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Ecological Education: Extending the Definition of Environmental Education

  • Gregory A. Smith (a1) and Dilafruz R. Williams (a2)


Except in small measure, environmental education in the United States has not yet challenged the status quo of Western notions of progress or monoculturalism, or recognized that moving through the environmental crisis may require significant shifts in generally unquestioned cultural attitudes and beliefs. In the U.S., environmental education has instead tended to focus on information regarding environmental problems and to explore topics such as endangered species, global climate change, or the water quality of local streams and rivers. Even this has become a source of controversy in the United States since the mid-1990s as a coalition of right-wing organizations has mounted a well-coordinated political campaign charging environmental educators with bias and a failure to present both sides of controversial issues (Sanera & Shaw 1996, Independent Commission on Environmental Education 1997). Despite this, we believe that if environmental education is to live up to its promise as a vehicle for developing a citizenry capable of making wise decisions about the impact of human activities on the environment, examining and altering fundamental cultural beliefs and practices that are contributing to the degradation of the planet's natural systems will be imperative.

We have chosen to call this extended form of environmental education ecological education. For us, ecological education connotes an emphasis on the inescapable embeddedness of human beings in natural settings and the responsibilities that arise from this relationship. Rather than seeing nature as other—a set of phenomena capable of being manipulated like parts of a machine—the practice of ecological education requires viewing human beings as one part of the natural world and human cultures as an outgrowth of interactions between our species and particular places. We believe that the development of sustainable cultures will in fact require widespread acceptance of a relationship between humans and the earth grounded in moral sentiments that arise from the willingness to care. As Indian physicist and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva writes, the term ‘sustainability’ implies the ability and willingness ‘to support, bear weight of, hold up, enable to last out, give strength to, endure without giving way’ (Shiva 1992, p. 191).



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