Archive for December, 2006

Ecosacy: the ability to understand and respond to the environment

Friday, December 29th, 2006

In the late 1980s, a small group of educators in the United States set out to develop courses, curricula, and resources with implications for ‘a living in the universe story’. Their efforts cast seeds, which cast further seeds, bonding with multiples of other efforts across the world. Around this time I became involved with a UK initiative, kick-started by the Duke of Edinburgh, to create a new subject for the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.  At an informal dinner party at Buckingham Palace I suggested that the mood was to create a culture, where ‘ecosacy’, the language of environment, was taught together with literacy and numeracy; all three being required for a balanced view of society. My definition of ecosacy was an ability to conceptualise the wholeness of self and environment as a set of beliefs to live by and a practical context that gives meaning and continuity to life.  To be ecosate means having the knowledge and mind set to act, speak and think according to deeply held beliefs and belief systems about people in nature as one community of beings. This means, as Scrooge’s nephew in A Christmas Carol points out, we should treat all people as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures on other journeys’

There was general agreement but no one could see a practical way forward unless there was a root and branch reform of the education system.  When the British national curriculum emerged it was just a re-jigged version of the Victorian prescription that had been designed to expand an Empire. Its contemporary aim was to maintain national economic growth between 2-3% year-on-year, for ever.   There was no mandatory architecture for the pillars of sustainable development and its associated cross-curricular topic work, which start with issues of living in an overcrowded world and centre on conservation management of nature’s assets.

I left Prince Phillip’s soiree with Angus Ogilvie, and we spent the rest of the evening in the Athenaeum where I was staying overnight.  Here we were joined by a group of senior civil servants in the Overseas Development Administration, and this chance meeting was to lead to several visits as an educational advisor to Nepal where the ODA was funding a public school, under the patronage of the Nepalese Royal Family.   The objective was to produce an educational model of Nepal as an exemplar for the new middle school subject that I was developing with teachers in Cambridge.  The subject was to be called ‘natural economy’.   Economic development was to be balanced against conservation management of landscape, wildlife and natural resources.  In other words, natural economy deals with the organization of natural resources for production.  It is complementary to political economy, which deals with the organization of people for production.

In Nepal, I first made contact with Buddhism as a religion working with the grain of nature.  Some seeds were set, and partially developed through discussions with a postgraduate Nepalese student in my department, which set me thinking about spiritual values of natural resources, an area now described as ‘deep ecology’.  By the turn of the millennium this became a small, fragmented, but committed movement on a global scale.   One focus for widespread discussion was the Earth Literacy Web, where the organisers’ questions at the Millennium indicated a strong educational sentiment at that time.

“What is Earth asking of us at this moment? What if we saw ourselves as a movement giving voice to an emerging Ecozoic era? What if we viewed Earth as a connection of webs (European, Asian, Australian, African, South American, and North American), an integral Earth Literacy “campus” with each of us and countless others invited to become a vast community / faculty of learning? What if we begin to envision and design regional gatherings over the next 5-10 years, working together to host conferences and provide immersion experiences for people interested in learning about the Universe Story in settings closer to their home regions? What if we believed that we could become part of a communion with what can only be described as a sacred purpose to create a vibrant, regenerative Earth community?”

The idea of an earth literacy web is just one of many convergences of the diverse creativity of many individuals, organizations, and institutions.  They mark a beginning to organise the task of educating people to accept, protect, and foster the remnants of our living Earth within this large cultural, cosmological context.

The idea of citizen’s environmental networks for local education and action had in fact emerged in the nineties with the lead up to the Environment Summit in Rio di Janeiro, which took place in 1992.  Two years later, on International Earth Day, I gathered a group of teachers and students on a mountain top above the Neath Valley in South Wales overlooking the biggest open cast coal mine in Britain.  The site, Maes Gwynn, was being landscaped by the National Coal Board.  It was to be re-soiled and vegetated, then fertilised with tanker loads of processed human sewage to create a country park.  We were there to reflect on where we are, what we are doing, and what we need to do in the future as we live into a revolutionary new Earth/human relationship. It soon became clear that everyone had memories of vast, unbounded skies, seas, jungles and wild animals; of mountains, deserts, infinite starry nights, underwater universes, flocks of migratory birds, exotic animals and the bounty of numberless small farms.  But they had been obtained from television documentaries. In front of the next generation, the teachers faced the shock that it was members of their great grandparent’s generation who were the last to have seen, heard, tasted, and touched the smaller, yet equally powerful wonders of nature in their Welsh countryside. From this gathering eventually came the School and Community Agenda 21 Network (SCAN), a bilingual web resource for Welsh schools to help the communities they serve with plans for sustainable development.  However, this is an optional add on and not a radical syllabus change.

A common response of teachers who have made contact with the Cambridge natural economy syllabus is, ‘I wish I had been taught this at school’.  However, since that would mean replacing at least two traditional subjects, biology and geography, natural economy has only been taken up in schools operating the more flexible International Baccalaureate, or where, as in Namibia, there was a total re-evaluation of the old subjects. Most schools are unable to ideate culture and ecology and bring them to the centre of the curriculum  

Prince Philip’s response to natural economy was a wish to see it extended to integrate with an ecological/conservation management dimension.  This challenge was taken up by the ‘Going Green Directorate’, an informal grouping of teachers across the UK, and with the help of sponsorships from industry and the EC cultural ecology has been assembled as a web-based annotated mindmap (see my blogroll).  The hope of the GGD is that this provisional interactive learning framework will help people build their own personal body of knowledge to take a political/practical stance on society’s ever-increasing ability to disrupt environmental systems on a large scale.

Someone other

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

It’s about half past eight in the morning on the shortest day of the year, and I am musing about time, destiny and lifetime achievements.  Through the window I scan the small wood across a road, now busy with the local school-run, waiting for the rising sun to enliven the bark of an old oak and turn its neighbouring yew tree from black to green.  Because the house is higher than the road I have the impression of looking into a wildwood, a primeval scene rich with intertwining branches and fallen boughs, which occupies all of the window space.  Indeed, the twenty or so acres of alders and willows are called ‘the wild gardens’.  It is an unruly portion of a park designed by public-spirited Victorian worthies to preserve a small intractable wetland that was of no use to the Marquis of Bute’s agents as profitable real estate.  Since then it has been left largely to its own devices, the major management task being the occasional resurfacing of footpaths through what is essentially a small swamp. 
I am thinking that on this day of the winter solstice, through thousands of millennia, many an anxious glance was cast skywards, particularly towards the east when, like today, the murk looks especially thick and threatening. The particular view I am waiting for, of a veteran tree illuminated at sunrise, may not materialise at all, but this day really does mark the cosmic turning of the year.  Significantly, it is another a notch in my lifetime, but also a symbolic reminder that our personal spiritual universes are profoundly seasonal.  To generate new intellectual thrusts we need autumn and winter as symbols of the great resurrections of spring and summer.  In this sense we are all time-travellers.  Our capacity to find symbolical means of dealing with the fears of being alive is one of the most striking characteristics of humankind. When in need, we seek symbolical expression as well as practical fulfilment of those needs.  Many of the rituals devised by our ancestors arose out of the anxieties that inevitably afflicted human beings living precariously in the wildings of our early biological and social evolution.  With the sense of being an individual came fears that the vegetative forces of regeneration might wear out and the crops fail.  These fears gave rise to the fertility rituals, sacrifices of animals and the first fruits, practiced by human communities all over the world.  Fears that the winter solstice might not mark the end of the sun’s withdrawal over the horizon and the beginning of its return explain the ubiquitous existence of solstice rituals, saturnalia, orgies, and so on.  These represent behavioural inventions in a game against nature.  They are more likely to occur in societies where the prevailing system of beliefs reinforces the propensity to change production methods, which is an indication of the willingness to challenge and to manipulate the physical environment.  This is the context in which the anthropocentric philosophy of Judeo-Christian religion represented an exceptional mental shift in human history when it was taken for granted that God emerged to govern all cosmic forces for the benefit of His people. “And God saw everything that God had made and behold it was very good (Genesis 1.31)”.
Ever since I can remember I have had a powerful timeline in my head.  A person within me hovers and glides to and fro from the relatively short human lifespan, through a patchy ancestral past to an uncharted eternity, searching for symbolic links between past and future. Egypt, of course, had a very sophisticated idea of what happens after death, even though this afterlife was reserved for a select few.  The Jewish Talmud heralds the next phase of immortality for everyone in a ‘World To Come’. The earliest reference in rabbinic literature comes in Avot.  “Rabbi Yaacov said, ‘This world is like a corridor; prepare yourself in the corridor so that you can enter the palace’.  The rabbis and the Muslim theologians avoid going into any greater detail. The ‘Garden of Eden’ is one analogy and “the palace” is another, but with no details specified, this is as far as one gets. The priests are eager to assert the promise of something better but they feel no obligation to say what it is like.  So those like me who prefer a more concrete authority to commit to the concept of eternal life inevitably look within themselves for a lifetime guide to provide an understanding of the only life we will ever have.
Laurens Van der Post, in his mid-70s, actually envisaged this lifetime guide as his boyhood self, who survived on a spiritual frontier in the role of critic and mentor of his adult life.  This imaginary being he called  ‘someone other’.  This is the childhood comparator we all tend to return to for remembrance and affirmation of values that, for one fleeting moment were everything, but then became buried deep with the onward rush of the experiences of growing up. Youth not only comes into focus in later life, but life is compressed so things that happened decades ago appear as fresh as yesterdays.  Also, the most significant factor in the psychology of getting old is that one becomes more that self that never grew up. 
Van der Post singled out the Cape of Good Hope as his physical symbol of transition.  Here it was, as he sailed away from his South African homeland for the last time, that he contemplated the Portuguese age of discovery.  To Portuguese sailors the Cape was a landmark and a symbol of nationhood as colonisers of half the world.  Laurens’ mind-set shifted from the technology of ships and marine chronology, which were symbols for charting the old Earth, to space travel as a symbol of hope for the new spiritual challenges of research to conquer the wider cosmos.
Writing about his personal distress on departing Cape Town on the last of the great passenger liners he reflected on what the reality of the Cape meant in the imagination of the first European explorers.
“Some four hundred and fifty years before, the great Camoes had seen the Cape vanish astern of a ship in which he was one of a handful of survivors of the original crew bound for home. He had sailed on from there over the same swinging water to write in his epic Lusiad what that journey and that view of the Cape had done to him. The powerful symbolism of his description, drawn from the kind of intuition of which I was thinking, bore witness to the Pentecostal nature of all art, and shone out as another and greater light than the one just extinguished on my own heaving horizon”.
In contrast to Van der Post, I am trying to grasp a much less dramatic topographic reality, a captive wildwood in the local municipal park, with two external planes or dimensions of the imagination.  One plane is the objective world of science concerned with the flow of solar energy into living beings.  As a post graduate student my objective was prove that cells across the animal kingdom have particles in common that confine them to planets with an atmosphere of oxygen.  It turned out these particles were bacteria accidentally incorporated into a protozoan ancestor at the dawn of time.   The other plane is the dimension that is not yet, and probably never can be, fully described in the objective language of science.  Outside my window, that Yew tree, now turning green with the brightening sky, is part of the ‘It’ of an ecosystem taking in the weak energy of the winter beams to maintain life.  For the ecosystem to become a spiritual model in relation to me, the ‘It’ has also to be a ‘Thou’ in my relationship to it as part of the cosmos, which has a subjectivity answering to my own in that I am getting closer and closer to returning to stardust.
Prehistoric stone observatories tuned into the cosmos are evidence that in northern Bronze Age cultures the universe was addressed by prehistoric people as ‘Thou’.  The uncertain world that faced them on the shortest day was not just a collection of mere objects to their subjectivity.  Their adaptive response was to create a culture entrained to an annual cycle of ceremonies in which the community could align itself with the conjunction of numinous ecological power embedded in the family life of neighbours.  The turning of the year was always a time to be anxious.   It is also a time for rites of passage by which their perceptions of a cosmic ‘Thou’ could be perpetually recreated, and appropriated by the community and the individual.   Magic is expressed in the intuitive inextinguishable hope that inspired them to believe there was a future for family and community.  A solstice came to be anticipated as a ritual moment that is particularly likely to create a personal disclosure or symbolic meaning.   Even when religion had passed into more and more sophisticated phases of expression, important new personal perceptions of religion experienced by seers and prophets often emerged during a particular ritual enshrined in the devotional calendar.
There is a magic of human destiny and group ambition in these prehistoric stone structures, which I suppose I am trying to re-capture at this moment by projecting my thoughts at two ancient botanical beings across the road.  It is through these thoughts that I also connect with those infinitely remote men and women and their uncertainties when everything seemed dying around them in the darkest days of the year.  What they were about touches me today.  I was reassured by the sky brightening from the east although the first shafts of sunlight did not hit my personal woodland targets today.  It actually burst upon my computer screen as I was writing this story in the late afternoon.  The computer is part of my world of objects, one of countless ‘Its’.  I am also a spiritual being who must establish personal relationships with the cosmos.  As an heir to the Bronze Age sun worshippers, my someone other, somehow, gives me the intellectual confidence to say, albeit under my breath, ‘Welcome, thou Sun!’.  Tomorrow’s day will be slightly longer.
What I am really saying is that there is an urgent need for an educational framework that can accommodate both extremes of the tangible and the numinous.  In this context a municipal park is an expression of cultural ecology.  The need for linking culture and ecology and its educational significance to urban dwellers like me was summarised by Frederick Law Olmsted in his plan submitted for the creation of Central Park, New York, in 1857.  This was to be a rugged and natural design which rejected the standard civic pastoral copses and lawns. In Simon Schama’s words, “something of New York’s own original wilderness ought to be preserved” because in Olmsted’s rationale:-
“The whole of the island of New York would… be occupied by buildings and paved streets; that millions upon millions of men were to live their lives upon this island, millions more to go out from it, or its immediate densely populated suburbs, only occasionally and at long intervals, and that its inhabitants would assuredly suffer… according to their occupations and the degree of their confinement to it, from influences engendered by these conditions”.
In other words, at one pole, education for a largely urban population has to accommodate the religiousness of Einstein, who wrote, “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced thee is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.  In this sense I am religious”.  It also has to place equal emphasis on the theory of evolution and the periodic table of elements.