Monday, February 4, 2013

Education and Fairness, Fear the Possible

We are living now, not in the delicious intoxication induced by the early successes of science, but in a rather grisly morning-after, when it has become apparent that what triumphant science has done hitherto is to improve the means for achieving unimproved or actually deteriorated ends.

--Aldous (Leonard) Huxley, Literature and Science (1963)

Thomas Kuhn once famously said that science is shaped by the prevailing values and norms in specific social and historical contexts.[1] We’ve experienced momentous scientific progress in the last few decades. We put men on the moon and machines on Mars; we cured incurable diseases and we catapulted ourselves into the modern age with the advent of industrial and informational revolutions. Yet our prevailing values and norms seem blind. We march forward with our air polluted, water contaminated, and land depleted. Now, we sit quietly waiting for the world to end; we sit silent waiting for our children to carry the burden.

What selfish creatures are we?

One educator and scholar noted this phenomenon in her quest for better environmental education (EE). Ms. Anna Gahl Cole in her 2007 article wrote: “environmental education is traditionally found in schools as an add-on to science curriculum . . . [and in order] for my students to understand environmental processes and systems, we had to first come to terms with the human histories that contextualize, shape, and define those systems.” To do this, and thus allowing us to define problems in our environmental educations, Ms. Cole reasoned that we must employ “alternative methodologies and ways of understanding how people experience and understand their environment.”[2]

In response to this call for alternative methodologies through multidisciplinary lenses of critical pedagogy, Ms. Cole pleas for a revisit to the environmental justice movement and place-based education. This is to put emphasis on localized and relevant educations that will make impacts in children’s lives as opposed to creating an irreconcilable difference between teaching children mere science yet giving them the prevailing norms that have done us harm in the first place.

With that in mind, we shift our focus on environmental education. We note that while traditional EE programs develop understanding of the environment through science, inspire individuals to take personal responsibility for environmental preservation and restoration, and solicit collective responses to shift policy decisions, environmental justice education (EJE) fosters a critical understanding of the environment within the context of human political and social actions thereby making science based education, and the policy decision making process based on that education, meaningful to the locality.

Under EJE initiatives, educators thus have a unique role in coaching environmental justice to students as relevant to their locality thus empowering them to act accordingly and intrinsically. Mere EE programs often create the dichotomy of us/them phenomenon, making students in poor and depleted areas feel what they have learned is irrelevant to their circumstances, thus making their pro environmental actions extrinsic to their education and motivation. This is because they have not been taught to see environmental impacts with their own conditions; they have not been taught environmental justice as relevant to them locally and how it is related globally. Yet some of the areas most impacted by environmental and social injustice are the same ones requiring the most policy shift towards sustainable goals; and by empowering students who live in these areas of both environmental and social injustice, the educators’ aim is to build strong communities of resistance and planning to change our current market models that depletes and exploits, thus avoiding problem shifting perpetuating the same knotty prevailing social and value norms to some other less privileged place.

The objective under the EJE model, therefore, is to empower students to understand and exercise their own individual rights in relation to their global community; the notion of environmental justice, then, must be incorporated into the curriculum and embedded into the wider scientific literacy programs so encapsulates the environmental studies. In essence, educators have to educate students of environmental progress and justice that it is their right to have access to open space, clean air and water, nutritious food as opposed to making them believe they’re supposed to be living with only a small park with a basketball court with no nets and fast food around the corner. Educators will have to stop convincing them that the only way to escape their condition is to accept the prevailing social and value norms so indoctrinated into their scientific programs and get ahead by any means necessary. Educators have to convince them that they have to take up ownership in their own environments and make a difference for themselves in meaningful ways in the greater context of global scarcity. More importantly, educators will have to convince their students to see the injustice done in relation to the interconnectedness of their conditions, avail themselves to the veil of ignorance and emerge with a fresh perspective of what is to be undone. Failing to do so, we would simply shift the problems around; one area’s pollution is migrated to the next poorer neighborhood and one country’s over consumption and human injustice shifted to the next country’s developing complications.

The EJE model thus requires both a scientific literacy as well as an embedded social literacy. Scientific literacy is the “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity."[3] Social literacy involves the need to focus on the living process of a community in context of the broader global development incentives. To put it simply: “think globally and act locally”; the educators must help students investigate their social context, local issues of injustice, impacts of developments and modernization—essentially incorporating the issue of environment, human rights, and economic incentives into one fundamentally sound EJE curriculum within the global context.

Something else to consider: EJE model is not only urgently required in poorer neighborhoods, but is also immediately necessary in the apparently rich and well-to-do areas. Often times we forget that individuals, and even small communities, are not aware of their conditions and relative disadvantage at the hands of global over consumption and over development. Living in a million dollar home does not immunize one from polluted air blown from neighboring areas and having a higher standard of living does not prevent global scarcity issues from reaching into their water supplies. At the end of the day, whether rich or poor, we all seem to face the same set of global problems distributed unevenly into disparate communities. John Rawls[4] noted this in his discourse on “Justice as Fairness” that as the result of our original position, we are behind a “veil of ignorance” and are completely unaware of our relative status among peers. Thus no individual has the distinct advantage in establishing the requisite principles of “justice”; and since everyone lacks the relative advantage, the few malintended individuals are able to establish norms and prevailing values behind such veil without ever acknowledging the effect.

EJE is therefore a globally required model and ought to be introduced locally with a keen eye on the complexity of our modern societies. Everyone is obligated to undertake this task and unveil their own ignorance. To proceed, we are reminded by the Dalai Lama that

“We have to think and see how we can fundamentally change our education system so that we can train people to develop warm-heartedness early on in order to create a healthier society. I don’t mean we need to change the whole system, just improve it. We need to encourage an understanding that inner peace comes from relying on human values like, love, compassion, tolerance and honesty, and that peace in the world relies on individuals finding inner peace. The power of the environmental justice movement lies in grassroots neighborhood organizations that have worked for change. Therefore, a focus of this work is empowering individuals in urban environments to build communities that stand for environmental justice.”


[1] THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS, University of Chicago Press; 3rd edition (December 15, 1996).

[2] Cole, A. G., Expanding the Field: Revisiting Environmental Education Principles Through Multidisciplinary Frameworks, 38.2 The Journal of Environmental Education 35-44 (2007).

[3] National Academy of Sciences, 2007, para. 14.

[4] See COLLECTED PAPERS: JOHN RAWLS (Samuel Freeman ed., 1999).

Other resources:

The US EPA defines environmental justice as

“fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, culture, education, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

The EPA further defines “fair treatment” to mean that “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies”; and “meaningful involvement” to mean that “people have an opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; the public’s contribution can influence the regulatory agency’s decision; their concerns will be considered in the decision making process; and the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.”

The first national study on environmental racism was published by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice in 1987 titled: “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.” The study provided data that matched waste facility sites to demographics demonstrating a strong pattern of environmental racism. (Environmental racism “refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages--whether intended or unintended--individuals, groups, or communities because of their race or color.”)

Executive Order 12898, "Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-income Populations" (2/94) requires certain federal agencies, including HUD, to consider how federally-assisted projects may have disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority and low-income populations.

The Department of Education’s draft on Environmental Justice (EJ) strategy focuses on healthy learning environments for students, energy-efficient school facilities, sustainability education and environmental literacy, and energy efficiency in the Department’s facilities. This draft EJ strategy is the Department’s plan to address environmental justice concerns and increase access to environmental benefits through the Department’s policies, programs, and activities. The Department is committed to meeting the goals of Executive Order 12898, and in August of 2011, several federal agencies signed the “Memorandum of Understanding on Environmental Justice and Executive Order 12898” (EJ MOU), which committed each agency to, among other things, finalizing an EJ strategy and releasing annual implementation reports.

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