Environmental Education

By Fuller, Sharon | Earth Island Journal, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Environmental Education


Fuller, Sharon, Earth Island Journal


In 1987, the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice published a report documenting the disproportionate number of toxic sites and polluting industries in communities of color. Although further studies showed alarmingly high incidences of disease and death in such communities, few cited environmental degradation as the cause.

For example, Richmond, California, a predominantly African American community, is plagued by high infant mortality rates, respiratory illnesses and cancer. However, a correlation between these health problems and the presence of more than 350 toxic-emitting facilities in the city is rarely made. The few studies that have linked environmental health and public health found, as reported by the West County Times, that air pollution by extremely tiny particles can raise the risk of early death from heart and lung disease. The EPA further reports that continued exposure to toxic chemicals slows physical growth and causes brain and kidney damage.

Although combating poor health in urban areas is an urgent matter, most urban residents must devote their energies to the more pressing daily issues of unemployment, teen violence and inadequate housing. One of the most important root causes of these problems remains inadequate education.

In 1996, the Applied Research Center of Oakland published a report that assessed the impact of poor education in the San Francisco Bay Area. The study found that only 12 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of African Americans high school graduates were eligible for admission to state colleges and universities. In San Francisco, the report observed, African-Americans make up 20 percent of the student body but they represent 40 percent of the special education students, receive 65 percent of school suspensions and drop out at a rate twice the district's average.

It is vital that our policymakers address these issues head on and recognize the links between them. Often, far too many resources are devoted to addressing symptoms, rather than root causes.

The fact that the US uses an exorbitant amount of resources as compared to other countries world-wide must be addressed. One way to begin addressing these issues is by teaching environmental philosophy and concepts throughout the educational process. Abstractions such as the free-market economy, globalization and the New World Order must be placed in a context that is relevant to students.

Unfortunately, defining environmental education is difficult for most educators. Many times environmental education is seen as synonymous with outdoor education. Hence, most environmental education programs focus on wildlife and wilderness areas. However, 50 percent of the world's population--and 70 percent of the US population-live in cities. Therefore, the task at hand is to broaden the understanding of environmental education to include the urban environment where most people live.

In 1970, the International Working Meeting on Environmental Education in the School Curriculum (organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' Commission on Education under the sponsorship of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), adopted the following definition of environmental education (EE):

"Environmental education is the process of recognizing values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the interrelatedness among (humans). …

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