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The Key Concepts Underlying Environmental Education

Four key concepts in Environmental Education are:

  • interdependence;
  • sustainability;
  • biodiversity;
  • personal and social responsibility for action.

New Zealand has made a commitment to these concepts as a signatory to the Treaty of Waitangi and to both the 1992 Earth Summit and the International Convention on Global Biodiversity in 1992. These concepts are reflected in the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Environment 2010 Strategy.

Māori views of the world are also embodied in these concepts. Environmental Education provides a context for learning about:

  • the partnership established by the Treaty of Waitangi for managing New Zealand's natural resources;
  • the special position of the Māori people in relation to the natural resources of New Zealand;
  • the cultural heritage of New Zealand;
  • the significance of this heritage to present and future generations.


The environmental concept of interdependence highlights the relationships between all living things (including people) and their physical environment. A useful way of looking at the environment is to view it as a set of interrelated systems – the biophysical, social, economic, and political systems (Fien and Gough, 1996). The biophysical system provides life-support systems for all life. A social system provides rules and structures that enable people to live together. An economic system provides ways of producing and exchanging goods and services. Through a political system, people make decisions about how social and economic systems use the biophysical environment.

The concept of interdependence is also reflected in the Māori world view. Māori regard themselves as a product of the union of Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother. The Māori word "whenua", which means both "land" and "placenta", provides an example of this link between people and land. Māori belong to the land as tangata whenua, the people of the land. All things are united through mauri, the life force.

The concept of interdependence emphasises the links between cultural, social, economic, and biophysical concerns that provide:

  • a viable natural environment capable of supporting life, now and in the future;
  • a sufficient economy that provides sustainable livelihoods for all;
  • nurturing communities that provide opportunities for meeting social, cultural, and spiritual needs;
  • an equitable system of governance that ensures all citizens have fair access to levels of income and political power which allow them to participate fully as members of society.

Ministry for the Environment and the New Zealand Local Government Association Inc.
Taking up the Challenge of Agenda 21: A Guide for Local Government, page 5

Environmental Education provides a context for learning about these interdependent relationships and people's effect on them.


There are many different views on what sustainability means and how it affects individuals and groups around the world. The concept of sustainability is linked to the concept of sustainable resource management, which deals with the use of both renewable and non-renewable resources. The use of these resources is influenced by lifestyle choices as well as by personal and social values. Resources must be shared and managed equitably in order to maintain and improve the quality of the environment.

The concept of sustainability is reflected in the Māori notions of hauora (total well-being and balance with nature) and rāhui tapu (conservation). The 1992 Earth Summit argued that governments should recognise the need for indigenous lands to be protected from activities that are environmentally unsound and those that people consider to be socially and culturally inappropriate. In New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process is a major means by which these issues are being addressed.

Ensuring a sustainable future means considering the impact of increasing population on the environment and its finite resources by examining ways to reduce the effects of economic development on natural resources, and it relies on people who are ecologically literate. Sustainability is the concept behind the Government's Environment 2010 Strategy, which is based on ways of protecting and enhancing the environment and reducing the adverse effects of human activity.

Sustainability is at the heart of the Resource Management Act 1991. This Act provides a legal framework for making decisions about the use, development, and protection of renewable and non-renewable resources. It defines its purpose as promoting the sustainable management of natural and physical resources. Sustainable management involves using natural resources in ways that safeguard the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems and that sustain resources to meet the reasonable demands of future generations.

The Treaty of Waitangi recognises the special relationship of Māori with the environment. It guarantees Māori undisturbed possession of their lands, forests, rivers and seas, fisheries, and possessions and promises that the Crown will uphold the rangatiratanga of tribes over their lands and taonga (treasures). Many Māori grievances regarding the Treaty of Waitangi are about possession of and authority over natural resources.

The spirit of partnership that the Treaty of Waitangi established for managing New Zealand's natural resources needs to be incorporated into environmental educational programmes. A critical aspect of this spirit is appreciating the natural world's spiritual and economic significance and its importance for maintaining cultural identity.

Ko te whenua te wai ū mō ngā uri whakatipu.
The land provides the sustenance for the coming generations.


Biodiversity is the variety of all life on earth – plants, animals, and micro-organisms, the genes they contain, and the ecosystems they form. A focus on biodiversity recognises the interrelatedness of all parts of the biological world and the impact that people have had on living systems. People have reduced the diversity of life by modifying many natural environments and exploiting many plants and animals.

In New Zealand, maintaining biodiversity is particularly important because of the unique nature of our island environment. New Zealand has a large number of endemic plants and animals, and many of these are vulnerable in an environment modified by people and introduced species. Four hundred species of indigenous plants and animals in New Zealand are now listed as threatened.

The impact of human settlement and introduced animals and plants on New Zealand's indigenous biodiversity and the ongoing threat of extinction facing many species today are part of the country's environmental history. An understanding of past events in relation to biodiversity conservation is informing present and future conservation work.

The Government has made a commitment to protecting indigenous habitats and biological diversity. The Environment 2010 Strategy states, on page 34, that this will be achieved by:

  • maintaining and enhancing the net area of New Zealand's remaining indigenous forests and enhancing the ecological integrity of other remaining indigenous ecosystems;
  • promoting the conservation and sustainable management of biological diversity so that the quality of our indigenous and productive ecosystems is maintained or enhanced.

Personal and social responsibility for action

Environmental quality relies on the everyday actions of individuals. Lifestyle choices and demands can limit resources and impact on the quality of our social and natural environments. The quality of the environment depends, to a large extent, on people taking positive action to help resolve environmental problems.

The notion of responsibility is reflected in the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga. Kaitiakitanga is a Māori environmental management system developed to protect the mauri of the taonga and hence ensure the sustainable use and management of natural and physical resources. Kaitiakitanga involves not only the right to use and manage taonga but also the responsibility and obligation to sustainably use and manage them.

The Resource Management Act 1991 has incorporated the rights of Māori to exercise rangatiratanga and kaitiakitanga in managing natural resources and the environment. The Act requires decision makers to recognise and provide for the relationship of Māori, their culture, and their traditions with their ancestral lands, waters, wāhi tapu sites, and other taonga.

Environmental Education programmes should provide opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills as they decide what actions could be taken on a range of environmental issues and problems.

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