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Instrumental Values of Destruction: The Need for Environmental Education

As we continue to wreak destruction upon the Earth and upon each other, we are reaching a point where our actions are having dire consequences. We have embarked upon a market system that not only ravishes the Earth, but it diminishes the value of the lives of Earth's people. It is an out of control market system - a market system that extends into and shapes our personal lives, our consciousness, and the way in which we relate to one another. In our most intimate relations we often perceive one another as having instrumental value. That is, we view our friends in terms of what they can do for us-not what we can do for them or what both parties gain from the friendship.

Often we view the world from the shaky perch of the all-important “me”: “What can I get for myself, regardless of the pain it might inflict upon others.” Society is dominated by such “me-ism,” a viewpoint worse even than anthropocentrism. While the latter views humans as the very center of the universe, the former has a tendency to view me - not the community or the village - as being primary in the universe. This translates as a formula for unprecedented greed, avarice, and disconnectedness.

Out-of-control market forces determine our world view; they frame our relations with one another and with nature. Environmentalists do not seem to understand that before we can protect the environment and give authentic reverence to it and to the wonders of nature, a set of core values must be deeply seated to guide our relations with one another. Our instrumental approach to one another and to nature disrupts the connectedness and usurps the responsibility for human and nonhuman life. This disconnection is the basis of the crisis of spirituality we experience today.

Some environmentalists overlook people of color to build a relationship with nature; some have ignored the habitat of homeless people to protect the habitat of the spotted owl. As they diligently work to guarantee the rights of trees and endangered animals, they blindly neglect assigning similar rights to people of color. Although environmentalists claim to champion biodiversity, in practice that concept often seems to stop at the border line of our urban centers.


Environmental education must play a major role in rectifying this shortsighted and separatist view of humanity and nature. By making students more aware of the adverse effects of an out-of-control market system, environmental education can help students understand market forces and their impact on our personal lives. Environmental education can help us to understand the need to be spiritually connected with each other, as well as with nonhuman life forms. Along with this connectedness comes a reverence for all life forms. The teaching of environmental education helps us move away from me-ism, which represents the extreme form of anthropocentrism, toward biocentrism and an understanding that humans are subject to the same laws of nature as other living things.

Environmental education must help us understand that humans are a part of a complex web of life and that our survival as a species depends upon other life forms, even those much smaller than ourselves. To understand our predicament of inhumaness we must not only understand the destructive power of market forces, but we must be willing and able to control such forces. To control such forces will require a new system of relating to one another, a new value system that will extend across multicultural lines, embracing a new or renewed reverence for nature.

Environmental education must help students to search for truth and meaning in their own lives and practices. They must learn the importance of cherishing and extending life-affirming connectedness. To save the global community from wanton destruction, it is important that truth, meaning, and advocacy interface to rekindle our spiritual and life-affirming "connectedness" to the land, to other life forms, and to the world in which we live.

Environmental education can help students to recognize a larger self, one that recognizes the importance of biocentricity and one that believes that the destruction of life at any one place on life’s continuum has the potential to significantly alter or destroy all life forms. Truth and meaning represent more than just a cognitive exercise. When used as integral elements of the participatory research process, students and teachers learn together about the connectedness of all life forms. It also forms the basis for personal empowerment and the ultimate realization that each of us can make a difference in the world in which we live.


Before all else, we as teachers must free ourselves to be more than technicians constrained by the limited themes and materials covered in textbooks - textbooks that are often published by distant companies. We must be participatory researchers – not detached from students, but integrally involved with them in the teaching and learning process. To be effective environmental educators may require us to write curriculum materials based upon the students' environment. Producing a curriculum that validates the student's own life situation invites the student to engage in problem-solving activities. Such activities include defining the problem, collecting information, weighing alternative solutions, and recommending the most appropriate solution. Below are key issues or themes that should be included in any environmental education curriculum in order to help put the market system in its proper perspective:

1) Cultural and Racial Awareness and Nature. In order to connect with one another across cultural and racial boundaries, we must deconstruct race as a social construct; we must demonstrate the instrumental value of race and how racial differences are used for social, economic, and political gain. Questions to be entertained by students might include:  In what ways do instrumental values affect your person life? What can you do about controlling these values in your life? If you had to be born again of a different color, what color would that be? How would your life be different now than what it was before?

Also, white cultural hegemony must be challenged and critiqued by making it possible for multicultures to be cherished and celebrated. What are the barriers that keep people of different cultural backgrounds from interacting with and accepting one another? What are the barriers that keep people from interacting with and understanding nature? If you had to be born again but as a different animal, what animal would that be? What is unique about that animal? What are its contributions to the ecosystem?

2) Environmental Justice. Environmental education must make students aware that environmental justice is broader in scope than environmental equity. EJ refers to those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainable communities, where people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing, and productive. Environmental justice is served when people can realize their highest potential, without experiencing the “isms.” Environmental justice is supported by decent-paying and safe jobs; quality schools and recreation; decent housing and adequate health care; democratic decision-making and personal empowerment; and communities free of violence, drugs, and poverty. These are communities where both cultural and biological diversity are respected and highly revered and where distributive justice prevails. Students of environmental education must know not only the definition of EJ but they must also understand the symbiotic connection between sustainability and justice. It's this symbiotic connection that is the driving force of environmental education.

3) Participatory Research. Participatory research allows both students and teachers to engage in a process of discovery and reflection. Students are integrally and actively involved in the planning, action, observation, and reflection until understanding or a solution is reached. The research process should help students liberate themselves from the shackles of oppression by actively engaging them. To be an effective research team, both teachers and students must develop problem-solving and group process skills.

Here is one example of participatory research. A high school environmental educator works with students to prepare them for water testing. The teacher then takes the class to the local river to collect water samples and through laboratory testing the students find a high level of coliform bacteria and a large number of water-soluble salts and toxic metals. Some of the questions to be asked are: Who was responsible for the pollution? What is the role of the market system in creating these conditions? What impact is the pollution having upon human and nonhuman life? Are people of color and low-income people differentially impacted? What regulatory agencies are responsible for its cleanup? To solve the problems, student may need to draw upon chemistry, civics, math, computer science, and biology. They may decide to brainstorm strategies for getting the appropriate agency or corporation to engage in cleanup efforts. Ideally, participatory research empowers students by allowing them a chance, often rare in the educational experience, to become actively engaged in education in the roles of both learner and teacher.

4) Pollution Prevention vs. Pollution Control. Environmental education curricula should tackle the goals of pollution prevention and pollution control. If we can reduce fugitive emissions by 90 percent, then why can't we reduce them by 100 percent? The reason is that it may not be cost effective. Controlling emissions completely would increase the cost exponentially, thus cutting into profits. But while a 90 percent reduction might be good enough for some chemicals, it is not an acceptable limit for others, particularly for those chemicals that are fat-soluble and persistent in the food chain. Because some chemicals bioaccumulate, amplifying themselves hundreds or even millions of times as they move up the food chain from lower animal to higher animal to humans, they can become a problem of major proportions. Any environmental education curriculum should include the importance of recycling, reducing, and reusing as prevention strategies. At the same time, however, the most important pollution prevention strategy is to refrain from using toxic chemicals in the production cycle.

5) Deep Ecology. Deep ecology maintains that to be detached from nature robs people of their unique and spiritual and biological personhood; no one can be saved on planet Earth unless we save everyone, including the grizzly bears, the rain forests, ecosystems, mountains and rivers, and the tiniest microbes in the soil. Some basic tenets of deep ecology consist of bioregionalism, biodiversity, and biocentrism as opposed to anthropocentrism. It contends that if people harm nature, they harm themselves. Everything is intricately related; no one has the right to destroy other living things without good reason. Although the supporters of deep ecology do not advocate going back to the Stone Age, they do advocate reverence for the land, for primal people, and for communal societies, based on mutual aid and a bonding with nature.

The question students must wrestle with is: how deep or how shallow can we become and still be able to survive on planet Earth? While some environmentalists take deep ecology to the extreme, most of them do not. Yet the more shallow we become, the more we perceive nature as having instrumental value; the more shallow we become, the less value we place upon human and nonhuman life. The question again is how deep should we go? How shallow can we be without becoming disconnected?


Bryant, Bunyan, Environmental Advocacy: Concepts, Issues, and Dilemmas. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Caddo Gap Press, 1990.

Bryant, Bunyan, "Issues and Potential Policies and Solutions for Environmental Justice: An Overview." In Bryant, B. (Ed.). Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies, and Solutions. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1995.

Kendall, Peter, and Manier, Jeremy. "Maybe Animals Do Care,"The Detroit News and Free Press, August 24, 1996.

Lerner, Michael, The Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.

Lappe, Frances Moore, Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

A considerable portion of this article on instrumental values and environmental education was based upon Michael Lerner's book, The Politics of Meaning.

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