Action Area 9: Educate for Sustainability

During the last thirty years, environmental education has acquired an increasing influence over the design of educational and environmental public policies on both the nation and international level.352 Over this time, environmental education has contributed to the strengthening of the curriculum in a range of areas including biology, social studies, economics, business studies and health education.

However, as EE became established a great variety of viewpoints from different schools of thought and action, representing at times conflicting interests. Environmental education is a poly-discursive field that however its significance today is demonstrated in terms of current policies of sustainability, energy efficiency and conservation. Environmental education has much to contribute to the process of establishing new social identities in response to the challenges of these difficult times because, as this new field of learning becomes established, it is increasingly distanced from the original proposals for an environmental education coupled with naturalism, conservationism and other movements that place importance on preserving the environment without taking into account the needs and expectations for social change of human groups that live both in natural and urban environments.

Today’s context requires a renewal of the commitment to science and to science-based environment-policy with education curricula and pedagogies designed to raise awareness of environmental issues (protected areas, preservation of species, climate change etc.), sustainability policies and what they mean for U.S. business, industry and public life.

In particular, in the K-12 system a new emphasis on environmental education must accord with the emphasis of the Obama administration on sustainability in energy policy and its relationship to environmental issues, especially new policies aimed at new energy efficiencies and the development of new alternative and renewable energy resources.353 One of the principal difficulties is that the older conception of environmental education has been substituted and replaced by ‘sustainable development’ and increasingly given ground to prevailing models of economic development. This is consistent with a quest to find market solutions to the world’s environmental problems, such as emissions trading, where sustainability is driven by a new market rationalism. However, such apparently straightforward solutions may at times be at variance with the ecological complexity of living organisms – the biota – and its major organizing principle of the network. The assumptions of individuality, rationality and self-interest at the heart of Homo economicus are called into question in relation to the environment – natural, social or informational – especially in relation to ‘the commons’ and the complex biota of the planet considered over timescales and cycles outside the natural human lifespan.

The complexities of our times point to a pressing need for the renewal of environmental education in American schools and universities that promotes, enhances, and develops forms of understanding, identity and citizenship consonant with the new emphasis on investment in clean energy, green jobs, and green technologies, as well as a more embracing stewardship of the earth. There is a need also for an understanding of the broad sweeping theoretical and practical shifts in environmental education, public policy and ethics—from anthropocentrism to systems thinking, from industrial capitalism to Green Capitalism 2.0, and from a dependent oil-hungry based economy to an efficient, self-sufficient, renewal and green energy system.

— Michael Peters

Action Items

Action Item 9.1: Create Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Curricula

School curricula are divided into disciplinary silos which make the study of intrinsically interdisciplinary questions such as the environment and sustainability difficult. New and innovative environmental studies curricula need to be developed under a Learn Sustainability Initiative, which:

Related initiatives might incorporate environmental sustainability as a stand-alone set of standards, linked also into particular subject standards; and to establish and fund a President’s or First Lady’s School Sustainability Quest acknowledging school based initiatives to support environmental sustainability.

Action Item 9.2: Transform School Buildings into Green Showcase Sites

Schools themselves can become demonstration sites for the new, green economy, saving recurring costs through immediate investment in greener architecture, as well as involving learners directly in environmental projects within the school precinct. Showcase initiatives would be supported through a Learn Green Program.

Supporting Evidence

Supporting Evidence 9.1: Environmental Ethics: From Anthropocentrism to Systems

As the renowned theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking indicates in a lecture ‘On the Beginning of Time,’ ‘All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning, about 15 billion years ago. This is probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology. Yet it is now taken for granted.’354 He outlines how the discussion whether or not the universe had a beginning persisted through the 19th and 20th centuries and was conducted on the basis of theology and philosophy on the basis of anthropocentric assumptions with little consideration of observational evidence partly because of the poor unreliability of cosmological evidence up until very recently. ‘Big Bang,’ the name for a cosmological model of the universe coined by Fred Hoyle for a theory he did not believe, began with observations by Edwin Hubble and his discovery of evidence for the continuous expansion of the universe. In essence, the theory is based notably on observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, large-scale structures, and the redshifts of distant supernovae.355 The technical details need not detain us here as there are many good accounts of the standard model.

What is important for our purposes is to note the shift from a set of anthropocentric assumptions to a theory based on observation and its importance for providing an observational and empirical basis for an environmental ethics based on the existence, life, scale and longevity of the sun at the centre of our solar system. This feature requires some comment because it is an unusual claim to consider the way in which empirical matters to some extent determine the philosophical nature of environmental ethics even where the notion of ethics in relation to the environment is also unclear. Yet it seems clear that environmental ethics as the theory of environmental right conduct or the environmental good life (where the notion of life itself is, definitionally, at stake) rests fundamentally upon the notion of ‘environment’ and how we understand it.

Environmental ethics has been slow to develop and has suffered from anthropocentrism or ‘human-centeredness’ embedded in traditional western ethical thinking that has assigned intrinsic value only to human beings considered as separate moral entities from their supporting environment. The difficulty is whether such anthropocentric accounts can re-conceive the relations between human beings and their environment and if so, whether the concept of environment might be taken in an extra-terrestrial sense as applying to our solar system with the sun at the centre. This seems more like the environmental package that has a kind of systemic wholeness and integrity as a system with the energy source at its center without which life would not be possible.

If we are to accept this more inclusive notion of environment that decenters Earth within the solar system, then the notion of environment has to be renegotiated as one that dynamically also includes the lifespan of the solar system. One of the advantages of this definitional move is to resituate human beings in relation to the ‘environment’ out of which they emerged in a number of evolutionary steps towards complex intelligent life forms and systems, and into which they will finally remerged.

When environmental ethics emerged in the 1970s it began to call for a change of values based on ecological understandings that emphasized the interconnectivity of all life and thereby issues a challenge to theological, philosophical and scientific accounts that posited individual moral agents as separate from and logically prior to their environment. This challenge drew on early environmental studies, and prompted the emergence of ecology as a formal discipline and deep ecology, as well as feminist, new animism, and later social ecology and bioregional accounts, sought to dislodge anthropocentric accounts that gave intrinsic value to human beings at the expense of the moral value of living systems.356 While this insight does not establish what kind of environmental ethical theory one should adopt it does establish the prima facie case that traditional theories of ethics have been unable to talk about the environment in ethical terms. This is largely because they have been bolstered by deep anthropocentric assumptions that are embedded in earlier modern, scientific accounts of ‘nature’, and also in the nature of industrial capitalism.357

— Michael Peters

Supporting Evidence 9.2: Ecopolitics and Green Capitalism as Foci of Environmental Education

Ecopolitics must come to terms with the scramble for resources that increasingly dominates the competitive motivations and long range resource planning of the major industrial world powers. There are a myriad of new threats to the environment that have been successfully spelled out by eco-philosophers that have already begun to impact upon the world in all their facets. First, there is the depletion of non-renewable resources and, in particular, oil, gas, timber and minerals. Second, and in related-fashion, is the energy crisis itself upon which the rapidly industrializing countries and the developed world depend. Third, is the rise of China and India with their prodigious appetites that will match the U.S. within a few decades in a rapacious demand for more of everything that triggers resource scrambles and the heavy investment in resource-rich regions such as Africa. Fourth, global climate change will have the greatest impact upon the world’s poorest countries, multiplying the risk of conflict and resource wars.

With these trends and possible scenarios only a better understanding of the environment can save us and the planet. A better understanding of the earth’s environmental system is essential if scientists in concert with politicians, policy-makers and business leaders are to promote green exchange and to ascertain whether green capitalism strategies that aim at long-term sustainability are possible.

At this stage of the world’s development with space travel, planetary exploration, satellite communications systems in space, and scientific probing of the beginnings of the universe, concept of environment itself needs radical extension to the solar system and universe. Increasingly, although it is still early days, the earth needs to be thought not just as Gaia, as an organic living system but also as part of a larger, more broadly embracing environmental system. The notion that the environment is a dynamic concept of which we are a part, is the central understanding of a greening of capitalism. Sustainable prosperity becomes possible with a shift to knowledge and creative economies based on services and clean, efficient technologies, although the ecological society depends on a broad consensus over the nature of the market and the economic system: What are the conflicts between free market and ecological economics?358 Does sustainability imply ‘limits’ and to what extent?359 Can Green Capitalism 2.0 solve the looming biocrisis within the constraints of a green free market? ‘Natural capital’, the self-renewing eco-system on which all wealth depends, is the basis of green capitalism and we need to develop democratic and participatory means by which to encourage and pursue it.

— Michael Peters

Supporting Evidence 9.3: Environmentalism and Distributed Energy Systems

The energy crisis may be a blessing in disguise for the U.S. Jeremy Rifkin360 envisions a new economy powered by hydrogen that will fundamentally change the nature of our market, political and social institutions as we approach the end of the fossil-fuel era, with inescapable consequences for industrial society. New hydrogen fuel-cells are now being pioneered which together with the design principles of smart information technologies can provide new distributed forms of energy use. Thomas Friedman361 also argues the crisis can lead to reinvestment in infrastructure and alternative energy sources in the cause of nation-building. Education has an important role to play in the new energy economy both in terms of changing worldview and the promotion of a green economy but also in terms of R&D’s contribution to energy efficiency, battery storage and new forms of renewable energy.

— Michael Peters