Research Summary

Toward critical environmental education: a standpoint analysis of race in the American environmental context

Incorporating diverse environmental perspectives can help to advance environmental education

Environmental Education Research
2020

Including diverse perspectives in the environmental movement and environmental education is invaluable in helping these movements achieve their goals. In this paper, it is contended that the environmental movement and environmental education often focuses on mainstream perspectives: those of dominant socio-economic groups. This paper is a thought piece that utilized existing literature and the standpoint theory to explore the role of diverse environmental perspectives in environmental movements and environmental education. The standpoint theory is an approach that considers individual’s or group’s distinct standpoint, or the way they interact with and perceive the world because of their socio-economic position. It also considers that one’s socio-economic position is deeply influenced by the historic social and economic advantages given to certain races in the United States. The researcher employed the standpoint theory to examine how the mainstream environmental movement has failed to acknowledge diverse environmental standpoints, especially the standpoints of people of color, and how this failure has led to the rise of the environmental justice movement. The researcher also considered how environmental educators, practitioners, and researchers should frame environmental issues to strengthen environmental education.

Standpoint theory states that non-marginalized groups, or dominant socio-economic groups, are often “blind” to the perspectives of marginalized groups. The researcher suggested this blindness is apparent within the mainstream environmental movement; the leading discourse has been by mainly middle/upper class white people, who often interact with the environment in a naturalist way (such as bird watching, hiking, and camping). The mainstream environmental movement has focused on protecting the natural environment and has often been criticized for its lack of attention to marginalized communities who are disproportionately impacted by environmental issues, which is most often people of color. The researcher explained that this lack of attention to race awoke the need for the environmental justice movement, so that diverse perspectives in the environmental movement could be heard. They contended that environmental justice has reframed environmentalism by raising consciousness of marginalized perspectives and has advocated for these perspectives to be prioritized.

The researcher suggested that the standpoint theory serves as a useful approach for environmental educators, practitioners, and researchers to frame environmental issues. They explained that to promote inclusivity, environmental educators must understand that one’s position in, and perspective of, the environment is influenced by history, race, gender, and culture. The environmental movement, therefore, must widen its perspective from the protection of nature to include the protection of the people from environmental and climate hazards. Second, the researcher called for environmental educators and researchers, particularly those who belong to dominant socio-economic groups, to assess how their position of power in society creates a bias in their perceptions of the environment. This entails considering students’ and environmental education audiences’ standpoints in the world, critically examining environmental education curricula to reflect this consideration, and becoming informed on how to actively engage with multiple standpoints.

One limitation of this study is that it is a review of literature and did not conduct a direct study of people. This reduces the subjectivity of the research and likely allowed for the researcher’s biases to be incorporated. The author of this paper also noted their identity as a “white, straight, married mother” who grew up middle class, and acknowledged the limitations that presents in understanding marginalized communities.

The researcher recommends identifying environmental goals from marginalized groups with varying standpoints to further critical environmental education research and practice. They also suggest that environmental movements can have common goals despite coming from differing perspectives. Yet, the researcher cautioned about overgeneralizing by grouping different marginalized groups together and not taking accounting for their distinct life experiences. Additionally, many environmental educators in the United States are from dominant groups therefore it is suggested that researchers and practitioners should partner with organizations created for and by people from marginalized groups. Lastly, to further promote critical environmental education, the researcher recommends practitioners and researchers examine texts from environmental leaders of color such as bell books or Vandana Shiva to include in curriculum and research.

The Bottom Line

The environmental movement and environmental education (EE) have historically focused on the perspectives of dominant socio-economic groups, therefore there is a need to incorporate marginalized perspectives. The standpoint theory can be utilized by environmental educators and researchers to frame environmental issues in a way that includes diverse perspectives. Standpoint theory is an approach that considers individuals’ and social groups’ unique “standpoint” or how they interact with and view the world. The author employed the standpoint theory to examine how the mainstream environmental movement has failed to acknowledge diverse standpoints, especially from people of color, and how this has led to the rise of the environmental justice movement. The author suggests environmental justice has reframed environmentalism by raising consciousness of marginalized perspectives and has advocated for these perspectives to be prioritized. The author recommends critical EE research and practice recognize the environmental goals of people from marginalized standpoints. They conclude that EE curricula must reflect consideration of different standpoints and practitioners must become informed on how to actively engage with multiple standpoints.