THE LIMITS OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
Environmentalists have too often advocated piecemeal approaches that cannot succeed in most ecological degradation settings. The U.S. EPA and World Resources Institute, for example, conducted a Delphi survey in 1992 asking experts to identify environmental trends, long-term problems, and suitable remedial measures. The joint report concluded that the "most powerful lever is education" and "[i]mproved education, at all levels, hs the greatest promise for the future of environmental quality and biodiversity. This includes providing people with a direct sense of connection between their everyday lives and environmental quality."
This is simply wishful thinking. Education can seldom change self-interested choices in circumstances where people can obtain higher incomes through ecologically destructive activities than by conserving natural features. As one illustration, a recent article in The Undersea Journal decried the widespread practice of dynamite fishing, which is illegal in virtually all coastal states, and then quoted an Indonesian official conceding: "The people who obey the law live in grass houses. The people who don't, for now, live in concrete ones. It's a difficult argument." Fishermen can easily see the circle of devastation resulting from their use of explosives, but they can also catch more fish by using bombs than by adopting other low-technology fishing methods. Many governments and environmental groups have mounted educational campaigns to describe the long-term harm resulting from this method, but the practice continues in many regions.
In the same vein, education can
seldom overcome selfish or uncooperative behavior arising from perceived self-interest,
past cultural traditions, or sheer stubbornness. Education can seldom resolve
"Tragedy of the Commons" problems in which communal ownership allows people to
benefit from other's conservation efforts by taking a disproportionate share of the
natural resources for themselves. Education can seldom remedy "h out"
problems in which the continuation of environmentally harmful actions by some people will
undermine conservation preferences by the majority. In all of these cases,
environmental education may be a necessary element in devising any practicable solution,
but education cannot be a sufficient solution by itself. Combining environmental
education with economic assistance or economic incentive mechanisms is likely to prove
more effective than exclusive reliance on education programs.
In 1988, marine scientists from
Trent University in Jamaica and the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory of the University of
the West Indies began a Fisheries Improvement Project. This project initially
focused on education of Jamaican fishermen about the harmful ecological impacts of their
activities. However, the scientists concluded by 1991 that education was
must persuade many people in disparate areas that conservation of ecosystems and species
is worth more to them in terms of their own self-interest than are non-sustainable
exploitation practices, education will usually be insufficient in the absence of
associated economic assistance or incentives measures. Education is especially
unlikely to achieve real conservation when natural resources are withdrawn from people's
use to create private nature reserves, public parks, and other protected areas, or to
preserve wildlife and other ecological features for their own sake. This claim
should not require much elaboration considering the countless cases in which destructive,
non-sustainable, illegal resource exploitation continues in protected areas.
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