Archive for October, 2021

School/Community ECO-learning Networks

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

A procedure to establish a network of school-based Eco-learning Centres to help families served by the schools meet local sustainability targets.


ECO-Learning: the system

ECO-Learning: the conservation management system

1 A Syllabus for Radical Hope

Fig 1 A young person’s syllabus of radical hope produced by ‘children of the world’. for living sustainably 

This project is a response to ’Rescue Mission Planet Earth’,a radical syllabus for hope  published by an international group, consisting of thousands of young people, from over 100 countries, who were invited to the 1992 Rio Environment Summit (Fig 1).  They envisaged a global network of schools and the communities they served as a democratic eco-learning system. The objective was for them, as members of local communities, to participate in the management of relationships between culture and ecology, according to their skills and vision of the future, in order to live sustainably.  These visions and skills are an expression of individualised learning, which involves providing different tasks and support for each learner at the individual level because all learners have different needs.  Therefore each learner requires a personal approach to learning so that the activities that learners undertake and the pace at which they progress through the syllabus, will be more effective.

Fig 2 The school/community elements that come together to establish a procedure for organising a local eco-learning system

In this respect, a radical hope syllabus is a living project of individualised learning, and anyone interested in adding a topic or concept can contribute to the syllabus, which is a blend of local action and reflection. In particular, instructors should be continuously reflecting on their teaching practices and using their observations to update how they engage with their students (Fig 2).  It is in this sense that eco-learning is radical, and assembling a syllabus is an act of radical hope because it is  aimed at a fundamental, root-level, transformation mindset in which a better future takes shape.   Out of the students’ critical refusal to abide by the limitations of uniform, school-based learning, which forces people out of community-thinking, comes a lifelong “learning-by-doing” experience, which utilizes communities and neighbourhoods as extensions of the classroom.  

The educational objective of Rescue Mission is to link schools with the communities they serve to help produce a local version of Agenda 21 (LA21).  LA21 was an important outcome from Rio; a voluntary process of local community consultation to produce long term action plans for sustainable development. It is about the need for local and national conservation management and encompasses awareness raising, capacity building, community participation, leadership training and the formation of local partnerships.  LA21 has now been augmented with Agenda 2030, which sets out a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

2  The Procedure to establish a school/community eco-learning system.

An eco-learning system serves as a resource for anyone interested in environmental issues and assembling a personal body of knowledge about how to live sustainably and participate in plans for the survival of future generations. It provides a new way of framing and thinking about how individuals or groups might formally or informally learn about current environmental issues and how people, collectively and/or individually, might respond to them.  From the environmentalist’s perspective, ecolearning means guiding the relations of humankind with a fast changing global environment. It surged in popular and scientific interest during the 1960-1970s, with the rising of conservation movements, but has yet to produce a matching education system.

The procedure to establish a school/community ECO-learning network is based on the Green Guide (Fig 3) produced by schools of the Garw Valley, in South Wales that was initiated by the Valley’s Community Council functioning as a social learning hub.

Fig 3 The Garw Green Guide

Each participating school has to set up an online ECO-learning centre (ELC) to display connections between culture and ecology from a local perspective.  Eco-Learning Centres are a development of the idea of community museums of culture and ecology, which originated in France, the concept being developed by Georges Henri Rivière and Hugues de Varine, who coined the term ‘ecomusée’ in 1971.  A community ELC is a voluntary organisation focusing on the identity of a place.  ELCs built on an IT platform naturally encourage social interactions of individuals, families and schools with local plans for sustainable development. 

Taking the idea of community museums, an ELC acts as a clearing house of information about global warming. Therefore clearinghouses collect, develop, and disseminate materials on climate change suitable for informing the local communities about the current state of climate change (Fig 4).  This could help provide focal points for information on issues such as energy efficiency, energy savings, forestry, agriculture, environmentally sound housing and transportation efficiency. Information exchanges would also provide a means to share technical knowledge and expertise. 

Fig 4 User-friendly graphic adapted from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Climate Change (IPCC) IPPC Special Report on Global Warming for a school/community information clearing house 

The establishment of an ELC proceeds in 4 phases.  Phase 1 is about creating a local environmental surveillance system by bringing together schools , communities, neighbouhoods and the Parish or Community Council.  In phase 2 the schools organise a good and bad sevey to articulate what people like or don’t like about where they live. Phase 3 is about what should be done to improve the bad things; who should do it and what they should do.  In other words, the objective of Phase 3 is for communities joining with their schools to participate in designing a regenerative sustainable development plan for their locality.

Phase 4 is for individuals, schools and communities to produce a radical syllabus of hope to promote lifelong learning about how individuals can create a personal body of knowledge to live sustainably.  The themes, topics and concepts of Rescue Mission, illustrated with pictures and poems produced by the Rescue mission collective, may be taken as the model of such a syllabus

These four phases define the relationship of an ELC with its community, its governance, its biophysical heritage and its plans for the future (Fig 5).

 Fig 5 The ECO-learning system

3 Focusing on local materials and colour

Through colour, emotions and senses as a whole are able to give strength and respect in the relationship between humankind and environment, proposing practical and spiritual meaning  to ‘sustainability’.  It is not by chance that the most recent planning developments on sustainability focus upon the central role of humans and their psycho-physical equilibrium with good and bad environments.The practical viewpoint is that if a place is to become attractive for settlement  care must be taken to ensure the environment is pleasant to look at, homogenous and coordinated with its ecosystem services. For example, in the post-coal mining valleys of South Wales many would say the varied greens, soft greys and russet browns, enriched with the sudden blaze of the heather and gorse in the late summer, should not be marred by the garish reds, yellows and blues found in the paintwork.  Therefore, an important outcome of Phase 2 could be a colour-based environmental appraisals; applying arts reasoning to explain sustainability.The adoption of colour to describe nature and the environment dates back to the Middle Ages, when nature was seen to be coloured like the four elements defined by the ancient Greeks: the mat black of earth, the dark blue of air, the brilliant red of fire, the greyish cobalt blue of water.  In this context, colour presents a sense of place.

Green is now always the colour of renewable energies, zero-mile food, holidays, innovation and smart technologies. Therefore, we can represent ecology with infinite colour scales and colour in the environment becomes an essential scenic element defining the local and wide meaning of place.  Green is not simply devoted to the renewal of old forms in new products, but mainly used as a pre-project element able to set a dialogue with senses and mind through the meanings of materials, culture, form and human interaction. 

4 Prosperity

Global surveys illustrate the depth of anxiety many young peop[e are now feeling about climate. change.  Today, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16 per cent of the global population. The active engagement of youth in sustainable development efforts is central to achieving sustainable, inclusive and stable societies by the 2030 target date.  Their participation is necessary to avert the worst threats and challenges to sustainable development, including the impacts of climate change, unemployment, poverty, gender inequality, conflict, and migration.  We know exactly how the physical limits of our planet are being reached and exactly why we cannot go on as we have before and yet, collectively, we seem unable to reach crucial decisions for our future in a timely way. It can be argued that the definition of prosperity, which we have long assimilated with the idea of material wealth, may be preventing us from imagining a future that meets essential human aspirations without straining our planet to the breaking point. In other words, redefining prosperity is a necessary and urgent task.  The need to discuss a new economic alignment is evident from surveys of well being (Fig 6) where achieving monetary affluence comes well down on the list of what makes for a good life.  

Fig 6 What Americans think of the American Dream. 

It is impossible to look at many environmental indicators without worrying that an economy measured by GDP is on borrowed time. This is why it is important for local environmental appraisals to concentrate on natural capital, the resources, systems and services nature provides for human economic activity, such as food, air purification, nutrient cycling, materials and minerals. Poorly managed natural capital is a liability in any economy. Also, the sense of social fracture in so many places, leads to questions about the stability and relevance of social capital, which depends on the accumulated trust within communities and institutions and the ability of a community to be more than the sum of its individual actions.

The manifesto of an ELC defines prosperity as something to be wished for beyond material pleasures. 

It transcends material concerns. 

It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families.

It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. 

It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. 

It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society because it consists in our ability to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. 

It is the most most important urgent educational task of our times.

The Green Guide system of environmental appraisal was pioneered in the South Wales Garw Valley in 1997-8.  It is now available, together with Rescue Mission, to everyone through the Green Garw Web Site managed by International Classrooms On Line,

Personal Understandings Found In Nature

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

An Integrative syllabus for learning how to live  sustainably

1 Integrative Curricula

“An integrative curriculum is intended to help young people organize and integrate their present experiences so that they might be carried forward for the benefit of both self and the common good. As such, this kind of curriculum has historically been proposed as a preferred design for a general education intended for all students, particularly in programs meant to promote democratic living and learning. An integrative curriculum involves arrangements and methods that engage students in identifying self and social issues, critiquing the status of society and the common good, planning for new learning experiences, accessing resources, researching and solving problems, communicating ideas, collaborating with others, and reflecting on the meaning and value of experiences. Crucial to the use of the term “integrative” is the idea that individuals do their own integrating. This definition distinguishes an integrative curriculum from “integrated” curriculum organizations, such as “multidisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary,” in which teachers and others correlate content and skills from two or more subject areas with the intention of illustrating connections among them or making their content more accessible and engaging for students”.

“Use of an integrative approach has a long history tied to progressive and democratic arrangements in elementary and secondary schools. These include CORE Programs, the experience-centered approach to curriculum, and many problem-centered courses. At present, some integrated approaches are enjoying popularity, as are methods like project- and problem-centered activities that are historically associated with integrative approaches. However, the student-centered, democratic philosophy that partly defines an integrative curriculum approach has waned under pressure from bureaucratic subject-based standards, tests, and prescriptive curriculum plans”.

James A. Beane

Published online: 17 December 2020.

A radical hope syllabus is an online collection of educational materials for those interested in producing a curriculum for adapting to climate change and inequalities in sharing Earth’s limited material resources.  The idea of a radical hope syllabus is the product of the two-day “Radical Hope” conference held in Germany in July 2017 by the The Rachel Carson Centre. The conference brought scholars from around the world to exchange ideas about the role of ‘hope’ in addressing environmental issues.  However, there is no generally acceptable curriculum because living sustainably is very much the application of an individual’s personal understandings found in nature.  

How do you maintain hope, in the face of extreme desperation, which is essential for indevidual human survival?.  The core idea of hope, as it applies to environmental issues, is an expansive term.    People may define it in their own way according to how they visualise ‘the good life’.  In this context, “radical hope” is a conscious effort to be informed about the environment as a personalised educational thread of life long learning.  The target is to break free from the mantra of monetary growth to build a better society that puts the wellbeing of all at its centre.  It is a bottom-up process of individualised theme-based conceptual understanding, not a top down uniform, mass produced examinable subject.

2 Theme-based Learning 

“A school using theme-based learning will make no mention of ‘math’ or ‘science’ on their daily schedule, because those skills are embedded into the themes”. Paul Romani

Research into how the brain works and the psychology of learning shows that gaining a personal understanding of a body of knowledge is a process of integration. When a student sees how facts and ideas connect with one another across subjects, they are constructing new meanings of inclusivity.  By communicating that meaning, the learning is further reinforced. This is why theme-based learning is so effective particularly to understand interactions between environment and society to answer questions such as; How do individuals and groups respond to large changes in society, like climate change, globalization, mass migration, diversity, inclusion, and ageing populations? What are effective ways to motivate people to contribute to a sustainable society? 

However there is institutional bias against thematic learning from all levels (Fig 1)

Fig 1 Six themes proposed by a UK  Labour Party minister of education for reform of primary education, but never implemented.

In education, a theme is a unit of teaching and learning at the level of pillars or principles, whereby big ideas selected from several subjects are connected together and integrated under that theme so that understanding has a real-world application in the way that it takes place.  For example, if you want to study environmental pollution, you have to consider not just scientific matters, but also social issues. Environmental pollution becomes a theme and theme-based learners are empowered to apply their personal understandings to make real-life changes to themselves, their community and perhaps even the world. 

The structure of a theme is created by assembling a layered mind map, a cluster of related ideas connected to a central overarching concept. Each layer of ideas branches out from the next. The farther from the centre you go, the more specific the ideas get. The closer to the center, the more general the ideas are.

Themes are composed of general ideas called topics.  These are the main organising principles of a theme. Pollution could be a general topic within the theme of industrialisation.  Four topics relevant to the topic of pollution are:  abandoned industrial sites, acceptable risk level, accidental release of organisms, acid rain. These particular topics are taken from a list of several hundred named topics compiled by the General Multilingual Environmental Thesaurus.  A topic is composed of a group of narrower ideas called concepts

Research into the ways in which students go about the task of reading an academic article shows the decision to seek meaning (deep learning) or to reproduce the information provided (surface learning) was a consequence of how they had interpreted the task, the context and how they viewed the content.  

The surface approach involves routine use of rote memorisation, while the deep approach makes connections with previous knowledge and carrying out logical reasoning. The main characteristic of a surface approach is not memorisation per se, but the routine and unreflective use of rote memorisation simply to reproduce the material presented by the teacher, usually for an exam.  Students being anxious are more likely to adopt a surface approach, while those who see the content as interesting adopt a deep approach to the reading. Each approach to learning and studying is associated with characteristic forms of motivation – deep with intrinsic motivation and interest in the subject matter; – surface with extrinsic motivation and fear of failure; and – strategic with achievement in exams as the motivation. Analysing students’ perceptions of the teaching-learning environment has found that a deep approach appeared to be influenced by ‘mentored teaching’ and ‘freedom in learning’, while heavy workloads and fact-based assessment procedures induced a surface approach.  Good lectures were described by students in terms of seven main categories – level, pace, structure, clarity, explanation, enthusiasm, and empathy.  Of these, it is the last three that are the most likely to evoke and support a deep approach to learning. These categories represent some of the general indicators of good teaching from the students’ perspective.

Another important aspect of thematic teaching is the generative topic.  Generative topics propose topics and concepts for discussion which invite students to relate the topic to other topics, concepts and aspects of their personal life. A good way to start a generative topic is asking a basic question. For example, “how does something in nature affect my life, and how would my life be different if it were removed?” Asking questions is key to a good generative topic. In the theme “environment and society” there are many topics connected to other disciplines that have a direct connection to the student’s life. Thought provoking questions invite deep thinking about the subject or create new patterns of thinking. 

Generative topics have several key features.  They are central to one or more themes or topics.  They are interesting to students and are accessible.  There are multiple connections between them and the students experience.  For example, “industrialisation” is a generative topic that can connect with all aspects of climate change through the concept of its cost to society. The existence of generative topic means that a theme can be entered through any one of its many topics, an opportunity that can be seen when a theme is at the head of a mind map (Figs 10 & 11),

International Classrooms On Line is testing Google Blogger as a resource for students to build and communicate personal bodies of knowledge based on interconnected themes (Fig 2).  Each theme has pages that define it and topics that amplify it (blogs). Topics are augmented with concepts (posts to the blog) and data (comments added to the posts).

Fig 2  The educational theme ‘Belonging, Place and Change’.

3 Natural Economy

“It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.

Jean-Luc Godard, film director.

The theme of ‘economy of nature’ was used for the first time in the 17th century to denote how God governed his Creation—Nature.   Linnaeus’ Oeconomia Naturae (1749) is both the culmination of a great tradition of Christian natural theology, and the starting point of a new science, the one that Ernst Haeckel named ‘ecology’ when, in 1866, he described nature as a balanced, harmonious equilibrium.  

In the 17th century the idea of nature as an economy had no particular connection with human economic practices. The theologian Thomas Burnet in ‘The Sacred Theory of the Earth, referred to the “Oeconomy of nature” as the “well ordering of the great Family of living Creatures”, an order of divine origin.  Linnaeus, in his ‘Specimen Academicum de Oeconomia Naturae., visualised this divine order as being self-organized, exhibiting a dynamic balance of births and deaths, so linking function with the purpose of living things. In this context, Linnaeus believed the application of science to nature was to understand species as resources to be used by humans as they saw fit. The first step in this direction was to classify all life forms and twelve years later he published ‘Species Plantarum’, the work which is now internationally accepted as the starting point of modern scientific nomenclature.  The classification system Linnaeus invented is important because it led to the use of an international binomial nomenclature to identify each species. Once the system was adopted, scientists could communicate about the position of individual species in the human economy without the use of misleading common names.  His Scandinavian journeys were intended to be not so much natural history forays as preliminary assessments of Swedish species as resources with potential commercial possibilities, even though they did not really produce much of value in this way. Consequently his travel journals cover a much wider field of interest than botany and zoology and are written in a simple direct way.  For example, in his journey through Lapland he reached the copper smelter at Adelfors on 23 May 1741, where he noticed that the junipers looked like “trimmed cypresses”, which he attributed to smoke from the blast furnaces. Workers and residents at Adelfors  complained about its toxicity.   Linnaeus saw the distorted growth forms of the cypresses  had commercial possibilities in gardening.

“After 1 mile we arrived at Berga. From here on the road was slightly better. Burned-out patches of woodland (Svedjor, which Smilanders call fallor or lyckor) now began to be seen on both sides of the road, mostly green with an excellent rye. We saw some of the burn-beating today, since the best time to burn is after a long drought when rain is expected, so that the wood will burn well and the ashes be retained by the rain.

It is remarkable to see how these fires can chase away clouds and rain -every child can tell that when the sky eventually becomes over-cast after a long dry period and if the farmers start to burn their lands, then the sky clears up, the clouds disappear, and torrents of rain fall in the next parish, while the burners receive nothing”.

This entry in his journal is one of the first records of chemical pollution from industrialisation and one of the last descriptions of a European closed cycle system of swidden agriculture.  Swiddening, also known as shifting cultivation, refers to a technique of rotational farming in which poor land is cleared for cultivation (normally by fire) and then left to regenerate after a few years. Governments worldwide have long sought to eradicate swidden agriculture, which is often pejoratively called ‘slash-and-burn’, due to a mistaken belief that it is a driver of deforestation.  It is now being regarded as an iconic practice of closed cycle agriculture.

In 1734, just two years after his famous Lapland journey, Carl Linnaeus took a six-week, 520-mile trip through Dalacarlia (.Dalarna). Seven students accompanied him describing the topography, botany, geology, and economic conditions of the region. The trip started in Falun and proceeded northwest to Rättvik, Boda, Orsa, Mora, Älvdalen, Särna, and Grövelsjön to Röros (in Norway) and back through Särna, Lima, Malung, Nås, and Borlänge to Falun. Linnaeus was only 27 years old at the time and had not yet completed his education. Each student was assigned tasks to perform along the way by the Societas Itineraria Reuterholmiana Club’s president, Linnaeus. It fell to Claes Sohlberg among other things to record information on the soil and mineral springs, and to Ingel Fahlstedt to describe the mineralogy. The copper mine at Falun and the limestone quarries in the vicinity of Boda were described. Oil seeps and tar deposits were noted in the Boda quarries. Near Orsa they visited the sandstone quarries where grindstones were made and he commented on the lung disease of the quarrymen. They stayed in Röros and visited the copper mines. On the way back part of the trip was by boat on the Västerdalälvaen. Linnaeus displayed his acuteness of observation of geological features along the way and was particularly aware of the economic possibilities especially for mining. He recognized the difference in topography between the glacial material and the underlying bed-rock (pre-Cambrian). Several of his ideas on geological processes were formulated while on this journey.

The Falun mine is one of the great wonders of Sweden but as horrible as hell itself… Soot and darkness surrounded them on all sides. Stones, gravel, corrosive vitriol, drips, smoke, fumes, heat, dust, were everywhere.

An understanding of the facts recorded in his diaries required cross curricular analysis.

Today, natural economy is a themed topic which defines a type of economy in which money is not used in the transfer of resources among people. It is a system of allocating resources through direct bartering, entitlement by law, or sharing out according to traditional custom. In the more complex forms of natural economy, some goods may act as a referent for fair bartering, but generally currency plays only a small role in allocating resources.  This approach to the sharing economy has come to signify exchanging services or skills. For instance, one can repair someone’s computer but instead of paying cash for this service, the payment will be an exchange, say for, some free yoga classes. Someone needing gardening advice might offer payment in painting skills, or having German lessons in exchange for surf lessons…  The possibilities are infinite.   

People have shared assets for thousands of years, but with the advent of technology and the use of big data, it is easier for asset owners and the ones seeking those assets to find each other. This concept is also referred to as the Sharing Economy, Collaborative Economy, Collaborative Consumption, or Peer Economy. Contemporary sharing economies are hybrids because they allow individuals and groups to earn money from their underused or idle assets by renting them out. These definitions point the way to a new human ordering of sharing and equalities.  Natural economy was used as the title for a new school subject in the Cambridge University International General Certificate of Education in the 1980s.   

As a corollary, the majority of goods produced in a system of natural economy may not be produced for the purpose of exchanging them, but for direct consumption by the producers (subsistence). As such, natural economies tend to be self-contained, where all the goods consumed are produced domestically.  Karl Marx described the Inca Empire as a natural economy because it was both isolated and based around exchange rather than profit.  The term has often been used in opposition to other forms of economy, most notably capitalism. For example, Rosa Luxemburg believed that the destruction of the natural economy was a necessary condition for the development of capitalism.  She taught that war, colonialism and unsustainable extraction of resources from nature are products of global capitalism. The result is the loss of irreplaceable natural wealth leaving people of the developing world struggling for food, water and shelter.  Luxemburg criticised Marx for not having paid enough attention to these external contradictions in economic growth. A socialist revolution was, for Luxemburg, the only way to stop the total assimilation of a natural economy of sharing into the polluting system of capitalism.   In Luxemburg’s world, pollution includes the genetic alteration within populations, the deterioration or modification of habitats, the spreading of pathogens and parasites, and competition with and replacement of native species. 

She also drew attention to the Great Divergence or European Economic Miracle.  This is the socioeconomic shift in which the Western world (i.e. Western Europe and the parts of the New World) where its people became the dominant populations by overcoming pre-modern growth constraints. The West emerged during the 19th century as the most powerful and wealthy world civilization, eclipsing Mughal India, Qing China, Korea, and Tokugawa Japan.

Fig 3  The Natural Economy: cooperating for the common good.

John Young in his book Natural Economy published in 1997 (Fig 3) asserts that a true grasp of how the economy should be constituted shows it to be a thing of harmony and beauty, all its parts cooperating for the common good, and its inbuilt laws distributing benefits equitably.  However, capitalism is the most prominent element in our current global economic system. Its main characteristic is that most of the means of production and property are privately owned by individuals and companies.  Western governments have a relatively small role in such an economy limited to management and control measures.  So a capitalist economy is a liberal economy. This means that only the free market will determine the supply, demand, and prices of the products. There is no direct government intervention other than to balance gross monopolistic practices in the economy, which is created and maintained by the workings of industrialism which generates monetary wealth from goods and services along with pollution. 

There is no doubt that we have to rethink economic growth to loosen the grip of capitalism on modern life exercised by competitive consumption.  It undergirds the incessant demand for expansion of human use of natural resources, an expansion that has already exceeded Earth’s capacity to regenerate. The economist, Keynes, believed that people whose basic economic needs had been satisfied would naturally gravitate to other, non-economic pursuits, perhaps embracing the arts and nature. A century of experience suggests that this was wishful thinking. As Raworth writes, “Reversing consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life is set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas.”  Transition towns are a pointer in this direction because they  are local communities attempting, proactively, to prepare for a sharing future in a warming world. Their strategy is to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and help mitigate climate change by re-localizing production closer to home.  The aim is to create self contained functioning communities with the idea that strong neighborhood networks will help towns to weather future energy shocks. Transition towns address the issues of decarbonising energy use, climate change and economic instability by creating a strong, connected, self-sufficient community with a strong sense of place and belonging. 

Transition initiatives can range from neighbourhoods to villages and from towns to cities.  In this grassroots movement we are seeing the regrowth of natural economy.  Ambitions for an appropriate education system are essentially captured in Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) of the 2030 Agenda, which aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. The roadmap to achieve the education goal, adopted in 2015, provides guidance to governments and partners on how to turn commitments into action (Education 2030 Framework for Action). UNESCO is responsible for coordinating the international community to achieve this goal through partnerships, policy guidance, capacity development, monitoring and advocacy.

Governments hold the main responsibility for ensuring the right to quality education for living sustainably and the 2030 Agenda is a universal and collective commitment. But it requires political will, global and regional collaboration and the engagement of all governments, civil society, the private sector, youth, UN and other multilateral agencies to tackle educational challenges.  These systems have to be thematic inclusive, equitable and relevant to all learners.  Thematic teaching is essential to cover this range of players which have to come together under the themes of culture and ecology.  Indeed, ‘cultural ecology’ is an interdisciplinary banner to unite and mobilise educationalists who share the conviction that radical and widespread cultural change is vital to combat the climate emergency.  

The phrase cultural ecology has two literal denotations:

  • culture as ecology: where culture is determined by the dynamic interaction of humans with each other and the environment.
  • ecology as culture: where ecology is determined by the ideas, customs and behaviours of humans and how they interact with the environment.

These denotations are embedded in the theme ‘personal understandings found in nature’(Fig 4).

Fig 4  Concept mind map of a textual statement of the theme ‘personal understandings found in nature’.

3 A History Of Economic Harm

The need for a thematic approach to schooling in order to understand and manage environmental concerns emerged in the 1960s and was particularly driven by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring and the publicity surrounding it.  Like other popular and scientific studies at the time, her book focused on the environmental harm caused by an economic sector of society, in this case it was agriculture.  The cross curricular educational theme is Personal Understandings Found In Nature and the topic is pollution. 

Fig 5 Opencast mining of coal in the UK (1975). Temple Newson National Trust Estate

Pollution is the outcome of any human behaviour that has an adverse impact on planetary wellbeing. It requires the highest attainable standard of wellbeing for human and all other beings, their social systems and ecologies, to manage it (Figs 5 & 6).

Fig 6 A sea of plastic waste.  Researchers at the University of Oldenburg in Germany are using satellite communications to combat the growing problem of plastic pollution in the North Sea.

In the 1970s, the Club of Rome identified the problems that societies would face when environmental resources were overused, depleted or harmed, and pointed towards the need for different types of policies to maintain and generate economic growth. 

In the 1980s, the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, published Our Common Future, the first serious attempt to link poverty to natural resource management and the state of the environment. It defined sustainable development as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ The concept implied both limits to growth, and the idea of different patterns of growth, as well as introducing questions of intergenerational justice. 

In 1992, the UN Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, taking forward many themes prefigured at the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. 

The main agreement from Rio was Agenda 21, a forty-one chapter document setting out priorities, practices and costs for all economic and social sectors, and how these should relate to the environment. The principles of sustainable forms of development that encouraged minimizing harm to the environment and human health were agreed. However, progress has not been good because Agenda 21 was not a binding treaty on national governments and all are free to choose whether they adopt or ignore its principles. The Rio Summit was followed by some international successes, including the signing of the Convention on Biodiversity in 1995, the Kyoto Protocol in 1998 and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001. Ten years after Rio, progress was scrutinised at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, again raising the profile of sustainability, but also failing to tie governments to clear actions and timetables  Over time, the concept of sustainability has grown from an initial focus on environmental harm to include first economic and then broader social and political dimensions.

Delegates to COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015, reached a landmark agreement to combat climate change and to accelerate and intensify the actions and investments needed for a sustainable low carbon future. The Paris Agreement’s central aim is to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Additionally, the agreement aims to increase the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change and make finance flows consistent with low greenhouse gas emissions and a climate-resilient pathway. To reach these ambitious goals, appropriate mobilization and provision of financial resources, a new technology framework and enhanced capacity-building is to be put in place, thus supporting action by developing countries and the most vulnerable countries, in line with their own national objectives. The Agreement also provides for an enhanced transparency framework for action and support.  

Despite the landmark commitments made by signatories of the Paris Agreement, emissions have continued to rise globally. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that emissions rose from 50 billion tonnes in 2015 to 55 billion tonnes in 2019. While carbon output was reduced dramatically in 2020, due mainly to the impact of COVID-19, emissions only decreased to the level that will be required every single year to achieve the Paris Agreement and that’s with transport, industry and commerce almost grinding to a halt during parts of the year. The prospect of a global green recovery from COVID-19 is not materialising across the board, with some countries pouring money into the fossil fuel economy to stave off a devastating recession.

We are now facing the climate change crisis every day in  some way or another and the silo thinking behind national curricula does not help in promoting the cross curricular thematic teaching needed for understanding world development. 


BAYWATCH was initiated by Cardiff Bay Development Corporation in the late 1990s to encourage children in the coastal communities of the City of Cardiff to work with their communities in managing regenerative development.  It was a cooperative project between the Natural Economy Research Unit, Impact Trust Wales the UK Conservation Management System Consortium and the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network SCAN) of the National Museum of Wales.

When Paul Sanby visited the small market town of Cardiff in 1776 seeking painterly views (Fig 7), Merthyr Tydfil was just a small Welsh farming village forty miles from Cardiff up the Taff Valley.  The valley contained all of the necessary resources for a successful iron industry, namely iron ore, limestone for lining furnaces, mountain streams to provide water power and forests to supply timber for the manufacture of charcoal.  In 1759,  ironworks were established at Dowlais, a small community at the edge of Merthyr Tydfil.  Charcoal was replaced with local coal for large scale smelting.  By the 1830s the Dowlais Ironworks was the largest in the world, employing more than 5,000 people.  With the increased size of the ironworks, the size of Merthyr Tydfil soared. In 1801 a population of 7,700 was recorded, which rose to 22,000 in 1831 and to 46,000 in 1851, establishing Merthyr as by far the largest town in Wales. 

Fig 7 Cardiff from the River Taff Estuary, looking north to the southern edge of the coalfield, (1776), Paul Sanby

In the late 18th century, Cardiff’s trade was maintained by two small sloops sailing to Bristol on alternative days. It was the growth of the iron industry in the South Wales Valleys that caused Cardiff to develop as a port. In 1794, the Glamorganshire Canal was completed, linking Cardiff with Merthyr Tydfil, and in 1798 a basin was built, connecting this canal to the sea. Cardiff’s foremost landowner, the 2nd Marquess of Bute, built West Bute Dock in 1839. Two years later, the Taff Vale Railway was opened. So what had led to this transformation?

From the 1850s, coal began to replace iron as the main export of South Wale, with yearly exports reaching 2 million tonnes in 1862.  The Cardiff Coal and Shipping Exchange was built in 1888 to be used as a market floor and office building for trading in coal.  It later became a hub of the global coal trade.  The first steamship was the ‘Llandaff’ of 1865, and she was the first of a fleet that grew rapidly in the late 19th century. By 1910, there were some 250 tramp steamers owned at Cardiff. Each day, the owners would meet to arrange cargoes of coal for their ships in their opulent Coal Exchange in Mount Stuart Square. 

The coal export industry reached its peak in 1913, when 10.7 million tonnes of coal were exported through Cardiff’s docks.  A royal commission on the coal industry reported in 1919 that: “The prosperity of south Wales is entirely dependent on the export trade in coal”  This dependency was very real. The industry relied on exporting 70% of its production. The whole area, mining settlements and the docks, depended on coal. But demand was falling because other countries had developed their own industries with lower production costs.

The 1920s and 1930s were decades of economic depression and poverty in the coalfields. There were long strikes and bitter disputes between the company owners and the miners. The companies wanted to keep up their profits but often at the expense of miners’ wages and jobs.  In 1934 unemployment rates of 60% were recorded in parts of the coalfield. People started to move away. Between 1931 and 1939, 160,000 people migrated from south Wales to look for work in the new industries being developed elsewhere. The coal industry was nationalised in 1947, but did not stop the decline.  Coal was the vital fuel of the 1800s and early 1900s. But it was  much less important and had been largely replaced by other forms of energy. To modernise the industry, machines were needed instead of manual workers and many of the coal seams in south Wales weren’t suited to the use of modern mining machinery.

The Coal Exchange finally closed in 1958 and coal exports from Cardiff ended just six years later, in 1964. The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in April 1987 to regenerate the 1,100 hectares of derelict dockland as part of the British government’s Urban Development Programme to regenerate deprived areas of inner cities.  The aim was to “put Cardiff on the international map” and boost the image and economic wellbeing of the area without coal (Fig 8)

Fig 8 Cardiff Bay: Regeneration of old dockland waterfront

At present the world is not tracking towards a Paris Agreement compatible phase-out of coal. Current and planned coal power plants globally would lead to a generation increase of 3% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. If the world follows these present trends, this would lead to cumulative emissions from coal power generation almost four times larger than what would be compatible with the Paris Agreement by 2050. 

5  Thinking Through Coal: An Integrated Syllabus

An urgent transformation is required in our values and our practices based on recognition of our global interdependence and the interconnectedness of the risks we face.  We need a new vision of cooperative and democratic action at all levels of society.  Personal understandings found in nature have to be the outcomes of a new system of thematic lifelong learning that combines planetism and wellbeing for every person on Earth.  It’s a principle that asserts that we must conserve, sustain, and make resilient the planetary and human systems on which life depends by giving priority to the wellbeing and prosperity of all.  All too often governments make commitments but fail to act on them; independent accountability is essential to ensure the monitoring and review of these commitments, together with the appropriate remedial action (Fig 9).

Fig 9 Concept diagram of 13 topics depicting the idea of transition from an expanding fossil fuel economy to one maintained by renewable energy; the target is human prosperity defined as ‘something to be wished for’.

 Children’s minds seem especially tuned to the use of metaphors and symbols. The very act of creating a work of art: a song, a play, a photograph or painting is itself a symbol of a person’s desire to capture an idea, a mood or feeling and communicate it to others. This is the essence of arts reasoning.  Graphics and artworks have the potential to increase the attractiveness, understandability, and communication power of thematic work. They can help science reach audiences that literature never will. As such, they are a tremendous asset in a time when the increased politicization of complex socio scientific issues, such as the future of food and nutrition security, necessitates the communication of science to society in ways that are accessible and engaging.  Images and symbols are used to highlight ideas and stimulate the mind to make connections.  

As an example of the power of art’s reasoning, compare Fig 5 with Fig 11.  They have the same subject matter in common i.e. large scale landscape pollution of opencast coal mining.  This is presented as a fact, e.g. the aerial photograph of part of a large rural estate (Fig 5) and an imaginative painting (Fig 10).  The latter is a monstrous, metaphorical vulture that bubbled up in the artist’s mind to explain why coal mining in India is unsustainable in a world of small-scale family farms.   

Fig 10  A Relic of Our Time: Prabhakar Pachpute (2020)

The BBC school’s digital resource package defines what is meant by the term ‘industrialisation’ and describes some of the processes involved and how it changes people’s working lives. It talks about increased food production as a prerequisite for industrialisation, and about urbanisation which usually happens alongside industrialisation. It then looks at the Industrial Revolution in Britain: how the steam engine was one key technological breakthrough leading to mass production, increased trade, better transport infrastructure and the birth of modern capitalism.  The theme Thinking Through Coal (Fig 11) is a specific local subset of the general theme of Industrialisation (Fig 12).  

Fig 11  Mind map of the theme ‘thinking through coal-Go To Interactive Map

The film touches on how industrialisation happens at different times in different parts of the world, using the countries of East Asia as an example of industrialisation due to the high tech and service industries, and countries like Brazil, Mexico and South Africa which are emerging as countries of mass production, selling to other countries.  It ends by saying industrialisation usually leads to higher wages and better living standards, but it has also been charged with causing social problems like pollution and wealth inequality. Mind maps take the story of world development, triggered by coal mining to deeper, cross curricular levels (Figs 11 &12) where they may be regarded as prototypes for art installations.

Fig 12 Mind map of ‘industrialisation-Go To Interactive Mind Map

6  Appendix

Art should be the basis of education.  No other subject is capable of giving the child not only a consciousness in which image and concept, sensation and thought, are correlated and unified, but also, at the same time, an instinctive knowledge of the laws of the universe and a habit or behavior in harmony with nature… if any type should be regarded as the ideal type, it is the artist. But there is no such thing as an artistic (aesthetic) attitude.  Every person is a special kind of artist… they are manifesting a form in which common life should take in its unfolding.”

— Education through Art, Herbart Read 

Art is a means of connecting two worlds, the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual.  The area of our consciousness where culture has its roots lies in the uncontrolled mind of every individual: in the moment when it is given space to make a creative leap.  Artists, scientists and spiritual masters alike have great respect for that particular faculty of our human potential.  It is in the realization of each individuals’s intuitive creativity that everybody would agree with the statement “everyone is an artist.”

— Louwrien Wijers

7 Internet References