There is compelling evidence that the world faces insurmountable environmental crises. Pollution, climate warming, problems of waste disposal, over population, the rising acidity of the ocean, and food and water shortages are compelling issues evident in our contemporary world. Many believe that dramatic changes must be made if human and non-human life can survive. Many believe that education is the most powerful means to making a difference in the habits of the world’s people. The ecological curriculum has never before been as important as today. Ecological movements in the field of education are evident today in four distinct but overlapping concepts and bodies of work. The roots of these four areas of study and practice emanate from the field of environmental education. Environmental education largely focuses on outdoor education and an appreciation of the natural environment. While this is laudable, critics of the field have recognised the limitations this focus and have voiced the need for new conceptualisations of an ecological curriculum. These concepts, which are all characterised by a study of abstract ideas and related practice, include ecoliteracy, ecojustice, ecopedagogy and sustainability education.

Proponents of these concepts believe that the importance of adding depth and breadth to the original construction of environmental education is of paramount importance.

Each approach has distinctive elements, but also share general principles with one another. All challenge the duality of nature/culture, advocating for a relational view of the world. All call for pedagogies that aim for students to recognise one’s own understanding of connected ecosystems and to see their world as relational rather than as discreet entities disconnected from a larger world. All challenge the very structures of Western education by calling for radical social and cultural change.

Ecoliterarcy was most pronounced in the work of David Orr who began to articulate this concept more than 30 years ago. Orr (1992) recognised that an ecological literacy must look at humans and cultures as well as natural systems. People, society, and natural systems are all interrelated; consequently, those who are ecologically literate would consider them together, not forces that could exist separately. Ecological literacy asks how natural systems, individuals, and cultural groups can exist together.

Ecojustice education, mostly articulated in the work of Chet Bowers, extends these notions of interrelatedness to include a curriculum that examines how a sustainable existence is possible. He offers guides for educational change that extend notions of social justice to include a focus on the ways that race, social status and other marginalised identities make some more vulnerable to environmental degradation that others. Ecojustice education offers a means to analyse the entrenched patterns of domination that have marginalised many of the world’s people. Bowers believed that an ecojustice curriculum could ultimately effect real social reform. A most prominent conviction in the Ecojustice curriculum is the notion that the environmental crisis is a cultural crisis, not simply an environmental one. Ecojustice education includes a deep analysis of the cultural assumptions that underly modern thinking. Bowers argued that language frames the way we see the world and act with in it. Only through an examination of language and culture can real ecological change occur. An ecojustice curriculum has many facets. The revitalisation of the natural and cultural commons is necessary. The cultural commons consists of the practices that are face-to-face, intergenerational and less dependent on a money economy. Ecojustice education aims to reform schools by developing teachers who make problematic the roots of language and act as mediators to reimagine ecologically sound lifestyles that do not contribute to the further degradation of the environment. Teachers work to offer students the opportunity to contemplate the differences between living an ecologically sound life and one that is largely determined by the influence of large corporations, hyper consumption, commodification, and neoliberal politics.

Distinct from the ecojustice curriculum, ecopedagogy is a largely theoretical, though more politicised body of work. Ecopedagogy explicitly uses critical theories to examine the nature of educational reform. It is a blending of critical pedagogy and environmental education to support a more inclusive, critical and transformative pedagogy for all living systems, Richard Kahn, the main orchestrator of this body of knowledge, sees ecopedagogy as a utopian project that seeks, at its core, to change current human, social, and environmental relationships. Ecopedagogy is a dialectical blending of critical pedagogy and environmental education that seeks to overcome the theoretical limitations in order to imagine a new more inclusive, political project.

Sustainability education hopes to transform Western culture’s affinity toward linear design to emphasise the circular, diverse, and interconnected web of all of living and non-living things. It goes beyond its counterparts of environmental education, critical pedagogy, and education for social justice (among others) by emphasising the requirement to understand the deeply interconnected realities of our social, economic, and ecological systems. This preference for complexity and celebration of diversity is rooted in systems thinking that underpins the sustainability education movement.

Sustainability education seeks to teach students and teachers to recognise their previously unexamined habits of mind which have been shaped by the dominant culture – a culture designed to destroy and consume resources for economic gain. With a strong footing in critical theory (Evans, 2012), sustainability education is more than simply knowing about sustainability. It also involves action, critical thinking and questioning, analysing assumptions and values, systems-thinking, and personal engagement with innovative solutions that honour traditional and local knowledge.