Walking the talk; AAEE has been doing it for years.

Creating Ethical Communities Now: Footprints, Pathways, Possibilities

Conference of the Australian Association for Environmental Education

Adelaide, 2004


Talking the walk – 40 years of EE in Australia

Greg Hunt

National Coordinator

Waterkeepers Australia

Level 1, 60 Leicester Street

Carlton Vic  3053




In this paper, I indulge myself to an almost unconscionable extent to give my take on where we environmental educators have come from, where we are now and what I think we need to think about in the future. It is necessarily idiosyncratic – I wasn’t at other places, I was where I was so it is a personal journey also. On the run though, I’ve oversimplified and I’ve overlooked, as there are many many other people and events that have been significant in this stroll down the path of environmental education (EE).

I am fond of the paronomasiac ‘walking the talk’. Today I want to reverse that and talk the walk.

Why am I doing this? Because we should celebrate what we have done and are doing and think of where we want to go in the future. The Australian Association for Environmental education (AAEE) was instrumental in the establishment of the National Environmental Education Council and the Foundation currently located at Macquarie University. We should be blowing the AAEE trumpet over this. We are a highly effective organisation.

But how many of us know how it all started, and who were the players who provided that early leadership, and where do we go to find out more? We need to wallow in our history a little and increase the knowledge base of us all. We also want to reflect on why AAEE is structured as it is and why it works in its current processes. The AGM to be held later on the day of presentation of this paper will consider some major changes for the organisation and it would be well to know what we have tried before.

Humble beginnings

It is just over forty years ago that Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, a book that was to have a profound effect on the way environmental education first gained currency. It showed the environment in dire straits through a fundamental ignorance, of natural history, of ecology and biochemistry just for starters. Anyone who has seen the footage of the feasting family swathed in a cloud of DDT as they sat up at a picnic table beside a lake that was being sprayed to control mosquitoes couldn’t help fear for those but people and their health. And what of the other life forms that don’t press the anthropocentric concern button? We needed to become educators for the environment, and quickly!

In 1968, Garret Hardin, an American ecologist published his celebrated paper The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin uses the metaphor of the mediaeval commons to show what would happen if everyone acted in their own self-interest rather than the community interest. He provides a compelling analysis of human behaviour that almost necessarily results in environmental tragedy. Education, regulation, carrots and sticks are the ways out, but we are a bit slow to use all these tools to improve our lot. In 1970, The Club of Rome published their extremely influential tome The Limits to Growth, which used modelling based on available reserves of resources measured against rates of consumption to predict when we would exhaust each resource. This was the first attempt to invoke systems analysis on a global scale, predating ozone modelling and investigations into global warming by decades. The model used in The Limits to Growth has since proved a littler simplistic and thus the notion of the environmental doomsayer was coined.

International responses to the environment crisis

Educators were not far behind environmentalists. EE gained international recognition in the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. In Recommendation 96, EE is called upon as a means to address the environmental issues worldwide. In 1975, this recommendation was addressed at the International Environmental Workshop in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Participants at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) workshop proposed a global framework for environmental education, referred to as the Belgrade Charter. The Charter’s goal statement for environmental education has been generally accepted by professionals in the field. The Charter states:

Environmental education, properly understood, should constitute a comprehensive lifelong education, one responsive to changes in a rapidly changing world. It should prepare the individual for life through an understanding of the major problems of the contemporary world, and the provision of skills and attributes needed to play a productive role towards improving life and protecting the environment with due regard given to ethical values.

The goal of environmental education is to develop a world population that is aware of, and concerned about, the environment and its associated problems, and which has the knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations, and commitment to work individually and collectively toward solutions of current problems and the prevention of new ones.

The Belgrade Charter was further refined at the Intergovernmental Conference on EE in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia in 1977. The Tbilisi declaration also explicitly stated the objectives of environmental education as: awareness, knowledge, attitudes, skills and participation.

Australian responses

These were some of the more influential events in the international contexts in which we were operating our fledgling INSPECT ( Does anyone even remember what the acronym represents?) programs and pushing our field studies tentatively in social activist directions. Canberra’s Curriculum Development Centre set up a national project in environmental education where the then Annette Greenall was Executive Officer to a group of State Liaison Officers (SLOs) who met to develop advice to teachers wishing to establish environmental education in their schools. Their products included the Primary and Secondary Sourcebooks for Environmental Education, but they created a more enduring legacy – the Australian Association for Environmental Education. When the project came to an end, the SLOs didn’t want to lose the energy and the momentum, so they agreed to form a national professional association for EE, with the first conference held here in Adelaide in 1980.

The association was well-served with some influential characters, from Professor Peter Fensham, who had a major role in drafting the Belgrade Charter, Russell Linke who worked on environmental education within the Paris-based OECD, and of course there was Bill Stapp’s benign influence. Brian Foreman, who, through convening the first conference, gave the association a social direction which has meant that many of us would never want to miss out on the biannual conference. Brian once told me “Once you join the environmental education movement you never leave it. There’s someone to have a drink with or stay with in any capital city you go to in Australia”.

In Victoria, environmental education was supported through the community-based Environmental Studies Association of Victoria (ESAV) and the teacher professional association, the Environment Teachers Association (ETA). These amalgamated to form the Victorian Association for Environmental Education (VAEE) in 1984. This was a successful amalgamation for a while only, for the clearly defined and even more clearly expressed wishes of teachers for specific materials and particular programs were the squeaky wheels that got the grease at the expense of the nebulous wishes of the community, by whomsoever they were expressed and by howsoever the community is defined.

It was during this period that I joined the environmental education industry and entered the fray. I became VAEE’s education Officer in 1986, and my tasks including organising teacher professional development, the preparation of curriculum materials and the provision of consultancy device. I coordinated the trade show that accompanied the 1986 AAEE conference in Lorne, Victoria.

VAEE enjoyed considerable government support – indeed the VAEE President and Executive Officer had a monthly meeting with the Minister for Conservation while she and other Ministers gave grants to community organisations for both infrastructure and programs. When she was told that there were issues that needed government attention, she was on the phone to the relevant official and the matter was taken care of. If a scrap was involved, the Minister never shied away from it, and we were to encouraged to get involved also. In 1988, I became the Policy Officer Environmental Education in the Education Department’s curriculum branch, where the development and support of statewide policy was a major task of the EE Policy Officer between 1988 and 1992.

Governments come pn board

Through the 1970s, baby boomers were leaving the universities and entering the teaching profession, bringing with them their expectation that they would continue their questioning of established structures and processes. I was one such baby-boomer. I used INSPECT materials, I had a class set of Uncle Afrely’s Earth Guide, little more than a comic book that presented environmental issues in a counter-cultural context. There was a proliferation of alternative pathways through the senior years of secondary schooling and access to tertiary study. These were the STC (Secondary Transition Certificate), TOP (Tertiary Orientation Program), and TOY (Tertiary Orientation Year), all of which joined the mainstream HSC (Higher School Certificate) which was awarded after the more traditional formal examination.

This experimentation was formalised in Victoria following the Blackburn report in 1984 with the VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education), overseen by VISE, the Victorian Institute for Secondary Education. VISES’s Earth Studies Field of Studies Committee (FOSC) was charged with developing courses for Geography and Environmental Studies among other courses. Even though I was the Education Department’s curriculum specialist for environmental education, I was not invited to become a member of the FOSC until strong intervention by my senior manager, such was the politicised nature of curriculum development at that time.

In 1980, CDC (Curriculum Development Centre) was concluding a national project in environmental education under the Executive Officer Annette Greenall. This was advised by a SLO, a State Liaison Officer from each of the state’s curriculum branches. The project resulted in the publication in 1980 of How to catch EE, and also of the Primary and Secondary Sourcebooks for Environmental Education. It was upon the conclusion of this national project, and the realisation that this national network of by-now experienced environmental edu cation practitioners would be dissolved that the SLOs decided to continue in a national professional association for environmental education.  In 1980, AAEE was formed, with Prof Peter Fensham and Prof Russell Linke providing theoretical leadership, the SLOs providing a national context and Brian Foreman providing the first conference at Arbury Park Outdoor School in the Adelaide Hills.

Environment becomes mainstream

With the election in the 1980s of socially-progressive governments, the environment appeared on the political agenda. The Cain/Kirner governments in Victoria through the late 80s enacted ground-breaking legislation such as the Flora and Fauna Guarantee, which recognised the plight of endangered species and the role of government in protecting them. I sat on an IDC (Interdepartmental committee) to plan a comprehensive whole-of-government response to the Greenhouse Challenge, while we were ahead of targets set for ozone reduction in the Montreal Protocol. The course for the Victorian Government was set out in Protecting Our Future, the State Conservation Strategy, which described 154 actions to be taken for environmental management and improvement, and relevant government environment agencies were to report on progress in implementing each of them. One such action was the establishment of the Victorian Environmental Education Council, with Steve Malcolm as Executive Officer, which operated from 1991 until its demise at the hands of the Kennett government in 1993.

Internationally, the context for environmental awareness was strengthening. In 1989, Gro Harlem Bruntland released Our Common Future, a report to the United nations on the plight facing the world. This led to the convening in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Agenda 21, the manifesto for change that resulted from this conference contained in Chapter 36, all the arguments that environmental educators had been advancing in their own work.

Environmental education becomes mainstream

The National Conservation Strategy for Australia, released by the federal government in 1984, recognised the role education had to play in achieving environmental gains. Education systems, in fits and starts, took up the task. Following Victoria’s State Conservation Strategy in 1987, the short-lived Victorian Environmental Education Council was established in 1990 and the Ministerial Policy for Environmental Education was launched in that year. This followed policies in other states; New South Wales K – 12 Curriculum Statement in 1987, South Australia’s policy document in 1986 and Queensland’s policy statement in 1989. Our Country Our Future was the Hawke government’s musings on the environment, various states updated their thinking with statements on sustainable development which began to encompass environmental education. Graham Richardson, a Minister for the Environment in the Hawke government, said before he became Minister that he “didn’t know the difference between a Melalauca and a margherita”, yet he went on to capture the green vote and almost single-handedly win government for the Labour Party in the environment election of 1990.

Australia’s lead role in EE was recognised through the project Environmental and School Initiatives, conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We were one of four OECD member countries selected for an In Depth Review of our policy settings for environmental education. National Goals for Schooling were agreed in 1989 in the Hobart declaration, and work commenced on the development of national curriculum statements for the eight Key Learning Areas (KLA) established in the national goals. AAEE people were involved in the development of the position paper to inform the national statement for Studies of Society and Environment (SoSE). It took a socially-critical approach so beloved of many environmental educators, but it found great disfavour with Dr Ken Boston, the then Chair of the Directors of Curriculum. In one famous meeting, Dr John Fien, AAEE President, sparred with Ken Boston, who of course, in representing education bureaucracies around the country, was in the stronger position and environmental education took some time to recover. In helping to establish the Australian Society for Studies of Society and Environment as a peak body for the SoSE KLA and thus attracting many funded projects in which AAEE has been and still is involved, John Fien has since paid his dues.

And now, is it environmental education or is it education for ecologically sustainable development? And how should education interplay with the environment? There has been interminable breast-beating over what sustainable development means, just as there has been fierce argument as to whether the occurrence of the10 hottest years on record in the last decade is incontrovertible evidence of global warming. Is the environment in a bad way, and what is an effective response from education? If we could resolve some of these debates, we might find agreed starting points for the actions to follow. With the interplay of vested interests with human nature, this resolution might not be possible, and the actions must be taken within the real world context.

So – lets have a calling of the card to see where we are in order to help plan where can go.

But not quite mainstream

By the late 1980s, there were completed or draft environmental education policies or statements in all states and territories. Now this doesn’t mean, therefore, that good environmental education was universal, but it did mean that enabling documents existed that teachers could use to gain legitimacy for their programs. Environmental education was still the preserve of the committed, but there was formal recognition that it did exist. The next decade in Victoria was that of the Kennett era which was an extremely educationally conservative, yet in some ways quite radical, time for environmental education. The teacher newspaper the Victorian School News that was forwarded by the Minister to every teacher as a piece of direct communication ran a regular series on curriculum innovation. In a clear majority of cases, the curriculum innovation was based on environmental education.

Critics argued against EE saying that it was a major contributor to the crowded curriculum. There was not room on a timetable for EE, Bike Ed, Drug Ed and all the other adjectival educations that competed with the real subjects such as Science and English. This is an only half-way tenable argument if EE is considered t be an area of the curriculum. If it seen as an outcome of the curriculum, of good science that is based in the real world and helps explain current issues, or of an English curriculum that assist students sort out the nuggets from the dross of media reports on the environment and then helps them frame their arguments to mount a public campaign, there is no crowded curriculum. We just have students doing good and relevant Science and English, and no-one argues against that.

Other KLAs contribute too. There are schools running community forums on the need for open space, art classes making endangered species puppets for the local show and mathematics being used to understand the realities of recycling. Many schools entered the Ford One Planet Awards, the Rubbish Free Lunch Challenge and the Readers Digest Awards. Incidentally, only the Rubbish Free Lunch Challenge survives today, and that is as a component of the much larger program Wastewise, which is a well-funded long-term program that was well researched and comprehensively implemented. You cannot beat secure funding and a long term commitment.

Community involvement

Community involvement in environment care and protection became a mainstream activity also. For example, Cleanup Australia had 677,000 participants in 2004, Waterwatch has over 17000 people carrying out regular monitoring activities in Victoria, while one park on the Yarra River in Melbourne has 12 Friends caring for it. Perhaps the demise in the community education role that was a strong feature of the programs of groups such as VAEE has come about as so many related groups see education as a means of achieving their medium to long term goals. If this is the case, we could say that this is a good thing, as the ‘balkanisation’ or fragmentation that some might see also results in a vast increase in the numbers involved in grass roots activity in their local communities, with an attendant increase in social capital.

Corporate response

In the corporate sector, we have seen a mainstreaming of programs, as Triple Bottom Line (TBL) awareness spreads. In releasing the findings of the RepuTex index of corporate responsibility, former liberal leader John Hewson was quoted as follows in a Sydney newspaper, “Companies which rejected their responsibilities to the community, environment and workers would risk failure as consumers became more savvy.” Dr Hewson said the issue of corporate social responsibility – the so-called triple bottom line – was becoming more important, although Australia still lagged behind the United States and Europe. “Companies that do not, or are slow to pick up on the social responsibility challenge, will eventually find …. their survival is at risk,” he said.

Government agencies in Victoria must report on environmental management on an annual basis, and their Environmental management Systems (EMS) requires that they give preference to suppliers of goods and services with ISO 14000 accreditation. We are about to enter the UN Decade of Sustainability and with heightened community involvement in and concern for the environment we might well see the Greens in a position of real power after the forthcoming federal elections.

Challenges for AAEE

With the above I have established that, if at times we wonder why we keep doing it (EE) and are we just banging our collective heads against brick walls, we have made great gains through the years of work since AAEE began. We have had an active and strategically placed membership over that time, such that with regard to influence on public policy, we regularly punch above our weight. This isn’t to say that we can relax as it has all been done, however.

I attended a recent forum on the development of the Victorian government’s strategy for sustainability, and I think that I recognised less than a third of those present. Turnover is a serious issue for community activism as the open-ended nature of the task means that burn-out is an ever-present concern. Succession-planning is extremely important for the environmental sector and we need a continuous supply of new entrants .

Because so much environmental activism occurs in a devolved manner; low-level, quietly under way in communities across the country, many are unaware just how much is going on. It is only when the media picks up on a story – a quirky award winner or the flash of a community dispute, that the less involved public even knows that such work occurs. We must get better at being publicists, not blowing our own trumpets but making sure that the community knows what is being done with them and for them. Through this, we have a better chance of bringing them into direct involvement when they see what is possible and that it is their neighbour who is doing it.

We are still a narrowly-based movement – both socially and culturally. Look around you – how many first languages are spoken by the Australian delegates in this workshop? In the whole conference? What is the shape of the distribution curve for delegate’s education achievements? We Australian environmental educators are pretty much a white, Anglo-saxon, middle-income, highly-educated bunch, and there is not enough happening outside of that demographic. We must broaden the base of involvement if we are ever to have success over all areas of the environment, whether it is in harvesting biodiversity, recovering disengaged youth from personally and socially-destructive behaviour or promoting environmentally responsible consumption across the full socio-economic range.

Balkanising, presented above as a positive, does bring about a challenge too. When numbers become sufficient within the organisation that a critical mass around an area of interest is reached, a separate group may form. AAEE lost a swag of members to Interpretation Australia when community environmental educators, park rangers for example, found that they needed specific support rather than the more general environmental education programs offered by AAEE. Waste educators followed a similar path some time later when they went to Waste Education Australia, while the Early Childhood educators have stayed within the association as a Special Interest Group. The strength of an organisation for many of its tasks lies in its numbers, and anything that reduces those can reduce the clout it has. Perhaps the path of the Special Interest Group is one that AAEE should pursue with great seriousness.

With regard to its own governance, AAEE is doing itself a disservice with a peripatetic executive. After two years, just as the members of the Executive begin to understand what they are doing and have systems in place to do it, it is ‘time’s up, all change’. With a voluntary executive and the necessity of learning by doing, AAEE loses too much in continuity and momentum for this to be a viable approach. This system, enshrined in the constitution, was appropriate when only a few, and mainly academics, had access to email, conference calls and travel. It enabled EE to gather strength through the concentration of activity in that state which was to leave a legacy of heightened activity when the Executive moved on. The association should move to a national electorate, where state of origin does not become a limiting factor for who can nominate for an executive role, and where the term of office is by mutual agreement, expressed through elections, between the executive and the membership.

The fortieth anniversary gem-stone is ruby, and with the price of a fine ruby outside the reach of most environmental education, notwithstanding their socioeconomic level, some other ruby must be sought. In keeping with the traditions of AAEE, I would propose a healthy draught of ruby port as an appropriate means to mark our 40 years of success. With the inevitable discussion of the world’s problems, and particularly those for environmental education that comes with opening a bottle of port, perhaps the next 40 years will see us a long way down the path to resolving some of the challenges above.



Commonwealth of Australia. 1984. A National Conservation Strategy for Australia: Living resource conservation for sustainable development proposed by a conference held in Canberra in June 1983. AGPS, Canberra

Ministerial Policy for Environmental Education, Ministry of Education, Victoria 1990

Environmental Education Curriculum Statement K – 12, New South Wales Department of Education, 1987

Environmental Education, Education Department of South Australia, 1987

Environmental Education in Queensland’s Schools, Department of Education, Queensland, 1989

Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon. RJL Hawke AC, MP. 1989. Our Country, Our Future: Statement on the Environment, AGPS, Canberra, July.

Wastewise, Gould League, July 2004 (http://www.gould.edu.au/wastewise/about/about.htm)

Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October, 2003 (www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/10/13)

UNESCO. 1977, 14-26 October. Final Report – Tbilisi. Paper presented at the Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education, Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, p.26-7



Greg Hunt is the national coordinator for Waterkeepers Australia, a newly established environmental NGO formed to support community groups protecting their local waterways. He is currently spreading the word about the existence of Waterkeepers Australia, and signing up new members. Greg’s previous jobs include Manager of Education at Melbourne Museum, Principal of the Zoological Board of Victoria’s Education Service, two of the best jobs in education in Victoria, and policy work in environmental education for Victoria’s Education Department. He started out as a secondary science and environmental studies teacher in city and country high schools. He has been an active player in national environmental education networks over the past 15 years