Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Environmental Education: A Field Under Siege

  • Edgar J. González-Gaudiano
  • Pablo Á. Meira-Cartea
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_315



Facing the current consumption and production patterns associated to neoliberalism, environmental education (thereafter EE) is a controversial and contending field in different levels and modalities. This field is composed by a wide repertoire of pedagogical practices that pursue supposedly common objectives, but actually has qualitative different scopes. This repertoire fluctuates between approaches that question the (à la mode) civilizing trajectory and approaches that only tend to mitigate some of the problems caused by a certain way of life. In its more critical versions, it is a field of explicitly subversive social practices in confrontation with the establishment. Thus, even from its apparition, EE has fought for defining its own identity.

Due to these characteristics, EE has been directly attacked – even since the early 1990s – by a series of discourses that question its pertinence and validity by formulating proposals such as education for sustainable development (ESD), in tune with groups of interest and multinational corporations that intend to impose a pensée unique, that is, a single way of thinking (Ramonet 1995) in order to govern social and political life.


EE originates hand in hand with the social preoccupation as a consequence of the enormous environmental deterioration that took place during the second half of twentieth century, as a consequence from industrialization expansion and urbanization in global scale, as well as demographic explosion. Some authors appeal to the main importance of environment in some previous philosophical and pedagogical traditions and currents, even if with heterogeneous arguments (i.e., Rousseau, Locke, Vives, Rabelais, Comenius, Pestalozzi) that may be considered as valuable contributions in order to understand the role played by the environment in the socialization processes of individuals, as well as in the understanding of the world and of the place we occupy in it. However, the acknowledging and recognition of the environment as a vital good to be preserved and ameliorated is a social construction than appeared only recently – in the decade of the 1960s – thanks to educational processes that seek to face socioenvironmental problems and the complex causes that overdetermine them, by promoting certain values, attitudes, competences, and behaviors (Caride and Meira 2001).

The very notion of EE was expressed for the first time in a meeting of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1948, even if its acceptance only took place some years later since it had to compete against some other concepts such as mesology education and education for conservation. It was at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972) where environmental education got its international patent when it was referred in Principle 19 of the Final Declaration as a desirable task in every population sector in order to induce a sense of responsibility towards the environment in all its human dimension. Recommendation 96 of the same Conference recognized EE as one of the fundamental elements to confront seriously world environmental crisis (cfr. Belgrade Charter 1975).

From then on, multiple meetings and organizations have contributed to develop a corpus of principles and criteria for action around the recognition of the environment as a complex entity in which elements and processes of diverse nature interact (i.e., biophysical, political, sociocultural, historical). Thus it requires holistic, cooperative, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approaches for its adequate comprehension, as well as the assumption of a permanent education, innovative and critical, able to transform educational systems. This is a priority in order to develop necessary knowledge, abilities, values, and attitudes in students; to intervene individual and collectivelly; and to prepare citizens in the prevention and effective solution of problems.

As it usually occurs in the social field, EE has been transversalized by numerous discourses (Sauvé 2005). It has been so charismatic that it has generated enthusiasm in grassroots organizations that work on diverse topics. However, it has not become a priority in public policies of many countries, since they have only taken them into account in instrumental terms to reach what they consider more transcendent goals. Perhaps this has occurred because it is a field that contends against the conventional curriculum as well as the economical interests that govern national policies.

In regard to school educative processes, the debate about environmental education typology as thought by Lucas (1979) was prevalent many years. Such typology was based in the differentiation between education in, about, and for environment, with the purpose of understanding the different meanings given to the concept. From our point of view, only the last one could be called EE. However, the most frequent treatment has been the incorporation of subjects and discrete topics in the curriculum closely linked to Science Education. Some other proposals that are more creative are based in critical arguments that provoke questioning the usual ideological and scientific basis of conventional knowledge, as well as the place occupied by environment. Among these innovative proposals, we can also find the strengthening of affective – and not only cognitive – processes in regard to environmental topics; an effort to open students’ mind in order to hear usually excluded voices (i.e., feminism, indigenism) and, to try to construct new meanings for the educational act. Unfortunately these proposals have been hindered by refractory educational systems, sedimented schemes that are focused on transmissional disciplines and methods, as well as a group of teachers that are not well prepared for the necessary change. Summing up, EE tends to be reduced to a mere aspect of contents adapted to the traditional curriculum; its real potential as a learning strategy and process for social change is thus wasted.

Stages and Approaches

EE’s trajectory can be summarized into four general historical stages. The first one is foundational and covers the end of the decade of the 1960s as well as the decade of the 1970s. Its main focus is the contribution of education for the conservation of natural environment, the solution of environmental problems, and the training of specialists in order to improve its management. Theoretical and institutional basis for EE are settled in this stage, thanks to a process headed by United Nations (UN). After UN Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972), UNESCO and UNEP were in charge of the International EE Programme (1975–1995) and organized a series of regional and international meetings and designed pedagogical inductive materials that were useful to establish a common ground in regard to objectives, instruments, and strategies of educative actions for contributing to solve environmental challenges. In this phase, guidelines resulting from Belgrade Charter (UNESCO-PNUMA 1975) and the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education in Tbilisi (1977) are very relevant. The latter established that EE “should provide the necessary knowledge for interpretation of the complex phenomena that shape the environment, encourage those ethical, economic and aesthetic values which, constituting the basis of self-discipline, will further the development of conduct compatible with the preservation and improvement of the environment; it should also provide a wide range of practical skills required in the devising and application of effective solutions to environmental problems” (UNESCO 1978, p. 25; our italics).

The second stage covers the decade of the 1980s. It is a time for transition that coincides with the end of the Cold War and the consolidation of a new World Order characterized by a neoliberal ideological and economic hegemony. It underlies the need to create awareness in the entire population, and mainly in the youngest generations, about the environmental problems, as well as to train them in knowledge and habits that contribute to their solution. The research gives priority to positivist methodological and quasi-experimental approaches, with a great influence of conductive psychology. The 1987 UNESCO-UNEP International Conference on Environmental Education and Formation on Moscow established the basis for EE in the 1990s that identifies four priorities: “(i) the search for and implementation of effective models of environmental education, training and information; (ii) general awareness of the causes and effects of environmental problems; (iii) general acceptance of the need for an integrated approach to solving these problems; (iv) training, at various levels, of the personnel needed for the rational management of the environment in view of achieving sustainable development at community, national, regional and worldwide levels” (UNESCO-UNEP 1988, p. 6). As underlying ideas of this approach we find the attribution of environmental problems to the supposedly irrational behavior both of individuals and social collectives. Also in 1987, Our Common Future (WCED 1987) was published. Best known as Brundtland Report, it inaugurated sustainable development as the articulating approach in the global environmental policy. The prescriptive irruption of this concept has been crucial for the evolution of EE during the last three decades.

Third stage beginnings can be situated with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, Rio Summit 1992). The Stockholm approach which dated from 20 years ahead was given an important transformation at the Rio Summit. The concept “environmental education” disappeared from Rio Declaration and in the approved official documents, mainly “Chapter 36” of Agenda 21. The EE concept is also left behind due to the belief that it ignores the social and economic dimensions of environment and for having caused a naturalistic educational praxis and thus is replaced by Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Simultaneous to Rio official Conference, the NGO’s Global Forum was held (1992) giving place to the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility. It criticized EE’s role in regard to a globalizing market to which operational logic inequity generation and biosphere deterioration are mutually linked, as direct effects of human pressure on natural resources and drains. Sustainable development, a key concept in the official discourse, is strongly questioned since it nurtures the belief that sustainability and equity as priority goals can be answered back without doubting about the hegemony of a mode of production, distribution, and consumption that ignores the limits of the biosphere to satisfy with dignity the needs of every human community.

Rio Summit (1992) generated a bifurcation in the field of the educational responses to the environmental crisis that is still valid today. The Third International Conference on Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability (Thesalonikki 1997, also known as Tbilisi+20) made an effort to stop this fracture by means of promoting the inclusive concept of EE for sustainability. However, the achieved consensus was ignored by the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CDS), a high-level UN forum that examines and supervises the national, regional, and international progress of Program 21. Consistently, RIO+10 Summit on Johannesburg recommended to give impulse to education on sustainable development (ESD). In harmony with this line of thought, the UN General Assembly (2002) approved the establishment of the ESD Decade (2005–2014).

Nowadays we are in the fourth stage. It responds to the dialectics established between the aforementioned approaches. Such dialectics polarizes the field of educational response to environmental crisis between reformist positions that affirm that it is possible to find answers to such a crisis without really questioning the established development style, on the one hand. On the other, there are postdevelopmental positions that assume the impossibility of solving the challenge of environmental crisis without questioning the basic assumptions of the dominant economic order. The first ones are based on the belief that a development sustained on a finite world is possible, as well on the idea that poverty can be eliminated without questioning the models of production, distribution, and consumption that give access to high figures of welfare and richness in the affluent societies (most developed countries and the wealthy group of developing countries and emerging economies). The second ones challenge the ideological, political, and economic substratum that connects both faces of contemporary crisis: environmental and social. From this point of view, EE should focus on revealing the structural nature of the crisis and train citizenship in the necessary competences for a social and political action that is responsible and democratic. Challenging the link between education, growing, and development established in Rio+20 Summit (2012), in regard to the Green Economy concept, the necessity for a certain EE appears. This approach should be focused on the construction of social, economic, and cultural forms for decreasing, by preparing communities and societies for resilience in a future of scarcity (of fossil energy, food, drinking water, etc.) where it will be necessary to adapt human life to the changes that unavoidably will be produced as a result of the human habitat transformation as a consequence of climate change and other concurrent transformations of the biosphere. Diverging with ESD, EE confirms the necessity to politicize once and again the social praxis “to develop political-pedagogical itineraries depending on the unmet needs of populations and the sustainability requirements of specific territories, from each one’s own cultures, local economies and a more just relationship with global markets, each one’s own structures of employment, the carrying capacities of their ecosystems, allowing to build the human well-being in harmony with life and mother earth” (Rio+20 Educational Group 2012).


As it has been explained, a dominant discourse of EE now characterized by the discourse of ESD has prevailed. It marginalizes and makes other discourses and agents invisible, focused on a way of life that praises the Western urban way of life, the knowledge legitimized and institutionalized that tends to standardize the recipients of education and privileges individual instead of collective action, without really questioning neither the grounds of this hegemonic lifestyle nor its comfort zones. This discourse has colonized the discourses of multinational organizations that disseminate it as valid and safe recommendations. In this respect, A. Gough (1997) denounces, “The dominant discourses in environmental education threat the subject knowledge as homogenous and unitary because knowledge must be consistent and coherent (163)… [then] English-speaking Western male-developed worldviews have dominated environmental education discussions to date” (xix).

As it can be observed in the new UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, organized around 17 objectives approved in 2015 UN General Assembly (cfr. Objective 4.7), ESD continues being regarded as an education oriented towards promoting a change of attitudes and habits in coherence with the market economy functioning, which underlying logic is never questioned, based on ideas of growing as a development and richness premise in terms of going beyond poverty. This view ignores the fact that we live in a resource-finite world that cannot absorb the manifold impacts generated by human activities. This approach is openly aligned with the prevailing development style but is, however, disguised with an institutional and colonizing discourse that states it can place the world in the way towards an inclusive, sustainable, and resilient development.

Climate change is the most evident fact that demonstrates we have surpassed the biosphere limits with devastating consequences for every human society and, above all, for the most vulnerable ones. In this new scenario, some challenges faced by environmental educators, mainly the ones belonging to the most vulnerable countries, are to develop the necessary abilities and competences in order to promote actions and projects in respect to adaptation, disasters risk prevention, vulnerability, integral risk management, and strengthening social and community resilience.

Having said all this, an EE that puts criticism into practice is certainly skeptical about change possibilities at the margins of market economy system. This kind of EE, disconnected from such system, becomes postdevelopmental or postapocalyptical or postcolonial, emphasizing the political dimensions and, therefore, the urgent need to get involved with the new social movements with an alter-world character. In convergence with some intellectual and organizational waves such as the emerging degrowth movement, the movement of communities in transition and with the Andean living well (sumaj kawsay) movement, makes evident this disconnection: educational practice is focused on community-life, people and social groups empowerment, the formation of citizenship, experiencing alternative lifestyles, as well new forms of production, distribution, and consume that actually take into account the biosphere limits and the need to equally distribute natural resources and environmental carrying, to promote democratic practices and collective decisions that are made in a more participative way.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edgar J. González-Gaudiano
    • 1
    • 2
  • Pablo Á. Meira-Cartea
    • 3
  1. 1.University of VeracruzXalapaMexico
  2. 2.Institute of Educational ResearchesUniversidad VeracruzanaXalapaMexico
  3. 3.University of Santiago of CompostelaSantiagoSpain