Ecological Democracy: An Environmental Approach to Citizenship Education

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Memorial University of Newfoundland]On: 03 August 2014, At: 01:30Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

    Theory & Research in SocialEducationPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/utrs20

    Ecological Democracy: AnEnvironmental Approach toCitizenship EducationNeil O. Houser aa University of OklahomaPublished online: 31 Jan 2012.

    To cite this article: Neil O. Houser (2009) Ecological Democracy: An EnvironmentalApproach to Citizenship Education, Theory & Research in Social Education, 37:2,192-214, DOI: 10.1080/00933104.2009.10473394

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00933104.2009.10473394

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  • 192 Spring 2009

    Theory and Research in Social EducationSpring 2009, Volume 37, Number 2 pp. 192-214 College and University Faculty Assemblyof National Council for the Social Studies

    Ecological Democracy:An Environmental Approach to Citizenship Education

    Neil O. HouserUniversity of Oklahoma

    Civic educators strive to develop the kinds of citizens who can identify and address the significant challenges of life in society. A case can be made that we have failed in this fundamental task. In spite of our efforts, contemporary societies seem ill-equipped to cope with the enormous social and environmental issues of our age. The problem is not merely with the broader population. Academics, too, have been unable or unwilling to assess the challenges we face. This essay explores the underlying nature of our contemporary situation and argues for a synthesis of citizenship education and ecological consciousness. The author suggests that civic education should be conducted within, rather than outside or beyond, a broader environmental context. Such an approach is imperative for the good of society and the health of the planet. The author argues that we can no longer afford anything less.

    Preparing the young for membership in society is a central function of education. For better or worse, education influences human perspectives, actions and relationships. As John Dewey observed nearly as century ago, Any education given by a group tends to socialize its members, but the quality and value of the socialization depends upon the habits and aims of the group (1916/1966, p. 83). Given the nature of the problems we currently face, it is important to ask what habits and aims influence education today and to assess their impact on the good of society and the health of the planet.

    Social studies, an important component of education in general, involves the preparation of citizens for membership in society.1 As declared in the 1916 National Education Association (NEA) report on the social studies, The keynote of education is social efficiency and the conscious and constant purpose [should be the] cultivation of good citizenship (p. 9). Civic educators have long sought to identify the challenges of life in society, the kinds of citizens needed to cope with these challenges, and ways to help students become these citizens.

    Today, citizenship education remains the primary aim of the

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  • Spring 2009 193

    field. Much consideration is given to the preparation of citizens who can address the personal complications of everyday life as well as the broader problems facing our society and world (Evans, 2004; Hahn, 1991; Houser & Kuzmic, 2001; Ross, 2001; Stanley, 2001). As noted in the National Council for the Social Studies curriculum standards:

    The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.And because civic issuesare multidisciplinary in nature, understanding these issues and developing resolutions to them require multidisciplinary education. (NCSS, 1994, Executive Summary, paras. 4 & 5)

    A case can be made that we have failed in this fundamental task. In spite of our best efforts, contemporary societies and citizens seem ill-equipped to cope with the issues of our age. The problem is not merely that the general population has failed to learn from its mistakes, or that the forces of prejudice are stronger than realized, or even that capitalist greed and the corporate agenda may have finally overwhelmed our democratic ideals. While all of these are important factors, responsibility lies with political, economic, and academic leaders as well. We, too, have apparently been unable or unwilling to accurately assess our existing situation.

    This essay argues for a synthesis of ecological thought and citizenship education. The search for societal improvement remains imperative. However, I argue that this endeavor should be conducted within, rather than outside or beyond, a broader ecological context. First I identify the challenges we face and review the literature in ecological philosophy. This literature reveals deep connections between our current social and environmental dilemmas. Next I explore why these problems, compelling as they may be, remain difficult for many to understand and accept. Finally I focus on how citizenship educators might begin to address these pressing issues.

    Socioenvironmental Concerns and Relationships

    Significant social and environmental factors are becoming increasingly problematic, and hence increasingly familiar. Many are now aware of the alarming environmental statistics reported in sources such as Al Gores (2006) An Inconvenient Truth. We have also witnessed rising social tensions in the United States and the rest of the world. Within the last decade alone we have seen rapid population growth; excessive patterns of production and consumption; aggressive corporate globalization; devastating conflicts in Africa, Europe, and

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    the Middle East; catastrophic terrorism in Spain, Great Britain, and the United States; contentious military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq; soaring costs of food, oil and healthcare; loss of manufacturing jobs in industrialized nations; and vitriolic intolerance among religious fundamentalists. Nor are these tensions isolated among the poor. Today, some of the wealthiest nations on earth rank among its leaders in terms of violence, stress and anxiety, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide.

    No longer are these experiences remote to most Americans. Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and economic challenges like the loss of jobs, the housing and lending crises, and the rising costs of oil and food have focused national attention not only on the weather but also on related issues of population growth, atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide, corporate arrogance and greed, and the inequitable treatment of poor and minority citizens by indifferent government officials. Few credible scientists doubt whether a lethal combination of social and environmental factors threatens not only our way of life but the very health of the planet. Yet, in spite of the evidence, widespread denial and confusion persist regarding the nature and causes of this critical situation.

    At the heart of the problem is a basic misunderstanding regarding the relationship that exists between humans and the environment. A vivid example involves U.S. Senator James Inhofe from the oil-producing State of Oklahoma. Former Chair of the U.S. Environment and Public Works Committee, Senator Inhofe received nearly $290,000 from oil and gas companies (including ExxonMobil) for his 2002 reelection campaign, and almost $450,000 from similar entities during the 2008 campaign finance cycle (Center for Responsive Politics, n.d., Industries section, para. 1). Regrettably, but not surprisingly, Inhofe continues to insist that global warming is a vast international hoax designed to destroy the American way of life (Inhofe, 2005, Floor speech, para. 1).

    What is the nature of the human-environment relationship? What insights can be gained from the literature in ecological philosophy? In spite of prevailing assumptions that seem to suggest otherwise, human communities and natural environments are deeply interconnected. Whether at the biological level of the planetary ecosystem or at the social and political levels of communities and nations, the actions of some cannot help but affect the circumstances of others. Nearly a century ago, classic social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1934/1962) discussed the profound reciprocal relationship between organisms and their environments:

    When a form develops a capacity, however this takes place, to deal with parts of the environment which its progenitors could

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    not deal with, it has to this degree created a new environment for itself. The ox that has a digestive organ capable of treating grass as a food adds a new food, and in adding this it adds a new object. The substance which was not food before becomes food now. The environment of the form has increased. The organism in a real sense is determinative of its environment. The situation is one in which there is action and reaction, and adaptation that changes the form must also change the environment. (p. 215)

    Gradually extending his thesis to humans, Mead went on to explain that as a person adjusts to a certain environment, the person changes as well. In the subsequent adjustment of the individual, the broader community is also affected. Although the effects may be slight, personal alterations invariably lead to modifications in the social environment and the world is accordingly a different world (Mead, 1934/1962, p. 215). Reciprocally, different worlds necessitate further adjustment, no matter how slight, of those who dwell within them.

    Along similar lines, Michaels and Carello (1981) demonstrate how the co-evolution of an organism and environment can form a distinctive ecological niche:

    An animals wings, gills, snout, or hands describe that animals environment. Likewise, a complete description of a niche describes the animal that occupies it. For example, if we specify in detail the niche of a fish (its medium, its predators and prey, its nest, etc.), we have in a way described the fish. Thus, just as the structure and functioning of an animal describes the environment, the particulars of the environment imply the structure and activities of its animal. (p. 14)

    This is a remarkable observation. The environment literally helps define the organism, and the organism literally helps define the environment. If this is the case, to care for ones environment truly is to care for oneself.

    Dewey and Bentley (1949) theorized about the continuous nature of reciprocal organism-environment relationships. Rather than isolated mechanical moments, such relationships are dynamic processes continued indefinitely in time and space. For Dewey and Bentley, they are transactional aspects of an inseparable whole. Such assertions seemed to anticipate later ecological claims that life and society must be understood as vast interdependent systems of systems (Capra, 1996; Maturana & Varela, 1980). Drawing on the literature in ecological philosophy, Capra observes the following:

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    The view that values are inherent in all of living nature is grounded in the deep ecological, or spiritual, experience that nature and self are one. This expansion of the self all the way to the identification with nature is the grounding of deep ecology. (1996, pp. 11-12)

    Deep ecologist Arne Naess shares a similar perspective:

    Care flows naturally if the self is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves.Just as we need no morals to make us breatheif your self in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care.You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it.[If life] is experienced by the ecological self, our behavior naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics. (cited in Fox, 1990, p. 217)

    Compared with other academic traditions, the history of ecological philosophy is brief. Following the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, Western political leaders generally believed civilization was on the right track. The Enlightenment had initiated a new humanism celebrating individual personhood unfettered by social responsibility (beyond a basic regard for life, liberty and property). The Industrial Revolution had firmly ensconced principles of efficiency, productivity and the manufacture of material goods. Occasional environmental concerns were dismissed as sentimental navet. Remarkable achievements in science and technology assuaged incipient fears and served to justify continued economic production and expansion.

    Then the unthinkable happened. In spite of the best efforts of the greatest minds of the 20th century, the world was at war. Twice within a single generation, the most powerful...

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