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Issue 226
September/October 2004
Ecoliteracy : Dancing Earth

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BREAKING OUT FROM THE INSIDE
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Cover: The pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris). From Heligan: A Portrait of the Lost Gardens (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004)

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BREAKING OUT FROM THE INSIDE

Environmental action needs global support, but its seed is in individual action.

AS A SCIENCE teacher in a state secondary school, I am all too familiar with the characteristics that Mary Tasker identified in her autumn article of Resurgence. I class myself as an environmental educator, in fact I think we are all environmental educators, but it is provision that differs between us. Having become aware of a failure of environmental education provision with the secondary school pupils I was working with I set about to add more weight to my observations. I carried out the traditional PhD research project, and soon found myself on the fringes of acceptable research methodology. Interviews with staff and pupils were illuminating and caused me to widen my reading circle quite dramatically. Eight years later I have my 'evidence' and my analysis. The most important aspect is my improved understanding of the pupils' thinking and of how current, mainstream, environmental education provision is failing to recognise those individuals.

The common excuse for inaction by the pupils in this case study was based around the ineffectiveness of being the only individual to act 'appropriately' towards the environment. This is explained succinctly by the age old 'prisoner's dilemma', where it is completely rational to be selfish but with all parties acting rationally, one's demise is secured. Pupils in the study are aware that their actions are contributing to the collective accelerated degradation of the environment. Each pupil has a finite lifespan. They can all drive cars and take advantage of prepared consumables that leads to excess wastage. For every pupil that changes their behaviour to become more environmentally responsible, there is a very small decrease in the degradation or even perhaps very slight amelioration. However, in order to take up more environmentally responsible behaviour, each pupil must give up their car and their waste producing consumables. This leads to a change in their lifestyle, they would lose the luxuries. If all pupils gave up their 'negative' behaviours to become more environmentally responsible in their actions, everyone would benefit, large-scale environmental amelioration providing less pollution and quieter, safer streets. However, if only one pupil changes their behaviour, the very small change would be spread throughout the population and the individual who made the change would notice no personal beneficial effect. The pupil knows that the best situation for them would be to continue their 'negative' behaviours and reap the benefits of transport and consumable luxuries, but for everyone else to change their ways for a better environment. The pupil also knows that all other pupils will be thinking the same 'selfish' way. So, the pupil knows that by behaving in a more environmentally responsible way, in isolation, they have everything to lose consequently it is best to continue the way as before. This is behaviour followed in a moral vacuum, it is not the right or wrong thing to do; it is the rational thing to do.

However, we are moral, rational agents, and this is where environmental education can play its trump card. Environmental educators can follow a purely moral pathway and endeavor to 'enlighten' pupils as to their moral responsibility towards their environment, or, they can choose to follow a pathway that includes behavioural negotiation. Educators can pursue 'deals' with pupils, incremental steps in behaviour reformation, in such a way that losses to the individual are acceptable and universal application is evident. This 'deal-making' is not a long-term solution, but may be a means by which individuals who have been immersed in the 'traditional' modern scientific education system may be guided out.

Schools are key role players in the provision of Environmental Education, education that needs appropriate attention before the end of pupils' compulsory schooling. Teachers need to have the time to be reflective practitioners in a holistic approach to education and not be driven by the specialist philosophy of secondary education curriculum. However, this will require changes in the monitoring and evaluation strategies of Government and a shift in the educational paradigm supported by current curricula. Curriculum change may be idealistic, with little support from Government, it may come down to school-level commitment with better dialogue between education researchers (not necessarily formal academics!) and educators. This should be followed down to the level of the environmental education process that the pupils are involved in at the educational establishment they attend, with a philosophy and practice that is committed to:

Just like that written about by Satish Kumar in the September/October 2004 issue of Resurgence. Environmental education has suffered whilst its relatives, the natural sciences, have seen priority and importance placed on their shoulders. The arguments used in the promotion of the public understanding of science, and therefore science education being given the high status it has in school curricula, applies directly to the public understanding of environment and environmental science. Environmental education needs to be sustainable and it too needs to develop, to evolve.

From its conception to the present day, environmental education has been approached with the view that there are universal statements that can be made with respect to its goals, content and application. As there is an increasing acknowledgement that is there is no one way to view things, multiple perspectives exist, a more 'postmodern' approach is necessary if educators and policy makers are to see the application of environmental knowledge to local lifestyles. The inclusion of feminist perspective in environmental education would provide an approach that is more in keeping with the philosophy of environmental education:

This does not deny the role of men or the importance of environmental education to both young and older male students, as there is a lack of evidence that responsible environmental behaviour is linked to gender. Carolyn Merchant described how both men and women, together, would then be able to take on their roles in a 'partnership ethic' with nature.

ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROGRAMMES by their very nature can lead to prescriptive delivery of predetermined issues and accepted potential solutions. The outline for environmental education provision must be very fluid, it should provide many opportunities for development of life skills such as communication and reasoning strategies; however, it should not predefine the specific components of the environmental education experience. The learning taking place should not be so much transferable, indicating that former knowledge is rigid and simply moved from one setting to another and added to new knowledge, as transposable, referring to the fluid nature of the knowledge and the ability of the student to move it from one setting to another with a change in its application. Evidence from other studies has identified the fact that environmental education activities do not transfer well between age groups - they must be geared for the age group and particular students - don't pre-package too much. This is supported by research that suggests a change (decline) in students' interest in biology and science generally, as they move from early to late secondary school age. There are many different relationships held by humans and the rest of nature, not one. There are many different environmental issues, not one. There are many different ways of looking at these issues, not one.

Environmental education should be relevant to the student, taking into account culture and recognizing values. Environmental attitudes are not only variable across cultures but also across generations. Environmental Education programmes will need to be sufficiently fluid that they can evolve at the time the students are taking part in it, not adjusted at a later date. A more suitable educator-student relationship would be that of 'share and do'.

There is the need for a revolution in Environmental Education. This is equally true of science education within the National Curriculum, which has retained an approach in line with the dominant paradigm, instructed by value-free philosophy. Educators need to promote a shift in the environmental response of pupils:

They should => We/I could => I do

Previous codes and rules for environmentally responsible behaviour should be used as stimuli for dialogue, not prescriptive methods for lifestyle. The uncertainty associated with environmental issues (an absence of absolutes) makes behaviour rules, the imposition of specific actions, increasingly morally unjustifiable. The dialogue needs to exist between all sections of society. Governments will need to act on rhetoric and determine what behaviour they need to exhibit if they wish to support householders in acting as environmentally responsibly as the householders would like to. Along with practical aid, individuals need to know that they are benefiting from their behaviour now and that humans in general are included in their concern for the environment.

Mary Midgley wrote that we, as individuals, all have differing capacities within us. We all have some incapacities. It would be absurd to consider that every individual could develop to the same degree in all capacities. Some individuals may have a greater degree of innate capacity than others and no matter how hard educators may try to develop this capacity it might never be as great as that of the naturally 'talented' individual. Consequently the capacity to feel compassion for the environment (humans included) will differ in its degree from one person to another. It is not appropriate to believe that by training an individual in the accepted environmental behaviours, that one would necessarily lead to an assimilation of the training and a change in the individuals' behaviour. Some people will simply not feel as deeply about their environment as others. As Midgley discusses, it would "…become sinister if we make a foolish assumption…that testing people's capacities is somehow a suitable way of assessing their essential worth."

Students should not be provided with Environmental Education in the traditional format of teaching in other curriculum areas. Individuals come to see the environment as separate to them and they despise it for placing potential restrictions on the lifestyle they wish to cultivate. The lifestyle they want involves freedom. This freedom allows individuals to develop the capacities they have within them, their natural feelings. These capacities, these feelings, will be different in different individuals, just as the capacity for empathy varies from one person to another. Individuals should be encouraged to explore this inner 'nature'; the phenomenological approach to inquiry may go some way to helping individuals reach environmental responsibility 'enlightenment'. Some individuals may have capacities that seem to positively encourage a more environmentally sensitive approach to life and a desire to care for their surroundings. Perhaps the individual has an innate capacity for watercolour painting of landscapes. In this scenario, the activity may actually lead to development of an environmentally sensitive individual who cultivates values that are centered on the importance and beauty of nature and thus the need to live in harmony with it.

Another individual may have a more urban culture due to the capacities they show as strengths. For instance, they may find clerical work in a large city institution more captivating than employment in more suburban or even rural surrounds. In this scenario they may not develop an affinity for less man-made environment conditions and therefore find it difficult to develop compassion for threatened species or habitats. There may be yet another individual who has not shown any directional tendencies at all, in which the development of capacities is highly influenced by the family unit. In this case the influence provided at home may lead to the withdrawal of responsibility of the individual to make choices and thus exercise freedom. They may not make a decision on how they feel about the local, national or global environment and thus refuse to act in a way contrary to the family policy at present. An example of such might be when school children use the excuse that the parents do not recycle materials and therefore they do not have the ability to do so (freedom is removed) and, consequently, they behave the same way as the parents. In fact, the children have given up the freedom to make and act on their own decision, as there is no heart in the issue. This is the fundamental problem with environmental education.

THE PRESENT STRUCTURE of environmental education does not provide the opportunity for individuals to explore their feelings towards the rest of their environment, to even explore how they fit into the jigsaw of the environment. Current environmental education practices involve the mind and reasoning in order to promote what is seen as appropriate behaviour. Individuals need to be provided with the opportunity to explore their hearts and to discover ways in which they can act so that they satisfy themselves that they are doing what they feel is right and good in their heart. A number of eminent scientists have remarked that truth and complete understanding will not come about from (Western) scientific reasoning alone. By avoiding exploration of the affective, humans objectify the non-human environment and, consequently, the emotional-distance generated between human and non-human qualifies actions that in any other relationship would be deemed insupportable.

Substituting the word 'emotions' for 'heart', Steven Pinker wrote that the intellect, the ability to make rational decisions in order to move towards a goal, is not exclusive in the mind's functioning: "the emotions…work in harmony with the intellect and are indispensable to the functioning of the whole mind. The problem with the emotions is not that they are untamed forces or vestiges of our animal past; it is that they were designed to propagate copies of the genes that built them rather than to promote…moral values."

As famously stated by Hume, reason is used to ensure the means necessary for fulfillment of our desires are followed; in order to make truly intelligent, rational decisions, one should be able to draw on the cognitive and the affective, reason and emotion. Dyman Evans wrote:

"Ideally…we are neither completely rational nor completely emotional, but manage to strike the elegant balance between the two that we refer to as emotional intelligence." Pinker goes on to explain how the source of many human emotions is probably 'reciprocal altruism' and that, "Collectively they make up a large part of the moral sense." I like Matt Ridley's summary of Damasio: "In short, if you lack all emotions, you are a rational fool."

Humans are very good at acting favorably towards another human with the expectation of something in return at some later date. This is an important consideration for environmental education. School children regularly show this characteristic of reciprocal altruism, such as giving a friend some of their sweets, because the individual assumes at some time in the future the favour will be returned. This is based, clearly, on being able to 'read' their friend and make a judgment that they are trustworthy. A lack of emotional linking to the rest of their environment makes individuals unable to 'read' it and, consequently, feel less inclined to act in ways that would be altruistic, as they cannot see the reciprocal nature of their action:

"Why should I bother?"

"It's not worth it"

Teachers should not avoid dealing with values in education; they should be actively promoting student consideration and development of personal values. It can be considered by making such decisions they are in fact imposing their values on the pupils. Education is value-laden and consequently teachers need training that allows them to comfortably deal with the implications of this, in lesson planning and in interacting with pupils in and out of the classroom. As environmental education is explicitly value-laden, all teachers would be better equipped to take part in this education and so end the monopoly, and consequently bias, that is currently held by Geography and Science. Science fact, taught within these curriculum areas, should not be used to dictate an environmental morale code; a code that should be personally, as well as socially constructed, and developed from within ourselves, not from the factuality of science.

The importance of the way in which individuals think about the world cannot be emphasized enough. If individuals think of the world as separate to themselves and existing as compartmentalised units that can be described and dealt with by technology and calculations, there will be a sense of separation of individuals from each other and from nature. By developing an awareness of the intricate enfolding of ourselves with the rest of our environment we can deal with the world as a whole and realise our role in it. This will take away the satisfaction with technical solutions to problems, as when considered as an inseparable part of the whole world, we will have feelings, such as love, that we would have for any thing that is close to our hearts. Joy Palmer considers the neglect of the interconnectedness of life processes as sustained by the 'dominant development paradigm', whereas the re-awakening of our knowledge and understanding of life's plexus has elements of Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis. This view of life widens the application of McClintock's "…a feeling for the organism". Behaviours that are deemed more environmentally responsible in a given context may involve a sacrifice. Individuals need to feel strongly enough about environmental issues to sacrifice particular behaviours, to give up actions in favour of their environment. In the book Spirit of the Environment Anne Primavesi wrote: "We are bonded to the universe through manifold interactions with our environments, and in spite of the enormous asymmetry between its gifts to us and any response we can make, and in spite of the fact that, in an ultimate sense, there is nothing we can give in return except what we were given, we consciously give something back, even if it is only the conscious acknowledgement of being given something."

The persistent negative imagery in the newspapers, on television and across other forms of media communication may well cultivate a mood of apathy in the population. It is clear to see why individuals take the stance that there is no point in acting as their action will be insignificant and thus have no affect globally. Nevertheless, this stance is morally void and thus of no use to the development of society. If environmental education could move to a position closer to where human satisfaction, be that individual or group based, is the goal then perhaps more people would respond to the current crises. The individual needs to be in touch with their own feelings, to know what their heart considers to be truly right and good, and then to act on this. It should be emphasised to them that they should not be considering whether their actions are insignificant globally or nationally, and that they will have no effect. In isolated analysis, that may well seem true. What really matters is that each individual takes up the right of freedom, freedom to develop their capacities and look into their heart to develop values towards the rest of their environment. Their mind should be satisfied that they have acted with heart. Each individual must move away from a competitive-comparative perspective in relation to environmentally responsible action. Environmental problems need to be tackled in a more localised approach. Each individual needs to act at the personal level as well as at the community level. By trying to tackle global problems globally, humans are providing themselves with the perfect opportunity to cry out:

Impossible!

Will not make a difference!

Why should I if no one else is?

Environmental action will need global support, but its seed is individual action. However, and this is an irremovable clause, the individual action must be interconnected in order for the rest of the environment to respond in a way that we have come to agree is desirable or favorable. If the approaches to environmental problems are fragmentary then it is likely the environment will respond in a fragmentary way. Consequently, ecological activities may be met with limited success or even fail. For instance, the trade in endangered species has been met with limited success, in terms of species population leveling or increase, due to the fragmented nature of compliance by different countries and groups of individuals within those countries. The inter-connectedness of parts of the world has never been more apparent than when atmospheric pollution is considered. Once country may well have to deal with the effects of atmospheric pollutants that are, in fact, brought by prevailing winds from other countries (the polluters).

The challenge for science, science education and thus environmental education is to:

"Overcome the separation between truth and virtue, value and fact, ethics and practical necessity. To call for this nonseparation, is, of course, to ask for a tremendous revolution in our whole attitude to knowledge." (Bohm)

"First-world science is one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group." (Feyerabend)

An understanding that we belong to the entity described as 'environment' is necessary when considering environmental 'issues'. Many environmental 'problems' have been alleviated by western science and technology, but only once it was responsible for their cause. This circular relationship ensures its own survival. A more post-modern approach to environmental education would enable the circle to be augmented, perhaps denatured, to some extent so that cultural diversity survives and enriches the technologies of the future.

"Several thousand Cuahuila Indians never exhausted the natural resources of a desert region in South California, in which today only a handful of white families manage to subsist. They lived in a land of plenty, for in this apparently completely barren territory, they were familiar with no less than sixty kinds of edible plants and twenty-eight others of narcotic, stimulant or medical properties." (Levi-Strauss)

HUMANS NEED TO truly know their surroundings and not take control of and master them, thus providing for a sustainable educational future. This need to know is echoed by 'bushcraft' educators who emphasis the principle of kinship with the rest of one's environment as central to this aspect of Environmental Education. Education for ecological literacy without tending to the growth of kinship in the individual, as David Orr says, is simply inadequate. The sustenance for this growth will probably come from an adult. Pupils in this case study are not novel in their references to adult influence on their environmental thinking, it is not uncommon for high profile environmental 'personalities' to refer to a particular adult who encouraged them in their childhood. This emphasises the huge responsibility that falls on teachers simply because of the number of waking hours they spend with young people; teachers who may not themselves have developed their kinship with environment.

Environmental education needs to be a long-term commitment within the education sector. Critical thinking cannot be 'switched on' for a short period of time in school and then ignored. It is naïve to think that a single field trip or visit, or an isolated environmental 'unit' will be sufficient to permanently change the affective in children such that they are more likely to perform environmentally responsible behaviour much into the future, indeed this has been shown not to be the case.

Pupils talk about problems being too big to cope with, they come up with what they perceive as the acceptable answers to environmental issues - they are not acting on them, they don't feel a true responsibility for them - for example, global warming. They are calling for education that is more personal, something through which they can feel empowered. This reflects a qualitative change in outlook rather than the quantitative dimension espoused by modern western curricula. Build this in with local action - they want practical skills; need to see things happening, some feeling of success will provide motivation. Regardless of the knowledge that is built up within individuals about environmental issues, if there is no exploration and acquisition of skills, individuals really have no choices for action.

The research project has been effective in itself. Pupils involved in the study enquired about post-graduate research, why teachers would do it and how it will contribute to school life. Increased dialogue has occurred between the author and pupils at the case study school about teachers, and adults in general, continuing to learn and, so, has encouraged the exploration of education as a desire in humans and not simply an enforced activity. Students involved in interviews showed visible signs of enjoyment of the process and interest in the aims of the research. This is further evidence to this author that there is reason for a more socially critical approach to environmental education, if not to the wider world of education.

What I had not been expecting was how the research would change me, and my understanding of environment and environmental education. The shift in mind-set is needed at all levels of society, educators need to be open to change before there can be any paradigm shift, and that is not going to be comfortable for many of them. How do we do that? At this stage, all I know is that educators need help and encouragement to break out of the mould, once they have dipped their toes in the water I think they'll want to try a swim.

Amira Sumner teaches Biology and Science in a Secondary school. She is a PhD student with the Open University specialising in Environmental Education and lives in rural Dorset.

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