Popular education for the environment: Restoring confidence in education as a strategy for social and environmental change

James Whelan
Keynote Presentation, Third International Education and Social Action Conference. University of Technology Sydney, December 2002
The significance attached to the expressions 'education' and 'activism' by distinct communities of practice amplifies their difference and separation. Environmental activists tend to refer to their media releases, lobbying, rallies and petitions as campaign tactics, not education. Although environmental educators promote awareness, commitment and action and are motivated by similar concerns, their actions may be perceived by activists to be inadequate and apolitical strategies for change. By bridging this divide, educators and activists may enhance their social change efforts and outcomes. Popular education offers one possible resolution to the divide between education and advocacy. Unlike conventional formal and institutionalised educational approaches, popular education is rooted in the experiences, needs and aspirations of community members. Whereas mainstream educational philosophy tends to promote individual knowledge and growth, popular education enhances collective and emancipatory action. Importantly, popular education also presents strategies to reorient environmental advocacy from adversarial and culturally divisive tactics and to address environmental justice objectives. Case studies from Australia and the United States illustrate the potency of popular education. Residents of contaminated communities organise ‘toxic tours’ to bolster their campaigns for remediation. Anti-freeway groups incorporate learning trategies in their campaign plans to enhance peer learning, mentoring and prospects of long-term success. Advocacy organisations and research institutions develop and explore mutually beneficial relationships. Principles derived from these case studies offer a starting point for collaboration and action research.
Document Type: 
International article
Date of publication: 
Keynote Presentation, Third International Education and Social Action Conference University of Technology Sydney,