COVID-19 lessons can shape an ecopedagogy centered on environmental justice

Misiaszek, G. W. (2021). Ecopedagogical literacy of a pandemic: Teaching to critically read the politics of COVID-19 with environmental issues. The Journal of Environmental Education, 52(5), 358-369.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc around the world, valuable lessons can be learned and translated to other fields. Some academics have paralleled the shortcomings of the virus's management - or the lack thereof - and spread of false information with the persistent global environmental issues of sustainability and environmental injustice. The author of this theory article showcased the COVID-19 pandemic and its political context to illustrate the need for a revised ecopedagogy to promote comprehensive environmental justice and literacy. Specifically, the author argued that to disrupt the current educational structure and provide for a more sustainable future: 1) anthropocentric ideologies need to be unlearned; 2) nondominant forms of knowledge like traditional ecological knowledge from Indigenous peoples in the Global South must be considered, as opposed to only the dominant forms of knowledge like neoliberalism of the Global North; and, 3) research and analysis of environmental education must not take place through a neoliberal lens.

The author based their arguments on the work of Paulo Freire and ecopedagogy. Freirean ecopedagogy centers on critically thinking about the relationships between acts of environmental and social violence and their subsequent injustices, anthropocentric ideas, and unsustainability. It incorporates understanding from a breadth and depth of different views such as from the intrapersonal, local, national, global, and planetary perspectives alongside the political context. In addition, bottom-up solutions and decisions from oppressed peoples and cultures can transform education from simply learning to students practicing for a more sustainable world.

The author asserted that transforming education to promote a Freirean ecopedagogy will ensure a sustainable and equitable future. They used the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of a complex global issue, like many environmental concerns focused on in environmental education (e.g., climate change, climate refugees, or sea level rise). The author argued that the pandemic exemplified the consequences of viewing humans and nature as decoupled, rather than as a whole. Instead of working together and across political contexts for a solution, the author claimed many people hoped for some technology or vaccine to eradicate the virus. Further, false truths were spread as fact because people failed to question the evidence supporting or legitimacy of the information being fed to them. How people responded to the pandemic shows that just providing information is not enough to educate. The example of the pandemic can be applied to the socio-environmental issues being witnessed now, such that with climate change. Despite all the information available about climate change, people still do not believe in it or respond to its crises. The author argued changes are needed in education.

Rather than teaching an anthropocentric notion that humans and nature are separate, nature and humans should be considered as partners in a reciprocal relationship. Similarly, educators should engage students to stimulate critical thinking and dialogue with breadth and depth of different perspectives. Finally, teaching should encourage utopian goals and solutions rather than limiting students to an oppressive reality to inspire creativity and opportunity. Essentially, students should be taught how to read political context and question why it is the way it is, how it came to fruition, and the motivations behind it.

The second disruption referred to breaking the cycle of teaching in a dominant ideology, which reflects the political situation of Global North dominance on the world scene. The Global North, or countries with associated "western” ideologies of capitalism, colonialism, neoliberalism, and patriarchy, have alienated and marginalized Indigenous peoples, non-citizens, and minority cultures. In doing so, the oppressed have lost their voices and Indigenous practices have fallen out of the educational system in favor of Western teachings. In such, nature is viewed as a commodity, technologies are idolized, individuality is favored, and education is apolitical. These intentional and unintentional pedagogies have exacerbated socio-environmental injustices. Instead, highlighting and implementing traditional ecological knowledge will provide a more just society.

The third disruption regarded research about environmental education. Scholarship on educational practices influences students, so the scholarship must be deconstructed to mitigate Global North influence. For example, research should find objective options for action to help the environment at some level. Instead of evaluating the political motivations of the research, research should be based on the ethical value of the information shared.

There were limitations in this article. First, the author relied on the theory of one educator and though other research is included, the counter arguments and their positive outcomes are not considered. Second, the material is generalized within a Global North framework and may not represent the educational frameworks or political contexts of all nations and cultures. Finally, the author offered very few tangible ways to implement such drastic and complex pedagogical changes at the micro and macro levels.

The author recommended educators and educational systems use the three aforementioned arguments to influence their pedagogy and practice to teach students how to review the way politics influence socio-environmental injustices. In doing so, the ecopedagogy will help students create individual and collective actions for justice and develop socio-environmental solutions for a more sustainable future.

The Bottom Line

The responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and global environmental issues share similar attributes. The lessons learned from each can be applied to educational systems for change. The author asserted the disruption of education by way of a Freirean ecopedagogy will ensure a sustainable and equitable future. The author used the COVID-19 pandemic response as an example of a complex global issue much like that of environmental concerns (i.e., climate change, climate refugees, sea level rise). The disruptions for the current educational structure include: 1) the unlearning of anthropocentric ideologies; 2) inclusion of nondominant forms of knowledge; and, 3) research and analysis of environmental education must not take place through a neoliberal lens. These recommendations can help students create individual and collective actions for justice and develop socio-environmental solutions for a more sustainable future.

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