Human Ecology – Growing a Backbone in Students’ Education

We have all heard about the School Strikes for Climate campaign, started by a young Swedish girl.  It has gone world-wide, and the anger and frustration from young people for the politicians and other decision makers show that the lack of firm decision and of understanding on something as deadly important as climate change is no longer acceptable.  The strikes have been quite an eye opener!

I do think that a large number of these young children are very aware of what climate change can lead to, and the causes it has.  Schools surely do an informative good job for many.  The social media has been one way to relay the information they need.  But can we support them go further?  How can we help everyone to understand the consequences their own behaviour has on the climate?  Do people understand the link between what they eat and how they travel and the effects on climate?  How about the grownups?  And how much does a politician understand?  There are huge amount of information out there from scientists and researchers and NGOs but it can sometimes be hard to take in. 

My suggestion is to use human ecology as a structure behind the teaching about the environment for all and for children. Human ecological understanding can help to form a backbone for children and that it can be of great support for a teacher aiming at a more sustainable teaching. An education about the environment has to go into the heart of a child and help it to feel part of something bigger rather than like studying a language or physics.   The connection to the environment is not just to understand – it is to feel and get attached to and be inspired of.  Therefore I want human ecology to be at the core of education. So what is human ecology?  It may need an explanation. 

What is human ecology?  

There are many approaches to Human Ecology.  Academically it is an inter-disciplinary study of the relationship between humans and the environment constantly learning and adapting.  It is an excellent approach to sustainability, and a new means of unifying political, economic and social endeavours to provide a meaningful future for rural and urban people everywhere.

It is taught all over the world, from Australia to Canada and Brazil to Scandinavia.  I myself was a student and then a lecturer of human ecology at the Gothenburg University in Sweden.  As a former president of the Society for Human Ecology I have had the pleasure of meeting with many of these very dedicated students and teachers on the subject from around the world.

It can be hard to link all this information about the climate, oceans, food security and threats to insects together.  The natural environment has for many become detached from ordinary life.  As there are now more people living in cities than in the countryside, children grow up without having seen a cow or a lamb – how will they be able get in touch with nature?  When you see the food in the supermarket, do you think about where it is coming from?  There is a lot of greenery in the city too, but sometimes it is tiny and hard to see, and it doesn’t give the same feel as a forest!

There are many good examples on how schools can help students to get a better understanding of the relationship between themselves as humans and the environment – the total environment including the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat and the interlinks between these life necessities.  They can learn much about the impact of their own behaviour and the consequences on the environment they may not see themselves.

What has been done?

Research on environmental education in schools have been done, the example I will use here is the Aires report from the Australia Government’s Department of the Environment and Heritage (  This international review compared the approach to the basic environmental studies to a programme focussing on education for sustainable development in several countries. Traditional environmental education saw students as needing to have positive experiences within the environment and learn values to appreciate and protect the environment.  At the same time it has been increasingly recognised through research and educational literature that awareness raising and experiences in nature is not sufficient in itself to lead towards a more sustainable future.  The better way is to focus on education specifically for sustainable development.

Some programs are documenting deep levels of change in understanding resulting in cultural shifts within schools and the wider community. Active participation and partnerships for sustainability are not only occurring within the school (involving teachers, pupils and management/administration) but also between the school and the community (organisations, business/industry and governments).

This shift calls into question the dominant approach of educating ‘about’ the environment and instead reflected the need for educating directly ‘for’ sustainability. The latter, seeks to engage people in critical reflection of current lifestyles and actions and to be able to make informed decisions and changes towards a more sustainable world.

Education for sustainable development differs from traditional approaches to education in that it focuses sharply on more complex social issues, such as the links between environmental quality, human equality, human rights and peace and their underpinning politics.

The FEE Eco-school (Foundation for Environmental Education Eco-Schools program (Aires p 13)) currently represents the largest internationally coordinated whole-school Environment Education program with 28 member nations and more than 10,000 schools participating. Originally founded as a European program, it has since expanded to countries within Africa, Asia and South America. FEE is a not-for profit umbrella organisation which brings together national NGOs implementing programs for ‘environmental education, management and certification’. These NGOs work in close partnership with their national educational authorities and the FEE International Secretariat (currently based in Portugal).

The FEE Eco-schools program is characterised by a strong emphasis on the environmental issues of water, energy and waste for key areas to action. However, this focus can be adapted to the needs and priorities of member countries.  In the UK; for instance, the Eco-schools program broadens this focus to litter, waste minimization, energy, water, transport, healthy living and school grounds. At the same time, potential African Eco-school partners expressed the need to adapt the Eco-school themes to more pressing ‘African’ issues such as health and sanitation, as well as community-based natural resource management. FEE Eco-schools promotes the need for students to be involved in activities and decision-making in implementing projects relating to these themes

An example from New Zealand is the Enviroschools. A review of this program reveals a focus on creativity and critical thinking, futures thinking, worldviews and cultural perspectives and student decision-making.  A review of whole-school programs reveals that in most cases the managing organisation (and funders) rarely has a combination of both educational and environmental expertise.

Very often these programmes focus on sustainable development.  It is very good, but does a 7 year old really understand the word?

My suggestion is to improve this even further

All these programmes are very good and important for both the school and for the children.  I would strongly recommend these programmes for every country.

A way forward to enhance our understanding is to give students an opportunity to reach out to the wider environment that is all around their schools and beyond.  A way forward would be to regularly including some hours in the curriculum to provide an opportunity for students to focus on the inter-connection between themselves and, for example the origin of their food, clothes and toys and where such stuff goes after being discarded. To do this from the very start of their school years, steadily increasing to include wider issues leading up to a better understanding of Sustainable Development Goals would be to provide an understanding of the consequences of their actions.  

My suggestion to use human ecology as a structure behind the teaching about the environment for children may need an explanation of what human ecology is?

So here is a more general view on what human ecology is:

Sometimes I think that human ecology is like a great layered cake: on the bottom are the rocks and the minerals, located in the great ocean.  This layer is topped with a layer of soil, one of the most important parts of the planet.  Over this come a green layer of ecosystems and a layer of living creatures, from insects to elephants.  Further on top come the humans and with various toppings of culture, social structure, religion, economy and various ways of extracting resources from the bottom of the cake and to produce the food and drinks we are all relying from  the layer of the ocean and the ecosystems. Over the cake the sun is shining.  It is a huge cake, far big to take in at once, but you can make it easier to taste if you cut a piece of the cake, incorporating all the layers and then devour it with a good appetite. 

So why not let the children in school from very early on bake a human ecological cake?  Start with the very close environment, weather it is a city or countryside.  Let them grow a carrot and see how it grows.  Let them find out where things come from and where things go when used and thrown away. 

Human ecology is such a good way to find out about things.  It helps us all to take more responsibility for our actions.  And is that not what sustainability is all about?

By Eva Ekehorn

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