3 Fundamental Challenges to Teaching Environmental Studies, and How to Overcome Them* (Part 1: Information Overwhelm)

Part 1 of 3: Information Overwhelm

The fall semester is well underway.

If you’re teaching an intro to environmental studies or sciences course (or any course dealing with interdisciplinary social and environmental issues*), then it’s likely that the optimistic sky’s-the-limit vision you enjoyed during the planning stages — possible even during a pandemic! — has given way to the realities of limited time and energy, actual rather than idealized students, and a news cycle that just won’t quit.

Maybe you’re beginning to remember what feels hard about this work? There’s so much ground to cover. Things are complicated. The situation is urgent.

Still, your desire to equip students with the tools they need to understand the issues, make informed decisions, develop important professional skills, and learn how to contribute to positive change has not waned.

Ideally, you’d be able to do all this while also gracefully handling the politics of it all and remaining sensitive to the emotional tilt-a-whirl of depression, anxiety, anger, and optimism that often accompanies serious examination of our socio-environmental crises.

That’s a tall order.

While there’s no one right way to go about it, there are a few fundamental challenges to it that similarly impact our diverse efforts.

  • Information overwhelm
  • A poor understanding of social change
  • Problematic paradigms

Directly confronting and dealing with these challenges can help pave the way toward achieving our respective learning goals. And ultimately, it helps create the conditions for people to operate with a more accurate understanding of themselves and the world — a sorely needed complement to specialized and technical knowledge. In that spirit, I will address each of these challenges in a separate post, starting with the first one here.

Information Overwhelm: The Crisis of the Librarian

Concern about the fragmentation of knowledge due to excessive academic specialization goes back centuries. Specialization itself is not a problem, but has become one in the absence of a balancing synthesizing force. Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein said it well.

“The greatest crisis facing us is not Russia, not the Atom bomb, not corruption in government, not encroaching hunger, nor the morals of the young. It is a crisis in the organization and accessibility of human knowledge. We own an enormous ‘encyclopedia’ which isn’t even arranged alphabetically. Our ‘file cards’ are spilled on the floor, nor were they ever in order. The answers we want may be buried somewhere in the heap, but it might take a lifetime to locate two already known facts, place them side by side and derive a third fact, the one we urgently need. Call it the Crisis of the Librarian” (1952:21–22).

With regard to today’s socio-environmental crises, the real tragedy, then, is that we know more than ever about how earth systems work, the havoc human activities are wreaking in them, and what to do about it. But the current fragmentation of knowledge — especially between the natural and social sciences — makes it difficult to even know what we know, much less act on it in meaningful ways.

As has been repeated by scholars in so many ways:

“a unified science is needed soon, and we have not even a common framework to unite these approaches” (Waring and Richerson 2011:302).

So, if you’ve ever struggled with questions of how to best assemble the various and vast quantities of information relevant to environmental studies and sciences (ESS), you’re not alone! And it’s not your fault. Nevertheless, the consequences ripple throughout higher ed.

Critical observers have long lamented the disjointed nature of education that, for example, routinely produces “economists who lack the most rudimentary understanding of ecology or thermodynamics,” which helps explain why so many negative and costly impacts are absent from our accounting systems (Orr 1994:11).

In ESS programs, this crisis has been found to manifest as muddled goals, disciplinary hodgepodge, and unhelpful curricular smorgasbord (Clark et al. 2011). At a time when the need for dynamic interdisciplinary environmental programs has never been greater, “those who plan and deliver these programs appear to be selling their students and the planet short” (Maniates 2013:255).

Ouch. That stings, because we so badly want to do better. And we can, starting with a simple adjustment to how we frame our interdisciplinary subject matter.

Leave the Side-by-Side Behind

It’s typical in higher education to put disciplines into buckets, with some version of labels like the ones below. This wouldn’t be such a problem except for the terribly unhelpful picture it creates. Thinking of them as existing arbitrarily side by side poses tremendous challenges for visualizing the real relationships among disciplines and their subject matter.

This has not served us well. It’s especially detrimental for ESS programs, in which one of the major goals is to elucidate the relationship between “environment and society,” “human and natural systems.”

The problem is that even if, intellectually, we know those are inseparable interdependent processes, without conceptual tools enabling us to think or talk about them that way, ideas of separateness are continually reinforced. And they produce a certain mental image.

Slight variations in language and aesthetics notwithstanding, depictions of society and environment, human and natural systems, culture and nature as opposing “sides” are ubiquitous. Arrows attempting to show relatedness and dynamism are a nice touch, but they leave the relations themselves unexplained.

Then there are the particular efforts in ESS to convey the interdisciplinary nature of the field. Textbooks and websites use lists, word clouds, and diagrams like the one below to emphasize the relevance of different disciplines for understanding and addressing environmental issues.

It’s a step in the right direction, but still offers no sense of how the subject matter of different disciplines connects. In practice, it tends to take the form of “a little of this, and a little of that.”

There’s no question that, even with this approach, students can still learn a great deal and develop an appreciation for areas of study they would not otherwise have considered important. This is a good thing! But without a systematic way to integrate what they’re learning, it’s not likely to stick after the course has ended.

Building a Framework That Works

Imagine an empty closet with no shelves. You want to put things away, but without an easy way to organize them, you end up just tossing them in and closing the door. As the pile grows, so does the difficulty of finding what you need when you need it. At some point, just opening the door causes things to spill out and fall away.

Frameworks for organizing knowledge are like mental shelving. Unless we have a place to put what we’re learning, it doesn’t easily stay put.

If we don’t have a framework for organizing information — and if we’re not given one not only can information not be turned into knowledge, it more than likely falls away and is eventually lost.

If you’ve ever taken a class where lots of new information was coming at you and you crammed for tests well enough to do okay, but soon after couldn’t recall much of what you learned, then you can relate.

As teachers in ESS, we can help our students by providing them with a simple framework — one based in reality as opposed to mere convention — that functions as mental shelving and gives them a way to organize what they’re learning.

My book, Beyond the Knowledge Crisis: A Synthesis Framework for Socio-Environmental Studies and Guide to Social Change, offers a comprehensive and integrated framework for understanding socio-environmental processes. Check it out if you want a deep dive into questions about how we ended up with this fragmented state of knowledge, why it matters, and what we can do about it. But you can also begin helping your students build a simple and effective organizing framework right now!

Start with these initial steps.

1. Identify physical, biological, and social as three basic levels of phenomena. It’s easy enough to see that, at least from a human perspective, the world consists of: i) non-living matter and energy, ii) organisms made up of matter and energy the configuration of which is distinct enough to warrant new concepts like life and death, and iii) human social phenomena, involving people — biological organisms who are themselves comprised of the matter and energy which make up all observable phenomena but are set apart by, among other things, the degree to which they endow everything with meaning.

2. Emphasize that these levels, while distinct, are never separate. This is not difficult to grasp. Everyday observation shows that reality is not divided into different realms: physical phenomena here, biological happenings over there, and human social stuff somewhere else. We don’t experience them as separate, but for some reason that’s often how we think and talk about them — referring to “natural sciences” and “social sciences” as if they occupied different spheres of reality.

3. Show the hierarchical nature of their relatedness. Living organisms emerge from and are made of physical stuff; human social phenomena emerge from and are made of both. Each level implies and includes phenomena at levels “below” it. And as we move “up” the levels, complexity increases — mostly a matter of the degrees of differentiation, integration, and interdependence among the parts and wholes at work in each level.

Putting all this together renders a very different picture than the conventional dualistic one.

This Upgraded Mental Model Brings Many Benefits

The idea of hierarchical levels of distinct but related phenomena is certainly not new, but it remains oddly alien, especially in the social sciences. That’s a shame because this simple framework helps cultivate a more reality-congruent way of understanding humanity’s relationship with the non-human biophysical world — an advancement that is desperately needed.

But it does so much more.

Lasting Learning

Making these levels of phenomena explicit gives ESS students helpful categories that function as mental shelves. With a sensible place to put concepts like energy, basic physical laws, combustion, and entropy, for instance, they can more easily draw on them when studying organisms, ecosystems, energy systems, pollution, and climate change. This simple move facilitates and helps sustain their abilities to organize, remember, access, combine, and apply their expanding knowledge to real-world questions and problems.

Chaos into Order

Although ESS textbooks have certain features in common, they vary significantly in structure, each organized according to its own logic. Despite authors’ and teachers’ earnest efforts to help students connect the dots, the roughly two dozen chapters in a standard textbook are often experienced as a rapid fire succession of terms, facts, data, and case studies. This simple framework can transform what many students experience as randomness and overwhelm into manageable order.

Socio-Environmental Seeing

Situating humans more realistically in the world — as opposed to pitting people and societies against nature and the environment — this model shows that not only are we not separate from biophysical conditions, but that we emerge from, are made of, operate within, and are dependent on them. Always. The nested nature of phenomena serves as a constant reminder that what’s happening at the social level is inherently and always also physical and biological. This helps generate and reinforce a more accurate mental picture of socio-environmental processes and helps us overcome the difficulties associated with the usual sense of separateness.

Repeat and Reinforce

To firmly establish this new mental picture in students’ (and our own) minds, repetition and reinforcement is key. Even if you already introduce subject matter in this way (e.g., beginning with physical phenomena), it’s far more impactful if the order, and the intentions behind it, are made explicit. There are countless ways to do this; here are a few examples.

Structure the course schedule according to these categories. My intro course, for instance, includes four sections: 1) Intro to Socio-Environmental Studies, 2) Physical Systems, 3) Biological (and Physical) Systems, 4) Social (and Biophysical) Systems & Socio-Environmental Issues. I label the sections of the course as such, both on the syllabus and in our learning management system. Other courses can incorporate this logic as appropriate.

Select and arrange readings and other resources in ways that facilitate the development and use of this mental framework. If you use a textbook, present its contents in whatever order best supports the development of more accurate mental pictures. One benefit of an online book is that you may be able to rearrange and re-name chapters and sections as you like — matching section labels to your course structure. Whether you assemble all of your own readings or selectively supplement the textbook, books, chapters, or essays which directly address interdisciplinarity, the role of the social sciences, and the need for synthesis are invaluable. Among other essays, I’ve piloted select chapters from Beyond the Knowledge Crisis with very good results.

Point out this organization on day one and reiterate as needed. With this structure, “syllabus day” (as some call the first day of class) can be a valuable opportunity for a foundational lesson about the subject matter. As you transition into a new part of the course, continue to remind students of where they’ve been and where they’re going. For example, I use a simple graphic to show where different disciplines fit on this three-tiered model. When we move on to a new segment of the course, I show it again, highlighting the area we’re getting into and pointing to it with a big “WE ARE HERE” arrow. This simple form of orientation has proved indispensable.

Help students make connections between what they’ve learned and what they’ll be exploring next. As you move into increasingly complex subject matter, make a point to show how the previous concepts and principles are fundamental to understanding it. As my class moves into “Biological (and Physical) Systems,” for instance, I deliberately and frequently invoke now-familiar ideas like the laws of conservation of matter and energy, entropy, and complex systems. In light of their acquired knowledge, students (even students who claim to be “bad at science”) find that concepts like natural selection, trophic levels, and ecological efficiency make sense. Eureka moments abound!

Use a physical or visual tool to help students track this cumulative development of knowledge and where it fits. You could hang poster paper depicting the three levels and add, or have students add, concepts and facts belonging with each as they learn them. You could also use a collective digital version of this, or have each student create and maintain their own. You could use yarn, rope, building blocks, or other media to represent the interconnected nature of certain processes and systems. There’s endless room for creativity here, but visual cues like these can serve as helpful reminders that biophysical and social phenomena are inextricably interdependent.

Give your class a name that reflects all this. The title of the course will be repeated and read often, by students, faculty, advisors, and administrators. Use language that will help everybody remember what ESS is actually about. We recently changed the name of our introductory course from “Humans and the Environment” (there’s that dualism again) to “Introduction to Socio-Environmental Studies.” We want our students to know from the start that the “environmental” issues we care so much about are inherently also “social” — both in cause and consequence.

Small Shift in Starting Point = Big Difference in Outcome

The approach suggested here may seem too simple to matter, too small to make a difference. But the fact is that inaccuracies at the outset, if pursued long enough, can have enormous consequences. Even a small “system heading error,” as it’s called in navigation science, can, over some distance, lead travelers far from their original target.

Likewise, small corrections in the ideas, language, and mental pictures we start with can, over time, lead us closer to where we want to go.

The simple framework suggested here depicts the emergent and contextual nature of socio-environmental phenomena, thus accommodating the realities of dynamic interdependence in ways that the standard environment-society interaction model cannot.

As such, it lays a crucial foundation for better understanding how social change works.

At a time when there is overwhelming agreement that massive and immediate changes in our social systems are needed to avert the worst of climate disaster (to mention just one of the biggies), demands for a reliable theory of social change have become as common as pleas for an integrated framework.

In the next post of this series, I explore the subject of social change — the absence of a general theory explaining it and why we need one.


*While this post speaks directly to the challenges related to teaching introductory ESS courses, the same logic can be applied to overcoming the challenges that similarly affect people teaching and learning socio-environmental subject matter in any discipline or program.


Featured Image: Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash



Clark, Susan G., et al. 2011. “College and University Environmental Programs as a Policy Problem (Part 1): Integrating Knowledge, Education, and Action for a Better World?” Environmental Management 47(5):701–715.

Heinlein, Robert. 1952. “Where to?” Galaxy Science Fiction 3(5):13–22.

Maniates, Michael. 2013. “Teaching for Turbulence.” Pp. 255–268 in The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, edited by Worldwatch Institute. Washington: Island Press.

Orr, David. 1994. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Waring, T.M. and P.J. Richerson. 2011. “Towards Unification of the Socio-Ecological Sciences: The Value of Coupled Models.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B Human Geography 93(4):301–314.

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