Archive for May, 2021

Cultural Ecology of Urban Cemeteries

Thursday, May 20th, 2021

Stanley Spencer; The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-7.

‘In the four or five million years since their development, humans have colonized virtually every terrestrial environment of the planet. Humans everywhere are virtually the same biologically (in spite of visible but superficial differences) but have been able to adapt to the enormous environmental diversity of the planet through culture, an incredibly flexible and adaptive mechanism that other animals lack. Thus, humans have been a very successful species. Human activity has a wide range of impacts on the environment, however, from exceedingly minor to catastrophic. Today, human activities are having huge impacts on the very environment on which we depend, ultimately threatening our own existence. Understanding and dealing with these challenges is a daunting but essential task’

Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson

1  Garden cemeteries

There is no better place to contemplate on humanity’s unique flexible and adaptive cultural mechanism than the cultural diversity of a graveyard. Culture brings people together from varying backgrounds who all share a similar belief system. Thoughts on death and what may or may not come next have varied greatly from culture to culture, with each group expressing unique opinions. However, every individual’s belief will vary and can be on a spectrum even if they identify with a certain practice.

Urban cemeteries were conceived and designed in the 19th century as gardens of the dead and as memorials to local people. They were a major cultural adaptation in the West to urbanisation with respect to disposal of the dead. There was little dispute about the means. Burial was the norm; cremation a peculiar foreign custom. The difficulty lay in finding room in expanding cities for an ever-increasing number of corpses. The burgeoning population of cities was filling up its small churchyards, burial grounds and vaults.  This need for burial space was met by large planned graveyards combining architecture, sculpture and landscape.   It makes these cemeteries like no other place in the historic environment, where culture and ecology may be seen as one conservation management system.

Now, the inscription on memorials, the design of monuments, the choice of stones, the architecture of building and landscape design have all been adapted to shed light on past social customs and cultural events.  They combine to make a cemetery an irreplaceable historical resource and an important record of local social history.  Each cemetery is also the biography of its surrounding community. Today, they are valued as places for quiet reflection, as semi wild green spaces managed for human well being. 

The anthropologist Julian Steward (1902-1972) coined the term ‘cultural ecology’ to describe the ‘ways in which cultural change is induced by adaptation to the environment’. Developing this definition and referring more specifically to ‘culture’ as expressly manifested in artistic works, cultural ecology is an interdisciplinary educational framework to unite and mobilise people who share the conviction that radical and widespread cultural change to bring people and nature together is vital to combat the climate emergency.  

In particular, a garden cemetery is an educational example of cultural ecology.  It is a small segment of the biosphere for reflection and action.  It is part of Earth’s open system, which because it relies on outside sources such as the sun, will eventually have an end.  The big picture is that stars die because they exhaust their nuclear fuel. However, death by total obliteration of life, was not an end for the majority of Victorians, but the beginning of a new future.  As the Victorian Tennyson wrote in his poem “Crossing the Bar”:

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the Bar’.

“Crossing the bar” refers to the death of a mariner.  The phrase has its origin in the fact that most rivers and bays develop a sandbar across their entrances, and ‘crossing the bar’ meant leaving the safety of the harbor for the unknown.”  The moral lesson of this poem for Victorians was that we should not fear or mourn death because when we die we are going to meet our “Pilot”, alias God, on a voyage to eternity and resurrection.  The Victorians who bought or leased plots in their local municipal graveyard believed in the biblical stories regarding the nature of resurrection, such as;

“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.”

John 5:28-29

Thus, belief in bodily resurrection, which reflects the Biblical resurrection of Jesus in the flesh and bone, together with Christian belief in a ‘world without end’, are both against scientific understandings of the cosmos where matter is finite. What about the promise that death and judgement will be the final destiny of the soul and of humankind?  According to scripture, Jesus was resurrected in flesh and bone;

 “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 

The belief in resurrection and ascension to Heaven, which sustained the graveyard mourners was accompanied by a growing interest in séances and spiritualism as a way to remain in contact with the dead. 

Jesus’ tomb was found empty and the post-resurrection Jesus that was encountered was not a spiritual body but a physical ecological one. Thus, the dualism of body and soul, which allows for resurrection of the soul in popular Christianity today, counters both the Biblical and ecological narrative.

We can reflect on these contradictions whilst musing in a graveyard where, according to Nathanial Hawthorne, romance, poetry, ivy, lichens and wallflowers need ruin to make them grow.  Graveyards are a place where different human concerns about bereavement meet: sadness, loss, history, tragedy, and uncertainty for the future.

2 Making a garden cemetery

John Claudius Loudon had a major impact on the design of the cemeteries within the Victorian period. His book ‘On the laying out, planting and managing of cemeteries‘ (1843)

was the “goto manual” of the period. He reasoned that the most efficient layout of burial plots was a rectangular grid system, connected by a series of tree-lined drives and paths. Where the cemetery site was hilly, he recommended broad sweeping drives to nullify the gradients, resulting in a more undulating layout.

Loudon expected grand cemeteries to attract a ‘certain class of people’ so he recommended a boundary wall 10 to 12 feet high, in addition to a main keeper’s lodge to keep undesirables out. He also suggested a combination of chapels at the centre, including both an Anglican one and  Non-conformist one. He admired the principles of Jewish and Quaker burial practices, such as the practice of burial as soon as possible after death, and a prohibition on limited burial rights, and used them to advocate against the re-use of graves. He deplored the use of lead lined coffins, due to the problems of methane gas arising from putrefaction in a closed space. “Even in some of the public catacombs of the new London cemeteries explosions have been known to take place, and the undertaker was obliged to be sent in to resolder the coffin”.

He was a strong advocate for certain types of planting too. Concerned about the annual leaf fall of leaves from deciduous trees, he recommended pines, cypress, yew, and juniper, particularly those with “conical shapes,  Evergreen trees have been associated with places of burial from time immemorial because they symbolise notions about the ephemerality of human endeavours and the sublime power of nature.

The horrific state of parish churchyards particularly in London had led to their widescale closure in the early decades of the 19th century and the creation of a huge wave of new privately-run cemeteries outside urban boundaries. Most of these new burial grounds were being laid out in the style of parks but Loudon was highly critical of this. He argued that cemeteries should combine moods of quiet repose, solemnity and grandeur and have a mixture of architecture and landscape that was instantly recognisable, and never be mistaken for a public park or a country residence. Cemeteries should also be considered to have a moral and educational purpose, where “architecture, beauty, scale, and style were not only connected with aesthetics , but with fitness for function”.

Everything about the design of the new cemeteries, from the flora and fauna to the monuments and  pathways, was aimed at eliciting feelings, and awaken memories of the dead. Cemeteries would thus in turn encourage people to think about their own mortality and place in the world, or as Loudon himself put it, “the delight with which we recollect the traces of their lives, blends itself insensibly with the emotions which the scenery excites”. 

It was the intention of the designers that the very purpose of the cemeteries was to be an amenity for the surrounding population. Although most fell into disrepair, ironically today they are still valuable within their communities. The formation of ‘Friends’ groups and Restoration Societies has given people the chance to volunteer and contribute to their community’s use of a repurposed urban space. Most cemeteries have now been re-instated to commemorate the dead and are still religiously active. Many are maintained to support local fauna and flora, providing a haven for wildlife in the middle of a city. Above all, Rutherford cemeteries remain a valuable cross curricular educational resource for architecture, ecology, history, geology and other subjects”, which was in fact what Loudon had always envisioned.   He was also concerned that burials should be conducted;

“—– in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living; either by affecting their health, or shocking their feelings, opinions, or prejudices. The secondary purpose was thought, or ought to be the improvement of the moral sentiments and general taste of all classes, and more especially of the great masses of society”.

Translating this into present times, graveyards can be places where people learn to locate themselves in cultural ecology to equilibrate society with changing times.

3 Heart-ware.

Cardiff’s Cathays Cemetery, originally known as New Cemetery, occupies 30 acres of arable farmland purchased by local government on the 7th March 1859 from Wyndham William Lewis of the nearby  Heath Estate, at a cost of £4,500. The ground was laid out and chapels built during that year. The cemetery was consecrated 28th October 1859 by the Bishop of Llandaff.  As a garden cemetery, Cathays Cemetery (Fig 1) has a substantial tree collection, which began with planting in the early 1860s.

Fig 1 

Trees are an important part of a graveyard’s ecological assets.  There are also very large numbers of listed buildings in cemeteries, according to the National Monuments Records including lodges and houses, boundary walls, gates, mortuary chapels, cemetery chapels, tombs, headstones and mausoleums. Taken together these cultural assets define a community’s heart-ware and there is a strong case to be made that cemeteries have especial architectural and landscape interest because they have often been trapped in a time-warp, and have not been modified, adapted, overlaid, or even destroyed, as has so much else in the historic environment.

The spirituality pedestal that the brain currently occupies used to belong to the heart. For much of history, the heart was the seat of what made humans human.  As a mental toolkit, heart-ware enables us to reflect and think about where we are going, why we are going there and what really matters.  It allows us to explore how modernity and our constricted notions of progress have contributed to today’s crisis of values, and argues for a re-establishment and re-affirmation of self-transcending priorities, together with an ethos of moderation and sufficiency.  Heart-ware supports a wide range of human concerns, including, 

  • material culture and spiritual teachings; 
  • sustainability and the spiritual perspective;
  • traditional and indigenous knowledge; technology and spirituality; 
  • notions of meaningful design; 
  • and how particular material things can have deeper, symbolic significance. 

Heart-ware also supports reflections on cultural issues, such as the language of design and its relationship to wisdom, social disparity and traditional sacred practices.  This is why the heart is so often used metaphorically in spiritual writings to encapsulate a primary source of so much that happens in our spiritual lives. It also explains why love is associated with the heart, as authentic love comes from the “core” of our being, not something that is on the “surface”, and reintroduces us to our physical and spiritual selves..  

The path to spiritual integrity lies through the way we use material things.  Therefore, every aspect of our relation to what is around us is significant. The challenge for us as human beings is to work out how we live humanly, taking our part in a larger and more mysterious set of processes.  It’s not about trying to stand above or outside the world that makes us real.  Life is about addressing critical aspects of dominant material cultures and the associated devastating production-consumption systems. These systems offer new insights for designers to explore alternative approaches to the world of objects, including ones that can lead to human fulfillment and well being.  In this connection, economic development can lead to the loss of one’s social structure and culture causing a grief reaction, described by Eisenbruch as cultural bereavement. Detachment from nature involves the loss of the familiar, including language (especially colloquial and dialect), attitudes, values, social structures and support of migration.  Eisenbruch has defined extreme cultural bereavement as;

 “the experience of the uprooted person – or group – resulting from loss of social structures, cultural values and self-identity: the person – or group – continues to live in the past, is visited by supernatural forces from the past while asleep or awake, suffers feelings of guilt over abandoning culture and homeland, feels pain if memories of the past begin to fade, but finds constant images of the past (including traumatic images) intruding into daily life, yearns to complete obligations to the dead, and feels stricken by anxieties, morbid thoughts, and anger that mar the ability to get on with daily life

Cultural bereavement is at the centre of the loss of biodiversity so it should be an integral part of conservation management where it carries spiritual valuations of local communities into the planning process.. 

4  What now?

As beautiful as the Victorian Garden Cemeteries were, and some still are, they became a victim of changing times. More recent changes have given them another role to play – that of contributing to the recording of local social and economic history’.  This is important in the context of the need to educate for the adoption of a new economic system, which only takes from Earth what the planet can regenerate.  From this point of view, it has been argued that the range of environmental and social benefits that urban cemeteries potentially deliver might have a great educational impact on the population at large as a resource for lifelong learning. Fundamentally, graveyards now have a function as communicative symbolic places where an individual can construct and express an individual and collective ethnic and cultural identity which centers on one or more features of its heart-ware. 

Because a burial ground’s cultural assets bridge the gap between past, present and future, it is a toolkit for the construction of individual and collective identity. The deceased and the bereaved become anchored in a specific common culture, in a specific value system and world-view, which is expected to persist, regardless of the demise of its singular constituents.  Central to this argument is the graveyard’s urban location and its expression of the ecological principle that makes it imperative for humanity to operate a globally sound ecological economy.  Defined as a circular economy (Fig 2 ) it is a more natural alternative to a traditional linear economy of capitalism i.e. a sequential process of make/use/dispose.  A circular economy keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value from them while in use, then finally regenerating products and materials at the end of the life of each service. The educational model is the decarbonising ecosystem, which in an urbanised human culture is visible in fragmented green spaces. Cemeteries are metaphors for the linear global economy, which is causing humanity so much grief because of its emphasis on consuming fresh resources to make things that we eventually bury or burn. Managing grass above graves by hand-scything (Fig 3) as a hay meadow is a metaphorical circular economy, generating increased biodiversity and a meditative experience for the community volunteer workforce.

Fig 2 Two kinds of economy

Fig 3 Meadow scything workshop. Hampstead Graveyard.

Municipal cemeteries are fragments of the biosphere typically located within towns and cities and might be larger and older than many municipal parks. Within this urban context, cemeteries can play a key role modeling the infrastructure of cities and deliver a wide range of ecosystem services (ESs). ESs can be defined as 

  • supporting (e.g. soil formation, photosynthesis, primary production, nutrient and water cycling); 
  • provisioning (e.g. food, fibre, fuel, freshwater, genetic resources, natural pharmaceuticals and chemicals), 
  • regulating (ecosystem processes including regulation of air and water quality, climate, pest and disease) 
  • and cultural (including cognitive development, spiritual enrichment, recreation and aesthetic experiences) (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).

Climate change is challenging us to reconsider how we manage urban green spaces to deliver more robust and resilient cities. In future, lawns, which are now a major management feature of tidy graveyards, may become an unaffordable luxury (see, Webster et al., 2017) Even the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who pioneered the development of the Lawn Cemetery after the carnage of the First World War, have been experimenting in its removal as part of their climate change strategy (CWGC, 2017).  Large, urban cemeteries could therefore play an important role in helping to move public acceptance towards a less intensively managed landscape that is aesthetically more messy and less manicured. If this can be achieved within a highly invested landscape where communities have chosen to bury their dead, we might ask what contribution it could have, for example, in changing attitudes towards the acceptance of less intensively managed public parks in order to deliver greater ESs. For those who might once have chosen a traditional grave for their deceased, the presence of natural burial or scattered remains of cremations within the urban cemetery might also provide an opportunity to experience and benefit from the different spatial and temporal qualities and integration with nature that they afford.  This process of education could be promoted as part of the Local Agenda 21.

‘Local Agenda 21 (LA21) refers to the general goal set for local communities by Chapter 28 of the ‘action plan for sustainable development’ adopted at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Chapter 28 is an appeal to ‘local authorities’ to engage in a dialogue for sustainable development with the members of their constituencies.

  • Local Agenda 21 is the process that aims to involve local people and communities in the design of a way of life that can be sustained and thus protect the quality of life for future generations. It originates from the Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992 which led to the agreement of an Agenda 21 document detailing a series of strategies for action worldwide.
  • Local Agenda 21 is a process that aims to integrate the social, environmental and economic aspects of development in order that all future development is ‘sustainable’. It requires all of us to consider the effects – on the local economy, the local environment and the local community – of every policy and project and then to seek a solution that achieves a realistic balance.
  • Local Agenda 21 is a highly democratic, consensus-building and empowering process. It seeks to strengthen the role of all major groups in society, including children, youth and women. It sets out to develop and build on partnerships between groups in the local community and to make linkages between parallel processes such as Social Needs and Health for All policy work.
  • Local Agenda 21 is essentially about ‘quality of life’: which is perhaps a more friendly term to describe its primary goal. It is a process that asks those of us in local government to work in partnership with the local community to develop a strategy comprising a series of action plans which will set out how we will work together towards the goal of sustainable development in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Chapter 28 explicitly states that the whole local community should be actors in an LA21 process, including both typical citizens and major stakeholder groups. In practice, however, there are quite a lot of variations between LA21 processes. Although stakeholder groups are involved in the majority of Local Agenda 21 processes worldwide, under- or over- representation of certain groups presents a danger to the quality of decision-making. From the worldwide survey one can conclude that local government is the most important formal partner (60%), followed by individuals (57%), community groups (46%), NGOs (46%) and the business/ private sector (42%). The groups least commonly recognised as formal partners include ethnic minorities and trade unions.  

Taking this route, the Environmental Scrutiny Committee of the City and County of Cardiff produced a document in December 1999 to progress the Local Agenda 21 in Cardiff. The LA21 has now become focussed on the Local Agenda 2030, with its target set on decarbonisation of the city’s economy by 2030.  Cardiff today is a THREE planet city: If everyone in the world consumed natural resources and generated carbon dioxide at the rate people do in Cardiff, the city would need three planets to support it. This is not sustainable or equitable to those who Cardiff’s citizens share the planet with. Cardiff’s aspiration is to become a One Planet City by 2030, living and thriving within Earth’s environmental means.  Embedding Agenda 21 in the management of a municipal cemetery is an important objective for Friends groups that are important champions of their local cemeteries. Many started as pressure groups concerned about neglect or development threats. They are often involved in recording, research, producing leaflets, guided walks, fund raising, and practical conservation tasks. It is a small step to mobilise a graveyard’s heart-ware to promote cultural ecology of a small segment of the biosphere as a model of future world development.

The National Federation of Cemetery Friends (NFCF) is a support organisation for all Friends groups. They offer guidance on starting up a new group.

There is also the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe (ASCE).

Caring for God’s Acre also provides advice on organising volunteer tasks.

Organisations like TCV (The Conservation Volunteers) can help with advice on conservation projects, tools, health and safety for volunteers, and insurance, and publish handbooks on various topics.

5  Epilogue

“It is a fine spring morning in early May. I am standing next to the largest of the veteran ash trees in Abney Park Cemetery with my camera aimed towards a “rot hole” in the hope of catching a glimpse of the rare hoverfly Pocota personata. As I lean my right hand against the tree, to steady the lens under low light conditions, I can feel the contrast between the rough texture of the exposed bark and softer patches of moss. Looking more closely at the tree trunk I can see that it is teeming with life: single files of ants snake their way across the surface, some carrying fragments of leaves or other organic matter, whilst shafts of sunlight reveal small dancing clouds of midges. This living landscape is comprised of an infinite series of intersecting micro‐realms where moss meets vision amid a jumble of rot and decay: an endless process of breaking down, circulating, and re‐emergence”.  Mathew Gandy, 2019.

These sudden eye-opening moments generate biosphere ecoscopes. (Fig 4)

Fig 4 Mind map of a collection of biosphere ecoscopes.  They are starting points for observers assembling a personal body of knowledge.


Biosphere Ecoscopes for Transformative Learning

Tuesday, May 4th, 2021

Biosphere Reserves are ‘learning places for sustainable development’. They are sites for testing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding and managing changes and interactions between social and ecological systems, including conflict prevention and management of biodiversity.


1  Segmenting the biosphere

Fig 1 Model of a biosphere reserve

The biosphere is the region of Earth that encompasses all living organisms: plants, animals and bacteria. It is a feature that distinguishes Earth from the other planets in the solar system. The biosphere is considered to extend from the bottom of the oceans to the highest mountaintops, a layer with an average thickness of about 20 kilometers. It is somewhere between the ground and the sky where life can exist.  Nevertheless, the biosphere is a very tiny region on the scale of the whole of Earth, analogous to the thickness of the skin on an apple. The bulk of living organisms actually live within a smaller fraction of the biosphere, from about 500 meters below the ocean’s surface to about 6 kilometers above sea level.   Each life form is supported within a thin slice of the biosphere from which it takes and recycles materials and energy to support its particular lifestyle. The smallness of the biosphere reflects its cosmic vulnerability.

The concept of the biosphere as a focus for global conservation management emerged as a a central element in UNESCO’s concept of ‘Biosphere Reserves’, This idea for engaging local people in defining their cultural connections with ecology, which is coupled with planning for living sustainably, emerged  in 1971, when UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Council defined the overall objective of the programme: 

  • To develop the basis within the natural and social sciences for the rational use and conservation of the resources of the biosphere;
  • To improve the global relationship between people and the environment;
  • To predict the consequences of today’s actions on tomorrow’s world;
  • To increase people’s ability to manage efficiently the natural resources of the biosphere’.

UNESCO  envisaged a reserve as an area where natural resources of flora, fauna, or features of geological or other special interest are protected from human exploitation. This ‘green core’ of a Biosphere Reserve is managed to provide special opportunities for people who live around the green core to learn about conservation management by participation in making and operating local community plans for living sustainably (Fig 1).  UNESCO believes that the direct involvement of the local population in the management of Biosphere Reserves, together with the existence of research and monitoring activities in them, constitute the best guarantee for long-term conservation of genetic resources on a world-wide basis.  At the same time people living adjacent to the green core can apply their learning to live sustainably as communities.  They are expected to integrate their day to day lives with research, monitoring and citizen’s environmental networking from their segment of the biosphere where they live and call home.

The idea of involving communities, families and individuals in the production and operation  of local plans for wildlife protection came from the 1983 UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Congress in Minsk.  The Congress led to an Action Plan for Biosphere Reserves, which was adopted by the MAB Council in 1984.  In 1992, an Advisory Committee on Biosphere Reserves was set up.  

In 1995 a major conference in Seville produced the Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves and a Statutory Framework for the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.  The Biosphere Reserve concept was seen as an innovative and practical model for the implementation of significant elements of conventions concerned with the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources and expressed in a community’s local Agenda 21 (Fig 2).  Agenda 21 is a comprehensive voluntary plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, Major NGOs and people in every area in which humankind impacts on the environment.

Fig 2 The process of creating a local Agenda 21.

In 2000, a ‘Seville+5’ review took place in Pamplona, with further refinement, through the Madrid Action Plan, for Biosphere Reserves (2008- 2013),  which promoted them as places for local people to learn about making and operating conservation management systems for wildlife and community living side by side.  

Efforts to promote the participation of indigenous communities in UNESCO biosphere reserve programme for the management of protected areas often fall short of their goals because of the gap between conservation organizations and indigenous peoples. The ideological policies pursued by the government often ignore the economic and social development of indigenous people, and their claims over their customary lands.  For an indigenous people, the forest is considered a living entity, with its own soul and spirituality. This belief transcends generations, thus making it difficult for the local community to understand the short-term social, political and bureaucratic interests of government and the private sector.  They are often at odds with indigenous peoples’ conceptualization of what constitutes moral rights.  

Efforts to promote the participation of communities of the developed world in UNESCO biospheres has fallen considerable short of ambition. Significantly, after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, developed countries did not curb their consumption patterns and failed to find a sustainable development path built on sustainable production methods. As a result, pressure on the global environment have continued to rise since 1992. Specifically, despite continued intergovernmental processes (e.g. climate change talks and further Earth Summits) little progress has been made toward implementation of the deal outlined in Agenda 21.  When it was adopted in 1992 Agenda 21 was meant to be “a programme of action for sustainable development worldwide”. Furthermore, it had the ambition of being “a comprehensive blueprint for action to be taken globally, from now into the twenty-first century”. The ambition was high, and so were the stated goals of the Agenda: improving the living standards of those in need; better manage and protect the global ecosystem; and bring about a more prosperous future for all.  

A significant impediment to the adoption of Agenda 21, particularly in the US, has been the spread of conspiracy theories, which presented it as part of a political movement within the UN to take over the world!  This distorted view has not gone away.  But fortunately, Agenda 21 is now becoming embedded in egalitarian ideas surrounding the concepts of deep place and deep ecology, both of which stress the  importance of historic, social and material connections in belonging to place and address two significant and interconnected social policy problems: how to overcome the inequitable distribution of wealth; and how to effectively adjust to a more environmentally sustainable economic model.  Both issues focus on Mauss’ anthropological concept of a “gift economy” to understand how places are cared for by a community over time.

2  Managing the biosphere for resilience

Over a century ago, in his 1926 book The Biosphere, Russian biogeologist Vladimir Vernadsky was the first to recognize implications of the interdependence between life and Earth’s surface structure. Underlying this interdependence is humanity’s search for happiness through materialism and economic growth,  However, in present-day society, although we recognize our dependence on the earth’s resources, its water, oxygen and other natural components, we do not recognize the connection between the growth of a monetary economy and Earth’s limited capacity to maintain year on year demands for planetary resources to support it.  In the short term, the benefits of economic growth are many: the more that businesses and nations grow and profit, the more individuals have jobs, resources and quality of life. At this point in human history, technology has enabled miraculous products, global travel, rapid communication, astonishing efficiencies and unimagined leisure. Economic growth derived from all these technological marvels does indeed feed on itself, as consumers demand more and more.  The more we take the more we depend upon conservation management systems to protect and maintain a productive biosphere.  Always there has been a search for predictive models of Earth’s resilience to sustain year on year monetary growth.

Over the last three million years the average mean temperature on Earth has never exceeded 2°C above (inter-glacial) or 6°C below (deep ice age) the pre-industrial temperature on Earth (14°C). Already now at 1.2°C warming, we appear to be moving out of the stable and accommodating Holocene environment of the last 11,000 years with predictable seasons that allowed agriculture and, later, civilizations to develop. Already, within the coming 50 years, one to three billion people are projected to experience living conditions that are outside the climate conditions, which have served civilizations well over the past 6,000 years. Climate change impacts are hitting people harder and sooner than envisioned, even a decade ago. This is especially true for extreme events like heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods, storms and variations in their frequency, magnitude and duration. Climate events interact with economic, social, and geopolitical events, creating systemic risks and shocks that spill over multiple sectors and create synchronous challenges rapidly moving across countries and regions. 

Climate stabilization is critical for human wellbeing and prosperity. Human expansion on the urbanized planet is seriously challenging stores of polar ice and critical carbon sinks of soils, biomes and the ocean. There are increasing signs that subsystems of Earth’s biosphere, vital to regulate the state of the planet as a whole, are about to cross tipping points. The fabric of nature and its diversity generates fundamental services to humanity, provides insurance to shocks and surprises, to tipping points and regime shifts, and makes development possible in the face of change. Much of Earth’s biosphere has been converted into simplified ecosystems for the production of a few harvestable species with subsequent widespread loss of biodiversity. Interconnected and simplified systems are vulnerable to change.  They have lost resilience. Resilience refers to the capacity of a system to persist with change, to learn and cultivate the capacity to continue to develop with ever changing environments. 

Conservation management of Biosphere Reserves is therefore critical for the resilience of economies, societies and cultures associated with them in the coevolution of nature and society in and around the reserves.  Management for resilience in this wider view requires creating a suitable management interface between the green core and people as residents and visitors.  The diagram (Fig 3) represents one of the latest designations of a biosphere reserve in India where there is an interactive link between managers and the managed through local nature clubs.  

Fig 3  The management interface between the protected core of the Panna Biosphere Reserve and the wider world 

During the 1970s, humanity as a whole passed the point at which the annual Ecological Footprint matched the Earth’s annual biocapacity (Fig 4) This situation is called “ecological overshoot”, and has continued to grow year on year since then.  There are great inequalities in consumption between countries.  If all of humanity lived like an average Indonesian, for example, only two-thirds of the planet’s biocapacity would be used; if everyone lived like an average Argentinian, humanity would demand more than half an additional planet; and if everyone lived like an average resident of the USA, a total of four Earths would be required to regenerate humanity’s annual demand on nature.   This points to the fact that a global consensus has to be reached for a balanced distribution of natural resources. For equitable use of natural resources people in more developed countries have to lower their consumption so that these resources can be shared fairly between countries.  Equity is an essential psychological dimension of sustainability. This human behavioral characteristic is defined as a tendency to distribute, in a fair way resources, power and benefits among all peoples, avoiding bias or favoritism. Equitable actions, consequently imply dealing with and treating fairly and equally all concerned, regardless of social, economic and demographic differences. To unravel these complexities we probably need to expand the segmentation of the biosphere to get more communities that have already created a local nature sanctuary to adopt the ‘biosphere model’.

Fig 4 Ecological economics  

3  Community Biosphere Ecoscopes

In Elizabeth A. Lange’s book, Transformative Learning in Practice (2009) she described her own journey to transform her teaching practice developed for a course on sustainability for adult learners.  In particular, she tells how she  created a deliberative pedagogy based on ways to create a learning sanctuary as a protected space for critical reflexivity. In this context, reflexivity refers to the examination of one’s own beliefs, judgments and practices during a research process and how these may have influenced the research. Put simply, reflexivity involves questioning one’s own taken for granted assumptions. 

A sanctuary is defined as a special place set aside as a refuge of protection, shelter, and learning for intellectual growth  As the hosts of an educational experience, Lange believes that, at their best, teachers create a learning sanctuary as a place of immunity from the full weight of social forces. Thus, to be transformative, Lange says that education ought to provide a protective sanctuary for a deep encounter with self (mind, spirit, and body), social relationships, habits of thinking and living, and the conjoined individual and social myths that constrain human freedom and justice. So a segment of the biosphere can become a sanctuary containing a personal body of knowledge about deep place that results from the dialectic between a pedagogy of critique and a pedagogy of hope for the future of humankind. In relation to sustainability education, this encounter with managing nature can enlarge the sense of self,  An individual learner moves from seeing oneself as separate and autonomous to seeing one’s embeddedness in a web of living relations, both human and nonhuman; a condition of ecological consciousness.  One of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is to develop an ecological conscience to make the choice between a sustainable and socially just future or maintaining the status quo, which is a threat to Earth’s balanced ecosystems.

There are currently (in 2021) 714 biosphere reserves in 129 countries, including 21 transboundary sites, that belong to the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.  As learning areas for sustainable development under diverse ecological, social and economic contexts UNESCO says they are touching the lives of more than 250 million people.  However, the world population in 2019 was 7.674 billion, distributed in 195 independent sovereign nations. Comparing these figures indicates that, although there is a fairly good international network, the Biosphere Reserve recruitment process is not reaching most people. Entry into the scheme inevitably depends on communities and countries selecting their best nature sites, which will already have been designated as national nature reserves or sites of special scientific interests. This is a reminder of the fact that the biosphere reserve concept is centred on the idea of conserving pristine habitats. However, it has been estimated that only 3% of the world’s land remains ecologically intact with healthy populations of all its original animals and undisturbed habitat.  These fragments of wilderness, undamaged by human activities, are mainly in parts of the sparsely populated Amazon and Congo tropical forests, east Siberian and northern Canadian forests, tundra, and the Sahara.  Most communities who are not adjacent to so called pristine sites are left out with the feeling that their environment is third class.  In fact every part of the biosphere is special because it is a part of Earth’s biosphere jigsaw. (Fig 5).  This raises the question as to how a network of ‘nature islands’ can be defined as smaller elements of the biosphere and thereby have a role in creating a larger network of communities in parallel with the UNESCO network Biosphere to spread ideas and experiences about living sustainably.  

Fig 5 Earth’s biosphere as a jigsaw of nature islands

A system of linked up nature islands was envisaged in the UK’s first (1994) strategy for sustainable development and biodiversity as the basis for a citizen’s environmental network to spread local ideas and achievements.  The idea was trialled in Wales in response to ‘Rescue Mission: Planet Earth, an educational outcome of the Rio Environment Summit,in 1996.  The Welsh initiative was known as the young people’s Schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN) and was centred on schools and the communities they served.  

A current definition of the Local Agenda 21 (LA21) is a voluntary process of community planning with the aim to create local policies and programs that work towards achieving sustainable development. It encompasses awareness raising, capacity building, community participation and the formation of partnerships.  In this context, SCAN defined an ecoscope as the extent of the biosphere that local conservation management deals with or to which it is relevant (Fig 6).  In other words, an ecoscope is a position or perspective from which a part of the biosphere is considered or evaluated.  An ecoscope allows the observer an exceedingly close view of the structures of the biosphere (habitats, ecosystems and species) at a scale convenient for examination and analysis required to make a conservation management system. 

Fig 6 A segment of the biosphere used as a local learning model of sustainable development 

To help realise citizen environmental networks, International Classrooms On Line, which developed from SCAN, is revisiting SCAN to explore the adoption of community biosphere ecoscopes as nature islands where communities and individuals can test interdisciplinary approaches to understand interactions between their local social systems and ecosystems with the goal of living sustainably.   Their common feature is a core of biodiversity with a management plan that provides solutions to the challenges of maintaining the core in a favourable condition.  Community biosphere ecoscopes vary in size and character.  The biodiversity core, for example, can range from a local nature reserve, serving terrestrial, marine or coastal communities, to parks, trees in the street, gardens and a collection of potted plants giving pleasure to families and individuals. The common purpose of a biosphere ecoscope is to create a focus for people to engage in transformative learning about conservation management systems.  Therefore, ecoscopes are hubs for transformative learning about how to engage in sustainable development.

4  Lessons from community biosphere ecoscopes

The long term survival of humanity depends on utilising energy gathered from the sun, which has been converted to a biochemical form, and consumed by countless creatures until it is ultimately released back into the universe. Solar energy fuels everything on Earth, and maintains its order, organization, and evolution.  Fritjof Capra, cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy says we do not need to invent sustainable human communities. We can learn from societies that have lived sustainably for centuries. We can also model human communities after nature’s ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms.  Here lies the value of ecoscopes.  Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honour, support, and cooperate with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. 

These are five lessons with associated behavioral prescriptions to be learned from making and operating conservation management systems. By far the most common management actions in a conservation management system are aimed at maintaining valued wildlife features by reducing competition between valued and invasive species for space, i.e. the common jobs for local people are maintaining boundaries and removing invasive species. 

Lesson 1 Earth is powered by renewable energy. 

The sun provides nearly all of the energy used to power life on Earth, as well as fueling all of our weather, ocean currents, and water cycling. Earth receives 1,370 Watts of heat and light per square meter of sunlit space, the “solar constant” and that’s been enough energy for the planet to do everything for billions of years. In fact, for all of Earth’s history, ecosystems have flourished on this “solar income” That is until we evolved.

Prescription:- Sunlight and associated energy from wind, waves, and biomass has to provide all the energy we need..

Lesson 2 Nature operates with zero waste. 

Earth is essentially a “materially closed” system. Short of the occasional meteorite, nothing much enters the planet, and nothing much leaves the planet either. That means there are only so many carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus atoms, water molecules, and so on, in the biosphere to work with. So natural systems have evolved to recycle everything. In fact, living things rarely create “waste.” What is waste to one organism is quite often food for another. For example, a single phosphorus atom, a necessary ingredient for life, can be recycled hundreds of times within a forest, before it’s gently redeposited into Earth’s sediments, where geological forces will ultimately recycle it once again. In contrast, we humans use many goods only once before they become waste or toxic pollution. 

Prescription:- We need to mimic nature’s frugality with material, and get much, much better at emulating Earth’s “circular economy. 

Lesson 3 Earth’s ecosystems build strength and resilience from diversity.

Evolution has created a remarkable diversity of life, which is extremely resilient in the face of change. Nearly every flow of energy and matter, and practically every ecological niche, functional trait, and space is being used by something. And if one ecological link fails, others typically pick up the slack. Sadly, humans seem to ignore this lesson. We tend to build monocultures, especially in agriculture, with only one link; if that one fails, the whole system fails. 

Prescription:- Protect fragile ecosystems and environments by reducing the amount of energy and raw materials society consumes as well as the pollution and waste it produces. Use systems thinking to avoid dependence on monocultures.

Lesson 4  In a rapidly changing world we confront the harsh realities of a deeply unequal global landscape. 

In North and South alike, mass protests have flared up, fueled by a combination of economic woes, growing inequalities and job insecurity. Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations. 

Prescription:- Help to bring about a fairer distribution of wealth both between countries and between different social groups within countries, placing a special emphasis not just on the needs but on the rights of poor and disadvantaged people.

Lesson 5  We have lost sight of Indigenous cosmologies 

They demonstrate that spiritual traditions in cultural ecology originate from different understandings of the human experience.  In particular, ancient cosmologies have generated diverse ways in which we depend on plants to relate spiritually to the biosphere.

Prescription:- Understand how certain plants are singled out by every tradition as particularly sacred or auspicious.  Celebrate the ways in which specific plants are elevated to a role of critical importance in the spiritual life of humankind. Human-plant engagements in all their diversity teach the geography of the heart. 

Through learning these lessons there may be a future for education consistent with Agenda 21 if environmental educators, from every kind of education, committed to fostering cross sectorial competence in order to:-

  • combine to raise the status of what they wish to do into a force which can no longer be ignored or patronised; 
  • agree on a common concept of what to do and how to do it;
  • develop capacity for systemic approaches to understanding environmental issues and reaching decisions on what to do;
  • extend their pressure to ensure quality of educational experience, the educational environment and environmental information;
  • foster a climate of public support for Agenda 21 that will take us smoothly and equitably into a post-carbon lifestyle.

5  Something to Blog About

In a world experiencing rapid change, ecoscopes help people prepare for the future by offering opportunities for transformative learning to preserve the elements of nature that wildlife and people will need for belonging in nature together.  Biosphere ecoscopes give everyone the opportunity to engage in conservation management and apply the lessons to everyday life to build a personal body of knowledge. In order to live sustainably.

Google Blogger is being tested by International Classrooms On Line as a resource for individuals to build personal bodies of knowledge. Subjects (blogs)) are structured by adding posts) and pages, augmented with data gathered from the Internet, particularly from local history Facebook pages of libraries.  The educational theme ‘Belonging In Nature Togrther’ was chosen as a  family ecological perspective (Fig 7) for learning to live sustainably.  These blogs are self-learning models for people to create photo-diaries to focus on the importance of historic, social and material connections in belonging to a place. The idea is to explore the development of tangible and intangible connections between past, present and future people and places. An understanding of place as an inalienable gift may create a moral duty to nurture and pass on places to subsequent generations.  A gift economy refers to economic activity characterised by offering services and goods to other members of the community without the expectation of monetary reward. Giving things to other people may be based on pure altruism, a wish to gain status in society, the hope of reciprocal gifts in the future or out of a sense of mutual obligation.  Most families want to make environmentally friendly choices, but they don’t know how. Sometimes parents worry that their family won’t be able to make sustainable choices, or they fear their green living won’t make much of a difference anyway. Sustainable living doesn’t have to be overwhelming; making a few small changes in your family’s lifestyle will make a big impact on your family’s carbon footprint.

Ultimately, sustainable living simply means making choices and developing habits that are good for the environment. By making intentional choices that are earth-friendly, your goal is to lower your family’s carbon footprint. To motivate yourself and your family, use Ecological Footprint to determine your carbon footprint.

Fig 7 Ecological planning for family living

The directory in the following Appendix  indicates a range of situations that would be suitable for creating and networking community biosphere ecoscopes with a family ecology perspective..

6 Appendix 

Outdoor nature sites


(i) Wandsworth Common, London.

The common is classed as a site of borough importance grade 1 for nature conservation. It has nine different ecological habitats, including the pond and lakes, amphibian wetland, grassland, including acid grassland, meadows and woodland (Fig 8). Only native trees are planted today.  Management of the common is a balancing act: balancing a heritage landscape with biodiversity and use by an ever-growing number of people for a variety of formal and informal recreation.

 Fig 8 Wandsworth Common

(ii) Mass Audubon

As an example of the scale of what can potenetially be achieved with biosphere ecoscopes, the NGO Mass Audubon actively protects over 38,000 acres of land across Massachusetts and is now the largest private conservation landowner in the Commonwealth. This land provides wildlife with undisturbed habitat in which to breed, corridors along which to migrate, and rich settings in which to thrive. It provides people with sanctuaries to experience the restorative benefits of nature, outdoor education where children can learn about the circle of life, and ample space to explore the wonders of nature.  There are hundreds of trails to explore at more than 60 wildlife sanctuaries across the state.

(iii) The Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary

The Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary in Northern Ireland is an example of what a small community can achieve in partnership with a national NGO, the Woodland Trust (Figs 9-10).

Fig 9 Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary (Northern Ireland) and its Maghera community

Fig 10  Diversity of Drumnaph biosphere sanctuary

Management plan

(iv) Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area 

At the junction between the Kinabatangan river and the main road that travels through Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, between Sandakan and Lahad Datu, there is the small village of Batu Puteh, with about 2,000 inhabitants. Here, a community-based project has been set up to take care of the Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area, 4,700 hectares of lowland rainforest, home of the whole range of Borneo’s wildlife, with the river on one side and the Tungog Lake at its heart.  The local community has found a way to fund conservation and reforestation programs through Eco-tourism, providing at the same time a viable alternative to jobs in the vast palm oil plantations. An amazing place to find some quiet and see the Borneo wildlife, KOPEL’s Pin-Supu Forest Conservation Area is a success story in sustainability, and an example to follow.

(v)   Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

This report covers the work delivered by the Conservation Team of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales (WTSWW) during the financial year 2018 – 2019. It covers the full breadth of work undertaken by the team, including both core funded volunteer activities and fixed-term grant funded projects (Fig 11).

 Fig 11 Potential community biosphere ecoscopes in South and West Wales based on 110 nature reserves managed by the WildlifeTrust of South and West Wales.

Interactive map

A butterfly conservation core management plan for one of these reserves has been used as an ‘educational gateway-concept’ into the global world of conservation management. This involves making connections and transitions between, and within traditional educational silos by highlighting examples of ecological art, literature and science. It is part of a cross- curricular framework linking culture and ecology , with the objective of encouraging young people to become cosmopolitan citizens by seeking wonders in nature.

Potted plants

Plants have long been primary teachers for those who travel deep into the heart of the world, for those who seek the soul teaching that only the wild can bring.”

-Stephen Harrod Buhner.

Caring for plants in pots can be a powerful spiritual experience.  Nicole Mignone says:-  “Each week when I water my houseplants, I am surprised by the subtle changes that have taken place in such a short time. Most of my plants started from seeds or cuttings and continue to grow, sometimes despite their environment and caretaker. Pruning and watering are my moving meditation, and I would like to share the life lessons they have taught me

(vi)  The spring bulb phenology project

A museum outreach project in Wales that gives children the chance to adopt their own spring bulbs and take part in a real climate-change study.

(vii)  Selected succulents

The idea for the project ‘Selected Succulents’ as an educational framework, came from a slide show produced by Donna Kuroda of the Washington DC Cactus Society, 16 October 2011, entitled “A Journey to Travel the Wide World of Aeoniums”.  Donna Kuroda was aiming at persuading people in Washington DC to build personal bodies of practical knowledge about ‘tree houseleeks’ (e.g. Aeonium arborescens). ‘Selected Succulents’ develops this idea to channel the art or practice of garden cultivation and management into an online framework for humanistic education focused on the topic of ‘population displacement’.  In this context, displacement is defined as the action of moving a living entity from its accustomed place to a new position. The educational objective is to help people make a domestic phytarium consisting of a collection of potted succulents and use it to develop the idea that we are embodied in Nature with respect to all that we do, from painting a house to managing a potted plant. Within this perspective the pot is a metaphor of ‘place’. Also a plant can be the metaphor for an ‘invader’ searching for a better life.  Care for potted plants

Is also a metaphor for cultural rooting

 viii Encounters with ivies (Hedera species).

Like many other evergreen plants, which impressed European cultures by persisting through the winter, ivy has traditionally been imbued with a spiritual significance. It was brought into homes to drive out evil spirits.  It is rich in mythology.

Rituals are central to many spiritual traditions, and when plants are not the explicit focus, they are often the means by which ritual is accomplished.  For example, in South Indian temples, many plant-human relations are called upon in the assembly of complex rituals. Plants can also provide the setting within which ritual and spiritual practice occurs.  

In Ancient Rome it was believed that a wreath of ivy could prevent a person from becoming drunk, and such a wreath was worn by Bacchus, the god of intoxication.[8]

Ivy bushes or ivy-wrapped poles have traditionally been used to advertise taverns in the United Kingdom, and many pubs are still called The Ivy.[20]

The clinging nature of ivy makes it a symbol of love and friendship, there was once a tradition of priests giving ivy to newlyweds,[8] and as it clings to dead trees and remains green, it was also viewed as a symbol of the eternal life of the soul after the death of the body in medieval Christian symbolism.[21]

The traditional British Christmas carol, The Holly and the Ivy, uses ivy as a symbol for the Virgin Mary.

Ivy-covered ruins were a staple of the Romantic movement in landscape painting, for example ‘Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard’ by Philip James de Loutherbourg (1790), ‘Tintern Abbey, West Front’ by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1794) and ‘Netley Abbey’ by Francis Towne (1809). In this context ivy may represent the ephemerality of human endeavours and the sublime power of nature

Recording variation in Ivy leaves

This activity provides an opportunity to plan an investigation of the variables that might affect the growth of ivy, and a chance to review ideas about factors affecting plant growth (Fig 12). The detail of the relationship between leaf width, petiole length and environmental conditions is complex. It is a good example investigation to develop skills relevant to How Science Works.

Fig 12  Hedera helix: diversity of leaf shapes

7 Internet References

Google Sites for Inquiry Based Learning

Ecological Island

Learning Lessons of the Planet

Re-potting plants; a spiritual exercise.

The wisdom of houseplants

The spiritual life of plants

Plants of Mind and Spirit






Effect of CO2 on growth or ivy

Local Agenda21 Malaysia

Liana control


10 of the Best Nature Reserves on reclaimed land

Bottle biospheres


Friends of Wandsworth Common


Indigenous participation in ecotourism

 Our Future Our Planet

Biosphere reserves and climate change

Nature clubs

Tiger Reserve Communities

Tiger Reserve Communities2