Archive for the ‘The origins of cultural ecology’ Category

Escaping from Silo Thinking

Monday, September 6th, 2021

According to Dr. Gillian Tett, an anthropologist turned financial journalist, ‘silos are cultural phenomena, which arise out of the systems we use to classify and organize the world’. From this point of view, anthropology is not so much a body of knowledge as a particularly wide mindset which enables a global cultural perspective on any environmental issue. Anthropological ways of seeing ‘home’ and ‘away’ can be adopted by  anyone with an interest in unpacking the many ways in which their social universe is culturally constructed as ‘environment’.  I can trace my broad insider-outsider perspective to a childhood where I was free to play within the interface between ’home’, and ‘away’.  Home  consisted of three miles of tightly packed terraced houses, behind the fish dock, served by corner shops.  ‘Away’ was a countryside of woodland, fields, hedges, ditches and wild sandy marshes that  began about half a mile from my home. I was an insider-outsider in both environments.  In one I collected butterflies, bird’s eggs and kept nature diaries.  In the other there was the radio, ten cinemas and a music hall to help me to better understand my own life, the lives of those around me and even how society and culture operate.

At the local secondary school silo thinking was thrust upon me because the ‘ologies’ were targets for economic advancement.  In my case, living in the world’s largest fishing port, it was applied ichthyology that permeated every household.  I escaped to read biochemistry at university because I saw the subject could be an insider educational viewpoint on nature’s diversity.  Nevertheless, the ologies caught up with me, and my first academic post was in a department of zoology, a deliberate choice to follow the insider-outsider perspective.  After a decade I became more of a zoologist than the zoologists, who wanted for the most part to become biochemists!

I stayed with zoology because it is unique amongst the ologies with regards its many academic and tactical links with other subjects.  Thus, in the early 1970s I was able to convince the science and applied science faculties of my university that they should meet the growing environmental crisis by offering an honours degree in environmental studies.  The degree was based on an academic package where environmental studies was taught as a joint syllabus, produced by all departments working together, alongside a traditional subject.  For example students could graduate with honours by combining environmental studies with metallurgy or chemistry. Essentially, environmental studies was a new subject applied to conservation management.  Its outdoor laboratory for teaching and research was the derelict South Wales Coalfield and the socio ecological impacts of its decline. 

In 1987 the Brundtland Report ‘Our Common Future’ was published with its three main pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality  The following year there was a meeting of the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCLES) to which I was invited to talk about Cardiff University’s pioneering cross departmental degree in Environmental Studies.  After my UCLES talk I had a conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh, then Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.  It was his belief that UCLES should have a new GCE subject, devised as a response to discussions about the Brundtland Report, to prepare students for a changing planet .  The report is full of paradoxes and contradictions conveying the deceptive impression that incompatible goals can be achieved simultaneously and that a consensus to the benefit of everybody is possible to establish. Clearly, a new school subject dealing with these issues of world development would have to cut across the ‘ologies’ to inform the reality of how ecosystems behave, how natural cycles work, how humanity has valued and made use of natural resources and what the consequences have been. 

We discussed the question of naming and I suggested we should adopt natural economy (Oeconomia naturae), the name that Carl Linnaeus’ gave to the ethnographic knowledge system he assembled from his 18th century study of the Lapland swidden agricultural system of low input nutrient recycling.  

There was a further meeting at Buckingham Palace, attended by top UK NGO leaders and I was tasked with heading up a small group of Cambridgeshire teachers, working with UCLES, to produce a ‘Linnaean framework’ for a new International GCE.  The aim was to set out future options for global environmental management through an understanding of the vast complexity, of the problems involved in world development and the social repercussions certain political policies might have. 

For Linnaeus and his pupils, natural economy presented the human world in terms of the social and monetary organisation of natural resources for production.  Political economy is the other side of the coin, namely the organization of people for production.  The name natural economy was chosen for the UCLES subject because Oeconomia naturae encompassed world development as the change from a rural sustainable barter economy to a national politically-managed urban monetary economy.

The content of the first syllabus produced by the Cambridge teachers is available here. and there is an early on line mind map.

Uptake of natural economy by schools was limited by the fact that it was part of UCLES’s international commercial package of subject matter with integrated assessment. Even so, teachers of many international schools were very enthused by it.  In particular, it was eagerly adopted by the Government of Namibia, where it replaced biology and/or geography at GCE level.  However, there was no possibility of it being integrated into Western national curricula, which even today are committed to a narrow pedagogy designed over a century ago to support the expansion of colonialism.  However, a version of the original syllabus, a subject now called Environmental Management, is still available commercially from Cambridge via ‘Home Education Specialists’ as a 100 hour subject for homeschooling,   This emphasizes that it is ideal for individualised lifelong or free choice learning.

Natural economy emerged as a novel cross curricular idea of Carl Linnaeus prompted by his studies of rural livelihoods, especially swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture, which he investigated during his expeditions through rural Sweden. With the award of a grant from the EC’s Educational Directorate in the early 1990s I was provided with funds to establish the Natural Economy Research Unit in the Zoology Department of the National Museum of Wales.  The aim was to develop the ethnographic element of natural economy in partnership with the Association of European Schools (now European School Net). Central to this, post Rio, was SCAN, the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network.  Schools used the community they served as an outdoor laboratory to become involved with implementing the Local Agenda 21. This initiative is now represented in the National Museum Of Wales by  Spring Bulbs For Schools, a climate change phenology network, based on Linnaeus’ 1756 floral calendar (Calendarium Florae), in which he used flowers to reflect different time periods of a calendar year. 

The academic framework of natural economy is the cultural organisation of natural resources for production, which promotes an ecology rather than an economy.  The EU project produced a broader framework by incorporating ideas of Carl Linnaeus (Oeconomia naturae), Julian Huxley (Man and he biosphere) and centred on Julian Steward’s ideas about Cultural ecology (Fig 1).   Cultural ecology explains that humans are part of their environment and both affect and are affected by the other.  There is an online version of a cultural ecology mind map and a blog

Fig 1 Ideas about cultural ecology

Regarding a syllabus, cultural ecology cannot be prescriptive because self learning is idiosyncratic.  The common targets of the pedagogy are behavioural.  In this context, teachers have to be mentors, establishing an environment  of empathy where students learn about emotional literacy, how to define their moral identity by perspective-taking, developing their moral imagination, learning how to self regulate, practice kindness and how to collaborate to develop moral courage to become a changemaker. 

These personal qualities are central to Julian Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism, a subset of social Darwinism.  His message is that we are part of nature in all that we do.  It is through our evolution that the cosmic process has become conscious and has begun to comprehend itself. Therefore, a supreme task of educationists is to increase that conscious comprehension and, as the most powerful agent of planetary change, humanity has to apply this understanding to manage the future course of events on Earth.  The aim of education today should be to discover and promote humanity’s destiny as planetary managers of human well being and biodiversity because these are desirable outcomes of the evolutionary process.  In this process we are part of the environment, not an outside force making impacts upon it.  

In 1992, with the advent of the first world environmental summit, I envisaged the future of natural economy was going to be bound up with digital resources available freely through the Internet for individualised life long learning about the management of change.  As the Internet consolidated, cultural ecology became an online resource for learning to live sustainably.  At first the applied focus was on the application of Agenda 21; now it is on climate change and Agenda 2030.  But, these international agendas rest on environmental hope. The big task for educationalists is to make room for environmental hope, despite near certainty that someday soon there will be no more “natural” landscapes, biodiversity, or ecosystems?

Currently cultural ecology is being developed and maintained by International Classrooms On Line, receiving hundreds of unique hits and registrations a week. The latest development is a forum and a web site to discuss how best to manage the behavioural changes necessary to educate for change.

Denis Bellamy

August, 2021

Appendix 1  

Homo sapiens as the the deadly pyrophile

The following extract from Stephen J. Pyne’s masterly book ‘Vestal Fire’, sets the scene for humans as dangerous pyrophiles.

“The conclusion of the final glacial epoch, the Wurm (the primum mobile of Europe’s Holocene history), signaled the onset of a modern climate, and the retreating ice made Europe a virtual terra nova. Old World Europe was, paradoxically, as much a new world as the Americas, and certainly newer than Australia and Africa. Considering the relative magnitude of their ice sheets and periglacial penumbras, Europe’s renewal was proportionally greater than North America’s. Released from its refugia, the biota seized the exposed lands as weeds would a plowed field. The biological recolonization of western Europe was one of the planet’s great land rushes, the prelude to a subsequent, human-assisted dispersion throughout the globe”.

“Throughout, there was one species of special note. Early on, hominids joined the boisterous throng that recolonized Europe. Homo sapiens was always and everywhere present–a forager along the ice edge, a hunter in periglacial steppes, an opportunist amid birch and pine, a resident within woodlands, a transient visitor to bog and heath and fens. Humans were seizures of disturbed sites who had the capacity to further disturb. Restlessly, compulsively, Homo reorganized the biota–adding and subtracting species, reshaping biomes as he did coarse flint into arrowheads; harvesting, pruning, plucking, draining, planting, digging, watering, and through proxy fauna, grazing, browsing, fertilizing, trampling; and above all, burning. Alone among the revanchist biota, humans manipulated fire. The rough diamond of Europe they seized, shaped, polished, and set. The fire regimes of Europe were largely the creation of this peregrinating pyrophile”.

(C) 1997 Stephen J. Pyne All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-295-97596-2

Appendix 2

Introducing a new, free, open international forum to evaluate the idea of a syllabus of radical hope with objectives to promote individualised lifelong learning about education for conservation.

Objectives (discussion threads)

1 Become A Citizen Managing Change

2 Redefine Economic Growth

3 Learn To Be Inclusive

4 Link Culture With Education (currently has the least hits)

5 Create New Knowledge Frameworks

6 Learn About Empathy

7 Promote Education For Change

8 Apply Arts Reasoning To Explain Sustainability  (currently has the most hits)

9 Oats, Peas, Beans And Barley Grow

10 Awaken the Ecologist Within


International Classrooms On Line

In 2016, Amy Franceschini was shortlisted in the Artes Mundi competition at the National Museum and Galleries of Wales.  She travelled to Cardiff from Oslo by boat, retracing the migratory journey of seeds, to explore the politics of food production and the countries that our foods originate from. Her legacy was the idea that an installation can apply arts thinking to explain sustainability. In Wales it led to the formation of a collective linking art with science to demonstrate sustainability knowledge organised to manage environments responsibly (acronym  S.K.O.M.E.R.)  Inspired by Futurefarmers and the Flatbread Society the S.K.O.M.E.R Collective is centred on a free forum entitled ‘Educating for Change’ allowing people to freely participate in creating a syllabus of radical hope .The knowledge framework is cultural ecology, an interdisciplinary, social concept for lifelong learning.  It contrasts the old sustainable relations of people to the land with the present-day worldwide scramble for scarce natural resources and the global environmental damage of unsustainable mass production. These days, everyone has their own mind map of cultural ecology. These personal projects chart the behavioural changes required to manage the flows of materials and ideas between people, ecosystems and place.  The goal is for there to be a smooth social continuity of belonging between generations. 

Skomer is also a small Welsh island nature reserve where ideas of syllabus reform first emerged and eventually led to UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme.

Ecosacy: the ability to understand and respond to the environment

Friday, December 29th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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