Site Links



Search for ERIC Digests


About This Site and Copyright


Privacy Policy

Resources for Library Instruction


Information Literacy Blog

ERIC Identifier: ED259936
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Disinger, John F.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.

Studying the Future Through Environmental Education. Environmental Education Digest No. 2.

Environmental education is to a large extent predicated on concern for the future; to the extent that humans fail to behave in an environmentally responsible fashion, the future may be projected to be correspondingly bleak. This is held to be true in terms of use, overuse, and abuse of natural resources, both potentially sustainable and unequivocally non-renewable, and with respect to more immediate environmental pollution considerations.

There is also great interest in "the future" as an area of study: it is often associated with global concerns. To the extent that global and/or future studies attend to environmental considerations, they become appropriate vehicles for environmental education. From another perspective, future/global studies which do not emphasize the environment are at best incomplete and are quite likely to be misleading and/or simplistic.


As an area of scientific study, "futurology" found an early spokesperson in the Rev. Robert Thomas Malthus, who nearly two centuries ago published the results of studies of the evolving relationships between agricultural production and human population growth. Employing rigorous analysis of sound data, Malthus concluded that incremental, eventually catastrophic, deficits in availability of food supplies were in humankind's future.

His conclusions were based on linear projections of historically established and verifiable trends of increases in food production and human population: the former was clearly rising arithmetically, the latter geometrically.

Projections such as these are based on the assumption that the trends will continue; prediction enters the picture at the point where possible and/or probable outcomes are hypothesized, particularly with respect to interactions among projections.

Malthus's procedures provide a prime example, perhaps the prime example, of classical methods of looking at the future. Until the quite recent past, linear projections have been the commonly employed procedure of looking at the future in situations where scientific data were available and used.

Malthus's predictions have not come true on a global scale and are at present discounted by many. At the very least, his time line has not proved true. The most significant cause of this failure was the unpredictable, spectacularly rapid advancement of technology, as exemplified by the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the Green Revolution.

Some will argue that it is as reasonable to project rapid technological advancement as it is to project other changes in a linear fashion. Had Malthus done so, his predictions would no doubt have been appreciably less drastic, certainly not so dire. But on what basis might he have projected technological advancement?


To project trends, data are needed; the greater the quantity and quality of properly selected and organized data available, the greater the level of confidence that may be attached to the projections derived from them. The scientific enterprise thrives on data and has increasingly done so for half a millenium. For studies dealing with the future, it is first necessary to identify and gather the data needed for establishing trends of interest; then, these data must be "processed" in such a manner that meaningful information is derived.

The introduction of high-capacity, high-speed computer technology has provided a mechanism for dealing with such data-processing concerns. One of the first to apply these technologies to future studies was Forrester (1971), who dealt with trends in human population growth, agricultural production, capital investment, environmental pollution, natural resource depletion, and "quality of life."

His data were aggregated on a global scale; his procedure did not include a specific projection dealing with technological advancement; his conclusions were Malthusian in the "gloom and doom" sense. The better-known Club of Rome LIMITS TO GROWTH report (Meadows and others 1972) was an expansion of the Forrester study -- more data, more precisely defined relationships, but not much difference in conclusions.

During the past decade, a number of additional studies using computer models to project future conditions have appeared. In general, they have attempted to sharpen their projections by subsuming more data and disaggregating it so as to approach analyses on regional, as opposed to global, levels.

The intent of disaggregation is not to deemphasize global implications of projections made, but to fine-tune the understanding and predictive power of relationships detected and projected -- that is, to make them more realistic in terms of their implications for the future.


That the future has been a topic of continuing public interest is evidenced by THE GLOBAL 2000 REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT: ENTERING THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY (Barney and others 1980a, 1980b, 1980c), developed by U.S. federal government agencies under the leadership of the President's Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of State. The report consists of projections of what might be expected to happen in terms of human populations, resources, and the environment if policies in force during the late 1970s continued.

Its stated purpose was to serve as the foundation for long-term governmental planning. The report's projections indicated the potential for "global problems of alarming proportions by the year 2000," much as have many future-oriented studies of the recent past. In this particular case, projections were made to the year 2000, but not beyond.


Because the outcomes anticipated in such studies are based on the assumption of the continuation of existing trends, the outcomes change when the trends change, whether planned or otherwise. Thus, it appears that a valid use of projections and associated predicted outcomes lies, after a set of interacting projections is made, in evaluating the desirability of the apparent outcomes, then evaluating various possible changes in trends, projections, and potential outcomes which might be forthcoming.

For example, the GLOBAL 2000 study developed projections based on continuation of existing policies, as noted above. But what if those policies were changed? It takes little imagination to realize that the projections would also change. The questions of concern are, how? and so what?


In the past two decades, the concept of "alternative futures" has been widely explored (Shane 1973). The basic problem with linear projections is that they assume, a priori, a continuation of present trends. The associated danger is that this assumption may prepare the mind for their apparent inevitability; simply, one assumes that existing patterns will continue, so planning for the future is based on that assumption. Thus, self-fulfilling prophecies may result.

An alternative futures model will identify the directions in which current trends are leading, but it then asks the questions, "What changes(s) in our exisiting planning will change these trends, and in what way(s)?" Thus, multiple options for creating modifications in projections may be considered, and the probable results of these modifications may be projected. Use of the computer as a data processor can speed up the development of alternative futures models by allowing for the rapid manipulation of massive amounts of data.


It should be noted that all of the studies referenced above place major emphasis on resource/environment considerations; all assume that such concerns are at the heart of future studies. It is possible, by assuming that technological advancements can and will overcome problems associated with resources and the environment, to define their importance out of the problem; some future studies have done so.

Whether or not it is reasonable to make such an assumption is a deep-seated question which, unfortunately, still comes down to individual perspective -- the optimist says yes, the pessimist says no. Each can support his/her position, but neither has to date unequivocally refuted the opposite one.

All of this presents the teacher with a difficult set of challenges. Should he or she take an optimistic, or pessimistic, position in dealing with "the future" as an instructional area? Is it possible, or appropriate, to take a neutral position? How large a role should resource/environmental concerns play in future studies? How do future studies "fit" into existing curricula, or emerging ones? Is their omission justifiable?

Many resources in addition to those noted above are available through the ERIC system and from other sources. For example, an ERIC search through November 1984 coupling the descriptors "environmental education" and "futures of society" indicates 239 citations, 147 of which are listed in RESOURCES IN EDUCATION, with the remainder journal papers referenced in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION. Judicious use of other combinations of descriptors will locate additional documents.


Barney, Gerald O. THE GLOBAL 2000 REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT: ENTERING THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, VOLUME 1, SUMMARY REPORT. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980a. ED 188 935.

Barney, Gerald O. THE GLOBAL 2000 REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT: ENTERING THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, VOLUME 2, SUMMARY REPORT. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980b. ED 212 523.


Forrester, Jay W. WORLD DYNAMICS. Cambridge, MA: Wright-Allen Press, 1971.

Malthus, Robert Thomas. ESSAY ON POPULATION. London, England: Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1830.

Meadows, Dennis L., and others. THE LIMITS TO GROWTH: A REPORT TO THE CLUB OF ROME. New York: Universe Books, 1972.

Shane, Harold G. THE EDUCATIONAL SIGNIFICNCE OF THE FUTURE. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa, 1973. ED 080 412.


Library Reference Search

Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.  Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.  No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.

| privacy