Professor Steve Van Matre is founder of the Institute for Earth Education, and one of America's most active, itinerant and articulate apostles of environmental awareness. For nearly a quarter century, he has fought to put the central fact and fate of the living Earth into modern curricula and consciousness, and has seeded Earth Education networks in over a dozen countries.
Van Matre: Yes, well, we think that the field of environmental education has just gotten lost. My master's degree program is in environmental education by title, but actually we think we're doing what environmental education said it would do in the beginning and hasn't done. Because we think the field has become everything to everyone. In the United States and I think in many other countries in the world, environmental education just means a whole lot of different things to people: it means doing things outside or it means picking up litter or it means taking the kids and doing some lesson in the classroom that deals with some issue of the moment. But it really doesn't do the job in any systematic way that environmental education said that it was going to do or at least the boys talked about doing some 27 years ago. And so in a way I'd like to change the title of my program to be honest, my master's degree program because I think it is misleading, because I think what environmental education has become is not much of anything to anyone in reality. That's why we changed the name of the Institute to Earth Education because of that same problem.Well, what is Earth Education and how does that differ from environmental education?
SVM: We see five key differences, I think, between earth education and environmental education. Environmental education by its very nature tends to be supplemental and random. Environmental education by the design is just that we're going to sprinkle some activities throughout the educational curriculum - they're gonna get a little piece here and a little piece there and a little piece here. That the message is somehow the learners are going to put them all together, whether the little piece came in history class or language class or science class and in the end they're going to live more lightly on earth or they're going to have less impact upon the systems of life here. So, it's supplemental and it's random. In Earth Education we want to be more programmatic, we want to be more integral. We want to have programs and courses in Earth Education helping people learn how to have less impact on the life of the earth.All right, with a background like that how does the Earth Education Institute actually function in the world?
The second key difference, I think, is that environmental education tends to be classroom-based, much of what happens in the field happens in classrooms. Earth education aims to be natural world-based. We want to do things out there in touch with the systems and communities of life on earth and then use that as a springboard for what will happen when they return to school and home.
The third difference is that environmental education tends to be issues-oriented. We're going to get the students fired up about one issue or the other at the moment whether its acid rain or the ozone depletion or what have you and work on that issue. But earth education aims to be lifestyle-oriented. We want them to work on their own lifestyles, then we feel the issues will have some context. Right now what happens, we think a lot of times, is that we get them fired up about the issue of the moment but they never connect it to their own lives. They always externalize the problem and we think we want to internalize the problem for them. So, it's not that we're opposed to issues. We just think the issues need context and just getting the kids fired up about one issue is not enough. We need to look at their own lifestyles.
The fourth key difference is that I think environmental education tends rely for its methodology upon a lot of discussion. We're going to sit around the classroom and talk about a lot of these things. Where earth education aims to rely for its methodology upon educational adventures - we want to pull the kids in, we want to get them involved in doing things, we want to make it highly concrete and participatory and active and so on. Much more doing-oriented in that respect than environmental education.
And finally, and perhaps one of the chief differences, I think, is that, to be honest, environmental education tends to be infused with management messages. As if the earth is our horn of plenty, our cornucopia and all of this is just here for our benefit if we just do a little better job of managing it, everything will be all right. And we don't believe that in earth education. Earth education aims to infuse what its all about with the deepest messages of ecology. So that we want to say, "Hey, we need to re-evaluate what we're doing on the earth and there's some fundamental changes we well have to make in our lives because we share the planet with a lot of other things and they have some needs as well as us."
I'm afraid that what you're going to find when you look at environmental education materials around the world, you're going to find that they're being paid for, they're being sponsored by some of the very agencies and industries that created the environmental problems to begin with. And I think they have a lot of hidden messages that permeate the material. So... It doesn't mean we think that environmental education is always that way and that's why we say tends to be. And it doesn't mean we think we're successful in all those areas yet either but we aim to be. And I think those are the chief differences.
SVM: Well, what we try and do is we try and go out and make people aware of our work and our programs through our workshops and speeches and through our written materials. But mostly we try and get them to start doing earth education programs in their own settings and their own situation and so a lot of the people who are involved with the Institute of Earth Education are the practictioners, the people who are out there doing things with school groups everyday.It's seems that a program like this could be absorbed into the normal flow of the education system. Are you having trouble inserting it into the mainstream?
We don't run any centers ourselves, so we're depending on others to set up and run these programs. And lots of small groups of people who are interested in what we do, do that: they set up whether it's a center that already exists, an outdoor center or nature center or park or whether it's just a group of people in an area who get together and say we're going to put a program together and offer it, or whether it's just a single classroom teacher - there are many single classroom teachers who have said, "No, we're going to build an Earth Education program and we're going to do it for our own students." So, the Institute is really trying to foster its work through that kind of contact. It's very much a kind of grassroots approach to things.
SVM: Actually not. Where teachers want to do it, they don't have any problem doing it at all if they want to do it. And we've always claimed that every school in the world, we think, has a teacher in the school who'd really be interested in all this and would probably latch onto it and really do something with it. But if you go to the educational authorities, if you go to the departments of education and you try and do it that way, it just doesn't seem very productive because they've taken a whole different approach and the environmental education approach where we're going to sprinkle the little things throughout the curriculum and they can't really conceptualize this.A lot of ecologists in the West profess to have been inspired by traditional Japanese values and attitudes toward nature. And yet when they finally arrive in country they are often horrified by the industrial and architectural "confusion" shall we say? What is your reading of what is going on here?
But where any individual teacher has latched on or a group of teachers, they've had no problem at all in figuring out how to do this and implement it and so on. Which shows you though, I think, the tremendous dichotomy in education with the theories that are operating at the governmental level in most educational systems and what teachers are really all about and what they understand to be good learning at their level. Because I think they see these things happening and they can see what happens to the learners and they can get excited themselves very quickly and in turn the parents get excited because the kids are suddenly excited about school and so the parents are saying, "Yay!!" And so everybody at that level can make this work. But to be honest we just haven't had much success going in at a higher level, a so-called higher level, at all.
SVM: Well, I can identify with that problem because I think it is a problem that any people have who have had such an amazingly rich natural heritage and then have suddenly been catapulted into a highly industrialized technological society and it's true. I think just walking through Kyoto you can see the most stunning contrasts right next to each other. You see neon and plastic and high-tech and high-energy consumption right next to old wood and paper and fluttering cloth. I mean, the huge contrasts between the worlds here. It's just like shifting back and forth. And I think the people must be having a really difficult time adjusting to that themselves.To flip back to the States once more, you began your career as a student of American government and history. Looking at the environmental movement in the last 10 or 15 years, how do you place it in the context of American tradition?
I think in terms of natural heritage and refinement and contact, Japan has probably as much richness to work from as any country in the world. But I do wonder if they're not losing it. In many ways, everything I see as I wander around says that the pieces are still there and the threads are still there, but I have to be honest and say, I wonder if there are enough people tugging on those threads.
I'm reading a book right now called "In Praise of Shadows" by a Japanese author and in the book he is talking about the importance of what the outdoor privy, the toilet, was all about. And how it was a place of solitude in Japanese tradition, and how it was a place of contact, a place of real peacefulness open to the sounds of nature, and he goes on and on. And you just can feel the way he describes it what that must have been like. Of course, today much of that is gone. And he was talking about a time he went to a restaurant in Kyoto that he hadn't been to in a while and he went in and they had replaced the candles with electric lights. And he was so upset he asked them to take the electric light away and bring a candle again. And he said he realized the lacquer bowl was really made to be eaten from in candlelight because of the reflections and the shadings and the subtleness and the depth. And you just can't get that in most western kinds of ceramic ware and so on. Anyway, it was a beautiful little book and it just made me realize how much of that has been lost and how rapidly. And whether or not there will be enough time to preserve or pull on some of those threads and keep that alive or to see a rebirth of it, I think will be the big challenge in the years ahead.
SVM: Well, of course, from the education side, I think that the American model of education has been a lot of the reason for the problem. One of the key figures of environmental education in the world wrote a letter to us, to our international office a couple of years ago. And he said that he had been in Australia and when he'd been there he'd heard from a lot of folks that when I was over there I had made a lot of unprofessional comments about other colleagues of ours in the field and he thought I should know this before I went again. And I wrote him a letter back and I said, "well, it's true." What can I say? I really think that we've blown it badly in America and I don't want anybody else in the world to look at what we've done in the field of environmental education as some sort of a model because I think it is a model of failure.Supposing these educational programs are implemented - and the education of our kids and ourselves is obviously the first step, is that going to be enough to really turn things around? Is it enough, considering speed things are deteriorating?
On the other hand, on the action front we've probably done a much better job and environmental action work has been more productive and the results much better. But I still think we have a long way to go. I'm not trying to set that up as a model either by any means. I think that in terms of what is happening in America today...well, let me put it this way. Somebody asked me in a workshop last month in France, "what's the worst environmental baddie that you've run across in the world? What's the worst environmental nasty?" And I said, "America," and everybody laughed but I was serious because Americans consume roughly half the resources of the Earth. And we're going to pay a terrible price for that or we should someday because that's just the epitome of the problem. It's a terrible situation that this area of the world would have that much impact upon the rest of the planet.
So if we have gotten out a little bit ahead on the environmental action scene in some ways, it certainly hasn't been far enough. And we certainly have to do a lot more in trying to change lots of peoples' attitudes in America as well. I think most Americans sense that something is wrong. The problem is frankly that they're ignorant that they are the problem. They still are externalizing the problems out there. But if we as educators could really do the job that we should do I think that we could tap into that motivation and see rapid change. I really believe that. But I think that we have to do the job in education that we originally said we would do, and that we just haven't done.
SVM: No, I think that we certainly have to continue on the political action front, and environmental action on all levels of society must continue rapidly and we must do all of that. And so I don't see those as being mutually exclusive kinds of things. I think, though, that the educational kind of work that we have to do will provide the motivation and the context for the action. And I think that's what has been lacking.Last question, we'll soon be facing the millennium, a big symbolic watershed in human history or in our conception of human history. What do you see waiting for us on the other side?
A lot of people are concerned but they have no context for their action. They have maybe the motivation to some degree but they can't fit it anywhere in their lives, so they spin off in one way or another. And I think if we can do more of the education development that needs to be done, then we'll have more motivation and more context for the action. So, I don't mean to imply that education alone will solve all our problems at this point. I think we need all kinds of action at the same time.
SVM: Well, is that on a good day or a bad day? (Take your pick.) Because on my good days I see hope, I really do. You know, a lot of environmental scientists or environmental thinkers have come up with this figure of fifty years or roughly fifty years as our last window of opportunity. And if we don't figure how to get our act together within that time, you know, the window will be closed and irreversible catastrophe for the life of the Earth will be the result. And that's why I think this next decade is so important because it just seems that we must get enough momentum built up to be able to forge ahead in this fifty year period if that figure is correct. And sometimes I look at that and I say, 'yeah, we can." I think there are enough indications that we may be reaching a threshold effect in our messages just like a threshold effect in biological magnification. And we could be getting close to that. And so by the end of the century we could find a real surge that would carry us into that next half century with enough power and intelligence to turn it all around.
On the other hand, I have days, to be honest, when I go, "There's just very little hope". When you look at what's happening in Kenya with the elephants. I was on safari there in the eighties and the numbers of elephants that have disappeared, the numbers of rhinoceros that have gone just in the last decade, are just so astronomical, it's almost beyond belief. From 200,000 elephants to less than 20,000 elephants; from 20,000 rhino to less than 2,000 rhino. And you look at that and you say, "My god, there's no way. What's going to be here by the next decade?" But then again stranger things have happened in history and I don't know what else to do. That's the problem. What else can you do but fight the good fight and hope that it will somehow become a kind of watershed where enough of these efforts will suddenly come together and we can finally turn the tide.
- End -
Nancho Rep: W. David Kubiak