Environmental Justice and Experiential Education: A Hands-on Approach to Building a Better Future

12 minutes to read
Katherine Huber

During a series of five workshops in fall 2023, Tilburg University students took multiple field trips to museums in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris.[i] The purpose of these trips was to examine intersections between climate justice and migration. Students certainly did that. But they also showed what education and research should look like in the face of changing environments and shifting understandings of cultural heritage. This article discusses some of the theories and ideas that played a central role during the workshops before it elaborates on the particular significance of experiential education in the climate crisis.

Figure 1: Students observed connections among colonialism, migration, and climate change through experiential education and field trips.

Connections between Climate Justice and Migration

Many in the Global North enjoy the benefits of extraction economies that exacerbate ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and perturbating feedback loops. These planetary changes result in unpredictable tipping points, for example, when forests shift from carbon sinks to emitters as rising temperatures increase forest fires. While these changes affect people around the world, many in the Global South bear the brunt of the climate crisis and extraction economies. Pacific island nations are disappearing, and regions in the Global South have become the environmental sacrifice zones of extraction economies, such as the e-waste dump in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, and the effects of oil extraction in the Niger Delta. Environmental justice theory and activism seek to address these uneven distributions of the benefits and burdens of environmental harm. Climate justice attempts to correct the injustices caused by the climate crisis.

Environmental justice theory and activism seek to address these uneven distributions of the benefits and burdens of environmental harm.

As globalized environmental and climate injustices force people to move, legal scholars debate the ethics of exclusionary immigration policies in the European Union and the United States of America. Carmen G. Gonzalez (2020) explains how developed nations have historically released most of the greenhouse gases that exacerbate the climate crisis today: “Because carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after it is released, efforts to allocate responsibility among states and corporate actors for climate change must take into account both historic and current emissions” (p. 110). Gonzalez goes on to show how the richest nations are responsible for 86 of the 107 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere released between 1850 and 2006.

Figure 2: Museums both explain and embody issues of climate justice and migration upon which the workshops focused.

As a result of these economic hierarchies and historical emissions, E. Tendayi Achiume (2019) argues that people in the Global South should have the right to migrate to the Global North because the uneven environmental and socio-economic burdens they bear result from extraction economies that were established during colonialism and that persist today in neocolonial economic regimes. Despite ethical arguments on migration to ameliorate ongoing environmental injustices, the Global South actually still hosts the most refugees, something often left out of debates on migration in nations in the Global North, though policies like the EU-Turkey Deal certainly reinforce this uneven distribution (Atapattu, 2020, p. 89).

To better understand these complex histories and realities of a changing planet and human and more-than-human movements around the world, bachelor and master’s students came together from an array of programs at Tilburg University, from the Liberal Arts School to Online Culture, Children’s Literature, and Global Law. Over the course of five workshops, participating students read and discussed legal theory, cultural analysis, sociology, educational, and environmental justice theory alongside examining art, literature, and personal stories. This interdisciplinary approach gave students multiple and sometimes opposing perspectives on the connections between climate justice and migration.

Figure 3: Instructor Kate Huber at the Jardin d'Agronomie in Paris during the last Climate Justice and Migration workshop.

Cultural Heritage in the Climate Crisis

Through a series of museum field trips, students explored historical perspectives as well as the narratives people in the Global North tell themselves about migration and changing environments. These field trips took place during two of the five workshops, with the trip to Paris involving an overnight stay. In the third workshop, students visited the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp and the Africa Museum in Tervuren (near Brussels). The last workshop took place in Paris, where students went to the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration, the Aquarium Tropicale, the Jardin d’agronomie tropicale, and the Cité Sciences et Industrie Climate Emergency exhibit.

Each of these places involved multifaceted narratives, with the exhibits sometimes contradicting the origin stories of the objects on display. In diverging attempts to decolonize, the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration now offers a largely textual description of French colonial expansion and migration to the imperial metropole while the Africa Museum continues to show many objects obtained during the era of colonialism. The museum buildings also attest to conflicting histories. For example, the buildings of the Africa Museum, Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration, and the Aquarium Tropicale historically celebrate colonialism. The museum architecture consequently competes with these institutions’ attempts to acknowledge their colonial pasts.

In the case of the Aquarium Tropicale, the more-than-human living exhibits offer an uncomfortable reminder of forced migrations that continue to give human viewers insight into the entanglement of colonial and neocolonial extraction projects in multispecies environments around the world.

Figure 4: Human and more-than-human migration across the history of colonialism and emerging extraction economies have fundamentally changed environments for all living beings.

In discussing intersections of colonial histories, climate change, and cultural heritage, Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling (2023) highlight that “[m]useums have never been isolated from the injustices of the world, but their complicity in a range of oppressive and damaging structures is now being thrown into sharp focus on multiple fronts” (p. 17). Converging issues of climate change and culpability materialize in how, as Harrison and Sterling continue, “the emergence and spread of museums around the world tracks the rise of carbon emissions and environmental degradation.”

Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling (2023) highlight that “[m]useums have never been isolated from the injustices of the world, but their complicity in a range of oppressive and damaging structures is now being thrown into sharp focus on multiple fronts”

Students grappled with these stories and circumstances as we discussed the extent to which institutions historically implicated in ongoing injustices and neocolonial power relations can successfully decolonize today. These discussions led us to even consider the role universities and education systems play in interrelated histories of climate change, migration, and knowledge production.

Experiential Education and the Environment

While discussions in the classroom were essential, they could not have happened without the field trips. The field trips opened spaces of learning through which students could connect their lived realities, theories of climate and environmental justice, and human and more-than-human migration. Although students read a variety of texts from artists, writers, and scholars to deepen and expand their thinking and our class discussions, the experience of being in the museums and with their collections demonstrated the importance of experiential learning already widely recognized in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Figure 5: The workshops engaged with a variety of forms of knowledge, from technology and politics to art and alternative ways of knowing and being.

Field trips are one form of experiential learning that, as Carley MacKay, Kim Tran, and Elizabeth Lunstrum (2023) explain, “better stimulate interest in learning and create valuable learning experiences not reproducible in the traditional classroom […] [Field trips help students to] form meaningful connections with others in real world settings and reflect upon and internalize course content and theory through direct experience. Field trips additionally help students build critical observation skills, challenge preconceptions, and better empathize with others” (p. 62). MacKay and colleagues also contend that “field trips are understood as key vehicles for advancing environmental education and enhancing pro-environmental behaviors.” Consequently, experiential education holds particular significance in the climate crisis.

Alongside the field trips, in-class community building helped students make the course content culturally relevant and relatable to their everyday lives. Besides introducing students to environmental and climate justice theory, the first two workshops cultivated a classroom community through interactive and collaborative group learning. For example, students came up with collective agreements for how we would engage with one another and adequately acknowledge a wide array of expertise in the room. These kinds of activities decentralize authority and honor lived experience as a valuable form of knowledge.

Recognizing experience as expertise is essential in environmental justice education. Socio-economically and racially marginalized people have historically experienced longstanding exclusions from mainstream forms of environmentalism. Indeed, responding to these exclusions and revising what ‘nature’ means in art and writing helped launch the environmental justice movement.

Recognizing experience as expertise is essential in environmental justice education.

The work of activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa illustrates this fraught history. Although the Niger Delta is today known as one of the most polluted regions in the world as a result of Royal Dutch Shell’s oil extraction in the region, Saro-Wiwa writes in his memoir A Month and a Day (1996) about how mainstream environmental and human rights groups, such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, were not interested in issues in Nigeria — or Africa more generally — in the 1980s and 90s (p. 88-89). His work to resist the environmental injustices in the Ogani peoples’ homelands were ignored by environmentalists in the Global North. Before his execution by the Nigerian government in 1995 for his environmental justice activism, Saro-Wiwa found international support from Indigenous rights movements gaining international recognition at that time. Saro-Wiwa’s story demonstrates how differing understandings of ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ historically marginalized BIPOC struggles and reinforced divisions between the Global North and Global South.

These exclusions emerge out of colonial education systems that reinforce nature-culture divides that devalue peoples, places, and ways of knowing that Westerners now recognize as essential to our survival. Despite changing perspectives on diverse and alternative epistemologies, neocolonial education systems still largely continue to promote logics that enable the externalization of costs that create environmental sacrifice zones. One of the most notable externalizations of waste is the dumping of greenhouse gases into a communal atmosphere, which may create a sacrifice zone for all beings living on Earth today. Modern institutions like universities and museums have a responsibility to bear witness to these ongoing power relations and logics and to revise how they shape and value societies, policies, and cultural heritage into the future. Decentering the classroom and using experiential education attempts to take this responsibility seriously.

The Climate Justice and Migration workshops sought to learn from these realities to expand the possibilities of knowledge production at this unprecedented moment in human history.

Through experiential education and decentralized classroom strategies, students grew their ideas and social networks to establish a truly interdisciplinary cohort. By recording their expanding expertise in interactive maps — also known as 'StoryMaps' —, the workshops honored the specific expertise students brought to and acquired during class sessions and field trips. Some of these StoryMaps are now available on Diggit Magazine. Through making space for student- and teacher-scholars to share their expertise in creative and unconventional ways, universities can open the possibilities of producing the knowledge we need to build a better future.

Figure 6: Students who completed all parts of the workshop earned an EduBadge in Climate Justice and Migration.

Rethinking the University beyond the Classroom

People, plants and animals around the world face an existential threat as we leave the conditions in which we have thrived in recent millennia. Yet the responsibility of this threat falls unevenly across geopolitical hierarchies dividing the Global North and South. Indeed, thinking about the ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ in the climate crisis obscures the accountability of those who have benefitted most from and perpetuated the extraction economies exacerbating the climate crisis. To address globalized injustices in the climate crisis, students need to question the foundational assumptions and institutions that shape thinking about humanity, society, and culture. By taking students out of the classroom, they can engage more deeply in some of the most pressing issues people have ever faced.

Grounding education in relationships to the places where we live and work helps to meaningfully address the interrelated but often wicked problems of survival and injustice with which humans and more-than-humans are confronted today. Through participating in the Climate Justice and Migration workshops, students read and discussed important scholarship and case studies about environmental justice, climate change, migration, and multispecies justice. They also brought an incredible amount of expertise to the course as they interacted with the materials and institutions that shape our present and possible futures.

Figure 7: Experiential education builds the relationships and networks of expertise we need to address issues of climate justice and migration today.

This decentralized and participatory classroom sharpened our focus on challenges that far exceed technological or political ‘fixes.’ Rather, the workshops raised questions about the structures of feeling, to use Raymond Williams’s phrase, and the kinds of knowledge necessary to adapt to a changing world. Creating an experiential and interdisciplinary learning environment cultivates the kinds of research questions, conversations, and actions we need to promote climate justice as more and more humans and more-than-humans are forced to migrate.  


Achiume, E. Tendayi. (2019). Migration as decolonization. Stanford Law Review, 71(6), 1509-1574.

Atapattu, S. (2020). Climate change and displacement: protecting ‘climate refugees’ within a framework of justice and human rights. Journal of Human Rights and the Environment (11.1) 86-113.

Gonzalez, C. G. (2020). Climate Change, Race, and Migration. Journal of Law and Political Economy (1.1) 1-46.

Harrison, R., & Sterling, C. (2023). Rethinking Museums for the Climate Emergency. In R. Harrison, N. Dias, & K. Kristiansen (Eds.), Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe (pp. 15-32). UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.14324/111.9781800083936  

MacKay, C., Tran, K., and Lunstrum, E. (2021). Field-Based Experiential Education in Geography: Discovering and Rethinking Urban Environmental Challenges and Possibilities. Journal of Geography (120.2) 61-71. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221341.2020.1862896 

Saro-Wiwa, K. (1996). A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary. Penguin Books.

[i] The Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences sponsored these workshops through a seed grant awarded to Kate Huber, Odile Heynders, Michiel Bot, Phillip Paiement, and Sophie Starrenburg.