Rubbish rouses passions;Cross-phase;Reviews;Subject of the week;Environment

26th June 1998 at 01:00
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY; Theory, Practice, Progress and Promise. By Joy A Palmer. Routledge pound;15.99

What gets people out of their armchairs and gardens and into leaflet-delivering and town halls?

What helped to bring about the disintegration of the Soviet Union and may yet force accountability on to repressive regimes around the globe? To adapt the admonitory reminder that decorated Clinton's campaign offices - It's the Environment, Stupid. Whether we like it or not, it's usually local concerns about environmental quality that trigger political participation.

It is one of the strengths of Joy Palmer's magisterial overview that the political nature of environmental education is fully recognised.

Books of this kind are invariably heavily freighted with lofty sentiments and unexceptionable aspirations. But in each section, the author compares rhetoric with reality. The emergence of environmental education over the past 30 years is expertly charted up to its present status as a curricular icon, before which policy makers genuflect as they hurry on to Basic Skills. Then comes a wistful reflection that the national curriculum "cross-curricular themes'' seem to have been "relegated to semi-permanent residence on the back-burner''.

If curricular politics dominate section one, real politics takes over in section two. This attempts to outline 13 key issues. An American attempt to attach differential weightings to the causes of environmental problems is cited. This predictably singles out population growth as the prime mover, conveniently overlooking the massive impact of affluent low-growth populations on fragile global systems. The United States, with 4 per cent of the world's people, creates 25 per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Just as one might be getting a bit irritated, however, another neat authorial disclaimer turns up: "This analysis could well appear to be highly subjective and over-simplistic."

A discussion of theory and research is perhaps the most valuable part of what Palmer envisages as a "source book''. Acknowledging that there are "substantively different perspectives of the root causes of environmental problems'', she reminds us of the implications. Students will need to learn how to debate, and they will need to understand political processes.

Environmental education deals with values, and "many school systems regard this as dangerous ground'' (it is dangerous ground). A whole school approach, "where the school tries to behave consistently with what is taught'', can be "dauntingly novel''. No problem with rules about litter, but a bit more controversial to ban parents driving their children to school.

Though there are brief essays from 15 other countries, this forward-looking survey benefits from having a single author and hence a personal perspective.

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