Education-line Home Page

The picture of environmental problems and their situating in the human world

Magnus Johansson, Malmö University and Piotr Szybek
University of Lund

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Lisbon, 11-14 September 2002


The paper analyses descriptions of university courses which deal with to environmental problems. The analysis yields a dimension where the description of the courses differ: environmental problems and the knowledge relevant for dealing with them are construed either in terms of social science or natural science. This finding is discussed against the background of the concept of sustainable development or sustainable society. Another finding is that the course descriptions share an understanding that education can contribute, by instilling certain knowledge, attitudes etc.

An important aspect is that environmental problems are construed in an abstract way, which constitutes a gap between acquiring knowledge about them and actually coming to grips with them. The discussion is informed by the phenomenological description of human existence in an inter-subjective world and by the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

Some ways to talk about environmental problems and their background

The meeting between two forms of knowledge involved environmental education will be the point of departure. Bertrand Russell points to the difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. This difference accounts for a major problem presenting itself wherever environmental issues are discussed. Russell has concluded that we can only understand a proposition if it consists of elements which we have become acquainted with. (Russell 1912). That is a major problem of environmental education: how can we teach about things that are different than the ones which we have become acquainted with? Many global environmental problems, e.g. the greenhouse effect are impossible to experience. Nevertheless, we talk about them, and we even expect people to change their behaviour towards them, as an effect of having listened to us talking.

One concept that connects the two forms of knowledge (knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance) is identity. When I describe something or acquaint myself with something, I establish the identity of something. When we identify something, we "awaken" its existence, and when we, subsequently, describe it, we endow this existence with meaning.

To be more specific, when we identify an entity "A", we give it a locality in time and space, since, as Heidegger shows (Heidegger 1998), one cannot separate the being of a thing from the time in which it exists. The entity "A" exists in relation to every "Non A" - you cannot talk about "A" without talking about every "Non A". So, you cannot talk about environmental problems without talking about things that not are environmental problems. Identification "awakes" the constitution of meaning of a phenomenon, which makes a horizon open up which contains every expectation about the entities involved in the phenomenon (Patočka 1998, Szybek 2002 and 2002a).

But what is an environmental problem? One can describe environmental problems as events occurring happens in nature. When such an event is discovered, the search for its causes starts, and often these are proven to be some actions in the society, e.g. the development of a new technology or an increasing use of a new innovation. An environmental problem is a thus some change in nature, which has been proven to be caused by human action in society.

We live our lives in a world. Some of our actions cause environmental problems. One way to solve them is education. This is based on the assumption that if people know the cause of an environmental problem, they also - automatically - should know how to act to avoid it, since, obviously, no one likes environmental problems.

Thus, at issue is the way of showing show the causes of environmental problems. The connection between events in nature and action in society is frequently discovered and described by natural scientists. They use their concepts to describe changes in nature as problems. The concepts that are useful to describe events in nature are developed in a natural science context. Asplund (1992) has written about this:

Natural sciences endeavour to understand events in terms of causes and effects but, on the other hand, the social sciences endeavour to understand actions in view of what meanings they have for human beings.

Asplund 1992, p. 124, our translation

The way we identify aspects in the world of our everyday life has nothing to do with the way the natural scientist identifies aspects in the world as described by natural science, even if we live in the same world (Szybek 2002). The knowledge that educators are trying to impart has a purpose: the change of people's action. There is, however, a gap between knowing, e.g. about the greenhouse effect, and taking the decision to cut down on motoring. Whatever knowledge by acquaintance there is concerns the disadvantages of going by rail or bus, and not of emitting carbon dioxide. This difference can be conceptualised in a phenomenological perspective, using the concept of a human existence as being in the world.

The founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, uses the concept of meaning constitution (Husserl 1970, Sages & Szybek 2000, Szybek 2002 and 2002a) to describe the process when we identify something. In the constitution of "A", a background of every "Non A" is created, which is necessary if "A" shall come forth. In the same moment we constitute "A", we give it a locality in time and space. And at the same time as we constitute environmental problems, we give them a locality in time and space, and "the environmental problem" comes forth from a background of "non environmental problems". When you talk about some events in nature as environmental problems, you constitute something as environmental problems. At the same time, you constitute events, which are not environmental problems. When you teach about environmental problems, you also constitute what are environmental problems and what it is not environmental problem. You also constitute what you need to know to deal with environmental problems and how we shall act to solve the problem.

Our bodily experiences of the world.

Let us return to Russell's discovery of the difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance - and Russell's conclusion that we can only understand a proposition if it consists of elements that we have become acquainted with. In other words, we can know many things, but we can only understand those of them we have become acquainted with. To use the lesson of phenomenology (cf., e.g. Patočka 1998) we can only understand things that we have bodily experiences of.

My knowledge is in some ways dependent on the bodily conditions of my existence in the world. Bodily contact is the precondition of understanding. If I were blind, I would live in a world of sounds and smells. It would then be impossible for me to understand the word "red", even if I know that there are things in the word around me that are "red". We are subjects that have bodily experiences of the world, and those bodily experiences set limits for what we really can understand, what we can become acquainted with.

Natural science gives us knowledge of things that is impossible to become acquainted with global environmental problems. The world of natural sciences is separated from the world where we live our daily lives. Szybek uses the metaphor of different stages of events. (Szybek 1999, 2002). We enact our life on one stage, as it were, which makes us see the natural sciences as "enacted" on another stage. In Sweden, a majority of the environmental education programs begin with courses on natural science e.g. chemistry or ecology. The background of this is the tacit assumption that knowledge in natural science automatically and necessarily leads to a comprehension of how we shall act in our daily life. The validity of this assumption seems to depend on whether there is a bodily experience of the things making up the subject matter of education.

We will not continue this discussion, but instead focus on the way we are talking about environmental problems. When we educate about something, we give it an identity. We "awaken" something in the front of the students. But what are we trying to "awaken"? When we investigate the environmental education in higher education, it is interesting to ask questions like: how are environmental problems discussed? What identity are we giving the problem by the way we talk about them? Understanding of the picture emerging from the descriptions of environmental courses amounts thus to the reconstruction of this setting.

In terms of Emmanuel Lévinas' phenomenology of the human person as an ethical subject, and in terms of Hannah Arendt's description of the human person as a politically acting subject, this means that the phenomenological perspective permits one to see the conditions of the human being unfolding its full human potential. (Arendt 1958) This is something, which corresponds to the classical theory of Bildung (cf. e.g. Klafki, 1991) and to the views of John Dewey (1997). (Cf. also Szybek, 2002a)

The material and the method.

The materials used in this study are eight descriptions of different environmental education programmes on seven Swedish universities. The descriptions is collected from websites which present the educational program. The variouses course presentations give a very short description of the program. The descriptions are formulated to show the specific in the program with the purpose to inform and attract students.

We have looked for sentences or passages where the word "environmental problem" is mentioned. The purpose is to see if there are different ways to talk about the purposes of their education. The sentences and passages were analysed, using a procedure method aiming at uncovering the meaning constitution process. This is a variant of the method described, for instance, by Sages and Szybek (2000), where it is applied to texts. It has been presented in Sages, 2001.

We (1) subdivide the text into passages, and then (2) look at each passage and ask the following five questions:

Some things which are "..."
or which do "..."


What is behind?
What are the assumptions?

What could it be?

What can be expected?

Environmental problem which are something.... In which ways are we talking about environmental problems? What must be taken for granted if environmental problems be described in this way? Could one describe environmental problems in a different way? How should one deal with environmental problems in the future?


(Table after Sages, 2001)

The outcome of this analysis is the set of pre-conditions of understanding of the objects appearing in the text. From this, a surplus of meanings follows, i.e. a range of potentialities is unveiled (cf. also Szybek 2002a). An example is at hand: the use of the expressions "setting of action" and "enacting" implies some sort of dramaturgy unfolding itself - this is the surplus of meaning involved in using these expressions. The unveiling of the surplus of meaning gives us thus a possibility of discussing the conceivable courses of action and the expected consequences of the decisions that are being taken

The result of the analysis is a horizon, which opens up around the phenomenon. In the background (What is behind) we can find characteristics of the assumptions about environmental problems which are taken as a matter of course. It is important to remember that what we find indicates different ways to identify environmental problems in different educational programmes.

Validity of the disclosure of meaning constitution

Wittgenstein (1993) remarks about propositions being claims - about not only the state of things ("what is the case") but also, even mostly, as what we all see the things at hand, about "what is the matter". The acceptance of these claims as valid is the precondition of any interaction which, like speech or action, is focusing things. To be able to speak one to another, or perform an action together, we must have an agreement as to what we are talking about and what we are working with and working on1.

Speaking of "what is the matter" is congruent with the phenomenologists' "research program", as it could be characterised by Patočka's dictum about the commission of phenomenology not being to determine what things are, but how they work (Kohák, 1989). Thus Wittgenstein's remarks are meaningful in a context where the constitution of "what is the matter" and "as what we see it" is analyzed.

Wittgenstein is placing the question of validity in the context of praxis, of the possibility to communicate in an intelligible way, so that action might be performed together with other people. Thus, a work which "lets something be seen", i.e. makes some meaning emerge, is valid if it permits other people to see something they can make the matter of discussion they can share, or action they can perform.

Arendt (1982) is pointing out how Kant is linking judgement, abutted in a singular case, to thinking, which is generalization. Kant avoids here to speak of the singular case as a case of application of a law, as we can speak of throwing a ball as an application of the laws of gravity and dynamics. Such treatment obliterates the singular character of the event. Instead he speaks of the singular case being an exemplar. "Courage is like Achilles." (Arendt, 1982, p. 77). This means that we have to explore what Achilles did, and in the resulting account we can experience Achilles as courageous. We thus see his courage show itself. We then can make his courage appear as a modality existing in a range of possibilities, where it is possible to be courageous.

This means that we unveil the process of constitution of the meaning of courage. Merleau-Ponty describes a similar occurrence in The prose of the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1973) by the episode of Renoir painting the sea, and using the experience of the "sea water blue" to paint water in a brook. Which Merleau-Ponty explains thus: "...each fragment... evokes all sorts of variations and thus teaches, beyond itself, a general way of speaking." (Merleau-Ponty, 1973, p. 63). Compare this to Kant's description of the procedure of validation of judgements: (1) "...comparing our judgement with the possible rather than the actual judgements of others..." (Kant, quoted in Arendt, 1982, p. 71) - this is the exploration of a range of possibilities. (2) To find an expression which is recognisable, and thus communicable. (3) "Be in agreement with oneself" (ibid.) - this is the link to one's own experience. We see that it is the "style" of "how a thing works" which is the pivot, precisely as with Merleau-Ponty and Husserl. As Arendt points out "In Kant, the story's or event's importance lies precisely not at its end but in its opening up new horizons for the future" (Arendt, 1982, p.56)

To sum up, to validate is to unveil the constitution of meaning. It is this which is letting see - to be precise, letting other people see - what the matter is with something, and thus gives them the opportunity to continue the meaning constitution, to uncover new possibilities, and thus prepares the ground for making something actual, i.e. tangibly present. This concept of validity is not pointing back, but forward, to the future constituted by the active reader, who is thus being made a participant of the meaning constitution initiated by the research text (for instance this paper).

So, the various ways of conceiving of environmental problems, disclosed by the analysis of meaning constitution, are to be viewed not as the final picture, but rather as something which is said as the conversation about them starts. The picture shown here indicates a style which can be elaborated given more empirical material, used to formulate research questions etc. It is these activities which vouch for the validity of our results. It is this pursue of activities which finally decides the shape of the world.

The results and their discussion.

In this paper there is no neat separation of the presentation of results and the discussion. This is a procedure which seems preferable, given the character of the method. Let us start with the first question in the table listed in the preceding section:

what are environmental problems?

When we read the descriptions we can see three different perspectives. In one picture, an environmental problem is something that is well-defined. It is easy to identify which changes in nature are environmental problems. Environmental problems are problems of pollution and changing balances - thus, assumptions of a balance in nature are apparent. Environmental problems are possible to solve by using technology, they are possible to understand and describe by using concepts of the natural sciences. So, an environmental problem is described as something well-defined, which can be solved with well-defined tools. There is, further, an explicit causal connection between actions on the level of society and effects visible in nature. In educational programmes with starting-point, natural sciences play an important role. Such programs often start with one or two semesters of studies in natural sciences.

In another perspective environmental problems are described as complex problems. They are something more than pollution. In these descriptions, one needs more than the concepts from natural sciences to understand environmental problems. Natural science can explain what happens in nature, but you need social sciences to understand why society cannot handle the problem. Other educational programmes describe environmental problems as complex processes that necessitate new and creative solutions. In thus perspective there is no obvious solution to environmental problems. The relationship between events in nature and actions in society is complex and the causes of environmental problems are not so easily recognised. The descriptions of environmental problems are in some way dependent on human interpretations. There is no clear and obvious way to be singled out the changes in nature which result in environmental problems. What we see as environmental problems depends on cultural patterns.

Some things which are "..." or which do "..."

Environmental problems which are

(1) well-defined,

(2) complex

Let us go to the next question and try to describe the locality in time and space occupied by environmental problems. In Sweden during the 1960s, environmental problems were symbolised by the smokestack or the city dump. Today, environmental problems are global, and often invisible. They can be found everywhere. Environmental problems are also often described as something that might happen, a risk. If we not do this and that, the global environmental problems will increase. One reason to learn more about environmental problems is to learn something that will help us to avoid threats in the future. We can see connections with the answers to the first question. If environmental problems are well-defined, there is no doubt about the solutions. But if environmental problems are complex and described as risks, there is also some doubts about the right solution.


Now, but pointing at a future,







What is the possible background of these descriptions? One background is the proposition that nature that can be described and controlled by sciences. If environmental problems are but pollution problems, it is possible to solve them with better emission control. It is possible to understand nature and use resources better. If, however, you described environmental problems as complex problems, another background comes forth. Nature is complex. Environmental problems are complex and you need a broader perspective. Good knowledge in natural sciences is not enough.

What is behind? What are the assumptions?

(1) Nature is easily understood, resources can be controlled

(2) Understanding of nature is not enough. Resources are not controllable with recourse to technical procedures only

This leads to the next question:

What could it be?

(Could one describe environmental problems in a different way?)

(1) Nature is difficult to understand, no single possibility to do it.

Descriptions of nature issue from concrete, bodily experience.

(2) It is not easy to understand the society either, and it also can be done in many ways.

Also descriptions of society issue from from concrete, bodily experience.

This indicates the existence in the background of many possibilities to define "environmental problem". To take an example: pollution is for us, automatically, pollution by something which can be described in terms of natural science: as molecules of noxious substances, as radioactive isotopes, as micro-organisms etc. There might be other ways of describing this - not so to see this easy for us, socialised as we are in seeing the world through the lens provided by natural science. But what about a person socialised in a culture different than the Western, industrialised and technologised one? Östman gives examples which do not have to be so exotic - the Swedish Lapps, mountain farmers, coastal fishermen (Östman, 1995). Also the Swedish Science Curriculum mentions acquaintance with accounts of nature other than those provided by our culture as desirable (Swedish National Agency of Education, 2000). The view that society can be understood in many ways is perhaps one of the basic tenets of an open society.

Let us finish with the last question: what can be expected? If environmental problems are easy to define by natural science knowledge, all this indicates that it is expectable, as the outcome of education, that dealing with environmental problems should be delegated to people who are competent to understand nature and handle technology. Competence in dealing with environmental problems becomes dependent on one's understanding of natural science. Those who understand it are entitled to deal with environmental problems. This leads to a certain way of seeing the role of citizens. This must be to listen to experts rather than participate in decision making. The question also arises as to the citizens' role in the production of all the knowledge mobilised in handling environmental issues. Are they entitled to participate, or are they reduced to being an audience, which is spoken to?

The other view leads to similar consequences, but here the basis of entitlement is also the degree to which one is acquainted with the functioning of the society. This would mean that if one were to delimit the competence needed here, the entitled one would be a person well-educated in natural science, and well-acquainted with societal problems. In other words, a scientist dwelling in an "ivory tower" of natural science would not be entitled to participate (much less eligible as an expert). This might provide an opening for introducing a dialogue of the scientifically well-educated, and the not-so-well-educated, but acquainted with the agenda of current public discussions.

What can be expected?

( How should one deal with environmental problems in the future?)

Only those who understand nat. science are entitled to deal with it.

Ordinary citizen are reduced to an audience, to be spoken to by experts.

Understanding of natural science necessary, but not sufficient.

Possibility to participate for persons well-acquainted with the agenda of current public discussions.


To sum up, the results of the analysis are that some course descriptions envisage a world where events are well-defined and the problems emerging from these events can be solved by taking recourse to reliable knowledge wielded by experts (who, to make doubly sure, solve the problems as part of their works, rather than as part of their lives). A more complex view is presented in other descriptions. The most prominent trait is that there is some privileged knowledge, which is especially suitable to handle environmental issues, and that taking recourse to experts using this knowledge, is advisable. These experts, however, are not able to solve the problems using scientific knowledge only, and they need access to a knowledge of the agenda of current public discussions.

In both cases we have to do with a specific way of defining problems - the world envisaged by the authors of the texts in question is a world of one-track thinking, sanctioned as the cultural mainstream. How this agrees with the objectives declared in the Swedish political discussions (and European as well, to be sure) is an interesting question.

In the view of Hannah Arendt (Arendt, 1998), citizens are persons who participate in action, events enacted by them while they are freely communicating - and the matter of communication is constituted as the communication proceeds. To quote Arendt:

"Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear." and "Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position. This is the meaning of public life..."

Arendt, 1998, p. 57

It is thus the fact that many are gathered "around the table" and want to speak one to another, and that they intend to keep the agenda tight, that makes "...reality truly and reliably appear." This means that citizens must be masters of the agenda. In the situation emerging as potential consequence of the definitions of environmental problems in the texts in question, the agenda is in the hands of experts. Citizens are not involved in setting it. It might have something to do with the dilemmas Dewey is discussing (Dewey, 1997) when he deplores the individual not being able to find her/ himself in her/ his work.

Dewey (1997) is stressing that education builds up experience, that experience is a whole rather than a hotchpotch of data, objects etc. This is powerfully developed and elaborated in phenomenology (for an account in the context of education, cf. Szybek, 2002, 2002a). It has a connection to a further finding made here here: the agenda implied in the texts in question is completely neglecting the fact that the "environment" of environmental problems is an environment of concrete persons. It is a portion of space surrounding concrete people. To wit, bodily existing people, i.e. experiencing environmental problems as affecting their bodies - as making them sick, as making their lives difficult etc. To be sure, we do not perceive radioactivity, micro-organisms, small amounts of benzene or heavy metals etc. But the interaction of these with our body, as described by natural science, can be abutted in something which is bodily perceivable - it is connected to cancer, to other diseases, to deterioration of the quality of life etc. It is because of this abutment, because these connections can be made obvious, that the agenda of scientific research is credible. This is a fact so obvious that it is notoriously overlooked. Clearly, one has to use advanced philosophical analysis to see it.

It can be imagined that it is by providing such connection of the agenda of science and the agendas of everyday life that citizens could be engaged in discussing environmental problems on the same footing as experts. Given the above mentioned difficulty to grasp the relation of science and everyday life, the prospect is doubtful.


Arendt, H. (1963) On revolution. New York: The Viking Press

Arendt, H. (1982) Lectures on Kant's political philosophy. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Arendt, H. (1998) The human condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Asplund , J. (1992) Storstäderna och det forteanska livet [Big cities and the fortean life] Göteborg: Bokförlaget Korpen

Dewey, J. (1997) Democracy and education. New York: Free Press

Heidegger, M,. 1998, Till tänkandets sak, [On thinking] Stockholm: Bokförlaget Thales

Husserl, E. (1970) The crisis of European sciences. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Kohák, E. (1989) Jan Patočka. Philosophy and selected writing Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1973) The Prose of the World. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Östman, L. (1995) Socialisation och mening. No-utbildning som politiskt och miljömoraliskt problem. [Socialisation and meaning. Science education as political and environmental moral problem] Uppsala Studies in Education 61. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Uppsaliensis

Patočka, J. (1998) Body, Community, Language, World Chicago: Open Court

Russel, B. (1912) The Problems of Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sages, R. & Szybek, P. (2000). A phenomenological study of the comprehension of biology in a swedish comprehensive school, The Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, vol 31, 2

Skolverket [Swedish National Agency of Education], (2000) Grundskolan. Kursplaner och betygskriterier. [Comprehensive school. Curriculum and grade criteria.] Stockholm: Skolverket

Szybek, P. (2002) Science Education - An Event Staged on Two Stages Simultaneously Science & Education 11(6), 525-555,

Szybek, P. (2002a) Meaning constitution in education Paper presented at the 5th European Conference on Educational Research (5th annual conference of the European Educational Research Association), Lisbon, Sept. 11-14, 2002

Wittgenstein, L. (1993) Philosophical occasions, 1912-1951 Indianapolis: Hackett


1. This discussion of validity is based on a text by Roger Sages, Lund University, in a book on validity which is forthcoming.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 04 December 2002