Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Environmental Activism

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_443



Environmental activism is primarily linked to studies in the fields of environmental political science, environmental sociology, and environmental psychology. However, in this entry, the focus is on the relationship between environmental activism, on the one hand, and learning and education, on the other. Roughly speaking there are two major approaches to addressing this relationship. One belongs to the studies of social movements within the research fields mentioned above. The other is within educational research with a focus on environmental and sustainability education (ESE). However, before discussing these further, the concepts of environment and activism are briefly introduced.

The Concepts of Environment and Activism

Neither environment nor activism are strictly defined concepts nor are they interpreted consistently by scholars. For some, the environment is synonymous with nature, while for others, it is more specifically about conflicts of interests regarding humankind’s stewardship of the natural environment. The concept is also blurred by the varying interpretations of nature over time, place, and culture and the intertwining of considerations of nature and culture, e.g., as nature-culture. Furthermore, in relation to activism, environmental efforts are typically not restricted to the critique of environmental problems but also include efforts to solve those problems, leading to a broader concern with the policies and politics of sustainable transitions.

The concept of activism is also interpreted in diverse ways. A key issue here is whether activism can be considered more or less synonymous with the basic human competences of activity, action, and/or agency or whether it instead constitutes a specific form of agency. Activism is certainly an expression of human agency and consists of activities. Moreover, these activities are intentional and goal directed, which is often regarded as a key characteristic of actions. As a sociological category though, activism commonly (but not always) refers to collective, intentional actions aimed at changing a policy, societal institution, socio-technological or economic system, and/or culturally embedded practices.

Thus, there are several ways of differentiating environmental activism. For example, Bronislaw Szerszynski suggests a matrix to differentiate contemporary forms of environmental activism. One dimension distinguishes between purposive and principled action – the first aiming to achieve direct political results and the second concerned with changing values or behavior – while the orthogonal dimension differentiates countercultural and mainstream forms of practice. Inspired by this matrix, Andrew Jamison differentiates environmental activism as follows:
  1. 1.

    Community environmentalism which is oriented toward changing policies by creating spaces for dialogue between factual scientific information, technical suggestions for solutions, and local knowledge leading to the empowerment of local citizens

  2. 2.

    Professional environmentalism which is likewise oriented toward changing policies but mainstreamed in its professionalized organizational forms and techniques so as to gain success in concrete cases

  3. 3.

    Militant environmentalism which is characterized by a morally driven countercultural activism taking place in the public medialized space

  4. 4.

    Personal environmentalism which is value oriented but mainstreamed in the sense that it takes place within the established societal institutions as individuals’ personal efforts to change their habits and green their lifestyle


These different ideal types have obvious consequences for the kinds of learning and educational efforts taking place, but before considering those in detail, we need to consider how these issues have been addressed by scholars in the field of social movement theories.

Environmental Activism in Social Movement Theory

The scholarship of “social movements” ranges from classical approaches focused on contradictions between social classes (such as when movements are collectively organized efforts to promote class interests) to approaches reflecting the sociocultural tensions of postwar Western societies where, for example, social movements are understood as agents of revolt against existing societal structures and cultures more broadly. Associated theories have developed quite differently in relation to environmental activism, with one primarily European socioculturally oriented strand standing in marked contrast to a primarily conventional empirical and psychological-oriented strand in the USA.

In Europe, Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci are key figures in the historical reconceptualization of social movements. These movements were understood to challenge dominant cultural codes, acting with levels of information and communication also used by technocratic powers. Touraine and Melucci also characterized social movements as collective identity formations containing sets of values and beliefs that empower those who share and identify with them.

In concord with this conception of social movements, but also inspired by Jürgen Habermas’ work on different types of knowledge interests, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1991) developed what they termed a cognitive approach to the analysis of social movements. Although it is a general approach to studying social movements, it was initially developed in relation to an empirical study of environmentalism and knowledge. For Eyerman and Jamison, the cognitive praxis of social movements is the social action from which new knowledge originates. By focusing on social movement agency as a matter of challenge to dominant sociocultural knowledge as well as a praxis for developing new knowledge and sociocultural identity, their approach focuses directly on the relationship between movement, learning, and education. Environmental activism is approached as creating, as well as taking place in, new public learning spaces. In these spaces, new cognitive practices are developed in struggles targeted at environmental improvements, while as a praxis, it also implies criticism of societally dominant forms of knowledge as well as new knowledge formation.

Inspired by Habermas, Eyerman and Jamison also analyze the cognitive practices of environmental activists, to explore their cosmological, technological, and organizational knowledge interests. Their work shows how social movements are not restricted to specific organizations with a permanence over time; rather, they occur in certain phases of societal transformations in which their strength as movements is dependent on their ability to learn and develop alternatives. These alternatives include all three types of knowledge interests in ways that are able to challenge and transform prevailing knowledge interests. However, this differentiation means that environmental activism does not necessarily develop into a social movement. For example, in his later work, Jamison points to a polarization of environmentalism into those working inside a green business or ecological modernization approach and those who use environmental issues to fuel their militant political activism. However, in his view, none of them offer new, alternative forms of knowledge. Rather, Jamison finds the potential for this among those sporadic environmental agents whom he describes as “hybrid agents,” transgressing the affirmative and radical opposing poles of environmentalism. Potentially, education might provide platforms for such hybrid innovative knowledge making.

One objection to Eyerman and Jamison’s approach is that it remains primarily inspired by analysis of environmental activist modes rooted in the 1960s and the following decades. Meanwhile, it is less appropriate to understand the forms of social movements, environmental activism, and knowledge production of the social media saturated societies of today in this manner. Alternative analytical lenses include those that draw on the comprehensive work of Manuel Castells on the network society. Castells suggests understanding social movements in terms of networks of agents, whether at local levels and/or virtually connected across spaces. In line with this network approach, the political scientist, Christopher Rootes, has studied the use and production of knowledge among environmental activists pointing to the relationship between local activism and transnational environmental organizations. Rootes (2007) shows how local activists draw on the discourses of transnational organizations and have learnt to act in ways that are more likely to confirm these discourses than dissolve concrete environmental conflicts. In a later study, he adds that environmental activists do not simply transfer knowledge from each other across the globe but interpret and adapt the knowledge to fit their own context.

In the USA, a focus on the analysis of collective behavior often seeks to conceptualize social movements as observable empirical phenomena developing according to their own inner logics, such as from spontaneous crowd actions to the formation of publics and social movements. While this approach has enabled both structural-functionalist and symbolic interactionist contributions, the focus on resource mobilization of recent times has challenged the automatic starting point of a collective behavior perspective, in focusing its analysis on organizations and not the individual. However, the collective behavior approach persists as part of US social psychology, when scholars employ in the study of environmental activism by focusing on the motives, attitudes, and behaviors of environmental activists and their groups. For example, Paul Stern et al. (1999) developed the value-belief-norm theory, based on empirical research documenting how individuals not only accept the values of a particular environmental movement but also believe that these values are under threat. Their individual and collective actions are believed to help protect those values, and they experience an obligation for pro-movement action. Other studies have gone deeper into exploring how these values and beliefs are created and sustained. They point to the importance of “significant life experiences” derived from, for example, direct encounters with nature, peer role models, and community-based programs enabling collective action as crucial factors in fostering the values and beliefs that will later motivate environmental action and even activism.

Contributions from Environmental and Sustainability Education Research

As indicated in the introduction, the relationship between environmental activism and education/learning has also been addressed in relation to environmental and sustainability education (ESE). While there are only a few contributions within this field of research explicitly addressing environmental activism, several contributions to the development of ESE theory are of relevance to understanding the role of education in relation to environment activism. This issue has been extensively debated in ESE research, not least in response to the politics of the field and its boundaries but also the widespread practice of prescriptive and individual behavior modification-oriented educational practices of environmental NGOs. Four strands of response are identified, and each draws on generic theories of educational and learning into the development of ESE theory, in their own way. They also offer unique contributions to how the relationship between education and environmental activism is framed.

The first strand, often presented as “education for the environment,” belongs to the tradition of critical pedagogy inspired by the work of Paulo Freire (among others) as well as by critical theory. Education is inevitably understood to be political. However, the departure point for critique is recognizing that the human interests and ideologies underlying the dominant positivist and technical rational approach to education (such as via schooling), as well as to the environment, are hidden and hegemonic. In light of this, the political role of a critical-emancipative pedagogy is to scaffold learner’s critical thinking on structures of powers and decision making and, in ESE, to “increase pupil’s awareness of the moral and political decisions shaping the environment and to give them the knowledge, attitudes and skills that will help them to form their own judgements and to participate in environmental politics” (Huckle 1983). Hence, the role of ESE is to enable what critical theorist Oskar Negt has described as “exemplary learning” in order to promote critical environmental activism.

Partly inspired by the same critical theoretical tradition but also influenced by German “bildung” theory and John Dewey’s work on democracy and education, Karsten Schnack and Bjarne Bruun Jensen developed an action competence approach to ESE. In contrast to the “education for the environment” approach, it abstains from demanding a starting point in the critical historical analysis of the educational system and the environmental issue. Rather, they state explicitly that the role of education is not to offer environmental solutions but, in an educationally constructivist way, to enable pupils to engage with human environmental conflicts and to learn by doing how to become active citizens in democratic societies (Schnack and Jensen 1997). One way to operationalize the approach is to apply the IVAC method, by which pupils learn from investigating an issue, visioning on problem-solving, acting as societal agents in their local community, and experiencing the effects of their attempts to promote changes. IVAC, it is suggested, integrates environmental activism as part of education although with the aim of socializing students to becoming “action competent” citizens rather than to necessarily solve a specific environmental problem.

While the two theoretical strands mentioned above are both oriented toward educating students in formal educational settings to become critical and engaged citizens in relation to environmental and sustainability issues, other strands are primarily oriented toward enabling environmental activism in nonformal educational spaces for social change and learning.

First, we must again recognize that social learning is a concept that has been used and understood in several ways. In ESE, it is partly inspired by Jürgen Habermas’ theory of communicative action and related ideas of deliberative democracy in political science. In this respect, social learning is about providing spaces for dialogue between agents with different positions and attitudes on environmental or sustainability matters, whether it is with the ambition of gaining consensus or providing a platform for agonistic mutual clarification of disagreements (Wals 2007).

Another source of inspiration comes from the social learning tradition in public planning and organizational learning theory, such as that tracing its origins to the work of social psychologist Kurt Lewin and his successors, and which is also a living part of contemporary environmental and sustainability planning and management theory. The social learning space in this approach is not just a space for deliberative communication but oriented toward innovative co-thinking and problem-solving. Consequently, the social learning strand of ESE is about providing spaces in public planning, in communities, and at workplaces that enable participants to act together in relation to environmental and sustainability issues and to learn from each other. This may be through organized dialogues and workshops which are not only about routine problem-solving but, similar to Jamison’s thoughts, enables innovative hybridity between multiple actors.

Closely related to social learning theory, the fourth strand addresses the request for fundamental sociocultural changes and paradigm shifts in worldviews, such as in debates about climate change and other global risk issues, by focusing on the necessity of transformative learning. While the potentials and challenges of transforming existing knowledge and wider mental structures are a well-known topic in psychology and learning theory, ESE scholars do not necessarily pay much attention to the individual oriented contribution on transformative learning from Mezirow and his successors. Rather, they tend to draw on a range of other theoretical contributions emphasizing transformative learning as a relational and collective process. To illustrate, besides drawing inspiration from the capability approach and critical phenomenology, Heila Lotz-Sisitka et al. (2015) look to the post-Vygotskyan work of Yrjö Engeström on expansive learning. They pay special attention to the insight from expansive learning research of focusing on the identification of “germ cell” activities, that is, activities that embody a potential response to deep-seated societal contradictions, which can foster and lead to new forms of agency and to substantive social change at multiple levels. Drawing on the work of Michael Neocosmos, among others, Lotz-Sisitka et al. (2015) suggest a supplement to the concept of transformative learning with the concept of transgressive learning. This stresses that transformative processes can only “search for emancipatory inspiration in the exceeding of culture through the contradictions it itself engenders.” Change-oriented and transformative ESE, in this sense, must highlight the importance of disruptive competences, which are developed in relational reflexive movements focused on the transformative elimination of absences in and through learning processes.

Where the other three strands of ESE contribute to the theoretical exploration of the relationship between environmental activism and learning/education by pointing to the importance of critical-political, action-experience, and social-dialogical qualities, the transformative-transgressive strand raises critical question of the relevance, potentials, and problems of environmental activism as collective efforts that promote transformative learning and change.

Environmental Activists as Educators and Learners

As shown above, both social movement and ESE scholars have pointed to public learning spaces as potential platforms for deliberations, innovative cocreation, and transformative learning. Recent ESE research supplements this by focusing more specifically on the role of environmental activists as educators and learners. In particular, environmental activists’ learning can be understood as fundamentally tensioned given their feeling of a call to act and yet being overwhelmed and exhausted. Navigating this tension, besides learning new information and developing new skills, activism can disrupt and deepen one’s sense of self-identity. Jonas Lysgaard (2016), for example, has explored the strong relationship between activism, learning, and processes of identity formation. Drawing on Slavoj Žižek and Jacques Lacan, he points to a double-layeredness which includes an exclusion of one’s own “bad practices” from the narratives environmental activists tell about themselves. Similarly, Katrien Van Poeck and Joke Vandenabeele (2014) have shown how environmental activists take on a particular mode in their role of educators, through what Maarten Simons and Jan Masschelein have labeled, “teachers-as-masters.” Of note is how this role is characterized by relations of care for an issue from which the teacher-as-master invites learners to respond and learn from, in the joint exploration of the issue. However, as Pierre Walter (2009) found, liberal, progressive, behavioristic, humanistic, and radical approaches to adult education all exist among environmental movements, be those of North America or beyond.


  1. Eyerman, R., & Jamison, A. (1991). Social movements. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  2. Huckle, J. (1983). Environmental education. In J. Huckle (Ed.), Geographical education: Reflection and action (pp. 99–111). Oxford: Oxford University.Google Scholar
  3. Jensen, B. B., & Schnack, K. (1997). The action competence approach in environmental education. Environmental Education Research, 3(2), 163–178.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Lotz-Sisitka, H., Kronlid, D. O., & Wals, A. E. J. (2015). Transformative, transgressive social learning: Rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction introduction and problem statement. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16, 73–80.Google Scholar
  5. Lysgaard, J. A. (2016). Learning from bad practice in environmental and sustainability education. Chicago: Peter Lang Publishers.Google Scholar
  6. Rootes, C. (2007). Acting locally: The character, contexts and significance of local environmental mobilisations. Environmental Politics, 16(5), 722–741. doi:10.1080/09644010701640460.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Stern, P. C., Dietz, T., Abel, T. D., Guagnano, G. A., & Kalof, L. (1999). A value-belief-norm theory of support for social movements: The case of environmentalism. Human Ecology Review, 6(2), 81–97.Google Scholar
  8. Van Poeck, K., & Vandenabeele, J. (2014). Education as a response to sustainablity issues. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults, 5(2), 221–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Wals, A. E. J. (Ed.). (2007). Social learning – Towards a sustainable world. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  10. Walter, P. (2009). Philosophies of adult environmental education. Adult Education Quarterly, 60(1), 3–25. doi:10.1177/0741713609336109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Aarhus UniversityCampus Copenhagen, AarhusDenmark