In an environmental studies class in a secondary school in a South African township, the teacher takes the students outside into the sunny fall morning. She shows them how to plant a tree and ensure it survives. The students seem captivated as each of them plants their own sapling in the ground outside the school; this hands-on, outdoor class is a rare opportunity to get away from the classroom and the rote learning that usually goes on inside.

This class is one of many hands-on environment-oriented classes that have sprung up around the world in the past decade as part of governments’ efforts to introduce sustainability into school curricula. But how realistic is it to expect schools to fix humanity’s environmental mess? After observing the class, I asked the teacher whether she connected her hands-on lessons to larger conversations around climate change, and she said no. The point of the class, she said, was precisely to get away from theoretical discussions about global environmental issues and to help students take tangible action.

This is not surprising if we consider how most public education systems are run. They are generally under direct control of governments, the vast majority of which are currently doing nowhere near enough to tackle the environmental crisis—as COP26 has shown. Why would governments encourage their young citizens to question the states’ lack of action? It is simply not in their interest to do so—and this is the major flaw in the idea that we can educate the world out of the climate crisis.

The mainstream political response to the crisis is, in other words, merely targeting the symptoms rather than the root causes of environmental decay. Environmental education must tackle these issues head on.

There was a particular view of citizenship at work in these classes—one in which the citizen follows blueprints created by others rather than helping to design their own future. These observations led me to search for alternative ways to educate young people about environmental solutions.

In the communities where I have been working, activism has emerged as a clear contender. Activist movements often attract young people and create a space for dialogue between generations as well as opportunities to talk about and act on the politics of environmental decay.

Read the full article about environmental education by Peter Sutoris at YES! Magazine.