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Environmental Values and Education

The Wood

A block of small oak wood in early summer: the sky is cloudless and the air still. Near mid-day, the birds are quiet except for feeding calls in the canopy. Silence is not complete: all around is a continuous, tiny pattering like gentle rain. The sound is made by the steady fall of fecal pellets from an army of caterpillars feeding on the young oak leaves above. They hit the leaves on the woodland floor and roll off to become part of the soil, where decomposer organisms are constantly at work. From there, nutrients return to the plants. Meanwhile, the birds in the canopy harvest the caterpillars for hungry fledglings. Natura naturans, nature naturing, as medieval writers once put it. For a little while, the human observer feels part of this orderly, working system, a small piece of the larger system which supplies his food and oxygen and disposes of his wastes as best it can. It is an experience to value.

Values in Conflict

Tensions exist here between humankind and nature, and between values relating to the orderly working of the living system and human lifestyles within it. These values are only a few examples surrounding a quite unremarkable corner of our environment, but they illustrate their potential to confuse. They belong to different kinds of interest—individuals, such as the observer or landowner; communities, such as quarry workers, house owners; future generations, such as motorway users, future naturalists; the natural environment itself. Including this last raises a much-debated theoretical question, if nature can or needs to be thus recognized (Brennan, 1990): its values could be simply instrumental, acknowledging human dependence on the natural system or its contribution to the quality of life. The human stakeholders represent different sectors of society with different functions and priorities—national government through the Secretary of State (good governance, respect for democracy, winning the next election); the government conservation agency (conserving the best available sites within its budget); the business sector (expanding activities, increasing profits, trying.

Values and Environmental Education

Environmental education grew from international concern about the environment during the sixties. It was defined as a permeating element through all education (Unesco/UNEP, 1975; 1977; 1987), stressing the cultivation of environmental values, as did strategies for environmental care (IUCN et al., 1980; 1991). Education is used here to cover all those influences on environmental learning which can be guided towards defined objectives. They are found in home and family, friends and peer groups, the community, school and post-school education, work and leisure activities, media and advertising, legislation, and fiscal measures. Culture and tradition underlie all of them and are sometimes restrictive. All the influencers interact and vary in their impact between different circumstances and at different stages. Education is a sustained learning experience throughout life in which everyone is both a learner and an educator, whether by precept or example (sound, 1993).

The third is the most powerful medium since values stem from role-taking rather than role-playing and real rewards are at stake. Some values grow, many changes, some wither and some never germinate, depending on the richness of the process, the balance between conflicting influences, the predilections of the learner (innate or acquired), and the changing circumstances through which life passes. An educator tries to assess the learner’s situation and provide the best and best-suited learning experiences possible, taking account of other influences. An educational strategist looks at all the influences on people’s learning to identify those capable of guidance and to devise ways of guiding them towards appropriate environmental objectives (sound, 1993).

The Legacy of Nature

The most fundamental tension affecting environmental values is probably between the so-called natural system and the human system; in Berry’s well-known phrase (1983) we are both part of and apart from nature. The mismatch may be partly due to behavioral baggage inherited from the past, including biological appetites once necessary to maintain life but now excessive (Smyth, 1977). Humankind is still biologically an animal but progress to our hunter-gatherer ancestors was marked by a huge increase in brain capacity and the adaptability and complexity of behavior. Like the tortoise and the hare, biological and cultural (exosomatic) evolution lost sight of each other.

Last word

Environmental values have no agreed identity; indeed, as the example from the wood illustrated, they are near as variable as the people who espouse them. Even committed environmentalists are spread over a wide spectrum, from extreme eccentrics at one end to extreme anthropocentric at the other (O’Riordan, 1983), and are not always good at talking to each other. Among educators, a similar distance seems to lie between protagonists of ecological criteria and social justice. Defining the common ground becomes important. In Maslow’s well-known model (1964) values were related to human needs in a ‘hierarchy of relative prepotency’—physiological needs, needs for safety, for the exchange of affection, for esteem, and self-actualization. It is easy to relate these to what we know of human origins, to modern life, and their abandonment under pressure in reverse order.

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