The Roots of Environmental Education in the US

Posted on

In the most recent decade, “environmental education” has been a new key phrase that has been widely used not only at environment related conferences or educational discussions, but also in public schools and afterschool programs alike. According to US Environmental Protection Agency, environmental education is defined as “a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem solving, and take action to improve the environment” and after certain education, “individuals develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues and have the skills to make informed and responsible decisions” (EPA). All sorts of new programs and green schools rise along with this environmental education trend. Outdoor education places an emphasis on environmental related topics as well. Artists use their eco-art as a bridge to implement environmental education in creative ways. Each organization or person has a different interpretation on the concept of environmental education. This essay traces the history of  environmental education during the 1970s in the United States and investigates the following questions: how did environmental education start in the US in the 1970s and how did it transform from the previous conservation education? What were the major factors that led to this education movement?

The 1970s was a critical point in history for environmental education. In the 1950s, there was a lack of documentation on environmental education. An increase in social attention on environmental education started in the 1970s, when people started to realize the importance of building the connection between human and nature, raising the knowledge and understanding towards the biophysical environment, as well offering solutions to the environmental issues (ProQuest Historical Newspaper: The New York Times). In this essay, I argued that even though environmental education rose in the US as a subproduct of environmental revolution in 1970, Dr William B. Stapp, professor from University of Michigan, was the root founder of the environmental education movement and pushed the transition from previous conservation education to the modern environmental education . The foundation of environmental education was for the purpose of solving community based environmental issues, developing stronger human morality, and building a more knowledgeable citizenship for the country.

On Earth Day, April 22nd, 1970, 20 million people marched on the streets all over the U.S, marking the beginnings of the environmental revolution. Earth Day was an opportunity to “(give) voice to that emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns on the front page” (Earth Day Network). As a result, new legislation and governmental changes rose up in response to the environmental movement and massive citizenry concern about their environment. Environmental issues became one of the political conversations (Hill 1).

Consequently, environmental education was also one of the major products from the environmental revolution. Diversified groups of social environmental protection organizations stood up and came up with their educational initiatives. At the same time, public schools were working on integrating environmental education into the state school system as well (Carney NJ20). Moreover, the urgent need for environmental education was seen not only through school upper level administrative leaders, but also through the base of the education system workers. In the first environmental education meeting, the Consortium on Public Education in Environmental Awareness, held in 1969, schoolteachers spoke up to push school administrations to incorporate environmental material into school curricula (New York Times 50).

Earth Day not only stimulated a curriculum innovation in the traditional education system, but also completely changed how students viewed their natural world. According to a poll conducted in 1980, young people showed more environmental awareness compared to their cohort from 15 years ago. The result showed that 62% of the high school students agreed that nongame endangered species protection was “very important” while only 32% opinionated that it was “fairly important” (Carney NJ 20). One of the teaching assistants, who was also a biologist, claimed that environmental movement had an influence on the young generation and their viewed towards their connection to the natural environment.

Environmental education was successfully launched after Earth Day 1970. Dr William B. Stapp, one of the environmental education founders, played another crucial role in pushing the entire system forward. Dr. Stapp was the Professor Emeritus of the School of Natural Resources & Environment, University of Michigan and founded University of Michigan’s Environmental Education program in 1970s (Environmental Education Research 471). His journal The Concept of Environmental Education for the first time defined the term “environmental education” in 1970.

Dr. Stapp stated the necessity to transform conservation education to community-based environmental education. In the journal, he discussed that “most current programs in conservation education are oriented primarily to basic resources; they do not focus on community environment and its associated problems” (Stapp 34). Indeed, prior to 1969, there were only a touch of articles found that focused on “human environment” and “education and environment” and barely any resources examined “ecology” as a social issue (Bruker 136). During the early 20th century, conservation was a commonly talked topic. President Theodore Roosevelt placed an emphasis on natural resources conservation as he said “these resources were the property of the people and should serve their benefit” (Bruker 136).  From “nature study” in the 1920s to “outdoor education” in the 1940s, the purpose of the education had always been on the wise use of resources and learning of the appreciation of natural environment (Bruker 136).

Students at the time only understood nature as a natural environment, separated from human lives. In their knowledge, “ecology” was limitedly defined as “animal life and behavior”, and “environment” was constrained within “the classroom, home and social environment of children” (Bruker 135). At a New York Times Youth Forum in 1957, where students shared their thoughts on environmental issues, one sixteen-year-old high school student Thomas said, we should clean up the pollution problem in streams and rivers”, however, he didn’t mention how it would affect human beings (New York Times 21). Another student expressed “Americans don’t have an interest in maintaining the beauty of our national parks and sanctuaries. The high schools and public schools should do more to stimulate an interest in the great outdoors” (New York Times 21). These statements showed that students, during Conservation Era, had full understanding of natural resources conservation, but lacked knowledge of the interconnection between humans and the natural environment. Thus, Dr. Stapp voiced out the higher need of programs focusing on “the role of the citizen in working, both individually and collectively, toward the solution of problems that affect our well being” (Stapp 34). In a journal reflecting the social gains of Environmental Movement after its first three years, author Gladwin Hill showed the difference between environmental education and conservation education. In the education section, he wrote that “the sudden awareness of ‘ecology’- the interrelation of living things and their inanimate surroundings- underscored the parochialism of those areas of traditional higher education in which biologists didn’t talk to geologists and demographers saw nothing in common with foresters ”(Hill 1).

The prediction of future urbanization was another reason that environmental education would be crucial to the society. As people moved from rural areas to urban environments, they gradually lose their deep connection with nature. This would diminish people’s understanding on their reliance on nature as a consequence as well. The lack of understanding of the natural environment would only worsen the current environmental issues, such as lack of environmental planning and management and misuse of chemicals (Stapp 33).  

Urbanization also deformed people’s traditional ethics, attitudes, and opinions. After being immersed in a polluted environment for a long time, people would be immunized to the polluted environment and they would take it as granted and stopped making a change (Dunlap and Liere 10). Additionally, in a society that promoted anti-environmental education and trend, Dr. James Swan, professor from University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Institute for Social Research, said, “we have always been taught that all growth is good, yet physical and economic growth are not compatible with pollution control”(Bird 40). So there’s the need to reform the education system and reemphasize the ethics that promote positivity to the society. Urbanization had influenced people in a way that was beyond just physical disconnection but psychological transformation.

Environmental education would also serve as a national politics game changer. In the American political system, each citizen had a voice and these voices could make a difference in the political decision making process. Citizens and voters had the responsibility to understand what their natural environment meant to them (Stapp 33). Their wisdom was counted to make political decisions due to their voting rights. These voting decisions not only implied the future political leaders but also determined the destiny of community issues. These political decisions were further connected to national science and technology, economy, etc.

All in all, Earth Day 1970 was a critical point that opened the environmental revolution and people’s consciousness on environmental issues. Nevertheless, if the society was only aiming to protect the natural environment, conservation education would do its job to educate the public about the natural world and environment management. The key was that Dr. Stapp voiced out the major social issues and potential social problems in the 1970s, and determined the root causes of these issues. He came up with the solution to these issues, a brand new education system: environmental education. Without Dr. Stapp’s contribution in pointing out the ultimate problems, the society would not be able to grasp the necessity to transform from conservation education to the modern environmental education.  


Works Cited

Bruker, Robert M. “An Historical Approach to Environmental Education.” The Clearing House 48, no. 3 (1973): 135–37.

CARNEY, LEO H. “Environmentalists Focus on Education.” New York Times  (1923-Current File); New York, N.Y. June 14, 1981, sec. New Jersey Weekly.

“COURSES BACKED ON ENVIRONMENT: Several Disciplines Join to Implement Education.” New York Times  (1923-Current File); New York, N.Y. December 21, 1969.

Dunlap, Riley E., and Kent D. Van Liere. “The ‘New Environmental Paradigm’: A Proposed Measuring Instrument and Preliminary Result.” Journal of Environmental Education 9 (Summer, 1978): 10-19. ResearchGate. Web. 15 Apr. 2017.

“Ee_from Classic to Contem..pdf.” Accessed May 3, 2017.

HILL, GLADWIN. “Environmental Movement Registers Gains in 3 Years: Environmental Movement Scores Important Gains in Three Years Government International Affairs Education The Law Moves to Regulate Growth Specific Actions Politics.” New York Times  (1923-Current File); New York, N.Y. April 9, 1973.

“North Carolina Environmental Education.” From the Classic to the Contemporary. Accessed May 3, 2017.–basics–course-materials.html.

“Obituary.” Environmental Education Research 7, no. 4 (November 1, 2001): 471–72. doi:10.1080/13504620120081331.

Stapp, William B. “Environmental Encounters.” Environmental Education 2, no. 1 (September 1, 1970): 35–41. doi:10.1080/00139254.1970.10801536.

———. “The Concept of Environmental Education.” The American Biology Teacher 32, no. 1 (1970): 14–15. doi:10.2307/4442877.

“The History of Earth Day.” Earth Day Network. Accessed May 3, 2017.

Times, DAVID BIRD Special to The New York. “EDUCATORS MEET ON ENVIRONMENT: 3-Day Session Examines Teaching of the Subject.” New York Times  (1923-Current File); New York, N.Y. December 6, 1970.

US EPA, OA. “What Is Environmental Education?” Overviews and Factsheets. Accessed May 5, 2017.

“Youth Forum Calls for Education In Drive to Save U.S. Resources.” New York Times. 1957.