Environmental capital and education

We urgently need a cultural shift away from damaging habits of capitalism and greed. Developing environmental capital and halting the reproduction of the status quo will make the vision of a happy, sustainable, resilient world a possibility. We explore the role education has in achieving this goal.
Published in Sustainability
Environmental capital and education

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The gift of a green mindset could be the only way to truly transition to a more sustainable culture and future

At MAINTENANT Sustaining Now we believe humanity urgently needs global systemic and behavioural change which will benefit our environmental, social, and economic ecosystems. We need to look to our future with hope and a common culture; understanding how and why we should look after our planet. We need to foster not just an understanding of why a sustainable future is a good choice, but really embed it and engrain it into our cultures so that everyone will work together to achieve what we need to do to thrive.

Understanding the theory

To understand how to change culture, we need to understand how it is formed and shaped. We use the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, a 20th Century sociologist, who theorised how schools contribute to reproducing culture. He was a clear advocate for change and wrote passionately that we should all aspire to be agents for change against social injustices.

One of the most interesting of Bourdieu’s ideas shows the consequences of inequality and accepted social norms, which allow some to have power over others. He called for more critical thinking and questioning, which would redress some of the power imbalances in society.

Further, Bourdieu argues that our education systems have been designed and set up to keep the higher classes in power and suppress the lower classes by not encouraging critical thinking and accepting the ideas of social order even if they are not served by it. We therefore reproduce the neo-liberalist status quo and continue to compete, consume, and generally make decisions to the detriment of the environment and our wellbeing.

To halt the reproduction of our unsustainable culture in the education system, we need a disruptor, a new kind of capital, environmental capital. This will influence our social networks and shine value on other forms of societal wealth such as wellbeing and happiness, easing the pressure and stress that we all feel, that to be successful means to have money.

Education and the environment

Environmental capital was first introduced in this context by Karol and Gale (2004) and will be the bridge that reconnects us with nature and develops a green mindset and mindset of sustainability; one which will naturally move societies to an ecological transition. This will benefit everyone and their communities, reducing eco-anxiety and other mental health issues by developing a different set of social values which decrease stress and improve wellbeing.

Because success will be measured differently, environmental capital will have greater value. Those with environmental capital will have the knowledge and confidence to be part of sustainable conversations and be able to make environmentally sound choices which affect us all. They will be the social influencers and cultural changemakers. What is important is that people are brought along and not left behind.

Environmental capital will change the way in which we utilise or “spend” other forms of capital. Economic capital will still be important, but the culture of need and greed will be behind us. Instead, those with environmental capital will direct their economic capital towards products and industries who are deemed the most sustainable. Those endowed with the most environmental capital will naturally choose to use their social capital in ways that benefit the good of society through partnerships and cooperation, and cultural capital will be valued if you can lead groups to make more sustainable choices and live more sustainably.

Using EARTH SYSTEM EDUCATION™ to teach about the environment

We live in a world where the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse will affect everyone at every level of society. It is immoral to not adequately equip our children with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves from the consequences of these huge issues. At the same time, these issues can be so overwhelming that we find them difficult topics to talk to children about.

Here at MAINTNENANT Sustaining Now, we began our journey in 2017 by creating resources about the environment. Our approach was to develop EARTH SYSTEM EDUCATION™ which introduces the planet as 7 different interconnected spheres, all of which have different functions, problems, and solutions; the biosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, the cryosphere, the atmosphere, the magnetosphere and the technosphere.

Using our solution-focused curriculum, children develop a deep understanding of our natural systems and empathy and responsibility towards nature. Most importantly of all, through the introduction of the technosphere, children develop an increased awareness of the impact of their own individual behaviour and actions, but delivered in a fun, non-threatening and positive way.

We have included celebrations of culturally diverse, inspiring people who have helped the environment and we post positive news stories games and fun activities creating well-rounded, positive, and hopeful resources which foster a sense of empowerment that the children, too, can make a difference to the future of the planet.

The importance of sustainable schools

A school can be a shining beacon in a community, which guides the way forward and prepares a path for this new culture and society. Schools must embed sustainability beginning by including it in their mission and vision statements. This will ensure that all decisions on a business and educational level will be aligned with their main mission. After this, there are plenty of activities and campaigns which schools can and do take part in which improve the health and wellbeing of their school community and local environment.

One of the most powerful things that a school can do to really push forward this agenda is to create an Eco Committee which involves members from the whole community and all their stakeholders. Ideally, these should be student led which not only develops key competencies for sustainable development but also develops student empowerment and the desire to be a change-maker. Celebrating the achievements and positive changes which come from the Eco Committee adds to the power play in the struggle for sustainability, gives environmental capital value and draws more people to want to be a part of the process.

The positive impact that a sustainable school can have on the whole community is also clear. “The ripple effect” of children experiencing sustainable practices and understanding why they are being enacted means that they will have the environmental capital to take back to their homes and inform their families how they can also do things differently. In the same way, as these children become young adults and attend university or enter the workplace, they will expect and demand the same behaviours from them as they experienced in their school, moving environmental capital throughout society.

Support for educators

One of the main barriers to teaching about the environment is the lack of teacher confidence and knowledge to embed these messages into their lessons. It is imperative that we recognise that, for this project to be successful, we must engage with and support the educators who will be delivering the resources.

To this end, we have created THE ECO HUB, which provides teachers with resources and helps them learn more about how they can build environmental capital within their schools to really embed the ideas of sustainability and give the gift of a green mindset.

We also provide free monthly online workshops for teachers to attend, become acquainted with THE ECO HUB and meet other likeminded teachers. Teacher’s environmental capital is therefore also increased which they can pass on to all future classes that they teach.

Developing the skills for environmental capital

Ideas of sustainability gained from environmental knowledge and witnessing the actions of a sustainable school and community become reinforced and embedded into a new green mindset and structure and shape a habitus of sustainability. The real value of environmental capital can be experienced through developing skills which are needed for a sustainable society. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is transformational education which challenges values and pushes forward social change (for a full overview, please refer to the UNESCO Education for the Sustainable Development Goals: Learning Objectives, 2017). It develops key competencies which include systems thinking, problem solving, collaboration and critical thinking. Activities which encourage the development of these skills include role play and dramatisations of environmental issues, creative and experiential activities in addition to interests and concerns about the environment, diversity and inclusion being developed and spoken about as often as possible.

At THE ECO HUB we encourage the development of these skills by also linking to fantastic resources, competitions and education providers who will provide opportunities for students to use their environmental capital to develop the skills of ESD and be a successful member of a more sustainable society.



This article is based on a paper cowritten with Clare Jones, Head of Education and Engagement of MAINTENANT Sustaining Now and Director of THE ECO HUB.

This paper was presented on the 21st September during the ICSD | International Conference on Sustainable Development 2021 at Columbia University and has been warmly received by peers. You can read the abstract here. 

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