Snippets – and provocations? – from the field

From: The Heart of Sustainability: Big Ideas from the field of Environmental Education and their Relationship to Sustainability Education or What’s love got to do with it?

by Donald J. Burgess and Tracie Johannessen

The more we read and think about the implications of what is taking place now on this planet, the more we are convinced that human civilization is facing a deepening ecological crisis that has never been faced before. If we want to create a culture, environment and economy that are viable in the longer term, we must learn to promote an ecologically sustainable, socially equitable and bio-culturally diverse planet (Bowers, 2010). We believe the central question for educators is how do we engage our students in a consideration of the degradation of earth’s ecosystems and their ability to support us in our current lifestyle in a way that engenders something other than despair? In an interview with Bill Moyer, Barry Lopez states “the kind of expertise we need is not a facile grasp of policy, but a deeper love of humanity. The kind of love that can help us resist the temptation to despair” (Moyer, 2010). As environmental educators, we hold the belief that this capacity for love can and must be cultivated through shared experiences that help people discover value in the natural world, experiences that encourage the exploration of what we believe and who we are and how we intend to live in the world.

Big Idea 4: Sustainability education is not possible without social cohesion (race, gender, ethnic, religious, political and wealth)

Shared experience creates cohesion and is the foundation for community. Our educational focus must include issues of access to the natural world and experiences that engender empathy, tolerance and constructive social interaction. Spending time together in nature is a great equalizer, providing opportunities for teachers to see students, and students to see each other, in a different light. Walls and Jinkling (2002)  [sic] promote the merits of taking a more participatory, democratic, pluralistic, and emancipatory approach to education and sustainability, particularly in higher education. Access to nature should be a part of these educational efforts.

Big Idea 5: Sustainability is not a destination (but rather an aspiration) based on precedent (we create it)

Without an endless supply of energy to support our cultural needs we will be forever aspiring toward sustainability. As environmental education practitioners, we have always believed that the most important thing we can instill in our students is the ability to envision a future that is different from the one that they see laid out before them. Time and time again we have heard students describe the future as overbuilt, crowded and polluted. Our task, then, is to involve them in a personal and ecological healing that opens up the possibility of something other – a future born of love rather than fear. Can a curriculum based solely on the study of the definition and/or principals of sustainability and lacking opportunities to form a relationship with nature engender this love?


Bowers, C. (2010). Reflections on teaching the course “Curriculum Reform in an Era of Global Warming”. The Journal of Sustainability Education, 1.

Moyer, B. (Producer). (2010, June 16, 2010) Barry Lopez. Bill Moyers Journal. Podcast retrieved from

Wals, A. E. J., & Jickling, B. (2002). Sustainability in higher education: From doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3(3), 221-232.

— comments welcome!


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