The twenty-first-century planetary challenge orbits around three integrated Earth system trends—species extinction and threats to biodiversity, rapidly changing biospheric circulations, and altered biogeochemical cycles. These patterns are the template for the proliferation of natural resource extraction, accelerating consumer demand, and the challenges of global wealth distribution. Meanwhile, the extraordinary synergistic advances of global communications networks, computerization, miniaturization, and instrumentation provide humanity with the daunting prospect of simultaneously exacerbating these challenges while offering the means to solve them.

Since the late 1960s, and to some extent before then, environmental education has taken on this challenge, assuming that by expanding awareness of ecological relationships, natural history, and the human impact on natural systems, it would better equip people to perceive, understand, and manage these issues. Implicit in this assumption is the sense of grandeur and wonder that accompanies this awareness. With greater appreciation of the magnificence of the biosphere, people would be more inclined to protect and preserve what they have grown to love. Deeper awareness motivates ecological citizenship. The holy grail of traditional environmental education is formulating a robust ethic of care. Its great conceit (or naïveté) suggests that if they (those we educate) only knew what we know, they would act as we do. I have been privy to hundreds of academic and practitioner conversations that embody this attitude. Indeed, it is the foundation of hope that lies at the core of education and teaching.

Environmental education wanders through a wide assortment of ideas, approaches, and methods to implement this implicit mandate. Allow me to trace some of these connecting paths, which are all interested, in some measure, in how people think and learn about their relationship to the natural world. Hence they collectively comprise whatever we mean by “environmental education.” Conservation psychology aspires to understand human behavior and motivations while applying its research to the practice of conservation biology. Place-based education and bioregionalism intend to build affiliation with local habitats and community. Natural history promotes familiarity, understanding, and identification of flora and fauna. The Wilderness Excursion promotes the virtues of outdoor expeditions. Urban ecology emphasizes understanding of the city as a complex ecosystem. The environmental arts and humanities engage diverse milieus to promote voice and imagination—the nature essay and poem, performance arts, acoustic ecology. Environmental justice links ecological challenges to issues of equity, gender, race, and diversity. Environmental ethics contemplates the virtues of ecological behaviors for individuals and communities. Spiritual ecology investigates how the world’s wisdom traditions might incorporate ecological knowledge. Sustainability science studies how to minimize the human ecological footprint. There are literally dozens of fields of environmentally related inquiry—from green business to theories of the commons, from phenomenology to environmental security—that are relevant for environmental education. Most importantly, these approaches are implicitly concerned with how people apprehend the relationship between humanity and the biosphere.

This education agenda holds true for environmental organizations. Almost every regional and global environmental organization, from the Wildlife Conservation Society to Worldwatch to your local watershed association, considers the educational implications and applications of its work. Environmental education is a prominent concern for just about anyone who thinks about ecological issues—academics, practitioners, and concerned citizens alike.

There is a new trend that greatly impacts the theory and practice of environmental education—the proliferation of academic programs, organizations, businesses, and scholarship emphasizing sustainability. The practice of sustainability builds on the environmental education approaches described above. However, it brings many new emphases, stressing the built environment, especially energy, food, and water, and calling attention to how and whether organizations implement sustainability initiatives. Fields such as architecture, landscape design, planning, organizational behavior, finance and investment, and social entrepreneurship now have “green” orientations that also share educational missions. Sustainability studies contributes to an increasingly robust environmental education portfolio.

If environmental education is prevalent in all of these domains, what makes it distinctive as a field of study unto itself? What compelling synergy results from the combination of these words? Education connotes an emphasis on the teaching and learning process. The environmental prefix suggests that we are mainly concerned with teaching and learning processes that cultivate a deeper awareness about ecological processes and the biosphere. Ultimately, environmental educators are concerned with three curricular questions. What are the primary subjects of study? What are the most effective learning processes for teaching those subjects? How can those principles and processes be applied to real-world situations? In the remainder of this essay, I will present my view on these questions, but with an additional tweak. Given the planetary challenge described above, what is the foundation of a core environmental education curriculum? My suggestions are mainly organized for the college curriculum, although they can be readily adapted for a range of educational venues as developmentally appropriate.

I propose four broad categories as a curricular foundation—biosphere studies, social networking and change management, the creative imagination, and sustainability life skills. These are mutually reinforcing and reciprocal categories. They correspond with the classic formulation of natural and physical science, social science, the humanities, and professional practice. However, they are reconstructed to emphasize environmental education for the twenty-first-century learner. This formulation is derived from the tradition of approaches listed previously in the essay, and then synthesized and remixed for a contemporary perspective. For each foundation, I’ll briefly present a core learning process, distinguish a personal and public dimension, and then suggest some areas for substantive inquiry and experimentation. These are intended as ways of stimulating discussion, controversy, and imagination for an environmental education curricular agenda. Consider them as a suite of emerging curricular design potentials, rather than a blueprint or manifesto.

Biosphere studies emphasizes an understanding of scale, learning how to interpret spatial and temporal variability, as informed by the dynamics of ecosystem processes and local ecological observations. The challenge is to develop a conceptual sequence that helps students perceive, recognize, classify, detect, and interpret biospheric patterns, what I’ll describe as “pattern-based environmental learning.” The purpose is for students to better understand and internalize global environmental change. The personal dimension involves the development of natural history observation skills so as to enhance appreciation of home and habitat. The public dimension involves how to contribute those observations and assessments to global networks of biospheric data collection. Examples for study may include biogeochemical cycles, atmospheric and oceanic circulations, evolutionary ecology, restoration ecology, watersheds and fluvial geomorphology, biogeographical change (species migrations, radiations, and convergences), plate tectonics, and climate change.

The field of social networking and change management describes how to enhance, cultivate, and utilize social capital. This includes a personal dimension—providing students with the ability to better understand how they learn and think, how they respond to stress, and how to maximize psychological and physical wellness. The public dimension promotes the ability to interpret collective behavior in organizational settings. The learning process involves how to integrate the personal and social dimension so as to maximize human flourishing in diverse institutional settings. Examples for study include cognitive theory, neuropsychology, organizational process, theories of social change, behavioral economics, ecological economics, social entrepreneurship, decision-making science, adaptive management, and networking theory.

The creative imagination entails the cultivation of an aesthetic voice, personal expression, and improvisational excellence to enhance the arts, music, dance, play, literary narrative, and philosophical inquiry. The personal dimension emphasizes how to use the creative process as a means to explore questions of ethics, meaning, and purpose, how to maximize aesthetic joy, and how to express emotional responses to challenging environmental issues. The public dimension develops the capacity for collective expression in social milieus—how to use public spaces such as buildings, parks, campuses, etc., to promote learning about sustainability and environmental issues. Examples for study include environmental art and music, acoustic ecology and sound design, biophilic design and architecture, environmental interpretation, environmental perception, environmental ethics, ecological identity, the aesthetics and epistemology of patterns, game design, information design, and biomimicry.

Sustainability life skills is the application of sustainability principles to the routines, behaviors, and practices of everyday life. The personal dimension involves the individual behaviors of sustenance, shelter, transportation, health, and domestic life. Further, it emphasizes how to incorporate sustainability principles into one’s career and professional choices. The public dimension involves how to support organizational or regional sustainability efforts, including procurement, ecological cost accounting, recycling, health services, and/or other forms of community capacity building for sustainability. Examples for study include organic agriculture, nutrition, home building and engineering, construction, alternative energy, energy and water conservation, alternative transportation, sustainability metrics, habitat restoration, gardening, urban and regional planning, career development, reflective practice, and service learning.

For environmental education to be pertinent, enhancing, evocative, and ubiquitous, it has to continuously emphasize the importance of understanding the biosphere, but to do so in ways that correspond to how people learn, and finally to how they apply what they learn. The great new frontier in education is how brain research, evolutionary processes, and cognitive psychology inform perception and behavior. This has extraordinary implications for facilitating learning and teaching about the biosphere, and will be crucial for developing the skills and awareness necessary for the forthcoming decades—adaptation, resilience, versatility, anticipation, open-mindedness, self-reflectiveness, and clarity. The ultimate challenge for environmental education is posed with this question: how can humans come to recognize that they are the biosphere and their ecological behaviors and actions have significance for both human flourishing and the future of life on Earth?

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