Living sustainably

Sustainability education

Today Shapes Tomorrow: Environmental Education for a Sustainable Future - A discussion paper

Environment Australia
January 1999


Elements of the Paper:

This Discussion Paper has been written to ensure that it is meaningful to a diverse range of people. While some stakeholders working in the field may find certain material straightforward, it is included to help as wide an audience as possible appreciate why environmental education is a priority.

Section 1 - The Importance of Environmental Education - outlines some reasons why education is a vital part of any effective attempt to foster sustainable development - both in terms of addressing international environmental threats, and in attending to the various environmental challenges facing Australia.

Section 2 - The Nature of Environmental Education - proposes a broad definition of environmental education, and offers five principles which should define its operation. This section provides a conceptual starting point for stakeholders to develop policies and programs which reflect these characteristics.

Section 3 - Providers of Environmental Education in Australia - moves from the conceptual to the practical by providing a snapshot of environmental education in this country, describing the wide range of providers, activities and markets for environmental education.

Section 4 - Environmental Education and the Federal Environment and Heritage Portfolio - takes a closer look at the scale and nature of environmental education activities undertaken by the Environment and Heritage Portfolio. This section summarises the feedback obtained in a recent review of the Portfolio's educational activity. Finally, the section identifies some strategic objectives and specific policy options which could assist in re-orienting the activities of the federal Environment and Heritage Portfolio to significantly enhance its educative role. While these options are not endorsed government proposals, they give an indication of the current thinking of the Portfolio as to its future directions in environmental education.

Section 5 - Priorities for Environmental Education in the Community - offers broad directional and strategic suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness of environmental education in Australia across all sectors.

Section 6 - Conclusion - sums up the matters raised in this Paper and invites stakeholders to make submissions on the broad policy directions and specific proposals put forward. Details on the timetable for submissions are also to be found in this section.


In releasing this Discussion Paper on Environmental Education, I have four principal objectives in mind.

First, the Paper seeks to heighten national recognition of environmental education as one of the crucial elements of any effective effort to achieve sustainable development in Australia - an informed community is a critical prerequisite to a sustainable future. Too often in the past, responses to environmental problems have not properly harnessed the enormous potential which complementary educational activities have to bring about better environmental outcomes.

The Agenda 21 framework document, which Australia and 150 other nations endorsed in Rio at the Earth Summit in 1992, has an entire chapter devoted to promoting education, public awareness and training. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development also includes one chapter on Education and Training, and another stressing the importance of Community Awareness, Education and Participation.

Environmental education has been an integral component of some effective government programs, as is the case with the Natural Heritage Trust currently being implemented by the Federal Government. However, there has never been a strategic national attempt to translate our national and international written commitments about the importance of environmental education into a coordinated plan of action. This Discussion Paper marks the commencement of that process by placing environmental education unambiguously on the list of essential national endeavours towards sustainability.

The second objective of this Paper is to stimulate debate amongst stakeholders about what directions, and specific measures Australia can take in order to make tangible improvements in environmental education activities, and bring about better environmental outcomes as a result.

The Paper aims to illuminate the state of environmental education in Australia in a way which is helpful not just to providers of environmental education, but to stakeholders working outside the field. In doing so, it is intended that the community will be better informed to form a consensus on how we can improve the national environmental education effort.

The third objective of this Discussion Paper is to facilitate improvements in the educational activities conducted by the Commonwealth Environment and Heritage Portfolio. The Paper summarises the results of a review of the Portfolio's environmental education activities, identifying areas of overlap or lack of attention. It also invites public comment from stakeholders on some specific suggestions about how the Portfolio can ensure its activities are more effective - particularly in terms of acting as a catalyst for environmental education in other sectors of the community.

Engaging external stakeholders in this process of stocktaking and re-orienting of government educational programs will help to ensure that Commonwealth activity is more complementary to environmental educative needs and activities in the wider community.

Finally, the Discussion Paper seeks to challenge other sectors to review and further develop their own environmental education activities.

I look forward to receiving feedback from stakeholders and the community about the many issues raised in this Discussion Paper. Having considered the responses to the Discussion Paper, I intend to issue a further statement on environmental education later this year.

Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
January 1999


The Department of the Environment and Heritage acknowledges the contributions of the Reference Group which was assembled from a range of educational sectors in order to oversee the development of this Discussion Paper. The Reference Group included:

Mr Geoff Young
Vice President
Australian Association for Environmental Education

Mr Graham Sansom
Chief Executive Officer
Australian Local Government Association

Mr John Fenton
National Human Resources Manager
Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers

Dr John Fien
Faculty of Environmental Sciences
Griffith University

Ms Helen Trotter
Curriculum Project Officer
Curriculum Corporation

Ms Mary Johnston
Assistant Secretary, Quality Schooling Branch
Department of Education, Training & Youth Affairs

The Department also acknowledges the contribution of consultant, David McRae, who assisted the Reference Group in its work, and conducted the bulk of the research involved in the preparation of the Discussion Paper.

The Reference Group was chaired by Peter Woods, Assistant Secretary, Corporate Relations and Education Branch, Department of the Environment and Heritage.

Section 1

The Importance of Environmental Education:

Environmental Education in the Global Context:

The 1997 UNESCO Statement 'Educating for a Sustainable Future: A transdisciplinary vision for concerted action' states:

'It is widely agreed that education is the most effective means that society possesses for confronting the challenges of the future. Indeed, education will shape the world of tomorrow.' (1997: 13).

For the foreseeable future, sustainable management of the environment will be one of the greatest challenges confronting the world. Over the past 30 years, the international community has been confronted with a wide range of transboundary environmental problems which involve more than one country in terms of being responsible for the problem, dealing with its impact, and ultimately providing solutions.

Climate change, loss of biodiversity, declining fisheries, ozone layer depletion, and trade in endangered species, are only a few of the major environmental threats which have led to a global cooperative response.

Worldwide recognition that these problems reflect a need for global commitment to sustainability culminated at the Earth Summit in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 when 150 nations (including Australia) endorsed the Agenda 21 document, which provides a framework for sustainable development strategies at all levels.

Agenda 21 remains the basis of internationally agreed courses of action towards sustainable development. Chapter 36 of Agenda 21 on Promoting Education, Public Awareness and Training focuses on the role of education in environmental decision making. In it, world leaders asserted that:

'education is critical for promoting sustainable development and improving the capacity of people to address environment and development issues. ... It is also critical for achieving environmental and ethical awareness, values and attitudes, skills and behaviour consistent with sustainable development and for effective public participation in decision-making.'

There is also an acknowledgment of the importance of education in achieving success in other Agenda 21 priority areas such as meeting basic needs, capacity building, environmental data and information, and environmental science.

An overview of the history of the development of environmental education is provided as Appendix 1.


For Australia, the Agenda 21 framework, and education's key role, are vital to resolving our domestic environmental challenges, and also to achieving sustainability on a global scale.

Many global environmental threats pose potentially major adverse consequences for the Australian environment - ozone depletion is an obvious example. Others, such as climate change, require substantial changes in the way our economy and society utilises energy and natural resources.

In addition, we face significant challenges with respect to those environmental problems which are essentially domestic. According to Australia State of the Environment 1996, a number of issues provide grounds for serious concern.

The most pressing of these issues are the loss of biodiversity and the continued destruction of habitats across Australia. In addition, river systems and groundwater supplies continue to be depleted at unsustainable rates in many parts of rural Australia, with major environmental consequences like algal blooms, rising salinity, and declining aquatic ecosystems. High rates of land clearance and vegetation loss, and the poor quality of our soils (and their slow rates of formation), make land degradation a problem of national proportions. In our cities, loss of remnant vegetation continues apace, air pollution is perceived as a major threat, while stormwater and sewage and other waste disposal continue to have substantial adverse impacts on biodiversity and water quality. Invasive plants and animals also pose a serious and increasing threat to native ecosystems in rural, urban, and marine environments.

Governments at all levels are working to meet these and other difficult environmental challenges. Through the Natural Heritage Trust in particular, the Commonwealth is providing an unprecedented degree of financial support to support a wide range of projects which respond effectively to the threats which have been identified as of greatest national concern.

The Contribution of Environmental Education:

Australia's ability to meet environmental threats at home and abroad is inextricably linked with the priority it places on effective environmental education.

Environmental issues are frequently complex and contested. Research, invention, innovation and adaptation are all required. None are possible, let alone likely, without a clear understanding of the ecological and policy issues and linkages involved. Without a firm, educated basis of knowledge and understanding, progress on environmental issues becomes haphazard, uncertain and unlikely.

We recognise the need to do more, we know many current environmental problems have solutions, but we often lack the information and understanding we need to effectively assess current environmental management practices, and plan for the future. The knowledge, values, skills and tools we need to meet environmental challenges are all sourced from formal and informal education.

In addition to providing us with the environmental literacy required to address threats to our natural capital, effective environmental education also enables us to integrate ecological thinking into social and economic planning - which is essential to achieving sustainable development.

An educated understanding of environmental issues also reduces the sense of helplessness which might emerge in the face of environmental challenges. In a fast-moving world of competing priorities, it is all too easy for governments, businesses, and individuals to turn away from medium and long-term problems (a category into which many environmental threats fall) and focus exclusively on the short-term. Without the empowerment and capacity to address problems, which environmental education provides, a short-term focus is all the more likely.

Section 2

The Nature of Environmental Education:

Defining Environmental Education:

'Environmental Education' is used in this Discussion Paper in its broadest sense to encompass:

The term 'environmental education' has various connotations.

It has sometimes been interpreted narrowly to relate only to the scientific aspects of environmental problems. Its placement therefore among the disciplines of formal education has been most prominently in science and geography.

Yet these traditional disciplines do not necessarily capture the wide range of aspects which a holistic education about environmental matters should incorporate. Public policy, electoral politics, economic, and even diplomatic factors are just some of the many cross-disciplinary linkages which should be integral to environmental education.

In contemporary international discussion, the term 'education for sustainability' has been used by some to reinforce that the issues with which environmental education deals cut across and engage traditional disciplines and areas of study. It must be a transdisciplinary process.

The widely accepted definition of 'sustainability' is that proposed by the Brundtland Commission in 1987:

'Sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'

A detailed vision of what education for sustainability might mean in practice is likely to be the subject of continuing discussion. But the following principles are likely to remain basic to its operation.

Principles of Environmental Education:

1. Environmental Education must involve everyone.

Because of its very nature and importance, environmental education cannot be confined to any one group in our society. It is a responsibility for everyone - government, industry, the media, educational institutions, community groups - right down to the level of the individual.

2. Environmental Education must be lifelong.

Information about environmental problems is forever improving, as we learn from our past experiences and mistakes. As we develop and apply better environmental technologies, the ability of society and individuals to respond effectively also improves.

In order to move closer to achieving sustainable development as a nation, all Australians need to continually refresh the knowledge and skills which they apply to the environmental challenges we face.

Just as workplace learning and retraining are essential to continued productivity, the same is true of environmental education, whether in formal or non formal settings.

3. Environmental Education must be holistic and about connections.

In order to address environmental challenges, we need people who think broadly and who understand systems, connections, patterns and causes. The challenges themselves frequently have social, scientific, cultural, economic and ethical aspects, all of which must be considered for their effective management. Specialist discipline-based knowledge, while contributing critically, is no longer adequate by itself - holistic appreciation of the context of environmental problems is essential.

Meeting this need presents a dilemma to the formal education systems over whether environmental education should be taught as a separate subject or incorporated into one or more particular subject areas. The right answer may vary from situation to situation, depending on what is most practical - suffice to say, a much stronger re-orientation of all relevant areas of formal education towards issues of sustainability is required.

Equally important is the need to establish better communicative links between those people working on, or learning about, similar or related environmental issues, but who come from different professional or disciplinary backgrounds. Better grounds for communication and partnerships are also required between formal and non formal education settings, and between various groups with competing interests on environmental issues.

4. Environmental Education must be practical.

One of the most fundamental defining characteristics of effective environmental education is that it must lead to actions which result in better environmental outcomes, not simply the accumulation of inert knowledge or impractical skills.

This is ultimately the yardstick by which we are able to measure the effectiveness of our efforts in environmental education.

5. Environmental Education must be in harmony with social and economic goals:

Effective environmental education must also encourage the pursuit of environmental goals in harmony with other powerful and legitimate social and economic goals - it should not be taught in a vacuum, or simply equip people to pursue an agenda on the margins of society.

Environmental education needs to incorporate this reality by providing people with the knowledge, understanding and capacity to influence mainstream society in a way which progresses environmental objectives along with other legitimate social and economic objectives.

The Components of Environmental Education:

The evolution of environmental education has required closer and renewed investigation into learning processes. It has become customary to define the components of learning relevant to environmental sustainability. These are sometimes described, misleadingly, as 'stages'. Even though they may seem to follow a natural sequence and be discrete in themselves, people's encounter with issues of sustainability can begin and develop from any of these components. They should be seen as cyclical and interactive, with periods focused on reflection, research, development and action.

These components, which apply equally to formal and informal education, are adapted from the international edition of Teaching for a Sustainable World, edited by John Fien, 1996 (Introduction xxvi-xxvii).

Awareness raising - 'Does it matter to me?'

Market research into environmental issues consistently confirms what educators have long held as a first principle of operation: start from where the students (or consumers, farmers, industrialists, citizens, decision makers and so on) are. What is it that matters to them most at this point in time? What do they want to achieve? How do these attitudes relate to environmental issues? These are the starting points for any useful process of problem solving as well as meaningful and enduring learning.

Awareness raising is not just a matter of shaping attitudes; it must also be about the development of knowledge. Is this view legitimate? What information supports it? Is that information relevant and reliable?

It is anticipated that from these initial steps of establishing and confirming the personal relevance of environmental issues, there will be an evolution to understanding of issues on a larger scale: personal, local, regional, national and global.

Shaping of values - 'Should I do something about it?'

Without appropriate and helpful underlying values and attitudes, environmental education is bound for failure. These values include:

Because of the way in which environmental education may challenge accepted practices and beliefs, it is an area of some contestation. For this reason the process of developing values has a controversial aspect. Thus the following values are also most important:

Developing knowledge and skills - 'How can I do something about it?'

At its heart capacity building means acquiring relevant knowledge and skills, a process often seen as the conventional function of any type of education.

It has been noted that the types of knowledge needed to participate effectively in environmental education are wide ranging and not confined to any particular discipline. Some of the areas of knowledge which environmental education must deal with however are:

The skills which should be acquired include capacities to:

Making decisions and taking action - 'What will I do?'

Environmental education is not a passive process. In response to the new levels of awareness, knowledge and skill, and on the basis of evolving values and attitudes (all suggested above), it is about changing behaviour, whether one's own or as part of larger community changes.

As mentioned above, this is one of environmental education's defining characteristics. It is, above all, practical in the sense that some result should and must come from it if our futures are to be as we would wish.

The Evolution of Environmental Education:

A model developed in the Netherlands (Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for sustainable living IUCN,UNEP, WWF 1991) suggests a series of stages in the evolution of environmental education. The four stages suggested are:

  1. Reactive: providing particular products and programs in response to limited demand. Education is often instigated by isolated individuals, specialists, voluntary organisations, or the information/community relations/education units of some government agencies. Education aims at reducing ecological ignorance.
  2. Receptive: in which organisations include environmental education objectives in their policies and planning. School curriculum development bodies become involved, but programs are implemented without reference to work elsewhere in the education field. Objectives emphasise changing knowledge and attitudes.
  3. Constructive: in which programs and objectives are more thoroughly implemented. There is wide dissemination of developments, links are made across sectors. There is community participation and objectives are oriented towards sustainable living.
  4. Pro-active: in which the culture of all organisations is defined in terms of ecologically sustainable living supported by comprehensive, lifelong environmental learning integrated within education systems, industry, social organisations/neighbourhood groups and government.

It can be argued that environmental education in Australia is generally in the second stage described by this model with some evidence of progress towards the third. Further substantial action is required to take us towards the fourth stage.

Section 3

Providers of Environmental Education in Australia:

It is difficult to provide a comprehensive analysis of environmental education in Australia, given the wide range of relevant activities which are taking place, and the countless number of formal and non-formal agencies involved in the provision of such activities.

What follows is a list of the main providers of environmental education in our community, along with brief descriptions of the activities which they conduct. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list.



While the focal point of environmental educational activity at the federal level is the Environment and Heritage Portfolio, relevant activity occurs across a wide range of Commonwealth departments and agencies.

No formal assessment of relevant activities has been conducted across the entire federal bureaucracy, but since the 1996-97 budget when collation of government wide environmental expenditure began, educational activities feature prominently amongst the various programs cited by many departments.

The Environment and Heritage Portfolio conducts a wide range of educational activities from large programs specifically dedicated to raising awareness and changing behaviour to small focussed activities such as brochure publication. A more thorough analysis of the Portfolio's educational effort is the focus of the next section of this Paper.

State and Territory government departments

Each State and Territory government has at least one department devoted primarily to environmental issues. The roles of such departments are manifold, but they include policy development and oversight of implementation of these policies, introduction of regulatory practices and the educational processes which underpin and support the effective implementation of such practices. In some cases these departments have specific educational policy and have developed coordinating and oversighting mechanisms to support effective educational practice.

In addition, State and Territory governments have the primary responsibility for the administration of early childhood learning, along with primary and secondary public education. As such, they have significant direct influence over the incorporation of environmental education into curriculum design and school administration.

Local Government bodies

There has been a significant growth in environmental educational activities involving Local Government. Almost every Australian council, and all local government associations at the state and national level, now employ staff who have dedicated tasks specifically relating to environmental issues. More than 200 of the 726 Local Government Authorities nationally are involved in sustainability plans and local conservation strategies.

Areas of recycling and waste management have been obvious focal points. But strategies adopted in concert with members of the communities have included public awareness raising campaigns, community capacity building, revegetation and tree planting, clean-ups, and developing neighbourhood and community interests around natural features such as parks or beaches.

Federal government financial support for Environment Resource Officers in each State and Territory has provided further impetus for these activities.

Formal Education Providers:

Within the formal sectors, State and Territory governments have constitutionally-based responsibility for early childhood and primary and secondary school education. Higher Education is administratively autonomous, but the primary public financial responsibility for the sector rests with the Commonwealth. The vocational education and training sector is a diverse conglomerate of public and private agencies ranging from TAFE colleges to private education consultancies.

Early childhood learning

Childcare and family day care centres and kindergartens are increasingly involved in providing programs and activities focused on living skills, environmental appreciation and concern, and developing cooperative behaviour. The modelling of environmentally responsible behaviour is another important aspect of the work done by those who work in such institutions.

School education

Environmental education is established in the school sector as a part of the curriculum in each State and Territory. In 1989 the then Australian Education Council adopted a series of Common and Agreed Goals for Schooling in Australia. Among these goals were: 'To develop in students … an understanding of, and concern, for balanced development and the global environment.'

These goals were reflected in the development of a series of national curriculum statements and profiles of achievement in eight curriculum areas including Studies of Society and the Environment. Issues related to sustainability also appear in statements and profiles related to Science, Technology, Health and Physical Education and The Arts. These national statements and profiles now guide state based curriculum provision in many Australian schools.

A wide range of field centres, extension programs and centres and environmentally focussed programs exist to support environmental education. Despite these initiatives, evidence suggests that the existence of education in, about and for the environment in schools is contingent on the presence of committed and sometimes isolated individuals and that whole school coordinated approaches are rare.

Higher Education

In the higher education sector, institutions largely determine their own directions. However, it is apparent that many have taken on extensive responsibility for mounting and supporting courses related to the environment. There are some 622 such courses listed on the Environmental Research Information Network web site taught in 56 higher education campuses around the country.

These courses are offered under the aegis of a wide range of faculties including science, applied science, business, technology, arts, earth and land science, social science, engineering, architecture, management, law, information technology, geography, forestry, public policy and faculties specifically devoted to environmental science. There is also some evidence that there is an increasing interest in and practice of transdisciplinary education. Apart from training practitioners for employment in a variety of fields involving environment-related tasks, they also provide a platform for research into environmental issues.

Vocational Education and Training

The vocational education and training sector is driven to a significant extent by demand from senior years of schooling, business and industry and other workforce imperatives. The sector provides both industry specific training and general training for businesses dealing with various environmental issues. While no generic competencies have as yet been developed, currently there are environmental competency standards embedded in a number of specific industry training courses.

Non-formal education settings

In the non formal sectors, groups quite rightly choose their own interests and responsibilities.

Business and Industry:

Businesses and industries provide education and training for their staff in order to comply with environmental regulations and to fulfil their role as good corporate citizens. Internally, most large companies now have dedicated staff with responsibility for monitoring environmental performance and fostering continual improvement through greater awareness and commitment to sustainability among management and staff.

Externally, businesses are in a position to contribute to environmental education in the wider community in a range of ways including direct sponsorship for environmental monitoring and remediation projects, public awareness campaigns in conjunction with NGOs and the media, and support for conferences which foster sustainable development by showcasing the latest and most effective environmental products, services, and management practices in relevant sectors.

Peak Bodies:

Peak bodies representing business, agriculture, and labour are also able to play a significant role in advancing environmental education, both amongst their membership, and across entire industries.

By promoting environment policies to their membership, by addressing environmental matters in their internal and public communications agendas, and by engaging in advocacy on environment-related matters, organisations like the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers' Federation, and the ACTU all participate in an informal way in raising environmental literacy in the community.

The Media:

As the public's principal source of environmental information, the media is in a unique position to play a vital role in environmental education.

Their impact is determined by a number of factors such as the degree of environmental literacy of the editorial staff, the level of internal commitment by station or newspaper management to environmental performance within the media enterprise itself, the level of support for environmentally educative Community Service Announcements, and support for environmental activities in the wider community.

Environmental interest groups and organisations

These include a wide range of peak national and state bodies, local issues groups, nature conservation and field naturalists groups, and outdoor sporting and recreation organisations.

Their interests and work are varied but include promoting awareness through advertising, publications, participation in public debate; developing educational materials for schools; field and site specific monitoring and remediation activities; and opportunities for direct community involvement in environmental activities.

Other community organisations

Youth groups, church groups, service groups and cultural organisations frequently choose to devote time to environmental issues especially as active participants in clean-up and recycling processes. The range of potential contributions to environmental education which community groups can make is as diverse as the range of community groups.

The home:

It is easy to overlook the educative potential of environmental decisions made in Australian homes, which are the site of all first education for children. Adults are in a position to instil attitudes and behaviours which will heighten the ability of subsequent generations to address the challenges of sustainable development. The extent to which parents' consumer patterns are passed on to children should not be underestimated.

Conversely, it is common for adults to learn greater environmental awareness and better consumer behaviour from their children - as has been the experience of many parents with recycling, or environmentally-friendly supermarket purchases. Opportunities for positive environmental lessons in the home are enormous, and educational agencies need to ensure that their activities act as a catalyst for such learning.

Section 4

Environmental Education and the Federal Environment and Heritage Portfolio:

The mission of the Environment and Heritage Portfolio is to ensure that sustainable development objectives are achieved in Australia - in other words, achieving national environmental goals in harmony with other important social and economic goals.

Educational activity is an essential component of the Portfolio's efforts to fulfil its mission. Educational products and services are generated across the Portfolio to complement the programs being implemented.

These products and services cover a wide range of activities and target audiences, from multi-faceted programs focussed on community education (such as publicity about Natural Heritage Trust projects), to reporting functions with a strong educational element (like State of the Environment Reporting), to collaborative programs with an implicit educational element (such as the Greenhouse Challenge Program).

Increasingly, the Portfolio is directed to building interest and capacity among community groups for developing their own solutions to environmental problems. The Portfolio seeks to provide access to the information and skills required to take effective action.

Elements of this approach include:

In addition, the Portfolio is involved in the dissemination of educational materials (kits, videos, poster series, fact sheets, signage etc) for use by formal educators and students, business and industry groups, non-government organisations, and the wider community.

The Portfolio is often directly involved in the delivery process of education by administering, funding or otherwise supporting activities increasing environmental competencies and the capacity for better environmental management. These include training or workshops for individuals or groups, support for educational programs in schools such as the international science and education GLOBE Program, and specific assistance with course development.

Review of Educational Activity:

Analysis of Programs:

As part of the preparation of this Discussion Paper, the Department of the Environment and Heritage conducted a Portfolio-wide review of its educational activities. The review categorised activities by:

While the results are only indicative, they provide some useful insights.

The type of educational activity being pursued varies across the Portfolio. Some areas have a heavy emphasis on raising public awareness, whereas others place much more emphasis on capacity building.

In terms of the overall emphasis of Portfolio educational activity, more work is being done in the area of public awareness raising than in capacity building, although this emphasis is changing.

The target audiences of different areas also vary. Overall, there is a greater emphasis on business and industry, peak bodies and community groups. To a lesser extent, Local Government and formal education are targeted. Less activity is directed towards early childhood education, vocational education and training, environmental non-government organisations, and the home. Relative to the activities involving Local Government, little emphasis is placed on education activity involving State governments or other federal agencies.

These findings need to be interpreted carefully, and they do not, in themselves, necessarily reveal shortcomings. Variation in the preferred functions and target audiences across the Environment and Heritage Portfolio is to be reasonably expected. The heavy emphasis on community groups is, for example, directly associated with the Natural Heritage Trust, and its heavy emphasis on 'on-ground' works involving community-based organisations.

That said, the results of the study do provide a lead to how the Portfolio's educational effort could be further improved.

For example:

Improving Environmental Education in the Commonwealth Environment and Heritage Portfolio:

To enhance the Portfolio's performance and capacity to provide national leadership in environmental education, a number of objectives and associated strategies have been identified.

Objective: To improve the effectiveness of the Portfolio's own educational activities.


  1. establish a body comprising environmental education experts to advise the Minister and Portfolio on the effectiveness of Portfolio education activity;
  2. establish a Portfolio Education Steering Group (PESG) with responsibility to evaluate and improve the Portfolio's educational activities through better coordination, less duplication, greater use of environmental expertise, more effective targeting of products and services, and performance measurement;
  3. use market research more widely to analyse and evaluate the impact of current educational activities, and to help inform the design and targeting of future programs;
  4. further upgrade the Australian Environmental Education Network (AEEN) web site to increase ease of access, usage and knowledge of materials available;

Objective: To encourage the integration and coordination of environmental education activities within and across sectors.


  1. foster a whole of government approach to environmental education at the Commonwealth level by establishing an inter-departmental committee to exchange ideas and maintain linkages between the various environmental education activities occurring in Commonwealth Departments;
  2. develop partnerships in environmental education with State and Territory authorities;
  3. support the inclusion of environmental issues in major conferences;

Objective: To improve the effectiveness of the environmental education activities of specific sectors.


Formal education

  1. include a component for the formal education sector in all relevant Portfolio environmental education activities;
  2. in conjunction with education authorities, foster the provision of appropriate support for teachers and the inclusion of relevant materials in primary and secondary curricula;
  3. extend GLOBE schools training on a state-by-state basis to week-long development conferences for teachers and trainee teachers, offering credentialling in GLOBE, Waterwatch and other relevant program areas;
  4. develop partnerships with tertiary education institutions to provide short courses designed to increase environmental expertise (including the development of courses/units for regional facilitators, coordinators, and leaders at the community group level), along with other initiatives developed in conjunction with these institutions;


  1. expand the Environment Resource Officer program to boost the environmental education capacity of Local Government;
  2. in partnership with local governments, improve facilitator training programs under Local Agenda 21 programs to ensure the highest level of effectiveness;

Business and industry

  1. identify and publicise to wider audiences examples of the most effective educational initiatives associated with current programs;
  2. pilot and promote appropriate workplaces as models in vocational education and training in sustainability;

Community groups

  1. through networks developed under the Natural Heritage Trust, other programs and local government agencies, expand sponsorship of adult learning processes, such as non award courses, learning circles and the development of regional sustainable management programs;
  2. recognise and strengthen the role of non government organisations in environmental education and provide more effectively for this role in funding agreements;


  1. establish a series of appropriate benchmarks against which progress can be measured and reported, and disseminate reporting handbooks for the use of the relevant sectoral agencies and groups.

Section 5

Priorities for Environmental Education in the Community:

In recent years, environmental education has expanded in scope and its methods have become more diversified. This expansion has, nonetheless, been accompanied by some insecurity about its place and nature.

There is a strong sense among those directly involved that, following a period of rapid growth (most apparent in some sectors in the last decade), the most urgent need is for consolidation, coordination and integration.

What follows is a list of suggestions of things which providers of environmental education can do to enhance our collective national effort. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but rather a range of options which providers might consider if they have not done so already - in many cases educators have gone beyond the suggestions below.

In Government

Federal Government:

There is a need at the Commonwealth level to foster new linkages between departments so that environmental education activities being pursued by different federal agencies are part of a coherent whole-of-government effort.

Environment-related activity has become commonplace in a wide range of Commonwealth departments, but greater linkages and coordination are required to ensure that these activities incorporate the potential of education to facilitate positive environmental outcomes.

The means by which the Environment and Heritage Portfolio can improve its educational activity and the activities of other Commonwealth agencies is treated separately in the previous section.

State and Territory government departments

Where they have not done so already, State and Territory governments should develop and implement an environmental education strategy. Such strategies should recognise and develop the educational possibilities in program activities.

State governments might also consider designating staff with explicit responsibility for environmental education. In designing and implementing program activities, such staff should ensure access to and use of specialists in the field of environmental education.

States should also foster linkages and partnerships with the various actual and potential providers of environmental education - including other State/Territory agencies along with external educators.

Local government bodies

The provision of elected representatives and staff in Local Government with education and training about environmental matters is a major precursor to sustainability at the local level. Designating staff in local authorities with explicit responsibility for environmental matters is another positive step. Councils can help to educate their local communities by demonstrating best practice initiatives in land management and in the treatment of waste/sewage.

Councils also have the opportunity to recognise and develop the educational possibilities associated with local environmental strategies, campaigns and practices. Councils should recognise the opportunity to involve the community in the formulation and implementation of such activities, and to build partnerships based on sustainability with local providers of formal and informal education.

Formal Education Providers:

Though these sectors are not administered by the Federal Government, there is a need for increased levels of national consistency and coherence in all of them.

Early childhood learning

Early childhood learning facilities can make a positive contribution by establishing or extending programs focused on environmental education for sustainability. A 'whole centre' approach is optimal - where, for example, the policies, programs, building and grounds functioning and maintenance all reflect a concern for environmental sustainability.

The use of play and other materials which have an environmental focus is to be encouraged, as should environmental awareness and sustainable practices among parents at home, parent-managed committees and parent-operated play groups.

School Education:

Schools are in a position to ensure a place for environmental education in every relevant curriculum area at each level of schooling. They can make sure that environmental education draws on cross-disciplinary information, skills and experiences and has a practical action-based focus. School teachers should receive environmental education in their training, and in subsequent professional development opportunities, where it is relevant to the material being taught.

Access to more courses which have an explicit focus on environmental education needs to be a choice available to all senior students. Schools should provide quality materials that attend to nationally agreed priority environmental issues, and ensure that environmental policies and practices are effectively implemented, monitored and, as necessary, updated.

Schools should move from generalised awareness of problems to teaching and learning about accurate, objective and substantive details within many of the key learning areas. Increased content knowledge and well informed action is urgent and rests on improved teaching. Opportunity also exists for schools to draw on the support of community facilities (public and private) for access to enterprises that demonstrate the principles of ecologically sustainable development in action.

Higher Education

Universities and colleges have the scope to establish departments or centres with staff positions (such as professorial status) focused on issues of environmental sustainability. Such opportunities have not been taken up on enough campuses.

Higher Education institutions also need to provide students with the maximum practicable flexibility to customise course programs to suit the multi-disciplinary requirements of a thorough environmental education.

A 'whole institution' approach to good environmental practice should be promoted across the higher education sector in order to raise environmental awareness across entire campuses.

Vocational Education and Training

Vocational Education and Training facilities should enhance their contribution to environmental education by ensuring that competencies based on sustainability are included in the design of all training packages and other course offerings.

They can also ensure the general public availability of a comprehensive range of specific environmental courses in areas such as renewable energies, natural and cultural heritage management, land and marine conservation and restoration, and waste management/resource recovery.

Vocational education and training should also model good environmental practice at all sites of provision, and they should provide practical field experiences and training by working in partnership with conservation organisations, community groups and appropriate government agencies.


Business & Industry

Businesses can contribute by practicing and promoting good environmental management which integrates conservation with development, production and distribution processes. Companies have an opportunity to assist with the process of community education and awareness-raising by finding, developing and marketing cost-competitive environmentally friendly products and processes.

Internally, companies can ensure that designated staff with responsibility for, and expertise in, environmental management are an integral component of their human resources structure. Such staff should be given the resources and managerial support to communicate the necessary technical and conceptual information required to foster better environmental awareness and performance company-wide. The implementation of comprehensive and credible environmental management systems is also a way to foster continual environmental improvements, and educate the workforce in the process.

Externally, companies are in a position to participate in appropriate partnerships with other organisations (including community groups) to foster increased knowledge about environmental problems, and build greater capacity for resolving them. This may involve support for educative materials relevant to the business sector, support for conferences dealing with environmental concerns, or financial or in-kind support for grass-roots community projects in environmental monitoring and remediation. Companies can also promote activities directed at sustainability in representative professional, business and industry associations.

Peak Bodies:

Peak bodies representing industry, agriculture, labour and other sectors can help foster the adoption of environmentally responsible practices in the Australian workplaces by adopting comprehensive policies which incorporate a commitment to principles of sustainability.

Environmental education should feature prominently among the training programs, workshops and conferences conducted by peak business organisations and unions. Peak bodies should also foster environmental performance by showcasing examples of workplace-related good environmental practice through awards, and by publicising success stories in their publications.

Non-formal education settings

The Media:

The Media has a particular responsibility for advancing environmental education in our community, because of its pre-eminent role in the distribution of information in our community. In terms of editorial content in news bulletins and current affairs coverage, it is important for reporters to be either cognisant of, or inclined to become so, about environmental aspects of stories covered. This depends to a degree on the priorities of the newsroom culture, so a commitment from senior editors is vital.

Programming decisions are also important - documentaries and feature stories which heighten an appreciation of natural heritage, and an awareness about environmental problems, are among the most powerful educative tools.

The Media (particularly television) is also in a powerful position to educate the public about environmental matters through community service announcements - often in partnership with community groups and government agencies. This requires a donation of air-time or column-space, which should be seen as a worthwhile investment rather than a cost, if for no other reason than the improvement it can make to public perceptions about the particular broadcaster or publisher.

Environmental interest groups and organisations:

A central function of any effective environmental interest group should be to promote the importance of environmental education as widely as possible, and to contribute to that process as far as possible. In order to maximise an NGO's effectiveness in this regard, human and financial resources need to be devoted to education, and the educative knowledge and skills base of the group needs to be continually renewed.

Environmental NGOs have the opportunity to collaborate with other community groups, formal and informal educators, governments, and individual businesses where appropriate, on projects which increase appreciation of environmental problems, and commitment to their resolution in a sustainable way.

Other community organisations

Every community organisation in Australia can make a positive contribution to environmental education, irrespective of their primary function. Whether it be a Scout Troop, a Church Parish, or Meals on Wheels, community groups can make a positive contribution by incorporating environmental sustainability into their decisions and activities.

By fostering a concern for local natural and cultural heritage, through decisions about material use and recycling, equipment purchases, and facility maintenance, community organisations can help to encourage effective participation in environment management in the wider community.

Where possible, community groups (especially service organisations) should look to forge productive links with other groups specifically devoted to environmental monitoring and repair, such as the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers, Landcare groups, and environmentally related government programs like Bushcare, Waterwatch and Coastcare.

Each of these activities is a substantial contribution to the overarching effort.

The home

The possibilities for environmental education in the home environment are virtually endless. Almost every decision which householders make about purchasing, consuming and disposing presents an opportunity to improve environmental performance.

Given the enormous range and number of decisions made in the average household, adults and children should constantly be looking for ways to teach each other how to make more environmentally friendly choices.

In addition to looking to ways to re-use, recycle, and reduce waste in the home through choices at the supermarket and decisions about waste disposal, households can also contribute to local ecosystems - for example through decisions made in the garden. By planting native trees and shrubs, and using alternative means to chemicals where possible, householders can ensure that their impact on the local ecology is as small as possible.

Section 6


The foundations of sustainable development are built on the way we think, the values we hold and the decisions we make. It cannot depend on just the technology available to us, the nature of our environment, or the policy instruments at our disposal. A public which is educated about the need for sustainable development is essential to achieving sustainable development.

Though the responsibility for environmental education is a shared one, the Federal Government has an important role to play in terms of national leadership, coordination, and acting as a catalyst for positive educational initiatives in a wide range of community settings.

The Commonwealth Government has acknowledged the importance of environmental education in international commitments like Agenda 21, and in national commitments such as the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, the National Greenhouse Strategy and the programs of the Natural Heritage Trust. However, until now, actions have failed to adequately reflect these commitments to environmental education.

Similarly, in the community, there is not enough appreciation of the nature and importance of environmental education. People also tend to understand environmental education too narrowly, in terms of formal educational settings such as schools.

And while there is an enormous amount of effort going into environmental education activity in a wide range of sectors, the activities lack the coordination required to maximise effectiveness.

This Discussion Paper puts forward for public comment a range of initiatives which could assist the Portfolio to enhance its national leadership role in environmental education. A major priority is to reorient our educational effort so that in addition to raising public-awareness, more attention is paid to capacity-building in other sectors and the community.

In keeping with much of the ethos developed through programs such as Landcare, Coastcare or Waterwatch, the work of the Environment and Heritage Portfolio needs to increasingly support and build interest and capacity among a wide range of groups in the community for developing their own solutions to environmental problems.

The Portfolio also recognises the need to work in partnership with State, Territory and Local Governments, regional organisations, NGOs, industry and educational institutions. This approach is fundamental to effective long term behavioural changes towards sustainability.

The transition from awareness to knowledge and action must be owned by all involved. This Paper begins a process which aims to foster greater coordination, effectiveness, and ownership in environmental education across Australia.

Appendix 1
Environmental Education - Historical Background:

Efforts to define environmental education as a specific endeavour began in the 1960s.

They were given international support at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, where participating governments recommended that it be recognised and promoted on an international scale through the United Nations.

One of the initial tasks was to develop some consensus on what environmental education could and should become, and to assist governments in implementing relevant programs as soon as practicable.

Two major conferences, supported by regional meetings of experts, were hosted by the newly formed UNESCO-UNEP International Environmental Education Programme.

The purpose of the first (Belgrade, 1975) was to draft concepts of and a vision for environmental education. The second, an Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education (Tbilisi, 1977), formally approved the scope and action plans put forward from the previous conference.

The provisions of the 'Tbilisi Declaration on the role, objectives and characteristics of environmental education', appended to this document, remain in wide international use and have sustained their role as a guiding influence over the past two decades.

Other major milestones include:

During the same period, individuals and groups, both within and outside formal education systems and agencies, began to generate new emphases in their educational work, finding and expressing different focal points and relationships as well as a new urgency in their treatment.

This groundswell helped institutionalise environmental education in formal settings and inspire the rising activism of the voluntary and community environmental groups which have contributed so much.

Appendix 2
The Tbilisi Declaration:

The following description of environmental education was endorsed by the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education at Tbilisi in 1977. It has received wide and enduring acceptance internationally and provides a useful foundation for continued action.

Criteria to help guide efforts to develop environmental education at the national, regional and global levels:

Goals, objectives and guiding principles for environmental education:

The goals of environmental education are:

The categories of environmental education objectives are :

to help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.
to help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.
to help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation for actively participating in environmental improvement and protection.
to help social groups and individuals acquire the skills fro identifying and solving environmental problems.
to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.

Guiding principles

Environmental education should

Today Shapes Tomorrow: Environmental Education for a Sustainable Future - A discussion paper