Ecumenes and Ecological Islands

1 Ecumenes: economic units 

The term ecumene comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means inhabited land or inhabited world. Ecumenes are bounded geographical areas where people have made their permanent home.  Ecumenes contain all work areas occupied and used by the population for agricultural or any other economic purpose. They also include areas or features of special interest protected and managed for purposes of conservation.  They provide opportunities for study or research into social heritage.   The UK town of Grimsby is a good example of an ecumene with dire economic issues (Fig 1). The coastal landscape around it  has been characterised by mudflats and salt marshes.  The town was mentioned in the Domesday Book, when it had a settled, self contained population of just 200 and a priest, a mill and a ferry.  It stands on the creek of a small river which flows into the Humber.  For many years and at the end of the Middle Ages, the town itself was virtually an island with only one road into it from the South. Grimsby’s economy was built on fishing the River Humber and the North Sea   The arrival of the railway in 1848 made it easier to transport goods to and from the port.  Direct rail links to London allowed for fresh ‘Grimsby fish’ to arrive at London’s Billingsgate Fish market and became renowned nationwide. The demand for fish grew to such an extent that at its peak in the 1950s, Grimsby became the largest fishing port in the world.  

Five decades later, Grimsby’s socio economic problems were manifold.  All that remained of the once 700-strong fleet from its 1950s peak were a couple of crabbing boats and maintenance vessels for the offshore wind industry. To this picture of the economic decline of the fishing industry could be added skills shortages, long-term jobless families, deprivation, drugs, homelessness, empty homes, fly-tipping and children in care. The government’s indices of deprivation ranked Grimsby’s East Marsh as the fourth worst place in the UK for employment, the second for crime and the worst for education, skills and training. These statistics highlight a post industrial educational deficit, which is common to developed and developing ecumenes world wide and requires classrooms in nature with a local syllabus, focussed on the concept of ecological islands, that blends prosperity with ecological localism.  

Fig 1 The Grimsby UK ecumene

2  Ecological islands

Nature reserves within ecumenes may be described as ecological islands of high biodiversity in a ‘sea’ of low biodiversity (Fig 2). Nevertheless, whether they are nature sites or urban parks they can form the base of eco learning networks. Such projects reflect current theories of learning including those focusing on the ways people construct understanding of phenomena they encounter in everyday life (constructivism) and those that describe learning as an outcome of interaction with the socio-cultural and bio-physical environment (social learning). Case examples illustrate the myriad of community learning arenas adopting a  culture of gifting in which civil society groups, local government, and volunteers collaboratively engage in environmental stewardship, communicating through learning hubs.  A gift economy, or gift culture, is a system of exchange where valuables are not sold, but rather given without an explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards.

Fig 2 Wink’s Meadow: a local nature reserve

In general, the concept of ecological islands drives the application of conservation management to protect and enhance nature sites within four key interwoven strands of environmental education (SEEs):

  • science-framed education, focussed on the conservation management of biodiversity; 
  • place-based, indigenised and bioregional education; 
  • education for climate change and disaster risk;
  • education for sustainable economic development. 

These strands of knowledge are an outline syllabus of radical hope to deliver a widespread consciousness on the fragility of the environment, which can have a very strong impact on people’s quality of life. There are few places in the world where the need for hope about the sustainable use of Earth’s resources is as acute as in islands.  Islands should therefore be positioned at the centre of education as socioeconomic models of sustainable development and biological evolution.  

The idea of ecumenes provides an overarching, integrative, flexible, humanistic approach for describing and analyzing the inhabited world and its densely populated parts that may be described as big island states.  Small island developing states (SIDS) were first recognized as a distinct group of developing countries at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992. The Barbados Programme of Action was produced in 1994 to assist the SIDS in their sustainable development efforts.  

3 Eco Learning Networks

The following propositions from David Selby and Fumiyo Kagawa highlight what they think is distinctive and hopeful about environmental education within SIDS as ‘islands for hope’. 

1  environmental education initiatives on islands are markedly eclectic in their rich blending of practice from within the different SEEs. 

2  Environmental education on different islands, especially in the Pacific, is marked by a return to indigenous, community-based learning. 

3 There is a distinctive island pedagogy regarding  the greater weighting given to relational, socio-affective and action-orientated learning about circular economies

4 There is a paucity of inter-island cosmopolitan dialogue.  Questions are asked about how to ensure islanders, steeped in learning about place, can be brought to connect with the global culture of mass consumerism and its environmental impact. 

5 The frequency of cross-curricular, interdisciplinary, even trans-disciplinary framing of environmental education initiatives is identified as bringing a distinctive syllabus and curriculum of hope to island practice. 

These educational propositions reject the idea of an open, ever-expanding economy, which inevitably depletes Earth’s finite natural resources every time we create something, leaving behind waste and toxicity when we dump it or burn it. The hope of education for conservation is that by encouraging a circular way of thinking  we repair and reuse as much as we can, and remanufacture and recycle to save resources, reduce waste, and reduce costs.  

The article, “The Circular Economy Runs Through Basel,” by Paul Hagen, Russ LaMotte, Dacie Meng, discusses the emergence of the Basel Convention as the key international legal system governing anthropological relationships between culture and ecology.  This system is exemplified by the management of toxic waste set out in the Convention’s business plan for 2020-23. With this level of detailed planning and global action  the ISLANDS Green Forum created by the Convention can be a virtual classroom for developing island models to bring cultural ecology to the centre of education at all levels.  The educational aim is for young people to discuss and promote the adoption of a post-2030 circular economy, communicating  ideas and achievements for local environmental sustainability.  An eco-learning network (Fig 3) with this aim can rally and unite young people to make realistic, but dynamic change, creating positive impacts for our planet now.  It supports them by teaching the skills and knowledge needed to benefit and improve planet Earth throughout their lifetimes.  This requires a community development workforce that can support the creation of an inclusive society that encourages individuals to achieve their potential and contribute to  society and their communities. The 2030 objectives therefore are to transform learning for young people and adults by facilitating communities to identify their own needs and aspirations, take action to exert influence on the decisions which affect their lives, improve the quality of their  own lives, the communities in which they live, and societies of which they are a part.

Fig 3  An online community of practice communicating ideas and achievements to  establish an eco learning network for living sustainably

The blue field in Fig 3 represents a small island developing state which has created an online community of practice consisting of schools and the families they serve networking as an eco learning society to produce and apply neighborhood action plans to promote a local closed cycle economy.  People use blogs and the Green Forum to share ideas and achievements.  They work with local governance to keep their activities in line with national initiatives and model local businesses, that have adopted closed cycle practices, as educational resources.

A procedure to develop an eco learning network from a grass roots level can begin with a school and the communities it serves according to the following protocol.  

(i) A School joins Ecoschools International (

(ii) The School links with: 

  • the families in its catchment;
  • the local governance organisation e.g. the parish council;
  • a local business operating, or working towards, a circular economy.

(iii) The School follows  Ecoschool’s 7 steps to an interactive action plan using toolkits, such as those designed for neighbourhood disaster planning, to visualise and meet the plan’s objectives.

(iv) The School communicates its ongoing achievements and ideas to other Ecoschools via blogs and the Green Forum to make the network grow.

To summarise, the educational outcome is to transform learning for young  people and adults by facilitating communities to identify their own needs and aspirations.  They take action to exert influence on local decisions which affect their lives.  These local operations, through a neighbourhood action plan,  improve the quality of their own lives, the lives of communities in which they live and work, and the societies of which they are a part. This plan is created by the local Ecoschool and its community, which regularly monitors its performance indicators.

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