Values as part of environmental education

Find out more about environmental education and how values play a role in environmental literacy and decision making. See how educators use values as a way to teach EE and help youth better understand how to be good earth stewards.

Values play an important role within environmental education. All human values are linked to satisfying our biological needs. These basic needs of survival (food, water, shelter, clothing) all place demands on the environment. Other values exist (social, political, economic) but the primary values of survival become principle in our daily lives. Since all we have comes from what the earth provides, there is an obvious connection between our values and the environment.

The third goal of Environmental Education (EE) as determined by the Tbilisi Declaration of 1977 is attitudes.  The goal states: to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.  Values we develop as youngsters and carry to adulthood are shaped from a variety of sources. Throughout our developing years we are influenced by our family, schools, neighborhoods and churches. Later, we are additionally swayed by the media, social institutions and organizations of membership. Michigan State University Extension states these many factors shape the values we hold as adults and ultimately will pass on to those we foster.

There are stages of value development all people progress through. The initial stage is based on the satisfaction of needs being met and interactions of significant adults. Things are seen as right or wrong, good or bad. As environmental interactions increase, one becomes more influenced by perception and ideas. An understanding develops that others have feelings and that not everyone agrees on what is right or wrong, good or bad. Influences increase with age and awareness develops about economic considerations, decisions and rules for one’s self and of others. Pros and cons of environmental issues are often resolved by accepting behavior of the majority. A transition slowly emerges where decisions are made between personal needs and wants and those of one’s groups of membership. Eventually, judgment and reasoning become important tools for determining a position on environmental issues. Human error is recognized even though careful deliberation and thought is given. Hopefully in the end, reflection and decision making create answers to environmental issues that are compatible with the environment.

The environmental values we hold come down to a matter of making choices about the environment. Should I use CFL or incandescent bulbs? Can I walk instead of drive? Do I need to purchase a new item, repair the old one or do without? Should I shorten my shower time? The answer to these questions is indeed personal and gives careful consideration to economics, comfort, convenience and social acceptance. It is not always easy.   

Teaching environmental values to youth should not be teaching our own values but rather fostering youth to develop their own. Imparting your own values creates a danger that youth are being “brainwashed”. Most environmental educators are environmentalists yet not all environmentalists are environmental educators. It is important to ask questions and give answers that are non-biased. At the same time, environmental educators ask questions that are intriguing and thought provoking. In doing so, we as environmental educators give value to what we do and increase environmental literacy to those who will be the future caretakers of our world.