Education & School · Organizational Change & Development

A Manifesto for Environmental Education

This post originally appeared on the Blog belonging to the Minnesota Association for Environmental Education. It is reprinted here, because I’m the author. Pretty sweet, huh? – John


The Significance of the Earth and the Power of People: 

A Manifesto for Environmental Education

By: John Smith, MAEE Board of Directors, President, Advocacy Chairperson

“I’m a lumper, not a splitter” said the woman in glasses, with a ripe grin. It was Molly Phipps, an MAEE Board Member, at the Annual Retreat. We were talking about new ideas – in some cases our wildest dreams – and sorting them into categories. She explained, “some people prefer to split” ideas into detailed, unique units, where she (and I, it turns out) prefer to “lump” them together (perhaps in hopes of limiting the amount we have to memorize).

We take the retreat every year as a means to discover new possibilities for our volunteering and to rejuvenate somewhere away from the distractions of everyday life. There are so many good stories from the retreat: Making ideas rain on Callie Recknagel, delicious grass-fed beef roast from Shannon Judd, “Mapping the EE Economy”, duking it out over Settlers of Catan … this is Soul Food for environmental educators.

Since the retreat, I have realized something about myself: I am a serial-“lumper”. And the longer I teach about the environment, the further I have attempted to lump the message of my every presentation, class or program; whittling them down to the heartwood. This process led me, recently, to write two lines across an entire page in my journal: We are all connected” and “We are all powerful”.

This is what environmental education is all about.

The language of the 1977 UNESCO Tblisi Declaration is often cited as “the definition of EE” (it was written before household computers existed). It reads, in summary:

“Environmental education is a learning process that increases people’s knowledge and awareness about the environment and associated challenges, develops the necessary skills and expertise to address the challenges, and fosters attitudes, motivations, and commitments to make informed decisions and take responsible action” 

Since Tblisi, our world has continued to see greed and destruction prevail over balance and care, along with a growing struggle for the resources of life. Has this definition served us well? I’m not arguing that it hasn’t – or that a better definition would. The completeness and precision of the 
Tblisi Declaration is admirable, but useless as when you need a rallying cry; it’s rigidity fits well in a text book, but defies the very core of movement building: it doesn’t move you. I wonder, if the Tblisi Declaration had happened in 2014, what would it say? If we made afresh the perception of environmental education, what would it look like? I don’t know the answers, but I think it’s at least worth revisiting after nearly 40 years.

This kind of thinking is intimidating and scary for some (me too). But we need it now more than ever. And it’s greatly to our advantage to begin today.

What I mean by that is simple: The two core concepts of environmental education (“we are all connected” and “we are all powerful”) can put EE at the forefront of environmental and social movements. That’s because all of the different social and environmental movements are finally coming together under a “movement of movements”. And as they do this, there is a great need for inter-movement education. How do you teach new, eager social activists, concerned about environmental justice, about the realities of caring for the Earth? Or the connection between our water and our land use? Our fires and our air? And what would you learn from them in return? These questions are becoming more and more significant everyday as our issues become more and more clearly linked.

We are witnessing the great lumping – the coming together of not just ideas, but entire social movements worth of vision and direction. It is going to open up to us great resources and potential to advance environmental education. Here are two solid sources to back up this claim and I would recommend them as required reading for environmental educators:

  • In the 2013 Language and Conservation Memo from the Nature Conservancy, a national survey of 800 people, it was made clear that the future of the environmental movement is in humanizing our message – emphasizing the impacts on human communities when we pollute or deplete. Another way of looking at this is that the environmental movement is limited by the condition of society. How can we seek to protect the environment when faced with human suffering, homelessness, poverty, and more? Is not social justice an act of creating the conditions for learning and self actualization (to steal from Abraham Maslow)? The next great leap in conservation messaging and strategy will be to hitch environmental efforts and human efforts, bolstering both.
  • While at the same time, the 2013 report “More Than we Imagined”, by the Ear to the Ground Project, an in-depth interview series of over 100 social justice leaders around the country, described how the work of environmentalism, education advancement, and social justice all collide to form the fertile soil of future growth in programming and activism. What is EE for the 99%? What is Occupy EE? How do we disrupt the education system with outdoor play and nature experiences? These are some of the questions I have been asking myself.

Our work is connected to all of the great social movements happening on Earth right now. People from the Ear To The Ground Project call this the “movement of movements”. We are working to build what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community”, expanding our ethical arena to include new communities of people and the more-than-human, in the words of Anthony Weston. Environmental education is connected to the “Movement of movements” – because we are all connected and we are all powerful.


My vision for the future of environmental education

These are some of my predictions and dreams for the future of EE:

  • I predict that as schools and teachers get more of the freedom and support they need, they will choose to do more environmental education. Better, equitable schools, that drive teacher excellence and creativity, combined with the reduction of No Child Left Behind era standardization will bode well for our cause.
  • I predict that early childhood education will be the next great leap in environmental education – nature preschools are not entirely a new thing (where do you think the term “kindergarten” comes from?) but they have the flexibility to play and experiment with new kinds of EE that we haven’t yet imagined. 
  • I predict that increased use of screens/technology in the classroom will continue to prove themselves as barriers for environmental education in the short term. We have to lead by example in our work and home life if we really ever expect others to seek time outdoors and maintain a healthy balance between time sitting, latent, in front of a screen and time spent in the woods, backyard or pounding the pavement and playing outside. We have to hack the process of environmental education to make it the most convenient choice for how we spend our time. We have to make time outside as addicting as video games.
  • I dream about an education system free of bullying, hate, hunger and homelessness; where every child has what they need to develop holistically and to join society not only as independent people but as an interdependent unit, contributing to the health and wellness of the whole world. Environmental education can be an answer to addressing the roots of these issues in schools. Indeed it is already is widely accepted as a form of therapy, recreation, personal and group development.
  • I dream about the evolution of our organizations and political possibilities to address new challenges with new models that will out compete the hierarchies and ineffective programs of the past. Humanity has been re-imagining the organizational tools that we use in ways that consistently surprise me. What will environmental education look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? Who will be doing it? There is so much we have left to learn.
  • I dream of reclaiming environmental education and defining it to meet the needs of our changing world. It’s up to us to add to and make afresh our messaging and framing as the 21st century rolls out before us. Your definition of EE matters. Your EE experience matters. I reclaim the definition as such: We are all connected, and we are all powerful. What is yours? Let’s host a summit – “Tblisi Revisited” –   and spill all our love and care for this movement into a new declaration that fits the work of front-line environmental educators, not only politicians and academics.

What does this mean for environmental educators?

These are some guiding thoughts that may help us over the next 10 years:

  1. Draw energy and ideas from the work of others. We are not alone in building alternative models for education and trying to complete the pallet of to what children are exposed. Cross-pollinate!
  2. Stay together. Though we are connected to the greater movement, we have unique skills and unique power to contribute. Let’s continue to build a strong environmental education community in Minnesota. Let’s have fun together, learn from each other, support one another in our work for the greater good.
  3. Work for change. We have grown up as a community by delicately dancing near to advocacy and radicalism – now is the time to recognize how much good we could do, together, for the causes, organizations and society we believe in by learning from societies greatest change-makers. Nelson Mandela, one of modern history’s great agents of change, passed away in 2013. This is one of his more enduring quotes: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

What does this mean for MAEE?

The revolution starts at home. MAEE is stepping up it’s connectivity to membership with events, dinners, social media and more. Our annual conference (This year’s theme: “Rooted in Diversity”) is diving directly into the heart of the beast by exploring environmental education in a changing world. We are also:

  • Forging new partnerships (with YEP-TC and the MN Green Schools Coalition, among others). We want to form a partnership with you. Don’t you believe me? Contact us and we’ll prove
  • Experimenting with new group strategies as a Board, re-imagining our meetings, work, goals, online presence and more.
  • Innovating our heritage programming, like the Minnesota’s Environmental Education Conference, our EE news communications, and efforts to convene volunteers in service of the EE community.
  • Mapping the EE economy in Minnesota, eventually charting not only the locations of every environmental education organization in the state, but taking a census of the number of jobs in the field. Watch for this in 2014!
  • Learning. We don’t know what we’ll find on the road ahead. It’s new territory. We’re excited to be on the frontiers of this exciting movement with you!

Environmental education is a part of a more complete model for education and society. We hope you will agree. If you do, then join the movement and help us build towards this vision by contacting MAEE for volunteer opportunities, volunteering for other EE organizations in MN, or by sharing nature with someone in your life. If it is within your means, MAEE and other local EE organizations would appreciate your financial or in-kind support as well.

Sincerely, and with gratitude,


John Smith

Education Program Assistant, Will Steger Foundation

Co-Leader, The Cave after school program at Rivers Edge Academy

Blogger, BrainNation

This is my vision for MAEE and the environmental education movement. What’s your vision? I would love to hear it – and I know I’m not alone in that. Consider sharing your vision with me at: or share with Minnesota’s environmental education community as a blog post or on our Facebook and Twitter accounts with the hashtag: #Environmentaleducation

These views are my own and not necessarily shared by everyone on the Board, formally adopted as our organizations “vision” or even shared by anyone in our membership. Just so you know.


One thought on “A Manifesto for Environmental Education

  1. Wow, John!
    You continue to impress me the more I read of you. EE lumped and revisited. Yes. I’m currently in a place of reflection and projection of how to redefine EE in a way that brings all naturalists and educators on board to head into a future that deeply connects us to our lands and each other. Weaving Earth School of relational education is helping to do this in a big way! I can’t wait to dream and create with you more. Big love and hugs!

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