Has sustainability education been hijacked?


September 3, 2011 by sgoobie

Daring to question

Three teachers walk into a school.  You can choose only one to teach students about sustainability.  Now, do you opt for the teacher of fine arts, humanities or science?

It sounds like an unusual take on an old joke, but this hypothetical situation raises an important question.  Where do schools currently place their focus when it comes to sustainability education?  From what I have observed, more often than not, the focus is on science.  Indeed, what is the place of science in sustainability education?

A note of caution:  From time to time, modern science comes under fire from very real fringes of society.  Personally, throughout degrees in astrophysics and teaching physics, as well as during years of science instruction, I too have experienced these kind of rebukes.  Educators are right and proper to be a bit cautious of those who question the legitimacy of scientific projects in society.

Public domain (NASA)

That said, when so much is at stake, when ecological changes increasingly threaten the land, air and water to a planetary scale, we cannot afford to shy away from holding up that which is sometimes deemed sacrosanct in education.  We must ask questions of science.  We must openly engage in putting up not only science but also scientism against the supposed goals of sustainability education.

The term scientism denotes the faith in modern science as the ultimate source of truth and knowledge about the world 1.  In other words, scientism is a way of thinking in which scientists and scientific knowledge are given the highest authority, a status above all other systems of knowledge.  Scientism, we can assert, is a powerful component of the modern ecological thoughtprint.

The question follows:  Does present-day schooling contain the hallmarks of scientism?

Narrow learning 

Upon examination, we find that much of the learning which takes place in schools, both in general and specifically around ecological issues, is steeped in the scientific perspective.  This learning is commonly carried out under such titles as environmental education, nature education, education for sustainable development (ESD) or, recently, sustainability education.  Whatever the name, these pursuits tend to be conceived as “science education regarding the environment” 2.  With abundant vigour, educational pedagogies tend to use mainly physical scientific approaches and methods through which students can gain “knowledge” of ecological aspects of the environment 3.

Specifically, sustainability education carries with it a strong emphasis on biological science 4.  Some educators, academics and activists go so far as to claim that when it comes to issues of sustainability there needs to be an even greater focus on science than at the present 5.

In the domination of ecological discourse by science in schools whereby sustainability education is framed as a “sub-division of science” 5, other disciplinary perspectives tend to become marginalized.  The role of the arts and the humanities in schools is generally underplayed in environmental education, pushed aside by “scientific ecology” 6.

What about the role of teachers?  As in the above “joke”, who do students and colleagues naturally trust to spearhead sustainability initiatives?  Who do schools look toward as mandates for sustainability education fall upon schools?  Art teachers?  Those guiding students through English literature? Music instructors?  Probably none of the above.

It is committed science teachers whom are frequently found at the forefront of environmental education within their own schools 7.  Again personally, I admit that I too am an example of this.  Science teachers are sometimes even expected by other colleagues to fill such a role, and they self-report as feeling that they have a broader contribution to make around ecological issues.  One researcher points out: “For science teachers and science education specialists, the environmental theme can be a ‘hook,’ a subject that stimulates an interest in sciences…” 3.  In some cases  it is assumed for science teachers like myself to gravitate toward authoritative involvement in ecological discourse.

Educators have been criticized for limiting the scope of their lessons to the scientific and technological aspects of ecological issues, to the exclusion of social and cultural elements 8.  According to one researcher’s concerns, “too many science educators seem to believe that their discipline is the vehicle for environmental education” 9.  He interprets this as a sort of “omnipotent disciplinary chauvinism” by which these teachers presume that the Western scientific worldview (or modern ecological thoughtprint) is a perfect fit for learning about complex ecological issues.  Even early on in the history of environmental education there were warnings by those such as Hall, who claimed that “science teachers will do environmental education a grave disservice if they try to take it over” 10.

There are of course exceptions to these trends.  Particularly at elementary levels, examples of diverse instruction led by innovative teachers of equally diverse backgrounds can be found in many schools and in many shared lessons archived in such educational magazines as Green Teacher.  There are also capable science teachers who approach sustainability from a broad perspective.

But given the overwhelming evidence found in mainstream school programs, we must conclude the current dominant approach to sustainability education is securely grounded in scientism—and increasingly so.

Expanding boundaries

No one is suggesting that science education is not an important part of a young person’s education in the modern world.  However, with stakes as high as they are, we must question this entrenched approach to sustainability education in particular.  What are the consequences of teaching about ecological issues from a narrowly scientific – and scientistic – perspective?  Is it right to rule out the perspectives and
knowledges of the arts, humanities, and other disciplines toward learning about sustainability?

Now more than ever, we need teachers in all areas of knowledge to step forward in dialogue with students about their relationship with the air, water and land and with their animal kin.  If this means science teachers taking a small step aside from their dominating role, perhaps – just perhaps – this may allow for the creativity and innovation we need.


Adapted from:  S. Goobie, Yes We Can: Sustaining a Language for the Land in Education (Master’s capstone paper), 2009.


Jacques, P. (2006).  The Rearguard of Modernity: Environmental Skepticism as a Struggle of Citizenship.
Global environmental politics, 6 (1), 76-101.

Habermas, J. (1995). Modernity—An incomplete project.  In Foster, H., Postmodern culture (3-15).  London: Pluto Press.

Habermas, cited in Foster, H. (1995).  Postmodern culture.  London: Pluto Press.


Marouli, C. (2002).  Multicultural Environmental Education: Theory and Practice.  Canadian Journal of
Environmental Education, 7 (1), 26-42.

Jensen, B.B., & Schnack, K. (1997). The action competence approach in environmental education.  Environmental Education Research, 3 (2), 163–178.

3  Sauvé, L. (2005).  Currents in Environmental Education: Mapping a complex and evolving pedagogical field.  Canadian Journal of Environmental Education,10, 11-37.

4  Lewis & James, cited in Marouli, C. (2002).  Multicultural Environmental Education: Theory and Practice.  Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 7 (1), 26-42.

5  Selby, D. (1999).  Global education: Towards a quantum model of environmental education.
Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 4, 125-141.

6  Stables, A., & Bishop, K. (2001). Weak and strong conceptions of environmental
literacy: implications for environmental education.  Environmental Education Research, 7 (1),

7  Goodson, cited in Gayford, C. (1998).  The perspectives of science teachers in relation to current thinking about environmental education.  Research in Science & Technological Education, 16 (2), 101- 113.

8  Redclift, cited in Gayford, C. (1998).  The perspectives of science teachers in relation to current thinking about environmental education.  Research in Science & Technological Education, 16 (2), 101- 113.

Kaplan, S. (2000).  Human nature and environmentally responsible behavior.  Journal of Social Issues, 56
(3), 491-508.

9  Lucas, cited in Gough, A. (2002).  Mutualism: a different agenda for environmental and science education. International Journal of Science Education, 24 (11), 1201-1215.

10  Hall, cited in Gough, A. (2002).  Mutualism: a different agenda for environmental and science education. International Journal of Science Education, 24 (11), 1201-1215.


6 thoughts on “Has sustainability education been hijacked?

  1. […] ecological thoughtprints are grounded in ways of thinking such as scientism, mechanism, dualism, utilitarianism, and so on.  It is in institutions like schools that we […]

  2. mbmars says:

    I agree that the humanities can help us to understand the various reasons why we might strive to make the world sustainable, and that these are a vital part of any rounded education about what it means to be the kind of animal that we are. I also agree that philosophy and cultural theory can give us a view on the ways we think, and think of, ourselves in relation to other living matter – and from that to understand why we might be fouling our own nest and how we need to rewire our perceptions to make it easier for us to stop that.

    Learning about sustainability itself, however – I can’t see how that’s a matter of anything except science. Having had excitingly creative thoughts about how to live sustainably, isn’t the only way to test whether these are of any worth is to do them and measure or model their impact on the ecosystem? How can anything but science help us with that? With the stakes as high as they are, as you say, can we really afford not to subject all of our educational efforts to this acid test?

  3. Interesting article, but my own experience obtaining a Master’s degree in sustainability was very interdisciplinary. I had classes from the disciplinary branches of science, but far more that were interdisciplinary in nature. Our program’s perspective is that our world problems are so large and so complex that no one disciplinary view could possibly provide all the answers. So, scientists are not in this movement alone. Philosophers, writers, artists, businesspeople, engineers, and architects — everyone’s skills and talents will be required. I applaud any teacher who will incorporate sustainable thinking into her/his curriculum. We have to teach our children how to live more sustainably than we have.

  4. sgoobie says:

    Thanks for your insightful comment. I wonder if science (or certain kinds of science — e.g. mechanistic science) is indeed the only way to test the worthiness of ways of living, seeing as how relatively sustainable ways of living have existed elsewhere in the world for many centuries without the need to empirically measure, observe and ascertain using Western science. Certainly science is one powerful tool to help us know how we are doing; the ecological footprint, for instance, gives us an excellent view of our total overall impact relative to planetary limits. But I do think we need to be careful about over-privileging one kind of knowledge above all others… else we get into the dangerous pattern of “only what can be measured matters”. Sustainability, at its core, is a healthy relationship with the natural world, a marriage between humans and the rest of Nature. Although this metaphor seems trite, do we need science to tell a married couple that their relationship is healthy? Do we need measurement and experiment to tell an Inuit elder that the caribou herd is ailing or the ice is thinning? Just some thoughts…

  5. sgoobie says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment! It is certainly very heartening to know that a graduate program has developed in a balanced manner to allow for interdisciplinary approaches and diverse perspectives. I wonder if this is true for other graduate programs, or if this is an inspiring anomaly. I wonder if this is true at the levels of grade school or even undergraduate programs, during the most formative years of childrens’ lives? Few will take a graduate degree in sustainability — virtually all will sit through high school lessons on ecology. The ramifications of how we choose to guide children through sustainability as a concept will resonate for years to come.

    Thanks again…

  6. mbmars says:

    ‘Worthiness’ is a value judgement, so obviously science can’t entirely help us and subjective disciplines must come in to play. Sustainability, on the other hand, is surely an objective criterion, isn’t it? Either a population replenishes the resources it uses at the same rate at which it depletes them, and will continue to do so indefinitely, or it doesn’t, and the only way to check that is to model empirically what’s happening to the both the population and the resources over time.

    Not all sustainable ways of living are necessarily ‘worthy’, nor do they have to arise from a ‘healthy relationship with nature’. I may choose to eat only meat that I hunt and kill myself, and I’m sure I’d do wonders for my carbon footprint, but I might only doing it because I like to watch other animals suffer and die. We could, perhaps, all live sustainably by confining ourselves in some sort of stasis while being fed minimal survival nutrients harvested and manufactured by a suitably programmed AI but I’m not sure whether there’d be any point.

    Similarly, not all worthy ways of living are strictly sustainable in this sense – including many pre-industrial approaches – which may or may not have eventually have overcome their randomly assigned limitations on technological development and population growth and devastated their local environment just as effectively if the West hadn’t come along and done it for them more efficiently And I’m sure they’d still be mouthing the same (now rather empty-looking) pieties about man’s magical relationship to the land, just as many Western politicians loudly proclaim their Christianity while despoiling the poor and needy.

    As for your elder – we may quite rightly place more trust in his Inuit intuitions, but he’ll surely be as susceptible to confirmation bias and overenthusiastic pattern-matching as the rest of us apes, and it’s only empirical measurement that will check whether or not he’s right. Because science isn’t ‘another way of knowing’, it’s an approach designed to correct for the above-mentioned glitches in all the others. A couple may well think their marriage is every bit as healthy as our economy appeared to be a few years ago, but have them observed by an ethnographer for six months and he could be right to tell them a rather different story…

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