Introduction to Environmental Education



 Expanding the Definition of EE

The Tbilisi Declaration and the Goals, Objectives,

and Guiding Principles of EE

For many environmental educators, the understanding of "What is Environmental Education?" is grounded in two founding documents: The Belgrade Charter (UNESCO-UNEP, 1976) and the Tbilisi Declaration (UNESCO, 1978).

From the Belgrade Charter, adopted by a United Nations conference, emerged the following definition of EE:

"Environmental education is a process aimed at developing a world population that is aware of and concerned about the total environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, attitudes, motivations, commitments and skills to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones."

In 1977, the world's first Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education was held in Tbilisi, Georgia, USSR for 12 days. This conference included 265 delegates representing 65 nations.

The Tbilisi Declaration contains details on the role, objectives, and characteristics of EE to be used as a guide to developing EE at the local, national, and global levels.

Three goals of environmental education were outlined by the Tbilisi Declaration. These goals are:

  • to foster clear awareness of and concern about economic, social, political, and ecological interdependence in urban and rural areas.

  • to provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment, and skills needed to protect and improve the environment. 

  • to create new patterns of behavior exhibited by individuals, groups, and society as a whole toward the environment.

These goals were simplified into five objectives:

Awareness: Help social groups and individuals acquire an awareness and sensitivity to the total environment and its allied problems.


Knowledge: Help social groups and individuals gain a variety of experience in, and acquire a basic understanding of, the environment and its associated problems.


Attitudes: Help social groups and individuals acquire a set of values and feelings of concern for the environment and the motivation to actively participate in environmental improvement and protection.


Skills: Help social groups and individuals acquire the skills to identify and solve environmental problems.


Participation: Provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.


Using these five objectives, EE strives to develop engaged, responsible citizens. This is the ultimate goal of EE, and is referred to as environmental literacy (you will learn more about environmental literacy in Unit Two).


This endeavor to produce engaged citizens requires environmental educators to extend beyond the realm of traditional education.  In other words, environmental educators seek not only to educate students about the environment, but to help them develop the desire and skills to become environmentally involved in their communities as well (Hungerford & Volk, 1990).

The Tbilisi Declaration also highlighted such guiding principles as:

  EE should be provided for all ages.

EE should constitute lifelong education.

EE should provide individuals with an understanding of the major problems of the world and the skills needed to improve these problems.

EE should help learners discover the symptoms and the real causes of environmental problems.

EE should emphasize the complexity of environmental problems and thus the need to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.

EE should consider the environment in its totality - natural and built, technological and social (economic, political, cultural, historical, moral, aesthetic).

EE should be interdisciplinary, adopting a holistic and balanced perspective.

EE should be community oriented. Individuals should work actively within a community to address environmental problems.

EE should pay special attention to the relationships and interdependence of politics, economics, and the environment.

(Versions of the Tbilisi Declaration are available on the World Wide Web if you wish to read the entire document.)  

Let's take a closer look at how one of these principles is embodied in the practice of EE.

Environmental Education is Interdisciplinary

Interdisciplinary instruction is an approach that consciously applies methodologies and knowledge from more than one discipline to examine a central theme, issue, problem, topic, or experience.

EE can and should be incorporated into all traditional school subjects.  Because EE encourages learners to explore environmental issues from the perspectives of many disciplines, it is an interdisciplinary pursuit.  The following story illustrates the interdisciplinary nature of EE.

On a school outing, 6th-grade students noticed a strong smell by a nearby river and then saw a sign: "Warning: Dioxin".  A local resident explained to the students how an upstream paper mill had changed the river and its surroundings.  That visit became the focal point for a 12-week interdisciplinary unit designed by a team of four teachers who each contributed concepts from their own subject areas.  In science, students heard from a state official and toured a paper mill.  Students studied math through stream sampling efforts, which required them to calculate stream velocity and flow.  In social studies, they examined the issue of toxic water and discussed trade-offs between jobs and health and consumer convenience and the environment.  They also conducted library and Internet research and learned the importance of separating fact from opinion.  In language arts, teachers organized tours, hosted speakers, and assigned interviews to provide students with practice in listening and note taking.  They required students to present oral and written reports based on specific readings; students also had to participate in a dialogue about toxic waste as part of their final exam.

Throughout this interdisciplinary unit of study, the teachers made a point of not differentiating between subject areas.  However, during the planning phase, each teacher had to make sure that the unit sufficiently covered his or her subject area's content and skills.

The article, "Environmental Education in the United States: Definition and Direction" written in the 1990s, provides an overview of the ongoing development and defining characteristics of EE, as well as the breadth of how EE is practiced.  



Hungerford, Harold R. and Volk, Trudi L. (1990). "Changing learner behavior through environmental education." The Journal of Environmental Education. 21(3), 8-22.

Jacobs, H. H. (1989). Interdisciplinary curriculum: Design and implementation. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

UNESCO-UNEP. (1976).  "Belgrade Charter." Connect: UNESCO-UNEP Environmental Education Newsletter. 1(1), 1-2.

UNESCO. (1978). Final report: Intergovernmental conference on environmental education. Organized by UNESCO  in cooperation with UNEP, Tbilisi, USSR, 14-26 October 1977. Paris, France: UNESCO.