26 May 2011: Interview

Green Failure: What’s Wrong
With Environmental Education?

Marine conservationist Charles Saylan believes the U.S. educational system is failing to create responsible citizens who consider themselves stewards of the environment. To do that, he says in a Yale Environment 360 interview, educators need to go beyond rhetoric and make environmental values a central part of a public education.

by michelle nijhuis

In a new book, Charles Saylan, co-founder and executive director of the California-based Ocean Conservation Society, and his co-author pose a key question: What can the U.S. educational system do to improve students’ understanding of the environment and its importance in their lives?

Charles Saylan Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It)
Charles Saylan
The environment is often seen as a political issue and pushed to the margins of school curricula by administrators and parents, note Saylan and Daniel Blumstein, a biology professor at the University of California-Los Angeles, in The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It). But at its core, the authors contend, environmental responsibility is a broadly held, nonpartisan value, much like respect for the law. As such, they believe, it deserves a central place in public education, with lessons on the environment permeating every student’s day. Environmentally active citizens, they say, should grasp everything from an understanding of tipping points to the “capacity to see intangible value in things: forests simply for the sake of the forest; the expanse of wilderness simply because it is alive, primal, and fiercely beautiful.”

In a Yale Environment 360 interview with journalist Michelle Nijhuis, Saylan emphasized his conviction that raising awareness is only half the job of environmental education. Students, he said, should be encouraged to tackle environmental problems in their own communities and should learn how the political process works and how they can act at the local, state, and national levels to turn individual beliefs into policy.

Saylan also talked about the frustrations and rewards of his own experiences as an environmental educator and laid out his vision of what must be done to fundamentally overhaul environmental education. If environmental education is to be truly effective in creating responsible citizens who will help stop human degradation of the environment, Saylan insists, it must go well beyond platitudes and the occasional class trip.

Yale Environment 360: You’ve dedicated your personal life to marine conservation. What were some of your early experiences with environmental education?

Charles Saylan: When I was growing up, there wasn’t any formal environmental education per se — at that time, we didn’t know we were messing things up as badly as we are. I grew up in California spending most of my time outdoors, either climbing or sailing. Nature was where I wanted to be — I felt quite at home in the wilderness — and as I grew older, I saw those areas where I’d grown up dwindling, and increasingly being encroached upon. It made me want to do something to protect those places.

e360: Was there a person or an experience that initially drew you into nature?

Saylan: Not really, but I was fortunate to grow up in a time when people had a different perception of their kids’ safety. When my friends and I were 12 years old, my parents dropped us off in Yosemite and left us there for three weeks to walk the John Muir Trail. I can’t imagine that happening these days. But it was a different time, and the world seemed a less dangerous place.

e360: Your book has a provocative title: The Failure of Environmental Education. How has it failed?

Saylan: When we talk about failure, we’re being very pragmatic about it. We believe that environmental education has failed because it’s not keeping pace with environmental degradation, with human impacts on the environment. I also think that it’s failed to provoke action. We have this
Environmental education has failed because it’s not keeping pace with environmental degradation.”
idea that environmental education should provide us with the tools we need to make informed decisions, but I don’t believe we’re making informed decisions as a society commensurate with the pace of our consumption of the environment, our destruction of the environment. So if one looks at environmental education from the standpoint of getting bang for the buck spent, so to speak — and we think that bang for the buck should be measured in tangible impacts such as reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions — it’s just not happening.

e360: Was there a moment when you realized that environmental education was failing in this sense?

Saylan: At the Ocean Conservation Society, we’ve done a lot of environmental outreach. And because we’re located in an affluent area, in west Los Angeles, we work with a lot of private schools. We also work with the city of Santa Monica, which is kind of the poster child for sustainable municipalities. In our book. we talk a lot about public education and how the standards on which public education is based don’t include environmental education. In private schools, especially these private schools, there’s a heavy emphasis on environmental education, and it’s a significant and strong part of the curriculum. And we didn’t see a lot of motivation in these kids. They knew the material and said what was expected of them, but we didn’t really see a change in behavior or a willingness to give something up for the benefit of the environment. Environmental education, typically, is based on this idea that if we make people aware, they’ll do the right thing. We were working with a highly aware community that wasn’t doing the right thing. I started to question whether awareness translates to action at all.

e360: So what was missing?

Saylan: Well, a lot of things, I think. In the book, we say clearly that we don’t have all the answers, that we don’t know the exact steps required for change, especially because the problems are different in every location and venue. But I think the biggest thing that’s lacking is relevance. I don’t think that environmental education as it’s currently taught directly affects the lives of the students we’re teaching.

At the Ocean Conservation Society, we did some environmental presentations on marine conservation at inner city schools. I went to a school in east L.A. where you had to go through metal detectors to get in, where the playground was filled with trash. And I felt very hypocritical giving a presentation to these kids, most of whom had never seen the ocean.
The affluent kids are oversaturated — they can quote Aldo Leopold, but it’s just academic to them.”
Why should they care? I don’t think environmental education asks that often enough. So we initiated a cleanup program on the water. We partnered with a local kayak manufacturer and took these kids out on the water, which was engaging and exciting for them — most of them had never been on water, much less paddled in a kayak. We trained individual teachers and parents in the use of the equipment and then gave them open access — they could bring their students whenever they wanted. At the same time, we provided open access to other programs that offered hands-on experience — whale watching, marine-mammal rehabilitation — things that kids could get interested in and then take part in as much as they liked.

e360: Did you see those kids engage?

Saylan: We had kids coming back weekly, not only because we were giving them a good time, but also because they were pulling trash out of the water, and they couldn’t ignore the mountain of junk that was coming out. That was a real object lesson.

In that program we worked with a lot of different schools, both inner city and highly privileged schools. We saw a lot of growth in motivation in the students, but interestingly, while most of the inner city schools continued the program, the affluent schools, for the most part, abandoned it. The affluent kids are oversaturated — they can quote Aldo Leopold, they know this stuff, but it’s just academic to them.

e360: Another reason given for the failure of environmental education is the politicization of environmentalism in general.

Saylan: Somewhere along the line, the environmental movement became synonymous with the hippie counterculture — in the media’s portrayal of it, and in some cases in environmentalists’ portrayal of themselves. As our world became more polarized, and as professional organizations began to manufacture doubt about science in the public mind, I think that association was increasingly used to politicize and marginalize environmentalism and environmental protection. Nowadays, environmentalism is often seen as simply an encroachment on the free market. That’s completely wrong — wrong in the sense that environmentalism is a responsibility of being alive, of our need to drink water and eat food. It’s an individual and collective responsibility, whether we acknowledge it or like it or not.

e360: You say that the term “environmentalism” should be abandoned. What should it be called instead?

Saylan: Responsible citizenship.

e360: What are some of the first concrete steps that parents and teachers might take toward improving environmental education?

Saylan: It’s easy to theorize — of course, the toughest thing is implementation. I think top-down reforms are necessary for change, but
Students need to learn what moral systems are so that they understand what makes a good society.”
I’m not sure that we’ll be able to develop and put them in place in time to mitigate environmental degradation. I do think that locally and individually, parents and teachers can help. I hear kids in grocery stores telling their parents not to buy this or that product because of its environmental impacts — and I think those lessons come from individual teachers, because that’s not an institutional approach. We don’t teach externalities.

e360: I think many classroom teachers would say that they’re already overwhelmed by trying to keep kids in school, preparing them for standardized tests, and teaching them essential skills. How can they fit environmental education into an already crowded school day?

Saylan: Teachers are underpaid and undersupported, and they’re asked to do a very difficult, even impossible job. But I know at least 20 teachers I’ve worked with in the past 10 years whose classes are more motivated than the average, and who are themselves more motivated. They find a way to teach the importance of social engagement, and to insert some relevance for their students into the material they’re required to teach. I think we need to identify who those people are and support them as much as possible.

e360: How specifically have teachers managed to teach these values in the classroom?

Saylan: We’ve worked with Animo Leadership High School, which is a Los Angeles magnet school run by the teachers’ union. Its curriculum is full of community action and engagement — the kids go out in the community and set up gardens, or help people save energy and money by insulating their houses. They pick their own projects and stay with them from inception to completion, over the course of several semesters if not through their entire stay at the school. The kids are highly motivated, highly engaged in the community, and highly successful in the No Child Left Behind sense — the vast majority go to college. The teachers and administrators at that school are also unusually motivated — they don’t let the system beat them down, which the system tends to do.

e360: You’ve emphasized that it’s impossible to write a general prescription for reform. But if the LA Unified School District were to adopt your suggestions, what might a typical high schooler’s day look like?

Saylan: Well, it might not look that different than it does today, but the content might change. I would hope that some part of it would be spent outside. I would hope that students would get involved in changing their schools — physically changing the buildings — to make them more sustainable and more appealing to them, places where they wanted to spend time. Again, I think educational projects that involved community action would be a good thing. School gardens have proven to be a good idea on a lot of different levels — they have very direct, practical teaching potential.

I also think that schools should restore some of the programs they’ve begun to give up, like literature, poetry, and aesthetics. I think students need to get beyond this intense focus we have now on economic performance, and learn why we need to perform economically, why our society is the way it is. They need to learn about moral systems — they shouldn’t be taught a particular system of morality, but they need to learn what moral systems are so that they understand what makes a good society.

e360: Speaking broadly, beyond the three R’s, what do you think every graduating senior in the United States should know?

Saylan: They need to be scientifically literate — it’s hard for people to understand climate science if they’re not scientifically literate. They need to read about and understand the political process, and understand why discourse and compromise is important to that. If the public education system were to provide those kinds of skills — John Dewey types of skills — we’d have a healthier society. We’d all be more likely to sacrifice for the greater good, which is what we’ll need to do if we’re going to mitigate some the environmental problems that we have, and that are coming down the line.


Environmental Failure:
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The U.S. environmental movement is failing. What’s needed, writes James Gustave Speth, is a new, inclusive green politics that challenges basic assumptions about consumerism and unlimited growth.
e360: We’ve talked a lot about the problems with environmental education. Do you have a favorite moment from your own teaching experience where you saw environmental education really work in the way you envision it working?

Saylan: The Ocean Conservation Society had a mentorship program in which we helped groups of middle-school students develop their own plans for environmental outreach or action. One group decided to give a presentation to the Culver City council in support of a ban on plastic bags. We coached the students, but they approached the city council and did the presentation on their own, and they were phenomenal. It was truly democratic action.

e360: And did the bag ban pass?

Saylan: Nope. But they learned how to find the right audience for their ideas and to make their voices heard. And they learned that if they didn’t succeed, they needed to go at it again.

POSTED ON 26 May 2011 IN Biodiversity Forests Policy & Politics Sustainability Central & South America North America 


Mr. Saylan has taken the odd approach that the right level of information and method of education can ensure the right choices all the time-- there are no examples of any form of education that works all the time for all people, especially when it comes to personal choice.

While our programs invest heavily in environmental education, we do not expect results greater than 40 years of anti-smoking education reducing smoking to a quarter of adults; risky sex despite high risk of HIV; 47% percent of adults in Detroit being illiterate and only 10% have ever even tried to become literate; or seat-belt wearing and speed limit abiding even though both are safer and one saves money.

Environmentalists can and do make their voices heard, every where and every day. It's a multi-billion dollar community. While it might be too much to have expected Mr. Saylan to look at where environmental educational standards are integrated, institutionalized, and heavily funded by the federal and state governments, Mr. Saylan in particular should be aware of the astounding progress of ocean conservation in the past fifteen years despite a billion added to the global human population, changing ocean chemistry, and increasing insults great and small from human activities. It is so easy to count the failures and make the news.

I only hope Mr. Saylan is planning to live his life as an educational exemplar, beginning of course with choosing to walk or bike only for his book tour.

Posted by Angel Braestrup on 26 May 2011

I really appreciate my years of environmental education. It has not paid the bills, but I am richer for it. I think that the kind of changes that you are looking and measuring the sucess of environmental ed. is misplaced. To make a big difference in how we treat the earth and to reverse a trend of degradation we need to look at economics and maybe spirituality. Maybe it was environmental ed that makes me come to conclusion that capitalism is not sustainable, and there is no such thing as green capitalism. We are good at nature appreciation and nature understanding, but changing how we impact nature, that is not so well understood. Not everyone agrees that capitalism is the problem, so this is where we need to debate the questions and start educating ourselves as to where we go from here. That's the adult degree environmental ed course that needs to be taught now.

Posted by Chris Pratt on 26 May 2011

I guess it is refreshing in 2011, for higher-educators noting something that my colleagues and I have been professing since at least the early 1970's, the importance and neglagence of school districts to embrace E.E. See anything written by Steve VanMatre, the late Dr. Bill Stapp, and others of that era. After thirty years participating in California and Alaska environmental education leadership, and higher education E.E., and ten years in informal natural resource education (NOAA and Alaska Fish and Game) I am back in the classroom. Is there time in the curriculum for separate courses in E.E.? NO! Can it be infused into the existing curriculum, YES! BUT, is it being done? NO.

Eight years of the Bush administration cut funds on EE and ignored anything related to human impacts on the environment if it had an effect on the economy, just as the Reagan administration before him.

Good luck--we are all in this together.

R. Foster, PhD.
Homer, Alaska
Posted by Rick Foster, PhD on 27 May 2011

A great article, Saylan touch exactly the right points: children must learn how to be aware AND get involve, in conserving and improving our environment.

But i do think Saylan is not realistic by expecting school teachers to do this mission. Some can, and even do it, but most simply don't care about it; they lack the passion for it. This is a world-wide problem, and most teachers in the world are not capable to do it. The solution must be to form more NGOs that focusing on environmental education and they should be responsible to give this message to school children.

Arnon Dattner
SONATI (environmental education organization in
Nicaragua: www.sonati.org)

Posted by Arnon Dattner on 28 May 2011

I think Mr. Saylan should change the name of his book to "How The Dominant Paradigm of Profit and Power Have Overwhelmed The World."

While environmental educators may not be great at bringing their students from "Awareness and Appeciation" to "Stewardship and Action," they are also not the ones who have been making the large scale political and corporate decisions on key issues like polluting the earth with fossil-based fuels rather than more benign alternatives, or putting mega-billions into defense and weapons systems rather than social and ecological needs. I think its totally ridiculous and unfair to blame environmental education when almost every green initiative or activity is easily overwhelmed by big money, big media in the service of that money, and the powerful addictions of living in a consumer-focused culture. Its not that kids or older students don't care, I think. It's that loving and experiencing nature first hand is so often drowned out by a society with other, more nefarious aims and other seductions. The fruit rots from the top and contaminates the whole....

Posted by Pete Salmansohn, environmental educator 30 years on 28 May 2011

"Learning through Action", the slogan of the Environmental Action Coalition, formed in NYC by the organizers of Earth Day, says it best. All the book-learning and even relevant field trips "somewhere else" cannot substitute for action that can be taken by students in school and in the immediate surroundings. "Simple" activities like helping with recycling, saving energy by replacing bulbs and turning off lights and caring for trees are perfect entry points into the larger aspects of environmental sustainability. Above all, ALL sides of issues must be presented--EE is not urging one's own point of view on students. They must come to realizations on their own.

Posted by Nancy Wolf, Environmental Education Consultant on 01 Jun 2011

Responsible citizenship is exactly the desired target. But that truly takes a village. EE can put a bigger dent in things by directly providing more OPPORTUNITIES TO ENGAGE youth.

Posted by Caroline Lewis on 01 Jun 2011

I agree completely that public school students need more direct exposure to the actual workings of the government that shapes their lives. Everything from the resources that document pollution and its effects to methods of investigating those responsible should be taught. I have 1st hand knowledge of the difficulties surrounding those efforts. Often times teachers who attempt this are thwarted by administrators who act on their own political beliefs or out of fear from those above.

As an example, Colorado's effort to craft an environmental education platform is being controlled from the top by a state level administrator who will not allow the use of the word, "stewardship," let alone encourage anything but a passive approach to environmental education. Like it or not, this IS a political issue, and to treat it in any other fashion is to ignore reality in much the same way that politicians routinely ignore the health of their constituents out of unenlightened self interest. Mr. Saylan must be working for people who actually care about the future! I hope his message is heard, loudly and clearly, above the fray of the small fearful minds who seek to squelch the need for responsible treatment of our world.

Posted by Richard Selleg on 15 Jul 2011

I'm a professor at UC Berkeley. I would like to hear from faculty who know of successful approaches to environmental education and civic education in general. We do have many students who are engaged, but they are a minority. Learning how to be educated, empowered, effective citizens isn't easily done.

Posted by Stan Klein on 22 Jul 2011

I forgot to leave my email address in my preceding posting. It is sklein@berkeley.edu

Posted by Stan Klein on 22 Jul 2011

Lamenting over the prevailing system of education, SWAMI VIVEKANENDA said: But, instead of that, we are always trying to polish up the outside. What use in polishing up the outside when there is no inside? The end and aim of all training is to make the man grow.

Posted by KEMO on 28 Aug 2011

I really appreciate my years of environmental education. It has not paid the bills, but I am richer for it. I think that the kind of changes that you are looking and measuring the sucess of environmental ed. is misplaced. To make a big difference in how we treat the earth and to reverse a trend of degradation we need to look at economics and maybe spirituality. Maybe it was environmental ed that makes me come to conclusion that capitalism is not sustainable, and there is no such thing as green capitalism. We are good at nature appreciation and nature understanding, but changing how we impact nature, that is not so well understood. Not everyone agrees that capitalism is the problem, so this is where we need to debate the questions and start educating ourselves as to where we go from here. That's the adult degree environmental ed course that needs to be taught now.

Posted by lpn on 06 Sep 2011

Throughout almost all of America, high school student graduating today will not be held to any climate literacy standard. From K thru 12, the 99 percent needs to develop the capacity to understand the most important decisions that will be made during their lives. The strangest truth is not the absence of climate literacy standards. Instead, it is the absence of a collective awareness that such standards are direly needed.

Obviously, we need more than climate literacy standards in order to build collective awareness, but until exit tests are imposed and standardized curriculum is developed and implemented, we will remain in possession of nothing more than an orphanage of unrelated and disconnected environmental ed modules produced by well-intentioned non-profits and green corporations. Top down standards is a must have (not a nice to have).

Posted by Greg San Martin on 17 Jan 2012

In the book, the authors decry doom and gloom approach to environmental problem solving, yet this is the approach they take. They decry how politics has shifted the focus and captured the dialogue, yet they engage in it freely. The book seems more of a "How Not To" than a manifesto. These arguments are old, there is nothing new here, but I agree with a previous comment that from the educator's viewpoint, the practicality of EE in the classroom is difficult if not impossible - which is why the arguments in the book fall somewhat flat. It does not argue for transformational education, though it does play with ideas of integration.

I am an agriculture educator, specifically sustainable ag post-secondary. The EE movement held to the coattails of environmental activists who early on (1970s) pointed fingers and fought against (and still do) those entities that they considered "bad" - agriculture continues to be one of these targets to attack rather than approach in collaboration.

In addition, EE rarely approaches issues of food systems and agriculture, an environmental degradation issue of enormous planetary proportions that gets scant attention in the book except to hail the wonders of the school garden. Massive fail.

I am an experienced EE educator of 20 years, I left the field to join agriculture because I saw ag as actually doing something about problems, engaging full on the politics and challenges. We know what the problems are. Students will not face these problems in the future as the authors claim - they are facing them now. There is another agricultural revolution occurring at all levels of society that gets very little play in EE conversations which now seem outdated and ineffective.

Unlike agriculture, EE does not have a scientific field of its own, thus it dabbles in this and that, missing applied and theoretical perspectives that translate into real student understanding and engagement. Students do parrot what they hear from EE, and taken from the author's perspective, which is based largely on his experience teaching privileged students and communities, he does little to make issues relevant to populations that do have access and wealth. I invite him to Baltimore to see how students are engaged in urban agriculture, feeding their communities and organizing as FFA chapters, designing careers and changing the food systems of a city. These students are motivated by relevancy - hunger, poverty and inequality. Their work is simply amazing, the teachers (all levels and fields) are inspirations.

Every body eats, which is why agriculture education is entirely relevant to everybody every day, but the issues and challenges this field encompasses cannot be taught in a school garden as the author suggests. EE should take some lessons from ag - teach issues investigations, activate social and political discourse (which is different than writing letters to the town council), teach critical policy, and train young people to enter careers where stewardship is a daily act, not just an experience in a wilderness setting. If relevance is what EE needs, partner with ag, don't cherry pick those elements (school gardens) to make your case. Get in there and do the hard work of collaboration and letting go of some long-held precious beliefs that are no longer useful.

Posted by Peggy Eppig on 19 Jan 2012

A high school biology teacher took his class into the wilderness to teach them about the natural world. He was so successful, he ultimately managed to do this for decades. He wasn't interested in taking them car camping they went into real wilderness: Yosemite, Mendocino, the Grand Canyon. Anyone interested in environmental education should read his chronicle: Lowell Young/Biodesign: Out For A Walk.

Posted by Geoffrey Martin on 28 Feb 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Michelle Nijhuis, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is a contributing editor of the environmental magazine High Country News. Her writing about science and conservation has also appeared in Smithsonian, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and the anthologies Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing. In 2011, as an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow, she is researching the science and ethics of rescuing critically endangered species.



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