n an environmental studies class in a secondary school in a South African township, the teacher takes the students outside into the sunny fall morning. She shows them how to plant a tree and ensure it survives. The students seem captivated as each of them plants their own sapling in the ground outside the school; this hands-on, outdoor class is a rare opportunity to get away from the classroom and the rote learning that usually goes on inside.
This class is one of many hands-on environment-oriented classes that have sprung up around the world in the past decade as part of governments’ efforts to introduce sustainability into school curricula. But how realistic is it to expect schools to fix humanity’s environmental mess? After observing the class, I asked the teacher whether she connected her hands-on lessons to larger conversations around climate change, and she said no. The point of the class, she said, was precisely to get away from theoretical discussions about global environmental issues and to help students take tangible action.
This is not surprising if we consider how most public education systems are run. They are generally under direct control of governments, the vast majority of which are currently doing nowhere near enough to tackle the environmental crisis—as COP26 has shown. Why would governments encourage their young citizens to question the states’ lack of action? It is simply not in their interest to do so—and this is the major flaw in the idea that we can educate the world out of the climate crisis.
Touting technological innovation and “green” growth as the central solution—and reiterating these lessons in their public schools—governments around the world largely fail to recognize the need for more fundamental shifts, such as degrowth and intergenerational justice legislation. Even as countries move away from fossil fuels, they continue to treat the Earth simply as a source of raw materials for continued economic expansion.
The mainstream political response to the crisis is, in other words, merely targeting the symptoms rather than the root causes of environmental decay. Environmental education must tackle these issues head on.
What counts as action
As the impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other environmental crises intensify, leaders across the world look to education as one of the solutions. In recent years, we have seen this idea at the highest levels of policymaking. The Sustainable Development Goals are currently one of the key international agreements shaping the world’s approach to environmental education. Goal 4.7, for example, aims to ensure that by 2030, “All learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles.”
Much of what passes for environmental education uses the Sustainable Development Goals as its justification. Such education often ends up being depoliticized and limiting the agency of young people in low-income countries. Many public environmental education programs describe themselves as action-oriented, but what counts as “action” in the context of education geared toward fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals?
I have spent several years observing environmental education programs in Africa, Asia, and Europe since 2016, and I have come to realize that planting trees, growing food for the school canteen, or fixing a leaking tap in the school’s bathroom to reduce water waste all frequently qualify as action. But writing a letter to a politician or taking part in a march or demonstration rarely do. It is as if these programs see students as capable of influencing only their immediate physical environments rather than engaging in wider political conversations.
There was a particular view of citizenship at work in these classes—one in which the citizen follows blueprints created by others rather than helping to design their own future. These observations led me to search for alternative ways to educate young people about environmental solutions.
The power of activism
In the communities where I have been working, activism has emerged as a clear contender. Activist movements often attract young people and create a space for dialogue between generations as well as opportunities to talk about and act on the politics of environmental decay.
This was very clear during one of the community meetings I witnessed during my research in South Africa. The South Durban Environmental Community Alliance’s main mission is fighting air pollution caused by the petrochemical industry in the city, but over the past three decades, the organization has come to work on many other environmental and civic issues. The meeting I attended in April 2017 took place on a cloudy weekend morning inside a community hall, with perhaps three dozen residents of different generations and from many different walks of life.
In the meeting, a group of activists from the alliance asked the residents to imagine a future they would like to see for their community. In sharing their thoughts with the group, the residents expressed many different wishes, from less rubbish in the streets to tackling economic inequality. The conversation soon turned to how the community could act together to achieve change. Unlike in the environmental lessons I observed in public schools in South Africa and beyond, the young people at the meeting grappled with the politics of environmental change and thought about what they could accomplish together.
Activism does not just help catalyze social change; it is also a form of education. If we are serious about tapping into education’s potential to help us achieve a more sustainable future, we need to recognize activists as educators and help build bridges between them and schools.
For policymakers, this means funding activist-led educational efforts and incorporating activist-inspired pedagogy into teacher training programs. For activist organizations, it means highlighting the contributions they have made toward educating young people on environmental solutions and sharing their best practices.
None of this is easy. Activists and teachers often find themselves on opposite sides of the barricade. But the first step forward is recognizing that the two groups have more in common than meets the eye.
In most cases, it is not that teachers don’t want students to think of themselves as changemakers; more often, the teachers simply fear repercussions. I have met many teachers who told me they were not fully on board with the curriculum they were teaching but felt their hands were tied. The government, after all, was paying their salaries. I often heard in interviews that getting into political issues in the classroom was simply too dangerous for teachers’ job security.
But these are the very issues our education systems must tackle if they are to contribute to meaningful environmental solutions at scale. Otherwise, we might one day realize that tepid efforts on environmental education have been just another form of greenwashing. Ultimately, education—self-discovery and the discovery of the world—is an end in itself, not a means to any end, including sustainability. But given the urgency of environmental decay, we can’t afford to let our education systems get in sustainability’s way.