Sunday, September 9, 2012

Environmental Education in Geography

[NOTE: This post was originally published on my 'non-academic' blog - The Organic Intellectual: Tribute to an Idea - on September 27, 2010. I wrote a number of reflective pieces in my doctoral seminar which I have decided to share here in the coming weeks.]

The most recent issue of Alternatives Journal (Vol. 36, No. 5, 2010) focused exclusively on environmental education in Canada, and provided a list of 54 university programs related to 'the environment'. Skimming the cross-Canada directory, it is interesting to see the range of programs considered to fall under the broader category of 'environmental education' - whether it's the Tourism and Outdoor Recreation program at Capilano University in British Columbia, the Sustainable Agricultural Systems program at the University of Alberta, or Planning at the University of Waterloo. At many universities, environmental studies is offered by the Geography Department (at Carleton, for example, it is officially known as the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies). In other institutions, environmental studies is a stand alone department, distinct from Geography. In some cases environmental science is offered in place of environmental studies - and needless to say the focus in such institutions is more on the biological/geological/ecological processes of the Earth's system than on the relationship between human social structures and the natural world.

So who cares? Well, as I've discovered this week - it's a bit of a sore spot for (some) geographers. Despite the pop-cultural 'common sense' belief that geography is the study of maps, or at best unique places, and that its leading association is the National Geographic Society, in fact one of the discipline's most important underlying themes has been the study of humans and their environment, at all the complex levels you can interpret the dialectic (and this theme long outlives the rise of popular environmental awareness in the 1970s and the growth of 'environmental education' programs in the last decade). Hence you have within one department a spectrum of scholars - from those who study ice cores in Antarctica to others who write about ecofeminism in small Indonesian communities. But as the environmental movement ramped up, and demand for environment-based courses popped up in universities, the geographers who didn't manage to take ownership of environmental studies felt, well, dissed (for lack of a better word). Rhetorical questions were asked: If they don't think environmental studies is fully enmeshed in geographical studies, well then what do they think we actually do here in Geography - look at maps all day?

While on the one hand it's easy to see how it can be a sore spot for geographers, on the other hand, it's something geographers should learn to get over. In acclaimed geographer Ron Johnston's words: "We should just get on with it" (10). That is, we should keep doing the work that we do, and strive to do it well. In doing so, we (that is, geographers - a group I'm learning to refer to self-referentially) should worry not about other disciplines 'stealing' environmental awareness from us. Rather, we can embrace the opportunity provided by a unique discipline with a rich history of anthropo-ecological awareness, and just get back to it.

Johnston, Ron. "Critical Review: Geography (or geographers) and earth system science," Geoforum, 37 (2006): 7-11.

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