The Four Taboos of Environmental Education
There was a lot to be distressed about in 2019, but for me the news that upset me the most was the announcement of the closing of the Fox Island environmental education center, a once thriving program based in a 100-year-old hunting lodge that since the 1970s had introduced thousands of students (myself included) to the complex and fascinating ecology of the Chesapeake Bay. A Statement on their website announced: “This fall marked the CBF Education Program’s last season on Fox Island. Sadly, rising sea levels and erosion have led to a dramatic loss of the protective salt marshes surrounding the center and have made it necessary to close after November. As always, safety is the number one concern for our program participants.”
The disappearance of Fox Island Environmental Education Center serves as an unfortunate metaphor for the state of our planet and that of the environmental education movement that ostensibly seeks to stem the tide of environmental destruction. As Charles Saylan, Director of the Ocean Conservation Society, stated in an in an interview with Michelle Nijhuis in 2011:
“We believe that environmental education has failed because it’s not keeping pace with environmental degradation, with human impacts on the environment. I also think that it’s failed to provoke action.”
A few years earlier, Saylan coauthored an article with Daniel T. Blumstein entitled “The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It)” which outlines what they thought at the time were the root causes of this dysfunction and how they might be remedied. In the article, and a book by the same name that followed, Saylan and Blumstein detailed a seven-part roadmap for “improving” environmental education. Their critique is mild and free of political context and contains common-sense suggestions on most of us would agree with. To paraphrase:
- Design environmental education programs that can be properly evaluated.
- Address over-consumption — primarily by developed countries.
- Teach that nature is filled with nonlinear relationships, which are characterized by “tipping points” (called “phase shifts”).
- Appreciate the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world.
- Explain how governments work and how to effect change within a given socio-political structure.
- Teach that conservation-minded legislation may deprive us of some of the goods and services that we previously enjoyed.
- Finally, foster critical thinking.
A rational educator with some experience in the field might read Saylan and Blumstein’s article and book and reach the conclusion that their suggestions for positive change would be met with at worst mild consternation within the environmental education community. That turned out not to be the case. In a recent email, Charlie Saylan wrote that it was extremely difficult to get either the article or the book published. Saylan wrote:
“Our book was not well-received by the environmental ed community, in fact, we were criticized by almost every EE organization we encountered. The general response was negative all around. Even our publisher asked us not to be too ‘dark,’ which I found amusing given the topic.”
This is remarkable in that the criticism and potential solutions proposed by Saylan are relatively mild. In my view, Saylan and Blumstein’s analysis isn’t worthy of such derision. This article may be, as we venture further into what is dysfunctional about environmental education through an analysis of what amounts to prohibited discourse within the field.
Some of you may by now be a bit stressed by this conversation, so let’s take a brief vacation to the island nation of Tonga, yet another place worth seeing before it’s claimed by rising seas.
During his visit to Tonga in 1777, Captain James Cook was introduced to the word “tabu” (later spelled as “taboo”), a term signifying “any thing that is forbidden to be eaten, or made use of.” It implies that certain behaviors are consecrated, and dangerous to undertake, at least by the average person. The term often connotates, particularly in the minds of colonialists, some sort of irrational, superstitious systems of belief. Social thinkers and anthropologists have since undertaken far more sophisticated examination of cultural taboos. Such taboos are now understood to be the result of economic and ecological conditions. In addition, Marxist theorists have speculated that cultural taboos can be used as a lens through which to view cultural or societal histories when other means of doing so are lacking.
Much of the criticism leveled at environmental education has heretofore dealt with what we should be talking about, rather than what we are forbidden to discuss. I maintain that the ongoing failure of environmental education is due in large part to the development of taboo subjects of discourse of critical importance.
The four main tabooed topics are:
1. Economic systems.
Environmental Education has failed to challenge the underlying structural causation of environmental destruction, including the role of consumer capitalism in the ongoing degradation of the biosphere. It has also failed to discuss economic alternatives to capitalism. Edward Abbey’s statement that “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” has never been more apparent, and yet we have been unable to fully grasp and interpret the basic truth behind this. We can’t go on ignoring the fact that political conditions and the economic systems that produce them are somehow separate from ecological process. As the tech writer Peter Wu has pointed out, “Capitalism’s reach extends much further than its economic effects; it also shapes our ideology and how we perceive our place in the world.” In the absence of discussion concerning the ongoing role of capitalism in the destruction of the biosphere, environmental education is like a two-legged stool. The missing third leg is an examination of the economic system that drives exploitation and destruction, and potential alternatives to the dominant paradigm. We should be able to provide a serious critique of consumption and economic growth as the only means towards human progress, and to facilitate discussion of the alternatives.
2. Human overpopulation.
We do not discuss human overpopulation. Human population growth is treated as inevitable despite reasonable analysis from noted ecologist Paul Ehrlich that indicates the need for at least five more planet Earths to satisfy the material aspirations of the present population, much less satiate the nearly 10 billion humans expected to exist by 2050. An informal survey by this author conducted among environmental education professionals revealed several instances of the loss of funding and threats of unemployment that were the direct effect of complaints on the part of funders who were upset by zero or negative population growth messaging.
3. The myth of inevitable human progress.
We should be regularly reminded of the fragility of human accomplishment, and that our continued existence on this planet is predicated on the continued ecological health of the biosphere upon which we depend. Room must be made for new ethical constructs to evolve and be transmitted to our program participants, an untenable proposition given the level of constraint being forced upon environmental education professionals. Space must be made that provide alternatives to destructive values such as the myth of human exceptionalism. In our fetishization of technology, we’re backing off a cliff while dazzled by material innovation. We must actively refute the view that human progress is only measured in material terms.
4. Discipline-wide self-criticism.
We should be able to discuss how and why environmental education is failing, as Saylan has stated, to keep pace with environmental degradation. We seemingly cannot engage in effective self-examination and course correction; this in turn has downstream effects, including the stifling of creativity. In a field so resistant to change, the least creative often enjoy the greatest job security. Thus, the cycle is perpetuated.
In order to jar environmental education from its present stasis, room must be created for critical thinking to flourish. We can’t continue to water down our message with empty, value-neutral pedagogy and weak, noncommittal messaging without consigning the field to total irrelevance. Before we attempt to instill critical thinking skills in our participants, we had better develop them ourselves, and then apply these towards an examination of our own work. Part of the process of critical thinking involves an openness to new ideas, and to develop the ability to engage in rational discussions and to analyze new information calmly. We seem woefully unprepared to do this.
We need empirically rigorous research that holds environmental education to task and clearly demonstrates effectiveness or lack thereof. This article is the result of observation over a 40-year career in the field, and not based on empirical evidence. This is not by choice, but for the simple reason that environmental education lacks salience within Western, and particularly American societies to the degree that large areas of necessary research are not being conducted.
The most important job existing under the rubric of “education,” one that would make a meaningful contribution towards our continued existence on this planet, can’t be relegated to the sector with the fewest resources. This is a recipe for failure.
The ways in which we fund environmental education is also a matter of great importance. We should reexamine our relationship with our funders. If funders insist on setting the pedagogical agenda, we should find alternatives. If we fail to do so, we are beholden to the very system that we are ostensibly working against, i.e., the mechanisms and institutions of corporate capitalism.
We must question the commonly held idea that the truth shall set you free, that exposure equals cathexis, a view that remains empirically unsupported. There is little evidence that experiences in the outdoors, or an interaction with zoo signage and programming leads to positive changes in behavior. We should bear in mind that change is rarely comfortable or convenient, but it’s up to us to keep it interesting. Just as complex ecosystems tend to be stable over time, the ecology of mind is best supported by the greatest possible diversity.
Serious critique of environmental education should not be confined to siloed academic contexts, and there is no trickle down to the places where most of EE takes place. Practitioners in the field must be involved, both for the sake of an honest, varied, and lively discussion and in order to put the products of this important discourse into practice. Somehow, after careful assessment, we are going to have to take leadership. Given our dire circumstances as a species, we may have to realize that this is one of those instances wherein the times make the person, and not the other way around.
According to a 2021 report by the UN, carbon emissions are on track to rise by 16% by 2030, rather than the 50% reduction needed to keep global heating under the internally agreed-upon limit of 1.5C. Despite this and plenty of other evidence, COP 27 was an utter failure, as was every COP before it. Climate change is only one of many challenges we face, with environmental education unjustly forced to limp into the lead on finding solutions for practically all of them.
Environmental education has, so far, failed to clearly delineate exactly what we oppose and has equally failed to present viable alternatives. We should consider the degree to which incomplete narratives about environmental destruction legitimize its root causes. Something is not always better than nothing.
Without self-examination and the dismantling of these aforementioned taboos, we are consigning environmental education to irrelevance. Make no mistake, our situation demands that we should be on a war footing. Conflict is necessary for change; with all the trauma it may entail. Our enemies are far nimbler, determined, far better-funded and perhaps most important of all, ideologically consistent and goal-focused, i.e., towards profit no matter the externalized costs to the biosphere. The mechanics of cultural metanoia should be the topic for future discussion, but one thing is certain: we cannot become effective agents of change without open discourse and the abandonment of taboos extant in the field. Without such a critical assessment, and immediate action, environmental education will itself sink beneath the waves.
Joe Franke welcomes feedback concerning this article. He can be reached via email:
US EPA, OA. “What Is Environmental Education?” Overviews and Factsheets. Accessed May 5, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/education/what-environmental-education.
Ehrlich, Paul, quoted in Scientists say planet in midst of sixth mass extinction, Earth’s wildlife running out of places to live
By Scott Pelley January 1, 2023 / 7:29 PM / CBS News
PLoS Biol. 2007 May; 5(5): e120.
Published online 2007 Apr 17. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050120
The Failure of Environmental Education (and How We Can Fix It)
Daniel T Blumstein* and Charlie Saylan
Green Failure: What’s Wrong With Environmental Education?
By Michelle Nijhuis • May 26, 2011
Yale Environment 360
Joe Franke is a conservation biologist, ecological restoration contractor, and filmmaker based in Albuquerque.