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Environmental education (EE) in China can be said to have begun with Premier Zhou Enlai in 1973. In general, the development of EE and education for sustainable development (ESD) has mirrored international development. But EE and ESD in China tend to emphasize environmental protection awareness and knowledge with much focus on the scientific and technical; truly progressive EE and ESD will require more focus on the ethical and aesthetic aspects of environmental protection.
In China, people and government agencies are becoming more and more aware of the abused and bleak condition of the environment. Christopher Flavin, president emeritus of the Worldwatch Institute, states: “During the course of this century, Asia in general and China in particular will stand ever closer to the center of the global economy and environment . . . . China has become central to the challenge of environmentally sustainable development. Rapid economic growth is propelling many of China’s 1.3 billion people into the consumer society, increasing the pressures on its own resources as well as those of other nations” (Flavin 2004, 1). Nationwide, a grassroots environmental movement is gradually taking root. This bottom-up environmental activism is focusing on public education and voluntarism for issues such as water and air pollution, waste management, energy conservation, biodiversity preservation, enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, as well as civic engagement and democratic governance. Concern about China’s environmental problems and ecological degradation is now in the public domain, and many Chinese communities have become aware of the importance of environmental sustainability in achieving sustainable development and creating a society that is in harmony with the environment. Nationwide, the number of individuals and communities committed to addressing environmental problems has increased continually since the late 1970s, as demonstrated by the exponential growth of environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) since the late 1990s and the “green school” movement that began in the twenty-first century. In China, the principal approaches to EE include formal education (mainly K–12 schools and tertiary education), nonformal education (such as programs and activities sponsored by environmental NGOs, museums, and parks), and informal education (for example, the media, books and magazines, newspapers, community poster boards, etc.).
China is a large country with diverse natural and cultural features. The following overview of EE focuses on mainland China; the complexity of EE in the two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macao) and in Taiwan warrant a separate treatment.
A Global View
Several international conferences organized by the United Nations (UN), and the agreements reached at these conferences, have shaped the global development of EE. In 1977 the world’s first intergovernmental conference on EE took place in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the USSR, defining EE as a process aimed at developing “a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the total environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivation, and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones” (Ji 2007, 13; UNESCO 1977). Lucie Sauvé, previous Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education, has written that EE is basically “education about our relationship with the environment” (Sauvé 2002, 1), and describes this relationship by observing that we see the environment “as nature (to be appreciated, respected, and preserved); as a resource (to be managed and shared); as a problem (to be avoided or to be solved); as a system (to understand so as to improve decision making); as a place to live (to get to know and improve); as the biosphere (in which all live together over the long term); and as a community project (in which one is to become actively involved)” (Sauvé 2002, 1).
Education for sustainable development (ESD) has gained more prominence internationally since the late 1980s, when it was promoted by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development (United Nations 1987). In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED)—also known as the Earth Summit—in Rio de Janeiro endorsed ESD and adopted it as part of Agenda 21, the blueprint for sustainable development that came out of the conference. The UN’s Agenda 21 has guided the international discussion about EE since early 1990s, and calls for re-orienting education toward sustainable development, or “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations 1987). Since then the relationship between EE and ESD has been debated, and this discussion continues to the present day. The UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) is a global initiative to meet the challenges of ESD, and over one hundred Regional Centers of Expertise on ESD (RCEs) have been created throughout the world to promote such re-orientation in education.
EE Development in China
Environmental education in China generally has followed international development in EE but has maintained its own unique characteristics. Over the last four decades the content and methodology of EE, as well as the people engaged in EE work, have all broadened and diversified in China.
Premier Zhou Enlai 周恩来 of China (1898–1976) was regarded as the first person to bring environmental protection to the forefront in China, arranging the first National Conference on Environmental Protection during the Cultural Revolution in 1973. In the same year EE was formally established in China via certain Regulations on Protecting and Improving the Environment, a broad legislative mandate that provided for environmental protection and included a section focusing specifically on EE. Since then, EE in China has grown steadily more sophisticated (Kwan and Lidston 1997, 88).
In China’s Seventh Five-Year Plan 七五计划 (1986–1990), the director of education and communications for the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA 国家环境保护总局) stressed three main objectives for environmental protection: to raise the environmental awareness of all Chinese citizens; to raise the political, professional, and managerial capabilities of those engaged in environmental protection; and to increase the number of environmental protection specialists throughout all segments of Chinese society (Kwan and Lidston 1997, 88). The importance of developing professional leaders to promote EE in schools and workplaces was also emphasized. In 1992, the State Education Commission 国家教育委员会 and SEPA jointly held the First National Environmental Education Workshop and introduced the principle that “education is the foundation of environmental protection.” The importance of EE in Chinese basic education was affirmed at that meeting, propelling it into a new phase (Editorial Department 2004, 41).
More recently, the Ministry of Education issued Outline for Environmental Education in Elementary and Middle Schools 中小学生环境教育专题教育大纲. The memo, released in March 2003, is seen as providing “new assurance to the sustainable development strategy” of China. The release and implementation of this directive indicates that the national education system is “undergoing a major overhaul” (Editorial Department 2004, 40).
The introduction of environmental education into formal educational institutions began at the tertiary level in China (Lin and Ross 2004, 5), when Beijing Normal University 北京师范大学 became the first higher-education institution to offer an environmental education graduate degree program in 1993. Since then the EE academic community has become actively involved with EE scholars and activists from outside of China, and has launched a series of EE training sessions. In the past EE was integrated into other fields of study, but it is being offered through stand-alone courses now, especially at the tertiary education level. Integrating EE materials into various courses and including EE in curricula can form a new and mutually complementary education framework.
A “green school” is an open school that “breaks down the psychological and cultural barrier that separates itself from the outside world, and becomes a part of the social environment (e.g., the local community)” (Zhang 2000, 65; Lin and Ross 2004, 8). The green schools (lǜsè xuéxiào 绿色学校) promoted by the Centre for Environmental Education and Communication (CEEC) in the Ministry of Environmental Protection of China 中华人民共和国环境保护部 have played a key role in developing EE for elementary- and middle-school administrators, teachers, and students. These schools have become a significant part of Chinese education, with more than 4000 schools registered nationwide in 2003 and in excess of 17,200 in 2004 (Lin and Ross 2004, 7). There is, however, a tendency to pursue quantity at the expense of quality. Authentic EE is envisioned much as “quality education” in China; that is, education that requires both teachers and students to think holistically and to develop the ability to explore, reflect, and act (Lin and Ross 2004, 8). In reality, far fewer schools can really be called green schools.
Environmental Educators’ Initiative
China appreciates how important high quality environmental educators are to the success of EE, and began working with international organizations to develop professional environmental educators for the country in 1997. The Environmental Educators’ Initiative (EEI), which ran from 1997 through 2007, was initiated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) China Program Office. It was funded by British Petroleum (BP) and managed jointly by the Ministry of Education, WWF, and BP. The overall objectives of EEI included capacity building for environmental educators, integration of EE into the basic-education curriculum, and ensuring EE sustainability. It introduced student-centered and inquiry-based learning, which complemented the developing Chinese curriculum. The program was now deeply rooted in the formal education system, and there are hopes that EE will eventually reach 100 percent of the 197 million school students in China. Coincidentally, EEI and China’s plan for basic education reform focused on similar objectives and promoted similar educational practices. The expectation is that the potential impact of EEI on Chinese education and society will be tremendous, but only the future will tell whether that will be the case.
Beyond Formal Education
Environmental education now reaches beyond the formal education systems, and is “taught to tourists in recreational spots, farmers in rural areas, media operators, administrators who plan courses and edit teaching materials at the national and regional level, and decision makers in the government” (Tian 2004, 36). The Chinese public began to learn about global ecological and environmental issues and the environmental problems facing industrialized and developing nations from media coverage of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the adoption of Agenda 21. Gradually, the Chinese government began to pay more attention to environmental issues, which also prompted the public to become “more cognizant about environment-related issues” (Tian 2004, 35).
Environmental NGOs have done a lot to promote EE in China. Friends of Nature, which was established in 1994, was the first environmental NGO registered in China. Its aim is to “promote environmental education, nature protection, public participation, build and diffuse green culture with China’s own characteristics,” and its agenda goes “beyond the purely green concerns about the natural environment into the broader arena of sustainability which brings issues about social justice, equity and intergenerational rights” (Hong, Guo, and Marinova 2006, 328–329). Since Friends of Nature was established in China, environmental NGOs and university environmental clubs and associations have grown both in number and in impact on Chinese government and society. Chinese NGOs differ from those in the West in that they usually have to be affiliated with, or sponsored by, state-authorized agencies. Despite this tight control, environmental NGOs in China have been able to operate with quite a bit amount of autonomy and have managed to “push the envelope” (Turner 2004; Wu 2009, 1) in their interactions with government agencies. These NGOs also have shifted from taking on strictly local environmental issues to looking at matters of global concern, such as climate change.
Environmental NGOs have had significant influence on EE in schools as well, and have increased student participation in environmental activities by establishing connections with the educational system. For example, they have facilitated the establishment of EE centers and green schools, and the EEI program mentioned previously is another great example of EE collaboration between the formal education system and organizations that support nonformal education. Environmental NGOs, such as Friends of Nature, Green Earth Volunteers, Global Village, and Green Rivers, have played a special and important role in educating people and promoting environmental protection in China. They have become quite influential in policy making and EE, and are key to understanding China’s environmental movement and education (Hong, Guo, and Marinova 2006, 324).
The Forests and a Tree
Environmental education in China can be summarized as follows: (1) a response to environmental degradation and the practical needs of society, (2) a knowledge-focused area of scientific learning in the national interest, (3) a field of study with Chinese characteristics, (4) a political tool and an element in national propaganda, (5) an administratively led and centrally controlled innovation, and (6) a field of study in conflict with mainstream education” (Stimpson and Kwan 2001, 401). One could also say that environmental education in China, as a kind of state-supported public good, is mostly equated with environmental-protection education and environmental-awareness education, and is often treated as environmental science and technology education. It aims mainly at serving sustainable-development goals and the overall goals of achieving quality education in China.
The environment is seen in terms of problems to be solved and avoided and resources to be managed and used in a sustainable way in China, and environmental education operates primarily from that point of view. Chinese environmental education also tends to be anthropocentric; that is, it reflects a human-centered view of the world. The majority of Chinese are concerned with human health, safety, and welfare issues, and the human-centered resource-management mentality of state-supported EE can only go so far in achieving real harmony between people and the rest of nature. Environmental education is only starting to expand to include a view of the environment as nature to be appreciated and respected with its own intrinsic value, as a system or a place to live, and as a community project to be actively involved in. Mark Elvin observed that “classical Chinese culture was as hostile to forests as it was fond of individual trees” (Elvin 2004, xvii). This paradox in the Chinese psyche is also reflected in Chinese EE, as mechanistic and technocentric scientism blends together with the pursuit of spiritual development and an ecological civilization.
The major constraint to EE in China is the examination-oriented formal education system, which keeps most if not all teachers from trying to integrate EE topics and methods into their teaching practices. These exam pressures limit teaching innovation and lead to a definition of school learning that is too narrow (Lin and Ross 2004, 8). Schools in general, and high schools in particular, do not have positive attitudes toward EE and lack commitment to it. Transitioning from exam-oriented education to quality-oriented education is urgent if EE is to be furthered in the formal-education sector. Preparing teachers at both the pre-service and in-service levels to take on the challenges and opportunities of EE is a pressing task not only for China, but also for the world.
The Road through the Woods
As long as a high-stakes, examination-oriented ideology dominates the formal education system in China, EE is going to remain a much-neglected subject or a “just for show” area of study at the basic education level. The outlook for EE is much brighter in higher education, as EE- and ESD-related courses are being offered at more and more universities and are in high demand.
The hundreds of environmental NGOs, along with the mass media, have played and will continue to play essential roles in nonformal and informal EE. Many different individuals and NGOs are involved in EE, and there is a lot of room for multilateral collaboration and collective consciousness-seeking. It remains to be seen whether the formal education system will exhibit the kind of maturity and environmental activism championed by environmental NGOs. The system’s current approach is not surprising, however, considering that formal schooling is viewed as a means to enforce conformity among subjects of the state, as opposed to cultivating well-informed and active citizens. Regardless, bottom-up environmentalism and EE will continue to play an essential role in the revitalization and development of a civil society in China.
Much of EE in China is focused on the knowledge, skills, and values needed for environmental protection, and emphasizes the scientific and technical aspects of the subject. Ethical and aesthetic angles need to be stressed as well in order to achieve balance and make additional progress in EE. There is great potential for progress in both the theoretical and practical aspects of EE by learning from Chinese literature, and from traditional Chinese philosophies such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism.
As Christopher Flavin of the Worldwatch Institute wrote, the decisions China makes regarding its environment will “have a major bearing on the future health of humanity and the planet due to its large population size, growing economic power, and wide cultural influence” (Flavin 2004, 1–2). China as well as the global community cannot afford to ignore China’s growing environmental and social challenges. Education has a crucial role to play, and a long way to go.
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