Adult Learners and the Environment in Last Century: An Historical Analysis of Environmental Adult Education

Article excerpt


Environmental adult education (EAE) combines environmental education and adult learning theory to provide meaningful educative experiences to learners with the purpose of bringing about genuine environmental change. The field is relatively new, but its body of literature is growing in the twenty-first century. This paper conducts an historical analysis of EAE literature to date. The resulting summary provides scholars and practitioners in the fields of environmental adult education, environmental education, and adult education a platform to engage in dialogue about future directions for the field based on historical trends and lessons.


Environmental adult education (EAE) is a relatively new and unique field of practice and study (Clover, 1997; Karlovic and Patrick, 2003), recognized as "a hybrid outgrowth of the environmental movement and adult education, combining an ecological orientation with a learning paradigm to provide a vigorous educational approach to environmental concerns" (Sumner, 2003, p. 41). EAE first appeared in the literature as a distinct field of study in the mid- 1970s (Emmelin, 1976). In the one hundred years prior, EAE scholars assert that environmental educators often taught factual information and focused on individual behavior change to stop environmental degradation, and made few efforts to reach diverse adult learners. Instructors' messages were received over and over by the same students from the same socio-economic classes. Educators rarely reached new audiences resulting in little genuine change and learners feeling hopeless about their ability to impact environmental degradation (Clover, 1995a; Jansen, 1995).

The EAE movement was born when environmental educators paired environmental education with adult education in order to reach new populations and to facilitate broader, more genuine change. Since it was first conceptualized in the 1970s the study of environmental adult education has seen certain trends. In the late 1980s EAE focused mostly on learner experience. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the focus shifted more toward how to teach EAE. More recent EAE articles reveal a desire to better conceptualize environmental adult education theory, and how to best implement EAE practices. Additionally, later work in the field stresses activism and social change as a by-product of EAE, an element not emphasized in earlier literature.

This paper conducts a historical analysis of relevant research in the field of environmental adult education, including extensive document review and text analysis. According to Lang and Heiss (1998), the purpose of historical research is to create an "integrative narrative based on a critical analysis and synthesis of sources" (p. 66). This analysis will attempt to create such a narrative for environmental adult education by identifying concepts, trends, and themes of EAE. The text is based on an extensive literature review process where the following questions served as a framework when examining each environmental adult education text:

* How is environmental adult education conceptualized or defined by the author?

* What other philosophies, educational models, practices, or principles does the researcher cite as contributions to EAE study and practice?

* How does the piece outline or contribute to the history of the EAE movement?

The following report is a chronological synthesis of the textual analysis. This narrative offers a platform for both scholars and practitioners to engage in dialogue about future directions for the field based on historical trends and lessons.

The Foundations of Environmental Adult Education

Environmental adult education literature is almost nonexistent until the mid-1970s. In 1976, Emmelin published an article titled, "The Need for Environmental Education for Adults". This is one of the first works that makes a distinction between environmental education and environmental adult education. …