Climate Change and Environmental Education

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“Environmental educators must formulate a program of instruction which both holds the capitalist economy responsible for the global ecological crisis, while at the same time pointing out new directions in the fight against the ecosystem’s collapse”

by Ivonaldo Leite

Probably many of the scenarios presented in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent reports on the natural and social impacts of global warming will take place not in the year 2100 or even 2050. It seems they will occur much sooner than that. Actually, we can already see several examples of environmental collapse. Therefore, it is critically urgent to adopt policies which truly address the environmental problems we face. Environmental education is a vital part of this call to action. As an intellectual mechanism, environmental education serves both as a means of persuasion and a way to bring about behavioral change.

But first we need to clarify the kind of environmental education that can actually achieve this goal, since, in general, government policies regarding environmental protection have been superficial and do not focus on the true causes of the ecological crisis. This is not a surprise. Governments today are simply incapable of preventing the ecological suicide which the prevailing capitalist logic is paving the way for. This superficial approach, however, is not due to a lack of understanding of the environmental crisis; rather it is an inherent consequence of the functioning of the capitalist economy.

Profit is the main driving force behind capitalism, and this requires unlimited expansion, unlimited accumulation and commodification. These conditions are essential for the continuous reproduction of the capitalist system. Aside from all other technicalities, this is the main ideological aspect of the climate issue: Capitalism is incapable of dealing with the global warming issue in a serious and responsible way.

Therefore, environmental educators must formulate a program of instruction which both holds the capitalist economy responsible for the global ecological crisis, while at the same time pointing out new directions in the fight against the ecosystem’s collapse.

A new approach to environmental education

Humanity is a part of nature and a product of it. Hence, the notion of the alienation of human labor from what it produces is directly connected to an understanding of the alienation of human beings from nature. The commodification of nature under the capitalist mode of production and private ownership has led inevitably to the degradation of nature. Instead, as John Bellamy Foster has pointed out in his book, Ecology Against Capitalism, the process of labor needs to be seen as a metabolic process between human beings and nature, a process by which the human being, through his or her own actions, mediates, regulates and controls this metabolism with nature in a rational, non-destructive way.

Consequently, environmental education must develop a conception of ecology that establishes a link between the natural and the social world. About this and other alternative proposals, it is important to set some definite guidelines for the configuration of a new program of learning in environmental education.

With this in mind, here are three guidelines we believe are essential to a successful educational program.

1. Environmental education must emphasize the social implications of the ecological crisis. The effects of desertification, shortage of water, and the food crisis will impact poorer parts of the globe disproportionately. For instance, the poor will have more difficulty finding reliable alternative sources of water and food, as well as gaining access to medical care and emergency help in case of natural disasters. In this context, the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans serve as a highly symbolic warning.

The global environmental crisis will cause economic insecurity, and it will cause healthcare, food, water, and adequate housing to be in short supply. Therefore, the class struggle in the third world and beyond will take the form of struggles to protect and defend basic resources like food and housing. The process of privatization, however, will also deepen in the period ahead, making all natural resources difficult to obtain by most of the population around the world.

This situation is very grave, since the current division between rich and poor has, in effect, created two separate worlds. For example, approximately 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 per day, while nearly 3 billion live on less than $2 per day, according to some World Bank estimates. Globalization has had a negative impact on poor women and children, who are denied basic human rights en masse and who, in an attempt to combat their dire situations, including mass starvation and homelessness, each year enter by the millions into economic relations that amount to slave labor, or are force to become involved in the horrors of the global sex trade.

2. The second guideline highlights the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “space” and its application to the question of living standards and agricultural production. In order to understand how Lefebvre conceives of space, we will now clarify his theory on this subject.

As Rob Shields asserts in his book, Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics, although Lefebvre may have thought that his concept of “everyday life” was his most important contribution to social theory, and may have insisted on the fundamental importance of dialectical materialism, his most influential contribution has been his investigation of the social construction and conventions of space.

Lefebvre understood the concept of space as an issue cutting across disciplines, which serves as an ideal example to illustrate his demand for an end to the technocratic specialization of academia and the bureaucratic organization of government. He progressively extended his concept of “everyday life,” beginning with the rural life of the French peasantry, moving on to suburbia, and ultimately discussing the geography of social relations in more general terms. In this process, there are two phases in Lefebvre’s research on the spatial

The first deals with what he called “the urban.” The second deals with social space and what he called the “planetary” or global. Lefebvre defined the essence of urbanness, Shields writes, “as the simultaneity of many discrete social interactions brought together in a centrality,” and “analyzed the impact of changing social relations and economic factors under capitalism upon the quality of access and participation in the urban milieu”.

Lefebvre asks: What is the urban? His answer is paradigmatic for environmental education.

For him, the urban is not a certain population, a geographical size or a collection of buildings. Nor is it a node, a trans-shipment point or a centre of production. It is all of these together, and thus any definition of the urban must search for the essential quality of all these aspects. The urban is social centrality, where the many elements and aspects of capitalism intersect in space, despite often merely being part of the place for a short time, as is the case with goods or people in transit. “City-ness” is the simultaneous gathering and dispersing of goods, information and people. It goes without saying that some cities achieve this more fully than others – and hence our own perceptions of their greater or lesser importance as cities per se.

Lefebvre goes beyond previous philosophical debates on the nature of space, and beyond human geography, planning and architecture (which have always considered people and things merely “in” space), to present a coherent theory of the development of different systems of spatiality in different historical periods. These spatializations “are not just physical arrangements of things but also spatial patterns of social action and routine, as well as historical conceptions of space and the world (such as fear of falling off the edge of a flat world). They add up to a socio-spatial imaginary and outlook, which manifests in our every intuition”.

This system of space functions on one level. At the most personal level, we think of ourselves in spatial terms, imagining ourselves as an ego contained within an objectified body. People extend themselves out into space as a spider extends its limbs by means of a web, and we become as much a part of these extensions as they are of us. Arrangements of objects, work teams, landscapes, and architecture are the concrete instances of this spatialization. Equally, ideas about particular regions, media images of cities, and perceptions of “good neighborhoods” are other aspects of this space, which is necessarily produced by each society as it makes its mark on Earth.

Lefebvre’s thoughts on spatialization make at least two important contributions to environmental education. The first is to show what space is and how it is produced. The second is the methodological orientation of his perspective – in others words, an interdisciplinary orientation. As we have seen, his thought moves across many scientific and academic boundaries. Such an approach is fundamental in environmental education, since the study of the environment is an interdisciplinary subject. In fact, the relevance of this provides the basis for our third guideline.

3. Lefebvre’s approach allows us to develop an interdisciplinary approach to teaching environmental education. But in order for this to happen, it is first necessary to answer the following question: What precisely is meant by an interdisciplinary approach?

This ambiguity appears immediately in the multitude of synonyms for interdisciplinarity. For example, the words pluridisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity are used in similar ways. However, they all have different senses.

Pluridisciplinarity often is only a juxtaposition of various disciplines. Transdisciplinarity is more ambitious, in that it proposes a conceptual unification between disciplines. Interdisciplinarity, however, assumes a mutual sharing of knowledge between disciplines and is based essentially on a systemic approach. In this way, interdisciplinary teaching is understood as teaching in which two or more disciplines participate in an interdependent process.

Any field of study lends support to the concept of an interdisciplinary approach, insofar as a scientific fact is always an abstraction from a larger complex, and also insofar as that abstraction necessarily marks out a circumscribed area corresponding to a particular inquiry, specific in its approach, its method, and its epistemological presumptions. In fact, all disciplines need allied subjects: physics needs mathematics, biology needs physics and chemistry, while mathematics is most frequently used as an abstract instrument of calculation or logic by other disciplines. Similarly, all disciplines need a mutually accepted language as an auxiliary instrument.

This approach is particularly valuable in dealing with environmental problems, where a phenomenon must be studied through different but complementary approaches. This is the case, as one UN study found, with urbanism, “in which converge such different disciplines as sociology, demography, psychology, architecture, applied physics, and aesthetics.” This is a technique which is equally useful in studying pollution, A subject which involves not only biology, physics and chemistry, but also economics, sociology and politics. All of these disciplines come into play when the closing of a plant creates massive unemployment in an economically fragile region, or if the installation of an expensive antipollution system makes a product uncompetitive with foreign goods. In all environmental studies, the contributions of numerous disciplines converge to reveal all the phenomena and problematic aspects. A monodisciplinary approach, on the other hand, tends to fragment such relationships.

Beyond the Commodification of Nature

Today’s environmental conditions are the result of social, political, economic, and technological decisions. Therefore, environmental education should aim at establishing a new set of social, environmental and political values based on the above guidelines.

Decisions relating to social development and improvement of the lives of individuals are often based on preconceived assumptions about what is useful and “good for us.” However, educated people should be able to ask themselves questions such as: “Who made this decision? On what basis? What are the immediate goals? Were the long-terms effects evaluated?” In short, he or she should be in a position to know how such decisions were made and on what set of values they were based.

Consequently, an educational strategy for dealing with climate change and the environmental crisis must begin by calling attention to the fact that the ecological question has a political dimension. All educational action must connect to a political perspective on social change. We therefore conclude that environmental education is an essential part of the fight against the capitalist-induced environmental crisis. It is true that the scientific reports may not offer us much hope, but as Bertolt Brecht once said, “if you fight you might lose, but if you do not fight you have already lost.” Humanity’s hope is in that fight.

Ivonaldo Leite, Ph.D, is a Professor of Sociology of Education in Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil. E-mail: ivonaldo.leite[at]

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