3 Fundamental Challenges to Teaching Environmental Studies and How to Overcome Them* (Part 3: Paradigms)

Part 3 of 3: Problematic Paradigms

Picture it. You’re reading about some gnarly socio-environmental problem — its origin story, what’ll happen if we fail to act, the suite of changes the situation demands.

You feel yourself getting fired up, compelled to do something: join forces, right wrongs, turn the tide. Things crescendo. You anticipate a big finish.

And then . . . it ends quietly with a call for paradigm change.

Ever been there? The pattern is common, but the conclusion can feel anti-climactic and may even evoke skepticism.

On the one hand, most would agree. In order to address wicked problems in a meaningful and sustained way we do need to think differently, to see more clearly. Ultimately, transforming our systems means transforming ourselves.

On the other hand, you might find yourself saying, we don’t have time for that. Could something as abstract as “paradigm shift” really matter when decisive immediate action is called for? Besides, how are we supposed to make it happen?

All fair points. But I’d argue that, among the many kinds of action meaningfully responding to our current crises entails, re-thinking how we think is one that deserves far more attention than it usually gets. Especially in the classroom.

Paradigms: A Powerful Entry Point

While paradigms may seem too amorphous to address, too slow-moving to spend precious time on, the level of paradigm is one of the most powerful places to intervene. It is “a leverage point that totally transforms systems,” says scientist and systems thinker Donella Meadows (2008:163).

One reason is because the twin projects of re-thinking how we think and re-designing our systems are mutually supportive and reinforcing.

Bad mental models, on the other hand, stand in the way of our getting to know reality and ultimately of designing viable systems that work with rather than against it.

As futures strategist Ruben Nelson (2020) notes:

“We who are focused on sustainability have yet to take seriously the insight that the deepest roots of our present mess of complex messes is the very way we who are [modern-techno-industrial] culturally-shaped persons apprehend and respond to reality.”

Some of the most fundamental characteristics of how we moderns apprehend and respond to reality include strong biases toward:

Separateness: seeing the things of the world as independently existing objects, including individual selves

Stasis: viewing things as unchanging until acted on by some force or entity; with stability as our default, change can be difficult to understand, accept, and guide

Dualism: perceiving phenomena primarily in either/or terms (e.g., nature/humanity, good/bad, us/them)

Overall, these paradigmatic lenses distort our view, obscuring the reality of dynamic interdependence and causing major problems. Chief among them are that they have:

  • promoted a mis-understanding of the relationship between humans and the environment, individuals and society as separate and often oppositional
  • encouraged the individualization of responsibility, whereby it is assumed that personal consumer choices are the cause and solution of “environmental problems”
  • enabled the delusion that things will always be this way, and should (except when we want them to be otherwise)
  • stunted our ability to appreciate nuance, handle contradiction, be discerning among shades of gray, and embrace both/and approaches

Obstacles to Learning and Effective Action

The paradigms guiding our perception, interpretation, thought, and speech have profound implications for how we operate in the world and the socio-environmental impacts of that.

In constraining our ability to look elsewhere and see differently, these frames tend to be self-reinforcing. This is especially apparent when we’re asked to see things in new ways.

In an environmental studies class, for example, mental habits and pictures formed within the context of the above problematic paradigms pose challenges for:

  • seeing complex, dynamic, interdependent socio-environmental systems
  • understanding that there is no one clear “solution” to the problems which have emerged from them
  • acknowledging our complicity in creating and maintaining those problems
  • identifying the most effective entry points for action

Without explicit intervention, the majority of young people with problematic paradigms become adults with problematic paradigms. Citizens, professionals, parents, teachers, and leaders who think, speak, and act in ways that do not comport with reality, unwittingly contributing to our gnarly socio-environmental problems and hindering movement toward positive change.

Unless we actively cultivate a different mindset, the cycle of trained incapacity continues.

Higher education is in a unique position to help, but first needs to get clear about its fundamental purpose.

What is Education For?

As institutions set up (at least in principle) to systematically disseminate information, keep a society’s basic knowledge up to date, and support the development of critical and clear thinking, schools are an obvious entry point for change.

When our educational institutions actively or passively perpetuate problematic paradigms, however, they become systemic obstacles to those goals. In higher ed, they end up thwarting the very purposes they claim: creating problem solvers, cultivating responsible citizens, helping students craft meaningful lives, and ultimately shaping a better future.

To understand why higher ed gets in its own way, we need to look at prevailing answers to the question of what it’s for. Whether explicit or unstated, the ways we answer this question shape our sense of what education should do.

Image credit: 365careers.com

Meadows reminds us that “purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals” (2008:14). Based on what higher ed currently does, two common observations are that it is for producing specialists and fueling the economic growth machine.

We do need specialists, of course, but when the specialists-in-training are not also aided in seeing the larger contexts in which their specialized activities occur and exert impacts, they are far less capable of understanding complex problems, exercising genuine responsibility, and envisioning the long-term consequences of their actions.

And higher education, in the U.S. at least, is inextricably tied to the nation’s economy. That in itself is not necessarily a problem, but the nature of that relationship is. For a host of reasons, as Michael Maniates (2017) puts it, higher education should be helping us “move beyond the environmentally destructive imperative of ever-continuing economic growth.”

If higher education institutions were to agree on a different answer to the foundational question of what they’re for, they could do a great deal to advance the needed paradigm shift while at the same time achieving their purported goals.

“A change in purpose changes a system profoundly” (Meadows 2008:17).

In response to the question “what is education for?” renowned environmental studies professor David Orr offers some new criteria by which to assess how it’s doing. He argues that,

“the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival” (2004:8).

Alas, by these measures, colleges and universities appear to be failing. It is quite possible to turn things around, but only if they get radical.

Getting Radical in Education

Derived from the Latin radicalis and radix, meaning “of or pertaining to the root,” radical as I use it here refers to getting to the root of problems.

Addressing only the symptoms and proximate causes of our long-term complex socio-environmental problems, while neglecting their deeper systemic origins, will not bring about the lasting changes needed.

Likewise, if the problem is how we think, then conventional higher ed fixes will not cut it.

Don’t know enough? Pack in more content.

Don’t know the right things? Add some new requirements.

Discovered the limitations of individual disciplines? Institute interdisciplinary classes and programs.

These can all be good things to do. But the mere addition of ingredients, without critical attention to the paradigms underlying our troublesome habits of thought, will not fundamentally change how we think.

It’s like discovering that we’re traveling in the wrong direction and then trying to get back on track by painting our car or taking in more passengers.

We must go deeper to see the faulty assumptions, frameworks, mental pictures, and habits at the root of the crises unfolding before our eyes and then actively work to transform them.

In particular, we need to re-calibrate ways of seeing and being that correspond better with reality — the unalterable conditions within which we must operate.

So, what does this mean for education? Many things. But in terms of curriculum, there are two general directions that Orr and other would-be reformers advocate for the needed reconstruction in higher ed.

One is to require students to demonstrate comprehension of an established set of basic knowledge and concepts (e.g., the laws of thermodynamics, basic ecology, steady-state economics, environmental ethics) before they can graduate. Another is to integrate into classes and co-curricular experiences an array of practical skills necessary for living well in a place.

Higher education can and should engage in this work at multiple levels.

College and university faculty are in an excellent position to help. And those of us teaching socio-environmental subject matter — with the distinctive charge of helping students understand the nature of interdependent physical, biological, and social phenomena and be able to respond to problems in them — are ideally poised to engage in this work.

The future possibilities are incredible. But there’s much we can do right now, from within our current roles as faculty, to support a broader paradigm shift.

Image credit: https://www.gtdollar.com/news/starting-from-zero/

Start Where You Are

As teachers

Whether you teach environmental studies courses or not, you can look for opportunities to:

Help students develop meta-reflective skills. Whatever the subject matter, we can always provide a larger historical frame, more context, highlight the emotional involvements that color our view, and foster a growing capacity (in Norbert Elias’ words) for greater detachment in our assessment of things.

Equip students with alternative language. Instead of reinforcing problematic paradigms by continuing to use terms which connote separation, stasis, and dualism, consider available alternatives which better capture dynamic interdependence, nonduality, and help retrain our minds. (There are alternatives, for instance, to our usual ways of thinking and speaking about individuals and society.)

Provide them with a more integrated picture of reality. Rather than strengthening inaccurate mental images of “society,” “environment,” “the economy,” and more as occupying separate realms, help them see the biophysical conditions in which social phenomena are always taking place.

Guide them through processes of exploring, explaining, and anticipating social change. No matter what the subject, change is part of it. Ultimately, we want to prepare students to be able to understand it so they can better anticipate, navigate, and effect it where they are.

As scholars

In conjunction with our teaching efforts, we can more strategically use scholarship to:

Promote alternative concepts and frameworks. In keeping informed about and using more adequate theories, frameworks, and concepts in our writings and presentations, we can expand the common ground beneath the apparently separate and irreconcilable parts of academia while at the same time helping to reinforce more accurate views of reality.

Write and produce materials to assign in class. We all use scholarship in our classes — assigning books, articles, videos, and more. Why not create works that further your scholarly goals and serve as learning resources for students.

Give others a head start. Experiment with paradigm-adjusting strategies in your field. Share your successes, failures, insights, and new ideas so that others may learn from your experiences. This kind of cooperative spirit can multiply and hasten the desired changes in higher ed.

As members of the campus community

Through our service responsibilities and the engagement with different aspects of institutional processes that entails, we can find opportunities to:

Introduce others to new perspectives. Whether as meeting participants, committee members, campus leaders, or activists, we can find opportunities to gently offer a different way of looking at a situation. Our own efforts as teachers and scholars to get clear on things prepare us to take full advantage of chances to help others do the same.

Make creative use of existing roles and propose new ones. As mentors, committee members, leaders, and volunteers we can help shape priorities and strategies in ways that contribute to addressing the manifestations of problematic paradigms in various corners of campus. If we notice that certain relevant needs aren’t being met through those roles, we can imagine new ones.

Promote ongoing learning and discovery. By taking advantage of existing resources and connecting with others already doing this work, we can engage in the kind of lifelong learning we say we want students to do. Among the many supports out there, the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education are two of my favorites. They involve and engage a most wondrous variety of faculty and staff from across the spectrum of disciplines and campus activities.

Help re-imagine vision, mission, and structures. While academia is famous for being slow to change, most of us (especially at small liberal arts colleges) have seen instances of rapid action when it’s perceived to be necessary. Program cuts, reductions in force, and the swift introduction of new programs meant to bolster enrollments are a few of the more common examples. With enough collective recognition and pressure, schools could also be induced to begin presenting themselves — what they are for, what they do, how they are organized — differently. These qualities could then be recruited to support paradigm shift more broadly, at multiple levels.

If you work in higher ed but are not faculty, rest assured, there are countless ways to adapt the above ideas — and imagine new ones — to make a difference from wherever you are.

It’s Time for Action

By now we all know (or should) that the socio-environmental crises confronting us today demand immediate, radical, transformative action. This requires simultaneous efforts in many forms from multiple directions.

Actions not informed by clear thought and vision, however, won’t get the job done. They’ll be misguided or unsustainable, and may even make matters worse.
It’s time to explicitly engage in the cultivation of worldviews, frameworks, and matrices of meaning that are more congruent with reality.
Higher education institutions are definitely in a position to take the lead on this. The best part is that, done well, the process of re-tooling how we think advances two of higher ed’s purported goals: preparing students to respond to the challenges of our times and guiding them in finding meaningful work and fashioning good lives.

“If education does not teach us these things, then what is education for?” demands Aldo Leopold (1966:210).

Paradigm shift is not flashy. Akin to the ways complex underground root systems feed the parts of the plants we notice, this work occurs in ways mostly unseen.

It won’t be easy. There are vested interests who will not go quietly.

And it’s certainly not going to happen overnight. Though, on an individual level, it can happen in the blink of an a-ha moment.

Regardless, if we are to give decency and human survival a fighting chance, it’s one kind of action we need to take.

Where will you begin?

Featured Image: Credit: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images


Leopold, Aldo. 1966 [1949]. A Sand County Almanac. New York: Ballantine.

Meadows, Donella. 2008. Thinking in Systems: A Primer, edited by Diana Wright. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Nelson, Ruben. 2020. SCORAI listerserv email exchange. September 5.

Orr, David. 2004 [1994]. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press.

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