You Can’t Teach Away the Problem!

One of the major benefits of higher education is that you get exposed to new perspectives you would never cross paths with otherwise. Certainly, that is the case for me. Why else would I, as a graduate student in environmental education, decide to write an article dismissing education as the sole solution to environmental problems? Have I lost my mind? I assure you that I have not, and I hope you decide to stick with me as I make my case.

sociology 3
A group of students examining a very old Poplar tree.

For the majority of my life I had been of the mindset that, if people just knew about environmental issues, they would feel the need to stop these problems from continuing. Perhaps you feel similarly. As my professor in “Environmental Sociology”, Dr. Shibley, would tell us: that is wrong. Dr. Shibley’s class focuses on the social contexts surrounding the decisions that get made about environmental conflicts. If people are unaware that a problem exists in the first place, education is critical. But, when it comes to actually making a change, one must dig deeper and enter the land of values and attitudes.

I could try to use technical jargon and get all detailed, but I don’t like reading that and I’m sure you don’t either. Let’s use a couple of examples to illustrate what I’m talking about here. In New York, researchers were trying to determine whether or not people would support the reintroduction of wolves into the Adirondack Mountains. Initially, most people favored reintroduction and the researchers were prepared to move forward. Then some locals began to turn the issue into one of the government meddling in local concerns and taking away freedom. Suddenly, support for reintroduction vanished and the idea was scrapped. The plan first touched on values related to restoring a predator that humans killed off. When values about freedom from the government became involved, people felt completely different about the same original issue.

People are social creatures and, although their values are unlikely to change, their attitudes can if there is social pressure to do things differently. Researchers in California looked at ways for people to reduce their energy consumption. They provided thousands of people with information about what their energy use was compared to their neighbors. Their findings were striking. When people found out that they used more than the “norm”, they started dropping their energy use dramatically. But, when people discovered that they were using less than the “norm”, their consumption went up. Educating these people about energy use would not cause these types of changes. Creating an environment where they felt pressure to use less energy would.

So, if education is useless, why am I bothering to spend the rest of my life in that field? Well, education helps to create these “norms” and can provide the information that children and adults base their values upon. These values, in turn, affect the way people behave. My main point here is that we need to view environmental problems as more than just “lack of education” problems. To truly make the changes you and I want to see, we need to figure out why people think the way they do about issues and address the situation these problems are arising within.

Getting students outside and into a marsh.
Getting students outside and into a marsh.
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