Education and environmental ethics - some thoughts
Ethical commitments of educators -- and their intersections
with environmental problems.
The North American Association for Environmental
Education has guidelines for the preparation of environmental educators. These guidelines contain a clear statement of some values NAAEE feels environmental educators should follow. According to the guidelines,environmental educators should engage in education that is "appropriate and helpful to the community (item 3.1), and "Model responsible, respectful,
and reasoned behavior during instruction." Item 3.2 reads as follows
3.2 Emphasis on education, not advocacy
To do so, the guildelines say they should do things like
select materials that cover a variety of viewpoints, interpretations or
opinions (including those regarding scientific explanations), and weigh
evidence based on the validity of data. They should encourage learners
to explore these different views, and form and explain their own judgments.
To do otherwise undermines the credibility of the educator, in much the
same way as we have discussed bias does in science.
Pre-service educators understand than their commitment
as environmental educators is to provide accurate, balanced, and effective
instruction - not to promote a particular view about environmental conditions,
issues or actions.
Few educational philosophies make any pretense of value neutrality,
nor should they. Education is utterly concerned with values. Primary
among these must be ones concerning:
The relation between individual and society. The form
education takes is always relative to the social context. In some
societies education emphasizes obedience to authorities that are assumed
to know what is best for all. In democracies, however, informed individuals
are held to be the ones that know best -- and not only for themselves.
They must also collectively make decisions for the good of the whole. Because
of this, free and open inquiry and exchange of ideas must prevail. Popular
beliefs must be open to criticism, and unpopular beliefs must have a hearing.
The most carefully considered and best opinions must have a hearing, whether
they are liked or not. This is one reason academic freedom is so
closely protected at the highest centers of learning. Clearly, to
educate in a way that encourages the ability to form good judgments on
key issues is a central value in societies like these. In this perspective,
environmental education contributes most of all not because of any stress
on environmental values but because it builds capacity for democratic
participation that will enhance our progress on many issues.
Society also requires conformity to certain 'basic values'
that are essential to the conduct of social life. These include values
like respect of persons, honesty, general cooperativeness, inhibition of
violence, respect of property, obedience to law, patriotism, and many others.
(These have varying and specific justifications--also open to criticism.)
Education always does play a role in socializing young people into these
values. (This is not to say it necessarily should play such a role--that
must be judged carefully.) In this sense education is not value-neutral.
Education also always necessarily embodies assumptions about
the person. In some philosophies, the person is seen mostly as defined
by the social roles for which they must be prepared (wife, worker, citizen).
In others, the person is also believed to have intrinsic value apart from
these roles. The overall development of that person - the realization
of potentials the person has to become more of a human being - is
seen as a goal of education in these philosophies. Either way, this
aspect of education is also clearly value-based.
The values education promotes (as above), are generally ones
on which society feels consensus. They are not contentious.
When values are contentious--when there is disagreement about them--educators
would put themselves in the midst of controversy if they tried to promote
values on either side of the controversy. This is generally the case
with many social issues. On these issues, many educators feel that teachers
should give unbiased information, respect students regardless of their
views, be careful not to teach the material at a level students cannot
comprehend; not leave students with despair, fear, guilt or other coercive
emotions. This is consistent with the social values that should prevail
One exception to not using "propaganda" or manipulative tactics
such as above is when the student's self-interest is at stake, and the
student is at danger of not acting in his or her own best interest.
For example, smoking, unprotected sex, and drunken driving are all
things young people are tempted to engage in, but which society agrees
are against not only society's interest, but more imporantly, are against
the young person's own self-interest. In such matters, propaganda may be
Environmental issues clearly fit within the category of contentious
social issues. They will as long as solving them requires putting constraints
on the ability of some individuals to pursue what they perceive as their
otherwise unfettered self-interest, for example by benefitting from consumption,
exploitation and pollution. While there is increasing consensus about
environmental issues, it is clearly limited by how much infringement of
individual liberty people will tolerate. Look at the recent reactions to
energy shortages. Such confrontations between individual and social-environmental
interests probably will only increase as population, consumption increase,
and thus also the ways that people's actions infringe on each others' needs
from the environment.
Destructive environmental behaviors seldom fit in the category
of things that directly harm the health or basic self-interests of the
party doing them. The majority of the harm in such actions falls on others,
and on the general social good. For example, calling pollution an
'externality' recognizes that the negative effects of a transaction are
often external to the immediate interests of parties that undertake it;
the analysis of the 'tragedy of the commons' also expresses this reality.
Following such lines of reasoning suggests that education about environmental
problems is not exempted from the ban on propaganda. How far does
this extend? Does it mean env. ed should be entirely neutral in terms of
values? Is any persuasion justified?
Another perpective would be that although individual, short-term
self-interest may not justify persuasive educational strategies, some actions
are so likely to be deleterious to large numbers of people, and indirectly
to the actor him or herself, that it should be okay to use such strategies
to dissuade people from undertaking them. Indeed, this is what we
do when we enact laws that punish people for doing things that are harmful
to the whole. So education of this sort may be justified also, especially
when a changed behavior is urgently needed and the collective costs of
not changing are high.
As environmental quality becomes (over time) a value on which there is
strong social consensus, the issue may become less controversial. As long
as educators merely reinforce, build on, or help prioritize such existing
socially shared values, they would be less likely to be accused of being
out of line with society ("biased") in their educational practice. Environment then
becomes something more like honesty, on which all agree children should
be socialized. (It may be that an already high social consensus underlies
the ability of the NAAEE (cited above) to say teachers should be value-neutral.
Teachers can be utterly value-neutral, but the students bring environmental
values along, and end up exposing each other to these as they do projects
together... that is, in some communities only.)
The last point implies that those who oppose environmental
education can limit its scope by increasing the level of controversy, or
even just the perceived level of controversy, over such issues.
To the extent that environmental educators do not act as
strong advocates, given the course of present society, the long run consequences
of our present course of action will only get worse. The conflicts
between individual and social-environmental interests will only become more
acute. If this continues, at some point perhaps there will be a consensus that environmentally harmful behavior is strongly proscribed (forbidden). Then there may be a call
for aggressive environmental education. But by that time, we may
have lost critical environmental services, or at least irreplaceable environmental
amenities that make life worthwhile.
Note in the last point above, a parallel issue to one we noted in discussing science: if someone has knowledge, an obligation may exist to act on any morally significant parts of that knowledge. Is this the case with environmental educators--they have been educated to understand environmental problems; are they now obligated to act on it? If they are not, how can they consistently expect childern or others to do so to? So the issue of consistncy and integrity comes up here too.
Some cases to consider:
Scientists, policy people, and others, often comment that education is vital to environmental solutions. They believe that education helps change basic beliefs and values, so that temporary fixes like laws, penalties, and so on become less necessary. Implicitly at least they are assuming that education deals with value issues, with expanding acceptance of norms about what is right and wrong. It is sometimes difficult for other professions to deal with values directly. If there is one place where values can be dealt with and even promoted, many feel it is in education. Many environmental educators feel the same -- that their profession is clearly defined by their environmental value commitments.
If it is true that EE is defined by strong environmental value commitments (as well as the above social and personal-developmental values), then environmental education is inevitably in part advocacy--advocacy in in promoting values, if not specific positions on issues.
It is thus incumbent upon environmental educators who feel they should advocate values to be able to provide an explicit justification for those specific values, and why it is okay for them to promote them. The burden of justification is likely to be strong because the changes entailed by environmental values imply substantial changes int eh status quo. Therefore environmental educators should be well versed in environmental ethics, and understand the counter-arguments and perspectives of their opponents.
Some psychologists are trying to show that environmental
qualities beyond those directly related to physical health (ie, clean water
& air) are important in individual psychological well-being.
If this is the case, does it justify environmental education as part of
education's mission to further individuals' realization of potentials?
Related to this line of thinking is some research that shows
educational programs that address all of the democratic-capacity-building
facets discussed above, but DOES NOT increase recipients' sensitivity
toward,and caring about the environment, does not increase environmental
action. The critical motivational component appears to be missing.
Stemming from both these lines of argument is the idea that
people need to be helped to enjoy, appreciate and value natural systems,
by direct exposure and by learning about interdependencies, and about their
own relationships to a specific place.
These possibilities add more values to those already available for environmental educators to defend their practices.
The Lake Whatcom Pledge program does not strongly advocate values,
except by highlighting values many people may already have, and inviting
people to re-consider their prioritization of these values in relation
to other ones they hold, such as for a greener lawn, shiny car, cement
driveway, etc. It also offers a small incentive--social approval. Placing
the pledge plaque in ones' yard declares publically that one has made this
commitment, thus increasing the commitment.
The pledge allows individuals to approach the problem from
within their own value system, not attempting to persuade much at all.
Is this really effective? Research suggests yes, but high level of education
was a strong predictor; these may have been people who were more so-disposed
already. What about all the others?
Environmental knowledge and values are often not the key
'limiting factors' behind the absence of many environmental behaviors.
People are often prevented by cost, by convenience, by lack of sound alternatives,
by structural constraints (location of developments, provision of public
transit), etc. Asking them to change behavior without addressing these
is unlikely to succeed, even among those who care. How can such changes
happen? (Think budgets, personnel training, taxes, political decisions.)
What role could education (and other areas) play in encouraging such changes?
Regulations often provide key ingredients in such situations,
because the penalties they impose provide a new motivation for people to
learn. Environmental educators have done very well in some regulated industries
when they can offer useful information to the regulated industries or individuals.
Your environmental education group, which does advocacy-style
env. ed., is offered money from a corporation that is operating in your
area, and has been trying to improve its environmental image and practices.
They want to support a program in which kids would gather data, which could
potentially show the company was polluting more. You think you could accomplish
a lot more with their money. What should you do? What questions
would you ask in thinking about this? What if there reputation for
environmental management was quite weak?
Environmental education has been subjected to 'backlash'
in recent years. The main backlash forces came to Washington State two
years ago, and in cooperation with the conservative Evergreen
Freedom Foundation, issued K-12 Environmental Education Report Card
for Washington State (download
copy as pdf file) attacking EE in Washington, and increasing the perception
of controversy about EE. The state professional EE organization (EEAW)
and its allies mounted a pro-active campaign before the report was even
issued. They formed a new group to do this, Citizens
for Environmental Education. This protected EEAW from accusations of
advocacy. What ethical issues do you see in this situation?
You are teaching a group, and discover that it contains only
children (or adults) that agree with your strong environmental values.
How should you gear your teaching? Would you let out all the stops
and preach loudly from your pulpit? Or would you challenge them to
not take their perspective for granted? Would you try to balance these
tendencies? What would be your rationale for either course?
You are an educator, and your audience is members of resource-extraction
industries (miners, foresters, fishers, heavy-agriculture, chemical industry,
etc.). It is clear you have different values than theirs. What would be
your approach to the value differences? Would you hide them, and try to
present objective analyses? Or acknowledge them and discuss the differences?
Or look for common ground? Why?
Would you pick apparently tough audiences for your environmental
messages? I.e, auto mechanics, dry cleaners, other "dirty industries"?
Why or why not?
Your advocacy-style environmental education group decides
to move into such audiences. It finds it has no credibility. Is this a
reasonable cost for your group to pay?