International Environmental Education

In his recent critique of the international environmental movement, Red Sky at Morning, James Gustave Speth lists eight transitions required to move environmental actions from the accomplishments of the 20th century to the requirements of the 21st. The last three pertain specifically to the question of International Environmental Education: the transformation of knowledge and learning, a new seriousness about global environmental governance, and an expanded public awareness of environmental sustainability as a fundamental human right.

At the heart of all Speth’s transitions lies a demand for increased scientific and environmental literacy. And at the heart of literacy of any sort lies well-ordered effective education.

What It Is:

In the United States and certain other developed countries, environmental education has made significant in-roads into public consciousness as well as educational programs of every level of education. Thus, on many fronts, political will in the form of either protest against certain degrading actions and policies or affirmation of countervailing actions, is evident. Moreover, formal programs at the graduate, undergraduate, and secondary levels are well established, and informal, experiential programs have also found a sympathetic audience.

What becomes immediately apparent, however, is that beyond a small perimeter of affluent nations, the programs collapse into erratic, anecdotal initiatives of varying quality and effect. These programs fall into four general categories and can be characterized as useful but inadequate.

Resource Directories: There are a number of resource centers operated by UNESCO and other governmental organizations and such NGO’s as World Resources Institute and the WorldWide Fund for Nature. In many cases, these are directories organized by nation or subject interest; in other cases, they are web-based activity centers that require motivation, access, a willingness to engage in superficial activity, and, frequently, the ability to read English. In every case, the predictable user is educated and interested and probably best served by the discovery of a new activity, idea, or organization to promote an already developed interest.

What directories do provide, however, is a database for possible international contacts. For example, an excursion into the UNESCO site International Directory of Environmental Education Institutions finds fifteen listings, all but one a university-based or research institute program. One does discover the Theeerthamalai Environmental Awareness Movement, a NGO serving a Tamil-speaking rural population through non-formal educational activities. Bulgaria has two listings, one of which is the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, which promotes “information” to all levels of education, and the other is the national university. This small, but representative sample suggests that the level of activity and sophistication beyond the United States is significantly less, even non-existent.

International Linked Programs: A second category represents a single NGO managing a network of partner entities around a single subject. For example, ECO-Schools International, created by the European Commission in 1995, purports to address the objectives of Agenda 21 and to connect some 10,000 schools worldwide through a certification program (Green Flag and Blue Flag schools) based on didactic principles and a management system based on “an ISO14001/EMAS approach.” A closer look at what is actually offered as educational service, capacity building, and evaluation, however, suggests more of a statistical exercise than a serious experiment in the classroom. The program appears well intended, but superficial and disconnected.

Such an organization could be an effective system for communication and distribution of educational product; however at this point it seems concretized by bureaucratic objectives, restrictions, and justifications.

Specific Curricula: There are few places to go to find a central repository for curriculum that could be used and/or adapted by a teacher to a specific classroom use. There are nevertheless many such curricula to be discovered, typically the product of a particular teacher or local association of teachers and published on the web. For example, there is a Caribbean maritime science curriculum that could be effectively used in any developing nation or coastal community school, but finding this resource is unfortunately the result of teacher word-of-mouth, dogged perseverance, random access, or sheer luck.

NGO Programs: Certain larger NGO’s have developed significant field programs correlative to their mission. For example, Conservation International has programs on the ground in Guyana, Indonesia, Botswana, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia and Suriname which involve exhibits, workshops, capacity-building (interpreter and volunteer training), eco-tourism, and primary school curriculum. Other NGO’s have comparable programs, however these seem targeted primarily to conservation professionals and workers, rather than to schools.

Of all the programs discovered in this assessment, this model seems the most direct and effective. But one needs to ask what percentage of the financial resources available is actually delivered versus what percentage is used in the NGO’s overhead, administrative infrastructure, and management. Clearly, the best application of this model is to maximize the cost-benefit ratio and deliver as much value as possible to the community.

The Literature:

A quick survey of the literature discovers various suggestions for the improvement in scientific literacy in developing countries. Typical suggestions include the need for more funds, more materials, translations of existing materials, capacity-building at the university level, developing personal relationships with mentor scientists and teachers, international exchange, scholarships for graduate programs in the developed nations, and other predictable high cost information-sharing activities.

Dr. June George, Faculty of Humanities and Education, University of the West Indies, Trinidad, however, suggest one very interesting approach. In a paper entitled “Culture and Science Education: A Look from the Developing World,” Dr. George reviews “the science for all” movement wherein the science of daily living or indigenous tradition is “bridged” to conventional science both in the classroom and the field and “related” to patterns of thought, argument, and teaching with which the students are culturally familiar. Dr. George’s paper can found at

The dichotomy is not a new one: the conflicting approaches of received learning, delivery of a didactic lesson through formal presentation, versus experiential learning, discovery of a flexible lesson through informal engagement.
It would seem clear by now – and anecdotal proof ought to be good enough – that for many students, regardless of culture, the second way is more than viable, indeed is tremendously effective as a method for alternative learning.

The integration of the two is not easy.

Who, and How to Serve:

Poverty = Educational Resources = Environmental Conditions = Quality of Life

This basic inter-relationship between these elements suggests that the highest benefit to be derived from innovation in international environmental education falls to the poorest with the least. If there can be an intervention, an improvement in the educational services provided, then there can be a consequent improvement in conditions for learning, living and collective opportunity.

How to serve?

What is required is the provision of direct training of local teachers in new methods of integration of environmental science and conservation values for the classroom and in the field through new curricula and practical teaching materials designed to affirm the cultural conditions of the community and to meet the educational needs of the indigenous student population.

What is required is a series of demonstrations, location by location, nation by nation, by which to invent this method, to select and train teachers in its delivery, to provide the inexpensive, practical resources, to implement in the classroom, to evaluate the outcomes, and to follow-up with additional contact and training on an annual basis.

What is required is a directed funding stream that maximizes local effect and minimizes infrastructure cost either by providing grant-based augmented services through existing organizations in country or by supporting a small base central organization managing contract curriculum developers, resources designers, teacher trainers, and evaluators on a nation by nation basis.