Why is Environmental Learning Important

In December 2002, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 57/254, establishing the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), and designated UNESCO as the lead agency for the promotion of ESD. The purpose of ESD is to rally people, organizations, and governments to shift their thinking and behavior toward more sustainable lifestyles [17]. According to UNESCO [18]:

.education is the primary agent of transformation towards sustainable development, increasing people's capacities to transform their visions for society into reality.The international community now strongly believes that we need to foster—through education—the values, behavior and lifestyles required for a sustainable future.

Other recent reports by commissions examining the status of the world's oceans have come to the same conclusion. On April 20, 2004, the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy issued a report detailing the deteriorating condition of the nation's coastal waters [19]. The Commission's report, along with the recently released Pew Oceans Commission report, America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change [20], argues for new approaches and actions to mitigate and correct these deteriorating conditions. First, these reports call for a new level of ocean literacy among the public that includes an understanding of how people are connected to the marine environment [20]. In order for people to become literate, it is imperative that they receive scientific information about ecosystems that is readily understood. It is assumed that once people gain this new appreciation for how they are connected to our fragile ecosystem, their interest will lead to greater involvement in sustainable activities and behaviors. It will take both interest and engagement to make progress on environmental protection and sustainable development [21].

Almost all governmental environmental agencies and ministries in the world, where they exist, have endorsed the need for public EE efforts. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states [22]:

Environmental education increases public awareness and knowledge of environmental issues and challenges. Through EE, people gain an understanding of how their individual actions affect the environment, acquire skills that they can use to weigh various sides of issues, and become better equipped to make informed decisions.

A more informed public can also play a vital role in helping governments design and implement effective environmental policies [5,23-25]. However, the critical gap between the need for policy-relevant knowledge and the generally poor level of public understanding of many public policy issues has led some commentators to proclaim the existence of a "legitimacy crisis" [26]. As Mondak points out,".popular input into government will be vacuous if citizens fail to.comprehend the intricacies of policy debates" [27]. Therefore, EE can serve to inform the public and invite a more sophisticated conversation between the public and their government.

Because of this general consensus that knowledge is central to the policy-making process, many argue that improving the knowledge base of citizens should be the first step in establishing international efforts to protect the environment in developing, post-Communist and postindustrial countries alike. Eagly and Kulesa have argued, ".communications directed to the general public are important not only because they may influence public opinion, and therefore have an impact on public policy, but also because they are potentially effective in inducing individuals to engage in behavior that can lessen the destructive impact of humans on the environment" [28]. The lack of knowledge is often identified as a major reason for public non-involvement in environmental activities [29].

In summary, scholars and policymakers alike believe that increasing environmental knowledge through education will provide extensive contributions to sustainable development and a clean environment. It has also been argued that there will be a greater need for a scientifically literate workforce due to advances in technology requiring new skills and the ability to process and conceptualize new types of information [30]. However, there are various barriers to increasing environmental awareness that we should examine first before discussing the realm of approaches that can be used in developing, post-Communist and postindustrial countries alike.

12.2.1 Correlates and Sources of Environmental Knowledge and Awareness

As we have discussed, there is consensus among social and natural scientists, along with many policy makers, that knowledge enhances the ability of individuals to recognize and act on their values and self-interest—especially concerning environmental issues. Contemporary research concerning the distribution of public knowledge in various areas of public policy, however, has documented a "knowledge gap" that separates persons of lower and higher socioeconomic status (SES) [4,5]. Lower SES individuals typically have significantly lower levels of policy relevant knowledge when compared to those of higher SES [31,32]. And as Tichenor, Donohue and Olien argue, ".the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segments of the population with higher SES tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than lower status segments, so that the gap in knowledge between these segments tends to increase rather than decrease" [33]. Of course, citizens in the developing countries are relatively disadvantaged as poverty, lack of access to modern communication networks, and inadequate or non-existent formal educational institutions result in less access to scientifically-based environmental information [30].

Two theories have been proposed to explain the knowledge gap separating higher and lower SES citizens. The first theory focuses on "trans-situational" conditions associated with lower SES status, such as level of formal education, income, and occupation [34]. All three of these factors strongly correlate with environmental knowledge holding in the United States, Canada, Japan, and Russia [5,35,36]. Gender and age also have been found to be important correlates of knowledge, with youth and women exhibiting lower levels of policy relevant knowledge when compared to older cohorts and men [7,37]. However, recent research suggests that the gender gap in scientific and environmental knowledge may be declining among younger cohorts due to increased participation of women in higher education in postindustrial countries [6,10].

If low levels of knowledge concerning the environment is a product of trans-situational factors alone, the prospects for increasing knowledge levels with public information and media campaigns may be limited due to the relatively static nature of these factors [35]. However, if low levels of knowledge can be explained by a second theory of "situation-specific" factors, there is more hope that educational efforts may be successful. This second theory suggests that even when controlling for SES characteristics, situational indicators will exhibit independent effects on knowledge holding [36].

Situational factors are motivational in character in that their presence leads to the acquisition of information by citizens irrespective of their SES characteristics. According to this approach, knowledge-seeking and knowledge-holding is highest among individuals who see a particular stake in policy outcomes [7], among those who are strongly committed to their policy views [5], and among those who discuss such issues frequently [35]. For example, one might expect higher levels of knowledge concerning environmental issues among those individuals who are economically and culturally dependent on natural resources, such as forests, rivers, grasslands, the ocean, etc. [6]. Certainly this has been an argument by those who propose integrating "indigenous" knowledge into scientific or "Western" forms of knowledge [38,39].

Many in the last decade, including the UN and the World Bank, have considered indigenous knowledge, based on local grassroots experience, an important component of sustainable development. Dei has defined indigenous knowledge as resulting from ".direct experience of the workings of nature and its relationship with the social world" [40]. And as Warren has argued in a report for the World Bank: "Indigenous knowledge is an important resource that can facilitate the development process in cost-effective, participatory, and sustainable ways" [41]. More inclusive decision-making encourages greater buy-in by members of local communities and therefore encourages longer-term success of environmental programs.

Certainly indigenous forms of environmental knowledge resulting from situational experiences should be considered as an important factor in raising awareness and insight into environmental policy problems [39,42]. At the same time, there is widespread concern among the World Bank, the UN, and many academics that the developing world, while potentially rich in indigenous knowledge, is being left far behind in terms of ecological science literacy. Reasons for this include trans-situational factors such as poverty, lack of educational opportunities, lack of research and outreach funds [12,30], and even lack of concern among scientists, researchers and policymakers in the postindustrial countries [43]. The general consensus is that environmentally responsible and sustainable development "depends on the production of a scientifically literate populace capable of using their knowledge to improve the quality of daily life" [30].

12.2.1.1 Information Sources

Another important factor to consider in addition to the trans-situational and situation-specific correlates of environmental policy-relevant knowledge is how information reaches the public. Previous research in postindustrial countries has shown that citizens use many sources of policy-relevant information, and that the scope of sources tapped is dependent on a number of characteristics of individuals [36,44]. These include personal (e.g., education), cognitive (e.g., information base), and affective (e.g., ideological orientation) attributes of individuals and the substantive content of the particular policy area [5,45].

According to Brians and Wattenberg, ".the mass media are widely recognized as providing the primary sources of political information for most citizens" in the postindustrial countries and increasingly in many developing countries [46]. Television has been identified as the most used source for information— especially environmental information—even though most citizens and social scientists question the reliability of information provided [5,6]. While some researchers have found a negative correlation between television use and levels of environmental knowledge in Canada and the United States [6,45], others have found little relationship between watching national news programs and amount of knowledge in a variety of domains [37]. Reading newspapers, however, is positively correlated with levels of policy-relevant knowledge concerning the environment. This finding is consistent with most other research showing a positive relationship between newspaper readership and knowledge holding in general [37,46]. Of course, in many developing countries where literacy is very low, the availability and impact of newspapers would be negligible.

Additional information sources where people can learn about environmental issues include the Internet and radio. Concerning the Internet and its impact on knowledge holding, the results are mixed. The range of possible information sites is enormous; however, the quality of sites is varied at best [47]. While some Internet sites are highly informative and useful sources of policy-relevant information, others are unreliable [48,49]. Norris and Jones [50] argue that when the Internet is used for information and communication, it can have a very beneficial impact on citizens' roles in public affairs, whereas when it is used for entertainment and recreation, it may actually erode citizen participation in public affairs, much like television. Therefore, it would appear that the Internet is rather like all other information sources—it can either inform or misinform users. Because there are excellent sources of information on the Internet, however, it has been advocated as a potentially important source of such information for the developing world, especially when used in formal educational settings [2,51]. For example, the 1998 UNESCO World Education Report [52] states that the new technologies, particularly those providing access to the Internet and the World Wide Web, can transform traditional schooling and, consequently, be an important source of learning concerning the environment and sustainable development. However, the report also emphasizes the danger of a widening gap in access to the Internet between "information rich" postindustrial countries and the "information poor" developing countries.

As with the Internet, radio can be used for a diverse set of purposes ranging from the transmission of educational programming, such as that often featured on National Public Radio in the United States or the British Broadcasting Corporation in Europe and other parts of the world, to the airing of various "talk shows" catering to ideologues. Lee and Cappella have found when a radio audience is "exposed to an intense, one-sided message, their agreement with the positions advocated increases as exposure and reception increase" [53]. They also found that the public typically selects radio programs that are consistent with their own partisan predispositions, which then reinforces their existing political attitudes and beliefs. Research reported by Steger et al. [45] found that radio use is positively correlated with environmental knowledge in Canada, but in the American context it had a negative impact on knowledge holding. Research conducted by Delli Carpini and Keeter [4] found that radio use has a slightly positive effect on general political knowledge. Therefore, as with the Internet, the capacity of radio to increase knowledge concerning the environment is mixed.

12.2.1.2 Formal Environmental Education

One of the most important sources of environmental awareness and knowledge in the developing, post-Communist, and postindustrial worlds are formal educational systems—primarily for youth but often for adults as well [54,55]. As Bregman and Fisker state [2]:

The education system can be an effective partner in promoting environmental awareness. School systems can teach students about the interactions between society and the environment, fostering an understanding of our dependence on the natural world.

While the influence "of EE is certainly not as dominant or successful as it ought to be" [54], most agree that the goal of including environmental awareness programs in formal education is a worthy one. In the United States alone, 30 of the 50 states now require EE in their public secondary schools [56]. It should be noted, though, that there are potentially enormous problems with such an approach in many developing and some post-Communist countries due to constrained budgets, poor infrastructure, and the general lack of trained teachers and appropriate curriculum [57].

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