Can Environmental Education Be Saved?

Preparing the Next Generation of Thinkers to Solve “Wicked Problems”


Undergraduate environmental studies and sciences curricula should avoid adopting an “anti-pluralist” way of offering students’ options for tackling environmental challenges, concluded a concurrent session at the Breakthrough Dialogue. Instructors should aim to present a diverse and competing set of perspectives so that the next generation of environmentalists is equipped with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to address wicked problems like climate change.

July 14, 2015 | Breakthrough Staff,

Following a productive concurrent session at last year’s Breakthrough Dialogue on the current state of the undergraduate environmental studies and sciences (ESS) curriculum, six participants went on to author four of six articles, a “mini symposium,” on future directions for ESS education for the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences. The mini-symposium called for ESS departments to ensure students are exposed to a diversity of environmental perspectives and taught to think independently, a key insight that was also the focus of the session at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue.

Introducing the session, Jim Proctor, director of the environmental studies program at Lewis and Clark College, said that instructors need to be careful not to adopt an “anti-pluralist way of thinking about students’ options (for environmental change strategies).” Other environmental perspectives that students could be introduced to include, but are not limited to, those described in the recently released ecomodernist manifesto.

Jennifer Bernstein, a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Hawaii, echoed this. The goal of this session, in her words, was not to ask “how we could replace the traditional environmental narrative with ecomodernism in schools,” but “how to present ecomodernism as one of many theoretically and tactically coherent perspectives.”

She discussed the New Environmental Paradigm, a scale developed by two sociologists in the 1970s that is still widely used today to measure pro-environmental thought. The NEP comprises 15 questions measuring dimensions of environmental thought, such as the respondent’s beliefs in the existence of fundamental limits to growth and the possibility of an impending ecological crisis.

Bernstein questioned whether there truly is one dominant environmental worldview that can be defined and quantified. In the same way that the NEP should aim to “represent environmentalism without being reductionist and uni-dimensional about it,” she asked, “can we go into introductory ESS classes and offer different, ideologically coherent worldviews that students can evaluate for themselves?”

In teaching a class on energy options, said Bernstein, she found that many of her students were very supportive of wind and solar energy. To help students make sense of the “hard choices” around alternative energy, she wanted to find teaching materials on energy budgeting that she could use to teach her students about energy options in a more nuanced and rigorous way.

This anecdote raises a number of questions: to what extent are ESS professors around the country similarly searching for ways to expose their students to a wide variety of environmental philosophies, change strategies, and policy options? Are they teaching them to develop independent, critical responses to each of these competing perspectives?

These are questions that former Breakthrough Generation Fellows Eric Kennedy and Jacqueline Ho, who were both present at the session, attempt to answer in a recent article. Many contemporary environmental problems are “wicked problems” that involve groups with competing values and problem framings, and yet, said Ho, many ESS students become emotionally invested in a singular theory of change outside the classroom through avenues such as student activism, thus making the ESS classroom a rare space for students to interface with contrasting discourses.

According to Kennedy, amongst the 22 syllabi examined in the study, less than half acknowledged that there were competing solutions to environmental problems, and fewer still included developing critical thinking skills as a learning outcome. Even if critical thinking was mentioned, Kennedy said, “it seemed to be a stand-in for how to talk to climate deniers.”

Although courses tended to do a good job of presenting diverse perspectives when it came to more “classic” environmental debates, like that between the conservationists and the preservationists, the same pattern did not hold true for politicized contemporary issues such as climate change and food issues. To characterize the extent to which classes were presenting diverse perspectives on climate change, Kennedy and Ho used a typology of three categories of public intellectuals first published in a 2014 paper by Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern University.

Nisbet, who also spoke at the session, explained public intellectuals as “storytellers and meaning-makers” who synthesize large, complex areas of knowledge for lay publics, calling attention to some academics and experts over others, and focusing on some policy and technology options over others. In so doing, they “reinforce specific framings about a problem like climate change,” endorsing a particular theory of social change.

For instance, in Nisbet’s typology, “ecological activists” such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein frame climate change as a product of the global capitalist system, “smart growth reformers” such as Al Gore and Nicholas Stern diagnose climate change as a market failure that can be corrected with more efficient price signals, and “ecomodernists” such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger believe climate change has been misdiagnosed as an environmental problem and should be reframed as a resilience and innovation challenge.

In Kennedy and Ho’s study, of the nine syllabi that included readings on climate change from at least one of the public intellectuals in Nisbet’s typology, only one class included readings from all three categories of public intellectuals, while two thirds of the syllabi featured readings from only one category. On food issues, the public intellectual of choice was Michael Pollan. His book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma, “beat out Al Gore, David Suzuki, and Rachel Carson” as one of the most frequently assigned texts in the syllabi examined, said Kennedy.

This launched a discussion aimed at surfacing concrete ideas for how ESS classes might be better designed to expose students to diverse perspectives. Bernstein shared her experience teaching a class on agricultural geography.

“I include several readings representing a variety of perspectives on GMOs, some supportive, others critical,” she said.

These are paired with a lecture on how to evaluate sources, and students are asked to rank these articles on an academic credibility scale, “although at the end of the day,” laughed Bernstein, “the students still hate GMOs.”

In like vein, Nisbet also described an environmental communication class that he teaches, which helps students think about the role that media and communication play in promoting contending problem framings of environmental issues like climate change. The goal, said Nisbet, is to equip students with “a powerful form of software to process arguments and resynthesize them into their own positions.”

Ron Gester, a participant at the session, highlighted another article in the mini-symposium contributed by Dialogue participants Paul Robbins and Sarah Moore, faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In it, they recommend “teaching through objects,” an approach that centers learning around an object – diamonds, for example – and enables students to explore the physical, ethical, political, and economic dimensions of the object for themselves. In so doing, they inevitably encounter debates about the potential solutions to the problems associated with these objects, and learn to wrestle with competing perspectives.

Whether or not ESS classes evolve in these directions will depend crucially on course instructors. Nisbet suggested that interesting research questions could include: What information sources do ESS faculty read on a regular basis? Therefore, what “mental models of the environment” do they use to approach environmental issues? A systematic survey asking these questions could, perhaps, reveal whether the current generation of graduate students about to become faculty have been exposed to more varied environmental philosophies, and whether they intend to teach these in introductory classes.

In thinking about future directions for the ESS curriculum, perhaps a measure of whether a class has successfully exposed students to a diversity of perspectives is the intensity of the debates that happen in a classroom.

“It’s really interesting to see students cleave into different perspectives,” Nisbet said about his experience teaching environmental communication. “When students get angry,” he said, “it’s typically a good thing because it means their most closely held assumptions are being constructively challenged.”


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