Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Environment and Education

  • Alan Reid
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_444



Environment and education have been primarily understood in two main ways in educational philosophy and theory in much of the English-speaking world. In brief, these ways tap into (a) questions of surroundings and relations to those, and (b) what is worth knowing, valuing, and doing about patterns and changes in our interactions with our environments.

The connection between the two is most apparent when environmental educators consider the positive and negative effects of human-environment interactions and livelihoods on the conditions for living and flourishing on earth for all its inhabitants – human and otherwise – more broadly, not just those in which people dwell. Thus, in this entry, while the main focus in environmental education is on the second aspect, the first will be sketched too, as it sets the scene for various cross-cutting considerations about environment and education.

Experiencing a World Around Us

The first sense mentioned above taps into the familiar conception and meaning of environment as that which surrounds and to which an organism responds and adapts. Implicit within this is a sense that people’s engagement with their surroundings has multiple dimensions (Ingold 2000): it is intellectual as well as sensuous, aesthetic as much as a matter of ethics, involves volition and emotion and not simply cognition, and is historically conditioned even if it also remains indeterminate, i.e., open to the possibility of change.

Following this line of reasoning, an environment forms the grounds and sources for various options and activities of dwelling, personhood, security, reciprocity, economy, and identity formation (and their disruption), for individuals and groups. In other words, for this entry, it behoves us to recognize that all education takes place in an experiential space, and following phenomenological considerations, being in place is where one comes to know others and is known to others.

As Bonnett (2004) notes, terms such as oikos (as home), khôra (as a key root for understandings of space), and topos (the equivalent for place) communicate much of the existential dimensions to a sense of both the conditions and contexts of talk of environment. They also hone attention on what is concrete, specific, and particular to people living in habitable places, in contrast to what is abstract, idealized, or mythic for our experiences in and across some of the diverse environments, lifeworlds, and possibilities for life on this planet. Thus, an “environmental education,” as an important way of bringing these matters together, may involve elements of environmental awareness and nature appreciation (e.g., fostering a sense of awe and wonder, grasping the aesthetics of the sublime and picturesque), as much as lead to a questioning and even rejecting of certain ways of living in particular places, by becoming aware and appreciating their connections to others, e.g., through colonialism, globalization, and accelerating consumptionism.

To return to the first sense though, in educational and developmental psychology, a key concern is what an environment affords a learner during different phases of an individual’s lifespan, taking into account their motivations, intentions, ableness, and behaviors when interacting with an environment. Thus, from early childhood studies and experiential education to many of the models of developmental psychology and phenomenology that can inform aspects of educational philosophy and theory, a key focus is on the gaining of capabilities and insights to interact with an environment, particularly through motor skills and cognitive development. These might include through the discovery of new opportunities for movement shifts in perception and worldview, and novel forms of interaction for an individual with an environment into adulthood (see, Sheets-Johnstone 2009), e.g., through outdoor education, environmentally sensitive arts programs, or a “green skills” training syllabus for adults in the vocational sector. Teaching and learning in a range of high-quality environments – and ensuring those afford rich educational experiences – are key corollaries for this sense of linking environment and education.

However, the “baggage” associated with such a view must also be elaborated, by recognizing that environment is typically assumed to require a degree of naturalness to the spaces surrounding an individual, e.g., in outdoor settings or in places for play, discovery, navigation, adventure, instruction, and gainful employment. For educators, while this “intentional field of significance” (Bonnett 2004) is usually recognized as co-constructed, for an individual learner, the environment may still be assumed to be one beyond the traditional classroom setting. Indeed, it may be on terra firma rather than (say) water, often in rural settings rather than urban ones, in relatively pristine environments in preference to degraded ones, and with the teacher’s and learner’s attention steered towards the ecological rather than, for example, the economic realities of ways of living. This is despite a long tradition of a variety of approaches to studying environment and society, such as in geography, biology, and “home economics,” as well as in alternative approaches, e.g., urban and built environmental education. Some of these can be traced to, for example, anarchist traditions of thought (e.g., Ward 1978) and more contemporary expressions in psychogeography with its interests in liminal and problematic environs (e.g., rooted in situationist perspectives). These alternatives tend to invite (or require) more of a focus on the experiencing and shaping of environmental consciousness and reflexivities and, more recently, questions of affect and materiality in offering critique of human-environment interactions, as in exploring and our responses to (typically) urban, postindustrial, and derelict environments. Thus, a key area ripe for development in educational philosophy and theory is examining the significance of everyday places, spaces, and life to environment and education. These include how environments are appropriated, imagined, inhabited, and reworked through diverse intentions and interpretations of places and spaces; their shifting affordances and interactions, including in relation to those environments that might be marginal and/or hidden from society at large, including to its educators and learners (e.g., risky, mand undane, ambiguous, paradoxical, ecophobic or unattractive environments, as well as “non-places” – see Augé (1995), on the significance of motorways, hotel rooms, airports, and shopping malls to learning about “supermodern” ways of life).

Other new directions for educational philosophy and theory in this regard include incorporating insights from ecological anthropology and the environmental humanities. These shift the focus away from that of an individual’s senses and meaning-making in two key directions, namely, towards (i) the sociocultural beliefs and practices in both adapting and maintaining environments and ecosystems, and (ii) studying and learning from a wide range of human responses to environmental challenges and problems and how these are represented – and possibly addressed – in historic, contemporary, and possible societal formations and worldviews, e.g., given currents in politics, economics, history, epistemology, and demographics.

A major concern can be voiced though, regarding the degree of environmental determinism that can be embedded in some of the assumptions at work in associated philosophies and theories of education, including within a broad sweep of “ecopedagogies.” In brief, that exposure to selected and primarily biophysical environments can be assumed to predispose people to develop particular values, insights, behaviors, or societal trajectories, or put more strongly, that ecopedagogies inculcate these. We return to this concern in the next section, but at this point, we note this situation contrasts with the emphasis in much social thought on possibilism, which seeks to recognize anthropological and democratic constraints and limitations, including matters of contingency and negotiation in the construction and outcomes of meaningful environmental educational experiences, e.g., in empowering eco-identities, sharing or deconstructing unsustainable social relations, and challenging environmental injustices. In other words, a possibilist focus affords a stronger emphasis on concerted and complex configurations of human interactions given, for example, various facets of structure and agency and on notions of success and failure in this regard, e.g., when learning from our mistakes with the environment. It also serves to shift the emphasis away from simplistically “reading off” pedagogical priorities from environmental conditions, e.g., the “earth education” of the 1970s and 1980s in the USA and the United Nations’ versions of “education for sustainable development” of the 2000s. In both, while a sense of interconnectedness and transformation is strongly expected, in fact, neither has had the wide-ranging and far-reaching uptake and impacts that their sponsors and advocates have expected.

Given these observations, a key area of critique of “deterministic” readings of environment and education involves rejecting the uncritical promotion of what amounts to an adjustment mode in education, e.g., by “acclimatizing” to contemporary social issues. This approach is largely discredited in political and educational philosophy as symptomatic of an ideological project akin to neo-colonialism and, in relation to ecophilosophies more specifically, often harbors an unwitting continuation of majority lifestyles that exploit the earth. To illustrate, climate change education is not mainstream education, and it tends to focus attention primarily on strategies of adaptation or mitigation to what is largely unseen and unfelt, even if it is comprehendible and occasionally tangible or probable as a phenomenon. Its marginal status and the former strategy are critiqued as largely business-as-usual economically and politically; they also tend to ignore ecocentric and biocentric possibilities, particularly those interested in pursuing deeper forms of environmental activism beyond reformism. However, the latter strategy is also critiqued too, because it seems to require such large-scale rethinking of the conditions conducive to the survival and flourishing of communities (biotically and abiotically) into the future (with concomitant major shifts in environmental policy, economic organization, and cultural configurations). Thus, it leads some commentators to wonder if educators have the capacity or traction to address these in the contemporary public sphere (see Orr 1994). An alternative, as Gruenewald (2003) puts it, is to further emphasize the spatial aspects of social experience in the form and substance of curriculum, via critical pedagogies of place. These require addressing the twin objectives of decolonization and reinhabitation, so as to challenge “all educators to reflect on the relationship between the kind of education they pursue and the kind of places we inhabit and leave behind for future generations” (p. 3). But again, questions can be asked as to whether the post-naturalistic turn in environmental philosophy has yet to been taken into account in such ecopedagogical thinking or even the post-humanistic turn in educational philosophy more generally (e.g., Haraway 2013).

For educators and educationalists then, key questions might arise regarding the educative value of contemporary forms of environmental education and the visibility or otherwise of environmental topics in education in general, including how these are conceived and construed. Orr (1994) once observed that it is the most educated in conventional Western forms of schooling who have the largest footprint on the planet, given their careers and lifestyles, but also their perpetuation of the prevailing economic system, built as it is on continuing to strain both the resources and capacities of people and planet to be resilient and diverse. Thus, rather than focus on questions of whether exposure to, for example, wilderness as part of a person’s formal education is an essential requirement for schooling, or whether field-based experiences offer extrinsic and intrinsic value to teaching and learning, key questions for educational philosophy and theory can become those of the relation of people-environment interactions to larger social structures of community, culture, society, economics, and politics – and education’s role in all this.

All Education Is Environmental Education: For Good and Ill

The second understanding identified in the introduction crystallizes many of the preceding concerns. It relates to the modern concept of relation and response to environmental conditions, particularly in light of their degradation and destruction, at local to global scales. The primary concern for education here is exploring, understanding, and appreciating the extent of the consequences these changes have for human and other (mainly animal) species, and the ecosystems on which all depend in the immediate to longer term. Given the severity of some of the threats associated with the so-called environmental crisis, key questions for educators and educationalists include the following: Can education address all aspects of the environmental crisis? What should be the focus and priority of such work? And, when do interventions to address the crisis become “uneducational”? Put otherwise, a counterintuitive question is, is education as much part of the problem as part of the solution, including via an “environmental education” that seeks to address this?

In the remainder of this entry, we briefly consider some of the intellectual resources for responding to such questions.

First, scholarship on key environmental issues typically traces a wide range of shifts in conditions, understandings, the sciences, and the histories of awareness and action about environmental problems. In brief, in the West, the birth of the Romantic movement and the Industrial Revolution has become emblematic of early concerns about air pollution in industrial centers, where awareness and understanding eventually lead to legislation to curb emissions. During the mid- to late nineteenth century, the conservation movement associated with forestry in India, Europe, and North America provoked fuller considerations of such principles as stewardship and sustainability, and an emphasis on the role of civic and scientific responsibilities to manage natural resources for current and future generations. Environmental protection and wilderness preservationist societies as well as restorationist and “back-to-nature” movements sowed many of the seeds for what has become modern environmentalism (most often associated with figures such as John Ruskin, William Morris, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot, Patrick Geddes, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Ansel Adams) including its extension, some would argue, into the environmental education movement, in the 1960s. Thus, within education, the content knowledge about such key concerns has often come to focus on sifting through the various phenomena and impacts of contemporary and prevailing patterns of human-environment relations and identifying the scale, interconnectedness, likelihood, and urgency of their effects on conditions for living now and into the future.

Typical environmental concerns since the postwar period have ranged from growth in human population and resource demands; pollution of air, land, and water; overfishing of the oceans; destruction of tropical and temperate rainforests; extinction of entire species; depletion of the ozone layer; build-up of greenhouse gases; desertification; wind and water erosion of topsoil; disappearance of farmland and wilderness because of encroaching development … yet as the nature educator, David Sobel (1996, p. 10) has cautioned, “what’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”

Second, more recent strands and splinters of academic activity have continued to raise questions of praxis, particularly in relation to themes of environmental health and justice, political ecology, Gaia theory, biophilia, deep ecology, ecofeminism, anti-consumerism, eco-socialism, post-materialism, ecotheology, weak and strong sustainable development, ecological economics, environmental aesthetics and hermeneutics, greenwashing, ecojustice, permaculture, animal rights, the Slow movement, among many others. In their own ways, these raise important considerations for educational philosophy and theory (Luke 2001), most notably, the range of ideas and assumptions in play that reinforce or critique the anthropocentric bulk of what counts as knowledge and knowing, and the priorities for teaching and learning particularly in relation to human and “more-than-human” well-being in times of pressing and acute environmental problems, locally to globally.

Third, how anyone responds to such lists is often seen to be a feature of how “green” a person is, in recognition that various shades of environmental (and) educational thought are available. For example, “light green” conservationists are likely to be more anthropocentric than the ecocentrically oriented “dark green” deep ecologists, while ecofeminists may have overlapping strategies and tactics for change with some but not all of the approaches taken by social ecologists, militant “ecoteurs” in “monkey wrench gangs,” if not the gradualists aligned with nongovernmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and the North American Association of Environmental Education. However, while views on the role of lobbying vs. direct action and their educational relevance and rigor may differ considerably, what unites many environmentalists and educators in this field is the idea that humans are part of nature and members of a larger and more inclusive “biotic community” than crude human exceptionalism suggests. Thus, people have obligations or duties to each other in the present, and to future generations, to support biological and cultural diversity, and to work for justice and peace in human actions and practices. Exactly how these themes and their prioritization are worked out has been picked up most recently in debates about the scope and reach of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including in relation to Goal 4 which is focused on Education.


Attempts to environmentalize education can be readily understood alongside other notions in curriculum theory that try to intuit a matter of concern and a curriculum response. Thus there is an explicit curriculum in this area, but this may or not contain aims and content related to (all) environmental topics. Then, given the notion of a hidden curriculum, we must also recognize this may go against the grain of those or offer a supplement or corrective (e.g., by greening the educational institution’s grounds, buildings, supply chains, community relations, etc.). Also noting the received curriculum, we can recognize that what is proposed may not transpire in the experience of students or staff, perhaps because it is interpreted and possibly contradicted by other dominant interests in education. In other words, these features trouble simplistic notions of indoctrination in education by “environmentalists,” the likelihood of technocratic authorities coercing particular responses to environmental problems, and that the current generation in schools will automatically be able to address the intra- and intergenerational aspects of environmental issues, even if the problems are largely those they’ve inherited.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityMelbourneAustralia