The Place of Environmental Education at Rio+20

In preparation for next summer’s Rio+20Conference on Sustainable Development (CSD) the UN CSD Education Caucus has submitted a Concept Note outlining their views on Environmental Education. Comprised of over 600 member organizations the Caucus represents formal and informal educators from each of the World Regions. The Note identifies challenges facing Environmental Education in the wake of the 1992 Rio Declaration and outlines actions necessary for the advancement of global understanding of environmental issues.

The United Nations’ 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment is often cited as the birthplace of Environmental Education. Three years later, in 1975, the goal of Environmental Education as defined by the UN was articulated in the Belgrade Charter as follows:

To develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and prevention of new ones.

The Charter further articulated 6 objectives to guide Environmental Education toward that goal including awareness, knowledge, attitude, skills, evaluation, and participation.

The first Earth Summit in 1992 was essentially an Environmental Education conference, largely designed to address the goal and objectives of the Belgrade Charter. It provided an opportunity for world leaders and delegations to learn about and interact with “the environment and its associated problems”. Attendees gained awareness of environmental issues as well as knowledge and skills necessary to evaluate those issues.

Since 1972, Environmental Education has been a foundational theme of all UN conferences on the environment. Yet much of the enthusiasm generated for Environmental Education in the 1970s has waned and education has been overshadowed as a priority. The Education Caucus is calling for a renewed interest in Environmental Education to benefit all stakeholders involved in the UNCSD.

Pedagogy in the twenty-first century has moved away from the paradigm of “teacher as expert” and embraced the notion of “student as expert” through models of inquiry-based exploration, hands-on experimentation, and cooperative problem solving to address relevant, real-world issues. Gone is the model of “professor” at the head of the class.

The Education Caucus is encouraging a similar paradigm shift in their approach to Environmental Education. Specifically, they are calling for a broadening of the concept of education to include learning experiences outside of traditional classrooms. Too many delegations, major groups, and NGOs involved in UNCSD equate education with “schooling” and consequently dismiss the topic as being irrelevant to their area of focus.

On the contrary, in documentation published after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Chapter 36.1 of Agenda 21 acknowledges education to be “linked to virtually all areas” of conference concerns and therefore relevant to all stakeholders at the UNCSD.

Powerful, effective Environmental Education can and should be occurring at all levels of society to create an informed citizenry and polity. Programs offered in non-traditional settings, such as those offered by the Human Impacts Institute, provide some of the most effective opportunities to teach about sustainability. In particular, the Education Caucus feels that three audiences should be targeted for meaningful, sustained Environmental Education in a non-traditional setting: the business community, the public, and the government. Governance structures that support sustainable development should themselves be created as “learning systems” requiring diligent attention to scientific research, public input, and critical reflection.

To successfully navigate the complex nature of sustainable development on a local and global scale we must embrace a model of life-long learning. An increase in Environmental Education opportunities in non-traditional settings will target learners outside of the schooling system. As a global citizenry there is much that confuses us in the face of complex twenty-first century issues. By maintaining focus on the necessity of ongoing educational opportunities we empower our community to become well-prepared and informed decision makers as we interface with issues of sustainable development.

The Education Caucus will recommend that Environmental Education for Sustainability be visible as an action-based priority within the Rio 2012 strategies to address the major themes of the Summit: creating a green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, and an institutional framework for sustainable development.

If you are interested in reading the whole document from theEducation Caucus, or of any other Major Group or Nation State, including the Human Impacts Institute’s submission, you can view them here.

By Christina Cotter, Human Impacts Institute Environmental Education Advisor

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