Archive for March, 2011

An educational ‘caring conserving framework’ for living sustainably

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

The future does not exist. There is only the present, but within this present, there is the idea that we have a future. And there are also within this present, the attitudes, behaviour patterns and habits that constitute both our history and institutions. The future is not therefore something to be discovered, like an existing terra incognito. The future is to be created, and before being created, it must be conceived, it must be invented and finally willed. 

Source: Bertstecher, H. (1974) in Hutchison, F. (1996) Educating Beyond Violent Futures, Routledge, London, p. 36  


A global crisis faces humanity at the dawn of the 21st century, marked by great divisive issues such as increasing poverty in an asymmetrical world, environmental degradation and short-sighted policy-making to combat climate change that is dominated by economic nationalism. Our climate is changing – the global mean surface temperature is rising, regional precipitation patterns are being altered, sea levels rise, floods, droughts and storms occur more often. The task of education is to deal with the urgent question of how to will a future for living sustainably.  Culture is shaped and is determined by the way we learn to see the world. It is concerned with the identities and values that influence the way people live, their responsiveness to educational programmes, and the degree to which they feel involved in building their future. In every society, there is a culturally unique way of thinking about the world which unites the people in their behaviours and attitudes to the environment.  Here the lessons throughout history are that cultural change is associated with humans “adjusting their survival toolkits” in response to new climatic regimes.  An international culture requires a caring and conserving framework to underpin the future of that culture as a planetary system. 

The meaning of ‘conservation’ has changed over the last 150 years.  Foresters have traditionally used it for the wise management of forests to ensure future timber supplies, giving their chief foresters the title conservator. But by the 1960s, conservation had come to mean preserving natural features so that they could be used in the future.  This was the concept of wise husbandry, now called sustainable use. Caring and conservation therefore go together as values and methods central to the act of saving our natural resources through careful setting of monitored targets. This is conservation management where planning means we can use the resources wisely and responsibly. Furthermore, during the last two decades, conservation has increasingly shifted from being goal oriented to understanding sustainability as a learning process.   Indeed, social learning as an approach for the understanding and management of environmental issues has become a prominent interpretative framework in planning for living sustainably. The aim is to bring about the change of attitudes and behaviour needed to ensure peace and sustainable development which, we know, form the only possible way forward for life on planet Earth. Today, that goal is still a long way off.  

The adoption of a caring conservation culture is crucial to commit ourselves to the common planetary good by building a truly global society where the key principle is ‘thinking about forever’.  This new thinking involves cultivating personal qualities which value and promote  behaviours of ‘non-violence’, ‘lamenting’, ‘nurturing’, ‘loving’, ‘connectivity’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘compassion’, ‘moral behaviour’, and ‘sharing’. These qualities are necessary to take a prophetic stance to change behaviour for managing the causes and ecological effects of climate change.  

It is interesting that all the personal qualities of caring required for living sustainably are exemplified by what has been called matri-force, which makes women powerful shapers of society.  Indeed it has been said that the earlier we recognise women’s centrality and give them an official voice, the more likely we are to heal our sick and ailing societies, both in the North and South. Ethical and spiritual messages, or absence thereof in the early period of childhood socialization, are the matrilinear elements that make for a society which offers its people a quality of life which is either harmonious and peaceful or conflict ridden and frenetic. The active role of women and their recognition in this sphere can make the difference between a society characterised by fear, inequity and violence and a society living sustainably, which is characterised by openness, mutual respect and a sense of social responsibility. The story goes that women embodied in nature, producing life with nature, are therefore well placed to take the initiative in the recovery of nature. 

There is no doubt that across the globe, and particularly in tropical regions with high biodiversity, in villages, on farms, in homesteads, forests, common pastures, and fields, it is women who manage the majority of all plant resources that are used by humans. This means that they also hold the majority of all local plant knowledge and are those who are mainly responsible for the in situ conservation and management of useful plants, whether they are domesticated or wild. The simple explanation for this is that, throughout history, women’s daily work has required more of this knowledge. Globally, it is women who predominate as wild plant gatherers, homegardeners and plant domesticators, herbalists, and seed custodians. In several world regions and among many cultural groups, they also predominate as plant breeders and farmers. This must not be seen as gender structuring humanity’s care for the environment.   Rather it emphasises the ways in which changing environmental conditions bring into existence categories of social difference including gender. In other words, gender itself is re-inscribed in and through practices, policies and responses associated with shifting environments and natural resource management.  Through repeated acts of conservation caring about the planet comes to appear as natural and fixed.  

Organising values and ideas for action 

The big question is how individuals of either sex, who wish to live by these qualities, organise themselves for action.  This calls for the construction of a “self-aware society” in which the notion of citizenship needs “to encompass transcendence of the human spirit into a common bond for a self-sustaining humanity on a life-supporting planet.” We are influenced by who communicates information, and our responses are shaped by biases and shortcuts picked up from those around us are already engaged.  Basically, we ‘go with the cultural flow of pre-set options.  In these contexts, it is quite possible that religion could be one of the important factors of scaling-up for living sustainably. On paper at least it promotes ‘thinking about forever’ and has the power to motivate people in ways nothing else can do.  It also has a crucial advantage as an agent of change – faith works itself out in families and communities. Believers aren’t usually solitary animals, but come attached to networks and interest groups. If the world’s major religions started taking climate change seriously at the grassroots level of the local church, mosque or synagogue, sharing with other faiths and supporting each other within the pre-existing communities around them, we could see a groundswell of positive action on sustainable living.   

However, increasingly we must expect that people will not look to gods or supernatural forces or the afterlife or the spirit world for these values and their maintenance.  In post-religious societies we have to obtain an understanding of sustainability in the world itself. Also we have to seek support from each other as individuals. One reason that education for living sustainability poses such an intrinsically difficult challenge is that it requires developing personal and group strategies that embrace four distinct humanisistic views to understand and manage day to day and long-term relationships with natural resources.  These are the non-religious materialistic ‘isms’ for thought and action known as existentialism, rationalism , naturalism and humanism and these have to be biased towards supporting a caring society.  

In simple terms, existentialism is a mode of living concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. The belief is that people are searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. Personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and act responsibly without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. 

Rationalism is the methodology of extentialism and based on reason and evidence. Rationalism encourages ethical and philosophical ideas that can be tested by experience and rejects authority that cannot be proved by experience.  Naturalism firms up rationalism as the doctrine that the world can be understood in scientific terms without recourse to spiritual or supernatural explanations. 

Humanism brings together those people who subscribe to existentialism and rationalism and naturalism as being appropriate ways of creating a world view of life.  It is not just atheism, but a positive alternative to religion. In other words, humanism fulfils much the same function as a religion does for its believers.  Humanists recognise that it is simply human nature to have moral values but that when we make particular judgements we need to interpret those widely shared values by the use of knowledge, reason and experience. Faced with a difficult decision, humanists consider and assess the available evidence and the likely outcomes of alternative actions. They do not refer to any dogma, sacred text or unsubstantiated theory. Humanists are therefore atheists or agnostics – but humanism is a philosophy in its own right, not just a negative response to religion.  Humanists find the best available explanations of life and the universe in the provisional answers provided by scientific enquiry and the use of reason. 

 Whether guided by matripower, religion or humanism, new working relationships between culture and ecology involve the application of universal ecological principles. In the early 1950s, anthropologists, led by Julian H. Steward, began to develop ecology as an approach to the study of human culture, asserting that it is the intermediary between humans and their environments what makes humanity a unique life form.  In particular, he emphasized the role that culture has in explaining the nature of human societies, considering that this is dictated by much more than the immediate physical environment and its non-human life forms. In this connection, his theory of “multilinear”, cultural evolution examined the way in which societies adapted to their environment by exploring the way in which national and local levels of society are related to one another. He questioned the possibility of creating a social theory that encompassed the entire evolution of humanity; yet, he also argued that anthropologists are not limited to description of specific, existing cultures. The decisive factors determining the development of a given culture, he decided, were technology and economics, but noted that there are secondary factors, such as political systems, ideologies, and religions. In the present context of a relatively rapid change in global climate, these factors push the evolution of a given society in several directions at the same time.  The focusing of a multilinear approach on the need for behavioural change to cope with new local climates, is the basis of a caring framework for the concept of conservation as an adaptation to climate change.  This is the context of ‘thinking about forever’ as a global response to the ever-increasing impact of industrialisation on our planet.  In this educational context, pedagogies for the planet require cross-subject approaches that are grounded in learning about social and environmental justice and equality within holistic understandings of the complex relationships between humans and their dynamic cultural ecology.   

Virtually every activity we engage in presumes some future continuation in time. Whenever we have aims, ambitions, make plans or take precautions, speculate or make commitments, we are concerned with the future. Without some sense of the future we could not even begin to articulate our hopes and dreams, let alone realise them. Thus, thinking and planning for the future is an essential and constant ingredient in all human endeavour. In contrast to the notion of social learning in general, learning for living sustainably focuses on the process of generating and applying a specific type of content of what is learned. In particular, learning for living sustainably means learning to develop the capacity to manage options for the adaptation of human societies to the limits and changing conditions that are imposed by their own social-ecological systems. It entails becoming increasingly aware of the limits and of the unintended negative consequences of collective action upon life-support systems and being capable of anticipating and managing those effects.  New educational frameworks are needed that present such futures and provide opportunities to build critical, creative, ‘out of the box’ thinking about cultural ecology.   This should involve learners in understanding the root causes of environmental problems; and being challenged from a variety of new cross-curricular starting points to think about possible and impossible/ unimaginable futures.   

Cultural ecology


 This was the idea behind ‘cultural ecology’ which emerged as the idea for a new academic subject from student/staff discussions during a zoology field course on the Welsh National Nature Reserve of Skomer Island in 1971.  These discussions originated within a group of students who were dissatisfied with the narrow view of world development taken by single honours science subjects.  Surprisingly, the idea it was enthusiastically taken up by staff in the pure and applied science faculties as the philosophical thread for an honours course in Environmental Studies organised in the University College of Wales, Cardiff, during the 1970s.  This course integrated the inputs from eleven departments, from archaeology, through metallurgy, to zoology. 

Late in the decade this course was evaluated by a group of school teachers under the auspices of the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCCLES), and emerged as the subject ‘natural economy‘ (the organisation of people for production).  Natural economy was launched by UCCLES to fulfil their need for a cross-discipline arena to support world development education. This project was initiated by the Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, as a much-needed contribution to world development education. 

It was also disseminated throughout Europe as part of the EC’s Schools Olympus Broadcasting Association (SOBA) for distance learning.  Through a partnership between the University of Wales, the UK Government’s Overseas Development Administration and the World Wide Fund for Nature,  it was published as a central component of a cultural ecology model of Nepal with the help of a sponsorship from British Petroleum. 

During the 1980s, an interoperable version of natural economy for computer-assisted learning was produced in the Department of Zoology, Cardiff University, with a grant from DG11 of the EC.  This work was transferred to the Natural Economy Research Unit (NERU) set up in the National Museum of Wales towards the end of the decade.  

In the 1990s NERU obtained a series of grants to integrate natural economy into a broader cultural framework.  For example, an  EC LIFE Environment programme with the aim of producing and testing a conservation management system for industries and their community neighbourhoods, used cultural ecology as the holistic framework.   The R&D was carried out in partnership with the UK Conservation Management System Partnership (CMSP), the University of Ulster and British industry. The aim was to provide a web resource for education/training in conservation management in schools and communities. 

This site ( is currently maintained and developed by the ‘Going Green Directorate (GGD) as a free web-based educational resource 

The GGD grew from a 1994 gathering of school teachers and academics in Wales. The meeting was sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales, Dyfed County Council, and the local Texaco oil refinery. This partnership was based in the St Clears Teacher’s Resource Centre. From here, a successful award- winning pilot was led by Pembrokeshire schools to create and evaluate a system of neighbourhood environmental appraisals, and network the local findings from school to school.

The scheme adopted the acronym SCAN (schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network). SCAN’s aim was to help teachers create bilingual systems of appraisal within the National Curriculum to evaluate ‘place’ (historical, geographical, biological, and notional). The practical objective was to address environmental issues which emerged from the appraisals in the context of their community’s Local Authority Agenda 21. You can reach SCAN in the National Museum of Wales at The objective of the GGD is therefore to promote practical conservation management through environmental appraisal and the long-term management of neighbourhood historical assets, green spaces and community services to promulgate a sense of place, improve quality of life and enhance biodiversity.Three collaborative wikis are associated with this site.

Cultural ecology (Wikipedia)

Cultural ecology (Wikispaces)

Conservation managementApplied ecology  

Living sustainably

 Cultural ecology is now being developed as an educational wiki about sustainable development produced by a group of UK academics and teachers.  It incorporates the cultural ecology mindmap, now being assembled in the form of a series of ICOPER concept maps, integrated with the caring behaviours necessary for living sustainably.  The caring behaviours are presented below in the form of a ‘conservation charter’ to adapt to, and mitigate against, climate change.  These behaviours fall into six categories of ‘living together’, ‘using nature’, ‘gaining livelihoods’, ‘participatory government’, ‘core values’ and ‘reliable information’.


The main proposition is that living sustainably is an educational framework for adopting caring conservation behaviours to apply ideas about our place in nature for managing natural resources to improve livelihoods, ensure their sustainability and manage consumerism to reduce social inequalities.    

A caring conservation charter

  1 Caring about how we live together . . .… by for example:   

1.1 Ensuring access to safe water, food, housing and fuel for all at affordable costs  

1.2 Valuing (and respecting) the roles and contributions of women and girls to society as much as those of men and boys 

1.3 Caring for the young, the elderly, those with physical disabilities, and other less powerful or marginalised groups in society 

1.4 Treasuring the cultural heritage and well-being of aboriginal peoples 

1.5 Valuing and respecting cultural diversity of all types 

1.6 Strengthening local distinctiveness and identity within a mosaic of national and global cross-cultural connections 

1.7 Protecting human health and quality of life through safe, clean and healthy environments 

1.8 Emphasising primary health care and disease prevention as well as cure 

1.9 Maximising everyone’s access to education so that all can develop the skills and knowledge to play a full part in living sustainably 

1.10 Making towns and cities ‘human’ in scale and form 

1.11 Settling disputes through discussion, negotiation and other peaceful means.  

2  Caring about how we use nature . . .… by for example:   

2.1 Valuing and protecting the diversity of nature  

2.2 Caring for and respecting the life of all species of plants, birds and animals in non-human nature 

2.3 Using energy, water, forest, soil and other natural resources efficiently and with care 

2.4 Minimising waste, then recovering and reusing it through recycling, composting or energy recovery, and carefully disposing of what is left 

2.5 Limiting pollution to levels that do not damage natural systems or human health 

2.6 Maintaining and restoring ecosystem health 

2.7 Promoting compact cities and towns and the use of public transport 

2.8 Managing domestic life to minimised our ecological footprint.  

3 Caring about how we gain our livelihoods . . .… by for example:   

3.1 Creating a vibrant local economy that gives opportunities to meaningful and rewarding work for all  

3.2 Ensuring that the fundamental human needs of all are met 

3.3 Valuing unpaid and voluntary work in the home and community 

3.4 Supporting policies that assign actual social and ecological costs and benefits to goods and services 

3.5 Recognising that the standard of living of a community is related to the contributions of people in neighbouring areas, elsewhere in the country and in other countries 

3.6 Encouraging the production and consumption of goods and services that do not degrade the natural environment locally or globally or undermine the quality of life of other people, especially those in the South 

3.7 Promoting corporate responsibility and accountability of business to local communities.   

4  Caring about how we are governed . . .… by for example:   

4.1 Developing and promoting democratic institutions and processes for decision-making  

4.2 Decentralising decision making to appropriate local levels of government 

4.3 Promoting government responsibility and accountability to local communities 

4.4 Empowering all sectors of the community to participate in decision-making at local, regional and national levels 

4.5 Developing the capacity building of Non-Government Organisation (NGOs), neighbourhood and professional associations and other elements of a vibrant civil society 4.6 Eradicating corruption in government and business.  

5  Caring about where our core values come from . . .. . . by for example:  

5.1 Being open-minded regarding the systems of beliefs, attitudes customs and institutions of other cultures. 

5.2 Acknowledging the mysteries of the cosmos and honouring the divine expression in all people. 

5.3 Not expecting that everyone should have all the truth but accepting that everyone has something useful to offer. 

5.4 Acknowledging that education is as much about building character as it is about equipping students with specific skills. 

5.5 Accepting that values-based education can strengthen students’ self-esteem, optimism and commitment to personal fulfilment; and help them to exercise ethical judgement and social responsibility. 

5.6 Recognising that parents have a responsibility to help their children to understand and develop personal and social responsibilities  

6 Caring about getting reliable information for action. . .. . . by for example:  

6.1 Getting unbiased information on environmental issues including ozone depletion, global warming, solid waste, water quality, pesticides, forestry practices, and wildlife management.  

6.2 Developing age-appropriate environmental education materials for classroom teachers 

6.3 Evaluating the effectiveness of the methodology for environmental education. 

6.4 Receiving up to date information on the renewable technologies that are now available to power and heat homes and buildings from natural renewable resources. 

6.5 Accessing information about how people can earn money from government for generating their own energy. 

6.6 Detailing the grants and funding available for sustainability measures and projects regarding the home, business or community. 

6.7 Communicating know-how and practical achievements between communities to help conserve and improve biodiversity and highlight ways to become involved in making greener safer communities.  

6.8 Networking ideas and achievements between communities