itself an expression of neoliberalization within the global environmental governance apparatus.

In part, this transformation is attributed to the need to attract financial resources within a neoliberal climate in which approaches conforming to the dominant paradigm are privileged in funding decisions. In addition, a neoliberal perspective within EE delivery has been increasingly promoted by organizations whose overarching missions have themselves become progressively neoliberalized, particularly so-called big nongovernmental environmental organizations (BINGOs) such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Conservation International (CI) as well as private sector firms pursuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) agendas. Further, however, neoliberalization within EE is viewed as part of a more general process whereby neoliberal reason has so permeated the global political imaginary that it has become conventional wisdom in many spheres (Peck 2010). As Hursh and coauthors describe, “neoliberal ways of thinking about and acting in the world have become so prevalent, naturalized, and internalized that we are often unaware of how neoliberalism constrains our thinking and practice, such that it is difficult in both thought and deed to imagine a society proceeding on different principles” (Hursh et al. 2015, p. 300). Within this climate, indeed, “neoliberal ideology is so pervasive that Margaret Thatcher’s truism ‘there is no alternative’ takes on new dimensions as alternative projects literally (re)produce neoliberalization” (Weissman 2015, p. 361). From this perspective, environmental educators may unwittingly adopt elements of neoliberalism in their very efforts to advance an ostensibly oppositional practice.

As previously noted, an extensive body of research has documented how “neoliberal tenets have formed the core principles for primary, secondary, and higher education reform in many countries over the last two decades” (Hursh et al. 2015, p. 306). Assessing this trend from a Foucaultian perspective, one could conclude with Pierce that:

What has clearly emerged over the past 30 years is a distinct model of neoliberal governmentality of education where, through state and corporate strategies and practices, schools are increasingly in the business of disciplining and regulating the nation’s educational resources (as human capital stock) in order to maximize potential for high-yield crops of twenty-first century skilled students. (2015, p. 461)

Within EE in particular, neoliberalization has been identified in various forms of delivery, both formal and informal, at different levels from postgraduate though preschool, including such diverse modalities as teacher training workshops, business school curricula, university sustainability policies, rural development projects, incarcerated student programs, ecotourism excursions, and urban farming initiatives. Discussion of this trend in terms of EE reflects the core neoliberal principles – decentralization, deregulation, privatization, marketization, and privatization – standard to all work on the theme yet are seen to be expressed in particular ways within EE specifically. As with most studies of neoliberalism, researchers are sensitive to processes of “variegation” in how general neoliberal principles are expressed in different contexts and forms of practice (Peck 2010). Notwithstanding such variegation, elements of neoliberalization commonly identified within EE include the following:
  • Emphasis on individual rather than collective action as the basis for pro-environmental behavior

  • Promotion of entrepreneurship as the economic and social form appropriate to sustainability

  • Endorsement of a model of environmental citizenship centered on privatized and individualized activities

  • Advocacy of economic growth to address both poverty alleviation and environmental protection

  • Promotion of new public management (NPM) strategies in both educational and environmental governance

  • Emphasis on quantitative measurement as the basis for transparency and accountability in environmental management

  • Related promotion of standardized testing for learning assessment

  • Embrace of rewards systems to incentivize participation and learning

  • Advocacy of superficial participation without concrete decision-making power or equitable resource sharing

  • Focus on the economic value of “ecosystem services” as justification for environmental protection

  • Promotion of market-based instruments for environmental governance

The Dangers of Neoliberalism

Overwhelmingly, researchers express strong reservations concerning the implications of this trend. In explaining his approach to social analysis, Foucault once stated, “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad” (1984, p. 343). In this sense, researchers view the trend toward neoliberalization within EE as dangerous for a number of reasons. First and foremost, this perspective commonly promotes, either explicitly or implicitly, a growth-based capitalist economy that many consider antithetical to the sustainability that EE ostensibly champions. In so doing, consequently, it turns away from problematization of this very economy as one of the principle obstacles to environmental protection. Consequently, neoliberal approaches to EE threaten to “reduce the political to the personal” (Hursh et al. 2015, p. 309) and thereby “help to form neoliberal subjects who will not challenge the status quo but instead focus on individual responsibility” (Weissman 2015, p. 360). In this way, “Under neoliberalism, failure to achieve environmental sustainability is equated with the aggregate failure of individuals to incorporate rationality into their private sphere environmental decision-making rather than with a failure of the state” (Schindel Dimick 2015, p. 394) or of capitalist markets.

Essentially, in sum, critics contend that neoliberal capitalism is itself largely responsible for much of the environmental degradation the system is now increasingly called upon to correct within a neoliberal governance framework (Büscher et al. 2014). By neglecting to address (or even more directly obfuscating) this dynamic, “neoliberal environmental education fails to question neoliberal ideologies and structures that promote an unsustainable economy, individualism, entrepreneurialism, and consumerism” (Hursh et al. 2015, p. 313). Hence, a neoliberal approach to EE may end up reinforcing the very problems it seeks to address.

Alternatives and Future Directions

In leveling critiques of this nature, researchers advocate forms of EE that not merely depart from but directly confront neoliberal processes and their consequences. Huckle and Wals summarize the general consensus on this issue in calling for EE that:

encourage[s] students to consider issues of justice and the desirability of sustainability citizenship. They should learn about structures of power and the processes at work in the capitalist world economy; the rise of neoliberalism and its social, environmental and cultural impacts; and the contemporary ‘crisis’ and the need for more sustainable forms of development. Such development requires public/collective as well as private/individual actions, and students should recognize that a focus purely on individuals’ values and lifestyles serves to depoliticize and privatize a very political and public issue, and thereby contributes to the reproduction of the status quo. (2015, p. 494)

In addition to such confrontational critique, commentators call for alternative forms of pedagogy and practice that embody progressive principles contrary to neoliberal doctrine, focused on inspiring collective and directly political action that pursues decommodified and common pool resource management and commonly drawing on Freirian philosophies of grassroots conscientization and organizing (see Cross-References). In this spirit, researchers have identified a variety of current and potential practices that can serve as models for such alternatives, from conscientization activities among campesino organizations in Brazil to urban renewal programs in the US city of Detroit. This research is just beginning, however, and constitutes a particularly fruitful avenue of future investigation and activism in this field.

Other potentially productive directions for further research include devoting more attention to exploring how participants understand and respond to neoliberal forms of EE, given that to date analysis has focused primarily on delivery rather than reception. In particular, examination of the ways participants (as well as educators) may resist and/or subvert such practices would be quite interesting. Similarly, rather than treating neoliberal EE as wholly and uniformly negative, researchers might explore how ostensibly neoliberal perspectives and approaches are or could be productively employed in the service of alternative projects as well. As is clear from an all-too-brief review of this emerging field, investigation of the relationship between neoliberalism and environmental education is only just beginning and will likely pursue these and many other fruitful new directions in the coming years.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology of Development and Change GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands