In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emotional and Affective Issues in Environmental and Sustainability Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Education Frameworks
  • Eco-anxiety and Other Difficult Emotions
  • Critical and Intersectional Perspectives
  • Action and Hope
  • Pedagogical Suggestions
  • Arts-Based and Contemplative Pedagogy
  • Place-Based Education and Eco-emotions

Education Emotional and Affective Issues in Environmental and Sustainability Education
Panu Pihkala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0310


Environmental and sustainability education (later: ESE) can evoke and include a broad spectrum of emotions, ranging from joy and excitement to sadness and powerlessness. These eco-emotions (also called environmental emotions and ecological emotions) can be related to many things: for example, to relationships with more-than-human nature (later: nature), to the content of education, and to the pedagogical style of the educator. Emotions affect learning outcomes in many ways, and they may be important learning outcomes in their own right. They also have complex connections with both action and well-being. Classic themes in ESE are care, empathy with nature, and place attachment, often combined with awe and wonder. It has been argued that if people care for the environment affectively, they are more motivated to shape their behavior to be more sustainable. Another major theme is difficult emotions because of environmental problems and threats. Although this theme has been present in ESE for long, it has grown much more intense over time. It is related both to current losses and to predictions of future, connecting ESE with futures education. Phenomena such as eco-anxiety, ecological grief, and eco-guilt are now much discussed (see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article Education for Sustainable Development), and this bibliography focuses on them; there are large separate literatures on positive emotions. The relation of difficult emotions to hope and action has strongly interested ESE scholars. Scholars have studied eco-emotions among both students and educators. It has been pointed out that educators need self-reflection and social support in order to engage constructively with eco-emotions. Furthermore, scholars have applied critical theory, decolonial theory, feminist theory, and various anti-oppressive pedagogies to point out that there are power structures and social norms around eco-emotions which need attention. Awareness of these factors can facilitate more just and open engagements with eco-emotions in education, and scholars have warned against overly strong presuppositions of the superiority of certain emotions and their valences. For example, the so-called negative emotions such as anxiety, worry, fear, grief, guilt, and anger can be important for transformative learning. Applying various resources, for example from psychology, educators and scholars have explored context-sensitive methods for encountering these eco-emotions in a constructive way. Key recommendations include public recognition of emotional issues by the educator, validation of various emotions, providing various opportunities for action, and use of embodied and creative methods to engage with emotional energies. Arts-based and contemplative methods have been prominently applied to the subject area, for example in new kinds of place-based activities.

General Overviews

A highly useful general introduction is Russell and Oakley 2016, which provides a historical overview of research about emotions in environmental education. Maiteny 2009 is an early integration of psychology and ESE research. The author discussed the challenges related to anxiety and denial, which became a hot topic a decade later. The author of Ojala 2013 provides a wide-ranging rationale for the importance of emotions for ESE, with an explicit framing about education for sustainability. She champions “emotional awareness,” an ability to both experience emotions and cope with them constructively. Ojala 2022 provides an extended form of this, now called Critical Emotional Awareness, and discusses implications for climate change education. The authors of Gan and Gal 2023 connect ESE with general scholarship about academic emotions, such as the influential work of emotion scholar Pekrun (see e.g. “The control-value theory of achievement emotions,” Educational Psychology Review 18:315–341). They also discuss empirical evidence from a case study. Chawla 2020 provides literature reviews of both the importance of affective connections with nature and the difficult eco-emotions that children may experience. In these general overviews, emotions are discussed in relation to many important aspects of education and life, such as values, experience, well-being, empowerment, coping, and adaptation.

  • Chawla, Louise. 2020. Childhood nature connection and constructive hope: A review of research on connecting with nature and coping with environmental loss. People and Nature 2.3: 619–642.

    DOI: 10.1002/pan3.10128

    An overview of research both about positive emotional connections with nature and about difficult eco-emotions such as sadness and worry. Points out that these are interconnected: people hurt where they care. Also includes an educational model which is discussed under Education Frameworks.

  • Gan, Dafna, and Adiv Gal. 2023. Student emotional response to the lesser kestrel environmental and sustainability education program. Environmental Education Research 29.1: 99–120.

    DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2022.2139354

    A combination of an empirical study and wide-ranging theoretical observations. Utilizes general scholarship on academic emotions and explicit research on eco-emotions. Links emotions with classic themes of ESE, such as place-based education, empowerment, critical thinking, and environmental citizenship. This empirical case study is related to efforts to protect a bird species, and the value of negative emotions for social-emotional learning is revealed.

  • Maiteny, Paul. 2009. Completing the holistic perspective: Emotions and psyche in education for sustainability and the development of an ecosystemic conscience. In UNESCO encyclopedia of life-support systems (EOLSS). Edited by Robert V. Farrell and George Papagiannis, article Oxford: UNESCO.

    Provides rationale for why emotions and psyche are important for ESE and discusses potential reasons for the historical neglect of these areas. Discusses psychosocial challenges for ESE and argues for the importance of holistic approaches. Explores the roles of desires and belief systems. Maiteny’s work is notable for discussing dynamics of what was later called eco-anxiety at an early phase.

  • Ojala, Maria. 2013. Emotional awareness: On the importance of including emotional aspects in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). Journal of Education for Sustainable Development 7:167–182.

    DOI: 10.1177/0973408214526488

    Discusses eco-emotions in relation to pluralistic approaches to education for sustainable development (ESD) that acknowledge the importance of complexity, value conflicts, and uncertainty. Argues that deliberative communication approaches can be criticized for insufficient attention about how emotions influence deliberation and learning. Discusses the need to encounter difficult eco-emotions and to develop good emotion regulation skills.

  • Ojala, Maria. June 2022. Climate-change education and Critical Emotional Awareness (CEA): Implications for teacher education. Educational Philosophy and Theory 1–12.

    DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2022.2081150

    Provides a framework of Critical Emotional Awareness (CEA) and argues that such skills should be based on both multidisciplinary emotion theories and critical social science. Points out the need to be aware of both individual and interactional levels of emotion regulation, and of the social dynamics and norms which influence such regulation. Argues that teachers should be educated about these dynamics and CEA skills, so that educators could discuss them in learning situations.

  • Russell, C., and J. Oakley. 2016. Engaging the emotional dimensions of environmental education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 21:13–22.

    This is the editorial introduction of a theme number about emotions and ESE. Discusses various kinds of earlier research on the topic and notes the relative lack of such research, pointing toward many important themes for future studies.

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