Google Sites: a reporting system for inquiry-based learning

January 23rd, 2020

“Mind mapping is not the center of the universe as some would have us believe… The center of the universe is ‘data’ which becomes ‘information’ which then can become knowledge.”

John England (MindSystems)

1 Bodies of knowledge

Fig 1 The inquiry (enquiry) learning cycle

Stephen Rowland ran a classroom inquiry course for school teachers in the University of Sheffield  during the Spring Term 1986. The aim was to develop skills of observation and interpretation of children’s learning by integrating the roles of teacher and researcher. The course was one of six optional courses which, together with a dissertation, made up the requirement for an M.Ed at Sheffield University. Being part time, the course sessions at the University were held after school, for about two hours, on ten occasions during the term. There were eight course members excluding Stephen Rowland, the course tutor. They were in their first or second year of the three year part time M.Ed and taught in a very wide range of institutions from a primary special school to a College of Higher Education. 

Reflecting on his tutoring Rowland highlighted the following comment made by  Margaret, one of the course participants.

 ‘I learnt my body of knowledge, not someone else’s’. 

He said Margaret’s comment “raised so many questions about the work we had been doing”. Such as: 

“How does the ‘my body of knowledge’ relate to the knowledge of others? Wasn’t the ‘course’ supposed to be about sharing in the knowledge of other participants as well?  How does this relate to the external knowledge as represented in research literature? How can such learning effect change in the classroom if we never get outside our own body of knowledge and view things from a different perspective”. 

“ls this learning of one’s own body of knowledge part of a continuing process, or is it a result of a brief period of reflection and introspection, a kind of therapeutic interlude?

In reflecting upon the course he said “ I shall consider these four themes because I think their exploration is important if we are to empower teachers to make their own enquiries into the learning which they facilitate”.  In fact Margaret had entered a personal learning cycle to build her own body of knowledge (Fig 1) in which asking questions was central to understanding her environment.  It reminds us that the learning cycle is entered at any age through seeing and wondering. Each question leads to another and the outcome is action for change in the enquirer’s  relationship to their environment.

A body of knowledge comprises the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a mental domain, as defined by a  learned society, a professional association, a group or an individual. Rowland’s students were actually creating their individual and group bodies of knowledge in a pre-IT, paper world.  Now the medium of choice for assembling data and information, and presenting the knowledge would be a wiki.  

 A wiki is a server programme that allows users to collaborate in forming the content (body of knowledge) of a Web site. Wikis are websites where communities of users can collaborate online to build content and discuss progress. Google Sites is a structured wiki/integral Web page-creation tool offered free by Google. The declared goal of Google Sites is for anyone to be able to create simple web sites that support collaboration between different editors.

A wiki provides a simplified IT interface with a body of knowledge.  At any time, contributors can review the history of the page they are working on or preview the Web page before publishing it. A wiki website operates on a principle of collaborative trust. The simplest wiki programs allow users to create and edit content. More advanced wikis have a management component that allow a designated person to accept or reject changes. The best known example of a wikiweb site is Wikipedia.  Google Sites is missing two key features for an effective collaborative knowledge sharing platform (aka a wiki). First, users cannot subscribe to page changes. This means that if the content of the wiki that the user is interested in is updated, the user will not know unless they visit the site to check. Second, and a much bigger issue, is that Google Sites has no revision history. If someone edits or deletes a page, the previous state is unrecoverable. Many would say the ability to see the history of a page, and recover from deletions is central to the functioning of a wiki.  Nevertheless, regarding its simple structure and ease of creation a Google wiki is ideal for facilitating archiving a small group inquiry online.

2 Comparisons

Traditional education generally relies on a teacher presenting data, information and his or her knowledge about the subject. All learners receive the same data, information and pre-formed knowledge. Students are also required to memorize information from instructional materials.  In contrast, inquiry-based learning is assisted by a facilitator rather than a teacher or lecturer. Stephen Rowland was facilitating a non traditional, inquiry-based learning classroom. A facilitator is someone who engages in any activity that makes a social process easy or easier. Also, a facilitator helps a group of people or an individual to understand their common objectives and assists them to plan how to achieve these objectives; in doing so, the facilitator remains “neutral”, meaning he/she does not take a particular position in the discussion.

Each student-inquirer, helped by a facilitator, will identify, and research, issues of particular interest to them and pose questions to develop knowledge or solutions. inquiry-based learning includes problem-based learning.  This is a student-centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving an open-ended problem found in trigger material and is generally used in small scale investigations and projects, as well as research.  It is principally very closely related to the development and practice of thinking and problem solving skills.  In particular, the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information or new understandings indicates a high level of thinking.  Facilitators should be encouraging divergent thinking and allowing students the freedom to ask their own questions and to learn the effective strategies for discovering the answers. The higher order thinking skills that students have the opportunity to develop during inquiry activities will assist in the critical thinking skills that they will be able to transfer to other subjects.

inquiry based learning is an individual or small group process by which ‘data’ becomes ‘information’ which then can become a body of knowledge meaningful to the group or to an individual.  In this sense it can be said that the outcome is knowledge owned by a group or an individual.

3 Inquiry based learning

Inquiry based learning has been used as a teaching and learning tool for thousands of years, however, the use of inquiry within public education has a much shorter history.   Ancient Greek and Roman educational philosophies focused much more on the art of agricultural and domestic skills for the middle class and oratory for the wealthy upper class. It was not until the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, during the late 17th and 18th century that the subject of science was considered worthy of academic study.  Until the 1900s the study of science within education had a primary focus on memorizing and organizing facts. inquiry-based learning is primarily a pedagogical method developed within the learning-by-discovery movement of the 1960s.

While some see inquiry-based teaching as increasingly mainstream, it can be perceived as in conflict with standardized testing common in standards-based assessment systems, which emphasise the measurement of student knowledge and meeting of pre-defined criteria.

4 Methods

There is a spectrum of inquiry-based teaching methods available.  Specific learning processes that people engage in during inquiry-learning include, 

  •  creating questions of their own;
  • obtaining supporting evidence to answer the questions;
  • explaining the evidence collected,
  • connecting the explanation to the knowledge obtained from the investigative process;
  • creating an argument and justification for the explanation.

inquiry learning involves developing questions, making observations, doing research to find out what information is already recorded, developing methods for experiments, developing instruments for data collection, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data, outlining possible explanations and creating predictions for future study.

There are many different explanations for inquiry teaching and learning and the various levels of inquiry that can exist within those contexts. 

Level 1: Confirmation inquiry

The teacher has taught a particular science theme or topic. The teacher then develops questions and a procedure that guides students through an activity where the results are already known. This method reinforces concepts taught and shows students how to follow procedures, collect and record data correctly and to confirm and deepen understandings.

Level 2: Structured inquiry

The teacher provides the initial question and an outline of the procedure. Students are to formulate explanations of their findings through evaluating and analyzing the data that they collect.

Level 3: Guided inquiry

The teacher provides only the research question for the students. The students are responsible for designing and following their own procedures to test that question and then communicate their results and findings.

Level 4: Open/True inquiry

Students formulate their own research question(s), design and follow through with a developed procedure, and communicate their findings and results. This type of inquiry is often seen in science fair contexts where students drive their own investigative questions.

Teachers should begin their inquiry instruction at the lower levels and work their way to open inquiry in order to effectively develop students’ inquiry skills. Open inquiry activities are only successful if students are motivated by intrinsic interests and if they are equipped with the skills to conduct their own research study.

An important aspect of inquiry-based learning is the use of open learning, because evidence suggests that utilizing lower level inquiry is not enough to develop critical and scientific thinking to the full potential.  Open learning has no prescribed target or result that people have to achieve. There is an emphasis on the individual manipulating information and creating meaning from a set of given materials or circumstances. In many conventional and structured learning environments, people are told what the outcome is expected to be, and then they are simply expected to ‘confirm’ or show evidence that this is the case.

Open learning has many benefits.  It means students do not simply perform investigations in a routine like fashion, but actually think about the results they collect and what they mean. With traditional non-open lessons there is a tendency for students to say that the experiment ‘went wrong’ when they collect results contrary to what they are told to expect. In open learning there are no wrong results, and students have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the results they collect themselves and decide their value.

Open learning has been developed by a number of science educators including the American John Dewey and the German Martin Wagenschein.   Wagenschein emphasized that students should not be taught bald facts, but should understand and explain what they are learning. His most famous example of this was when he asked physics students to tell him what the speed of a falling object was. Nearly all students would produce an equation, but no students could explain what this equation meant.  Wagenschein used this example to show the importance of understanding over knowledge.  

Phillip Brown defined inquisitive learning as learning that is intrinsically motivated (e.g. by curiosity and interest in knowledge for its own sake), as opposed to acquisitive learning that is extrinsically motivated (e.g. by acquiring high scores on examinations to earn credentials). However,  occasionally the term inquisitive learning is simply used as a synonym for inquiry-based learning.

5 A way of thinking

Dewey’s experiential learning pedagogy is a form of inquiry based learning known as learning through experiences.  It comprises the learner actively participating in personal or authentic experiences to make meaning from it, which include engaging with the content/material in questioning, as well as investigating and collaborating to make meaning. The meaning constructed from an experience can be concluded as an individual or within a group.  In particular, Dewey proposed that science should be taught as a process and way of thinking and not as a subject with facts to be memorized. While Dewey was the first to draw attention to this issue, much of the reform within science education followed the lifelong work and efforts of Joseph Schwab. Schwab was an educator who proposed that science did not need to be a process for identifying stable truths about the world that we live in, but rather science could be a flexible and multi-directional inquiry driven process of thinking and learning. He believed that science in the classroom should more closely reflect the work of practicing scientists. Schwab developed three levels of open inquiry that align with the breakdown of inquiry processes that we see today.

  1. Students are provided with questions, methods and materials and are challenged to discover relationships between variables
  2. Students are provided with a question, however, the method for research is up to the students to develop
  3. Phenomena are proposed but students must develop their own questions and method for research to discover relationships among variables

Today, we know that students at all levels of education can successfully experience and develop deeper level thinking skills through scientific inquiry.   The graduated levels of scientific inquiry outlined by Schwab demonstrate that students need to develop thinking skills and strategies prior to being exposed to higher levels of inquiry.  Effectively, these skills need to be scaffolded by a facilitator until inquierers are able to develop questions, methods, and conclusions on their own. America’s National Science Education Standards (1996) outlines six important aspects pivotal to inquiry learning in science education.

  1. Students should be able to recognize that science is more than memorizing and knowing facts.
  2. Students should have the opportunity to develop new knowledge that builds on their prior knowledge and scientific ideas.
  3. Students will develop new knowledge by restructuring their previous understandings of scientific concepts and adding new information learned.
  4. Learning is influenced by students’ social environment whereby they have an opportunity to learn from each other.
  5. Students will take control of their learning.
  6. The extent to which students are able to learn with deep understanding will influence how transferable their new knowledge is to real life contexts.

Social studies education focuses on the practice of inquiry, emphasizing “the disciplinary concepts and practices that support students as they develop the capacity to know, analyze, explain, and argue about interdisciplinary challenges in our social world.   The C3 Framework recommends an “inquiry Arc” incorporating four dimensions: 

1. developing questions and planning inquiries; 

2. applying disciplinary concepts and tools; 

3. evaluating primary sources and using evidence; 

and 4. communicating conclusions and taking informed action. 

 For example, a theme for this approach could be an exploration of etiquette today and in the past. Students might formulate their own questions or begin with an essential question such as “Why are men and women expected to follow different codes of etiquette?” Students explore change and continuity of manners over time and the perspectives of different cultures and groups of people. They analyze primary source documents such as books of etiquette from different time periods and form conclusions that answer the inquiry questions. Students finally communicate their conclusions in formal essays or creative projects. They may also take action by recommending solutions for improving the school’s social climate.  Through the application of inquiry mode education each student develops their ability to confront complex problems and to create solutions to those problems. These are the two most important outcomes to turn student enquirers into leaders.

6 Misconceptions about ‘inquiry’.

There are several common misconceptions regarding inquiry-based learning, the first being that inquiry science is simply instruction that teaches students to follow the scientific method. Many teachers had the opportunity to work within the constraints of the scientific method as students themselves and figure inquiry learning must be the same. inquiry science is not just about solving problems in six simple steps but much more broadly focused on the intellectual problem-solving skills developed throughout a scientific process.  Additionally, not every hands-on lesson can be considered inquiry.

Some educators believe that there is only one true method of inquiry, which would be described as the level four: Open inquiry.  While open inquiry may be the most authentic form of inquiry, there are many skills and a level of conceptual understanding that students must have developed before they can be successful at this high level of inquiry. While inquiry-based science is considered to be a teaching strategy that fosters higher order thinking in students, it should be one of several methods used. A multifaceted approach to science keeps students engaged and learning.

Not every student is going to learn the same amount from an inquiry lesson; students must be invested in the topic of study to authentically reach the set learning goals. Teachers must be prepared to ask students questions to probe their thinking processes in order to assess accurately. inquiry-science requires a lot of time, effort, and expertise, however, the benefits outweigh the cost when true authentic learning can take place.

Inquiry-based learning is fundamental for the development of higher order thinking skills. It  can be done in multiple formats, including:

  • field-work;
  • case studies;
  • investigations;
  • individual and group projects;
  • research projects.

7 Authentic inquiry

Authentic inquiry is the ultimate expression of inquiry-based learning.   It is an approach to learning which begins with the learner’s interest and experience, rooted in concrete place object or artefact  and moves from there through a process of facilitated knowledge construction, to a particular negotiated outcome which meets publicly agreed assessment criteria.  It’s bottom up, rather than top down. It’s authentic because it is ‘authored’ by the learner and because it is ‘real and genuine’ in their life story. A special issue of the Curriculum Journal was dedicated to this approach in 2009.

Authentic inquiry offers a way of framing an inquiry – whether formal, informal or problem solving in the workplace. It can be led by an individual or participated in by a team. The purpose of the inquiry provides the energy for the journey.  Learning power is how that energy is regulated over time and how the learner approaches the identification, collection, curation, mapping, re-structuring and presenting the data and information needed to achieve a purpose. Authentic inquiry is a procedure with nine iterative processes.

First, the student is encouraged to choose an object or place that fascinates her. Careful, ‘hands-off’ prompting and guidance may be needed from the teacher, to ensure that personal interest is strong and authentic. The rest of the process will be highly influenced by the integrity of this choosing process. Sometimes the ‘object’ turns out to be a person, or event; it is its susceptibility to observation and the strength of the student’s interest and engagement that are important.

Second, she observes and analyses the chosen object/place, both as a separate, objective entity and in relation to her own interest and reasons for choosing it. In this, she is developing her sense of personal responsibility. This initiates the cycles of a personal development process which is recorded in a workbook and in which the student, tutor and later others participate. It requires the student to develop the critical curiosity and strategic awareness necessary for independent learning, in the context of effective learning relationships. She is also developing a sense of herself as a learner who can change and grow over time.

Third, she starts asking questions: obvious, but open ones, such as: How did it get there? What was there before? Why is it how it is? Who uses it? How and why did they get involved? She is initiating and conducting a process of inquiry and investigation, driven by personal interest and shaped in turn by the answers to her own questions. She is exercising and developing critical curiosity. All the time, the student is encouraged to reflect on her motivation, reasoning and identity as a motivator of her own learning.

Fourth, the questioning leads to a sense of narrative, both around the chosen object and in the unfolding of new learning. Historical and present realities lead to a sense of ‘what might be’ both for the object/place and for the learner and her learning. She is becoming the author of her own ‘learning story’ or journey.

Fifth, the learner begins to discern that this ‘ad-hoc’, subjective narrative leads in turn to new, objective facts and knowledge. Subjective learning starts to be related to a wider, objective awareness. The learning becomes a ‘knowledge map’ which can be used to make sense of the journey and of new learning as it comes into view. She is ‘making meaning’ by connecting new learning to the ‘story so far’.

Sixth, with informed guidance and support from the teacher, the student’s widening ‘map’ of knowledge can be related to existing maps or models of the world: scientific, historical, social, psychological, theological, philosophical… This is where awareness of the diversity of possible ‘avenues of learning’ becomes useful. It requires the teacher to act as supporter, encourager and ‘tour guide’ in the student’s encounter with established and specialist sources and forms of knowledge

Seventh, the student arrives at the interface between her personal inquiry and the specialist requirements of curriculum, course, examination or accreditation.   Her development as learner enables her to encounter specialist knowledge and make sense of it, in relation to what she already knows and in the way she already learns, interrogating it and interacting with it, instead of simply ‘receiving’ it, using the model of learning :and ‘knowledge mapping’ skills she has developed through the inquiry. This is where the resilience will be tested, that will have started to grow through the responsibility and challenge of a self-motivated inquiry.

Eighth, the student can forge links between what she now knows and institutional and social structures receptive to it: qualifications, job opportunities, learning opportunities, needs, initiatives, outlets, relationships, accreditation, publication… Initially, this takes the form of a portfolio or presentation, based on the workbook, making explicit both process and outcomes of the inquiry. Her learning has met its communicative purpose. She has created a pathway from subjective response and observation towards the interface with established knowledge.

Ninth In doing so, she has also achieved life-enhancing personal development by asking and answering such questions as: Who am I? What is my pathway? How did I get there? Where does it lead me? What were the alternatives? Who helped me and how? The outcome of this learning facilitates a sense of vocational identity – how I can make a difference in the world.

This highlights authentic inquiry as a process, summarized in a sequence as: pose real questions, find resources; interpret information; report findings as new knowledge (Fig 2).

Fig 2 Organising the inquiry process 

Authentic inquiry is planned, constructed and enacted in accordance with the following design principles:

It is reflexive.

It is rigorous in integrating and assessing outcomes.

It is in community.

It is collaborative and conversational.

It is Integrative.

It is person-centred/personal.

7  Learning for effective leadership

The art of inquiry is at the heart of effective leadership as it enables leaders to remain curious and unlock the ideas, perspectives and strengths of those they are seeking to inspire and influence. Without engaging people in genuine two-way conversation, leaders run the risk of paying attention only to their own thoughts and perspectives. They also stop growing as they incorrectly assume they are ‘experts’ who haven’t got anything more to learn. This is likely to limit their effectiveness as co-workers and other stakeholders will start seeing them as forceful, arrogant and autocratic, behaviours that will ultimately derail their career if left unchecked

Leading management author and business psychologist, Edgar Schein, who wrote a book entitled “Humble Inquiry”, defined inquiry as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” . This underscores the importance of drawing out others’ ideas and perspectives and asking open-ended questions to help tackle organisational challenges and create a learning, growth mindset where making ethical changes by making ethical choices are features of effective  leadership, which are also central to building a personal body of knowledge by applying the outcomes of inquiry based learning.  

Marilee Adams, president and founder of The Inquiry Institute states that, “Inquiring leaders operate inside a self-learner mindset.” which serves as a guide for all leaders in the inquiry process.  In addition, she has identified the following as characteristics of Inquiring leaders who:

  1. understand that the quantity, quality, and intention of people’s questions largely determines their ability to learn, think critically and strategically, build and maintain relationships, gather information, make decisions, solve problems, manage conflict, and drive positive change and effective results.
  2.  recognize that “great results begin with great questions” and that “every question missed is a potential crisis waiting to happen.”
  3. ask questions of themselves and others in ways that are constructive rather than critical, that seek to uncover and challenge assumptions, and that promote new thinking and possibility as well as responsibility and accountability.
  4. listen carefully and respectfully (especially when not agreeing with what they hear). This listening is focused by solution-seeking questions such as,” What can I learn?” “What’s useful about this?” and “What are our goals?” They do not listen with problem-oriented, blaming questions such as, “Whose fault is it?”
  5. solicit honest feedback, comprehensive facts, and multiple perspectives.
  6. create an inquiring culture in their organizations and on their teams by encouraging people to ask questions of them, each other, customers, and stakeholders.
  7. are comfortable with “not knowing” and “not being right;” they have humility.
  8. have high emotional, social, and moral intelligence, are proactive and responsive rather than reactive, and are skillful with self-management.
  9. see the “big picture’ and think short-term, long-term, and systemically.

Accordingly, inquiring leaders: are self-reflective, self-correcting, and committed to learning from mistakes and failures. They value change, continuous learning, growth, and development for themselves and others.  (Fig 3).

Fig 3 Creativity and the inquiry mind set.

These features of leadership are going to be of great importance in education for life in a zero carbon economy particularly in promoting the liberal arts. A liberal education is not about developing professional or entrepreneurial skills, although it may well promote them. Nor is it for everyone; we need pilots, farmers, and hairdressers as well as managers, artists, doctors, and engineers. But we all need to be well-informed, critical citizens adapting to new ways of measuring prosperity.  Liberal arts in an inquiry based pedagogy prepare students for citizenship in all three senses—civic, economic, and cultural.

8 Internet references

Critical thinking and the liberal arts

Inquiry Institute

Choice Map

The inquiry process diagram

Inquiry as a process

Authentic  inquiry


Appendix 1

The following list is an archive of Google Sites each of which presents a body of knowledge developing an aspect of the cross curricular concept of cultural ecology.  They are the outcomes of an authentic inquiry pedagogy produced by facilitators and student enquirers in Welsh schools participating in a research programme coordinated by International Classrooms On Line. 

Classic Format

New Format

Ecopoetics in Conservation

January 12th, 2020

Education for conservation targets people’s attitudes, emotions, knowledge and behaviours about wildlife and wild places.  The aim is to apply new skills and patterns of behavior of individuals, groups, and society to protect and improve biodiversity.  Fundamentally, education for conservation is about making plans for environmental protection within a conservation management system (CMS). The planning logic is the same whether one is planting a tree in the garden or controlling biodiversity in a national nature reserve.

1 The Big Picture

There are between 30 and 50 trillion stars spread between 80 and 140 billion galaxies, but Earth is the only place we call home. It’s all we have for life to survive and thrive and we need to understand that we are all part of one natural world.  Without fresh air, water, seas, fertile soils, forests, animals and plants, we humans couldn’t survive. Everything, even the smallest has a role to play, and. You are part of your local environment. Everything is connected – from the deepest ocean to outer space – and what we do as individuals, does make a difference.

The Big Picture values are exemplified by the environmental values of indigenous peoples as universal human values, and so are beliefs that guide a community’s understanding of how the natural world should be viewed and treated by humans.  For example the following Māori perspective of the natural world can be adopted as a starting point to explore anyone’s values about the natural world.

  • Aroha means ‘love’ but it actually refers to a lot more than that. It is about compassion for the environment and understanding the environment. We are all connected to the natural world.
  • Manaaki means ‘to look after and to care for’. It is our responsibility to be good kaitiaki/guardians for the natural world. If we don’t look after and care for the resources, then we will not have them in the future. It is part of our responsibility to manaaki everything within the natural world.
  • Wairua means ‘spirit’. Everything within the Māori world has a spirit. Wairua is mainly associated with living things, with people, and humans. Wairua is about feeling and hearing the essence that is around us in the natural world.
  • Tapu means sacred. Every part of the natural world, including ourselves has tapu. Some places have a tapu placed on them if they are sacred or for spiritual reasons.
  • Mauri means the life force or life essence. All things are united through mauri. People are part of the natural world and connected through mauri. The mauri of the natural world has been weakened by pests and habitat destruction, but we can restore mauri by looking after our environment.
  • Mana means respect, power, authority, and relates to dignity. From the Māori world view, everything has mana within the natural world.

2 The Big Picture ideas

For a Maori-

i Everything is connected (Ko au ko te taiao, ko te taiao ko au)

I am the environment, the environment is me

  • The planet is made up of many interconnected systems.
  • Everything in an ecosystem has a role to play.
  • Changing anything in an ecosystem impacts on everything else. It is often difficult to predict what the consequences of any change might be.

ii The planet’s diversity is critical to our survival (Toitū te marae a Tāne, Toitū te marae a

Tangaroa, Toitū te Tangata)

If we care for the resources of the land and the sea, we, the people, will survive.  

  • The health, well-being, and survival of humans depends on the health, well-being and survival of our planet’s ecosystems.

iii People are part of the natural world (He nohonga ngātahitanga ahau me te taiāo)

We live as one with our natural world

  • People’s actions can impact both negatively and positively on the environment.
  • Individuals, especially young people, can make a positive difference to ecosystems.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser writes, ‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’ There is more to the world than what happens; there are the ways we make sense of it by telling its story. The vocabulary we use is not handed to us from outside; it’s ultimately a matter of our choice.”

3 Ecopoetics

There are many poets today doing vital work to actively confront unsettling questions about our impact on other species and on the climate.  Ecopoetics is about shifting modes of thinking around our place in evolution. For some, ecopoetics is the making and study of pastoral poetry, or poetry of wilderness and deep ecology, or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals. For others, ecopoetics is poetry that confronts disasters and environmental injustices, including the difficulties and opportunities of living in urban environments. For yet others, ecopoetics is not a matter of theme, but of how certain poetic methods model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling, or how “slow poetry” can join in the same kind of push for a sustainable, regional economy that “eating locally” does.

Ecopoetics may be defined in many ways.  It can be the poetry of wilderness and deep ecology or poetry that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals and what it means to be human..  Humanism is a belief system that focuses on human agency, self-actualization, rational thinking, and attention to human life. This is to be understood as a shift in focus from religion to individuality, or from institutional agency to human agency, carried by what Anne Cluysenaar calls the subject matter of natural languages bridging art and science.  Humanists can and do weave lives that are rich tapestries of morality, purpose, awe and wonder. From this point of view, poetics in conservation expresses emotions about being an element of evolution in a sensitive or moving way. These emotions arise from our concerns as individuals about our impact on the natural world. Poets today are serving as witnesses to climate change while bringing attention to important environmental issues and advocating for preservation of biodiversity. 

Ecopoetics in conservation is the practical expression of evolutionary humanism, a division of environmental humanities.  It is an outcome of the motivation to manage biodiversity with the objective of protecting nature, as it is thought to be, or as it ought to be.  We protect species, their habitats, and ecosystems from erosion and extinction because we are a part of evolution in everything we do. We are as one with nature,  Biodiversity in this sense generates a poetical input to human non-monetary prosperity and its loss affects human wellbeing and individuals in many ways, regarding zero growth economics, food security, nutrition and  health. It is linked to social issues such as equity and rights to resources, which demands good governance and well functioning institutions. Thus, conservation management plans can be viewed as the humanistic interface between poetry and science, which can share the values of a common natural language.  There is a heart felt role for each and every one of us as managers of evolution, The linguist and poet Anne Cluysenaar challenged poets to engage strongly with science so as to stimulate their imaginations by freeing them from inadequate interpretations of the world. Her poetry exemplifies how, through serious study and interaction with scientists, a poet can appropriate science with intensity and discernment such that it becomes an integral part of our awareness of the world. 

“The world of science is colourless, soundless, tasteless, and if it even makes sense to say so, emotionless . . . this nature leaves something important unaccounted for . . . only natural language can deal with this central area . . . the sciences cannot . . . yet if the wisdom we derive from science is to be of any value, it must be of value to us, and our values and perceptions form the privileged subject matter of natural languages”.   

Anne Cluysenaar  

In an effort to establish a practical interdisciplinary baseline, Susanna Lidström and Greg Garrard develop an understanding of the relationship between poetry, ecology and environment.  In particular they trace the development of the idea of ‘ecopoetry’ from the Romantic and deep ecological traditions in the 1980s to the complex environmental concerns in the 2010s. They distinguish between poems that heighten readers’ awareness of their ecological surroundings on the one hand, and those that engage with difficult and complex environmental questions involving scale, justice, and politics on the other. They suggest that recognising this difference could improve cross-disciplinary discussions between ecocritical studies of poetry specifically, and environmental humanities more broadly. 

Their analysis is centred on differences between the work of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes that illustrate the two poles of their argument. What they define as an eco-phenomenological poem starts from the experience of the individual (Hughes), while what we call environmental poems tend to start from the points of view of societies and their environments (Heaney)   

Hughes’s ecological view connects us to nature, rather than sets us apart from other species.  It is illustrated in the poem. “Brambles” which describes a flock of jackdaws, comparing them first to a set of bramblecbriars, then to the poet himself. The poem begins by describing the jackdaws’ complex social behaviour.

The whole air, the whole day

Swirls with the calls of jackdaws. The baby jackdaw

Generation is being initiated

Into jackdawdom – that complicated

Court-world of etiquette

And precedence, jingoism and law.

The speaker then shifts his attention to a set of bramble briars, wondering if they too have their own agency: “So craftsmanlike, / Their reachings so deliberate, are they awake?” Next, however, the question is turned around and instead of affirming the briars’ agency, the speaker wonders about his own agency:

Surely they [the briars] aren’t just numb,

A blind groping. Yet why not?

Aren’t my blood-cells the same?

What do even brain-cells fear or feel

Of the scalpel, or the accident?

They too crown a plant

Of peculiar numbness.

Heaney’s view of the environment is focused on the poem “Canopy,”54 from his last collection, Human Chain. “Canopy” describes how the trees in a yard at Harvard through which the speaker is walking resonate with voices from ‘everywhere.’ This is not a metaphorical description, but actually the result of amplifiers hidden in the trees:

It was the month of May,

Trees in Harvard Yard

Were turning a young green.

There was whispering everywhere.

David Ward had installed

Voice-boxes in the branches,

Speakers wrapped in sacking

Looking like old wasps’ nests

Hush and backwash and echo.

It was like a recording

Of antiphonal responses

In the congregation of leaves.

 4 Poetical Puffins

The following two paragraphs open  the open Roseanne Alexander’s ecopoetical story of the life of a Puffin on Skomer National Nature Reserve, just one outcome of a decade of her day-to-day life on a small seabird island off the South West coast of Wales.  It follows the science precisely.

“It was an exceptional day, hovering uncertainly between spring and summer.  For the first time in over a week the heavy mist that clung to the island had melted away.  The sun burnt down with a harshness that was disguised by the cool clarity of the air. It glared against the sea which reflected its light as smoothly as rippled silk.  On the cliff top above a puffin stared out into the stillness, to where the sea met the sky. There was an intensity in her stare, a longing perhaps, but she did not respond to the lure of that endless freedom.  She was tied to the island by a bond that even she did not fully understand. 

The damp air had held back the drying effects of the sun, and now the cliffs of North Haven where the puffin stood were vibrant with colour.  The turf, close-cropped by rabbits, was strewn with the shimmering pink and white of thrift and sea campion. It was afternoon and the bay was peaceful, awaiting the evening in-rush of birds.  The puffin unfolded her short wings and beat against the invisible resistance of the air, but she did not rise away from the unyielding cliff. She simply folded her wings across her back and shuddered her feathers into place.  Once or twice she flicked her head nervously from side to side as though wary of some unseen predator. Then, crouching low, she scuttled the few feet to her burrow entrance and ducked below ground”

Life itself could never have been sustainable without seabirds and they provide many poetic metaphors bearing on human survival.  As Adam Nicolson writes: “They are bringers of fertility, the deliverers of life from ocean to land.” But a global tragedy is unfolding.  Even as we are coming to understand them, the number of seabirds on our planet is in freefall, dropping by nearly 70% in the last sixty years, a billion fewer now than there were in 1950. Extinction stalks the ocean and there is a danger that the grand cry of the seabird colony, rolling around the bays and headlands of the high latitude Atlantic, will this century become little but a memory.  

Seabirds have always entranced the human imagination and Adam Nicolson has been in love with them all his life: for their mastery of wind and ocean, their aerial beauty and the unmatched wildness of the coasts and islands where every summer they return to breed. His book, The Seabird’s Cry, comes from an elemental layer in the story of evolution and we revel in the way the avian lifeforms  “float like beings from the otherworld” 

Over the last couple of decades, modern science has begun to understand their epic voyages, their astonishing abilities to navigate for tens of thousands of miles on featureless seas, their ability to smell their way towards fish and home. Only the poets in the past would have thought of seabirds as creatures riding the ripples and currents of the entire planet, but that is what the scientists are writing their stories today.  As their cries die om the waves so our lives become more precarious.

5 Hot spots of poetic naturalism 

Sean Carroll espouses a philosophy he calls “poetic naturalism.” Here is how he explains this concept:

“By that I mean to emphasize that, while there is only one world, there are many ways of talking about the world. ‘Ways of talking’ shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled ‘theories’ or ‘models’ or ‘vocabularies’ or ‘stories,’ and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.  “Naturalism,” says there is nothing above and beyond nature. In particular, there are no supernatural forces to transcend or interfere with natural laws. “Poetic,” says, “there is more than one way of talking about the world.” 

Naturalism is a literary genre that started as a movement in late nineteenth century literature, film, theater, and art. It is a type of extreme reality. This movement stressed the roles of family, social conditions, and environment in shaping human character. Thus, naturalistic writers produce stories based on the idea that environment determines and governs human character.  We also see use of some of the scientific principles in naturalistic works, and humans struggling for survival in hostile and alien society. In fact, naturalism took its cue from Darwin’s theory of evolution, which holds that life is like a struggle and only the fittest survive.

Naturalism has had a big impact on literary writers, leading to the growth of the modern movement of ecopoetics. Generally, naturalistic works expose dark sides of life such as prejudice, racism, poverty, prostitution, pollution and disease. Since these works are often pessimistic and blunt, they receive heavy criticism. Despite this, naturalism is generally concerned with improving the global human condition. It is in this context of promoting conservation of biodiversity and international integration of conservation management that Fredrick Monant Nyambane investigated indigenous Kenyan oral poetry.  The intent is to explore the possibility of indigenous poetry that could aid the already existing efforts of biodiversity conservation and how this might lead to the fostering of social and national integration/unity. His research supports the view that …..”human conflicts are offshoots of multiple interests such as sectarian jingoism, xenophobic sentiments, ethnic bigotry and other reasons”. However, the belief is that these are secondary causes. The deeper cause is the scramble for biodiversity-related resources and has further resulted in the “sordid banditry of fauna and flora,” which has displaced and dispossessed populations around the globe.  This gives rise to the idea of hotspots of poetic naturalism, which are special places on Earth where one can meditate on nature, its conservation management and the cultivating naturalist intelligence, a recognized learning style that relates to observing patterns in the natural world and expressing empathy for all other lifeforms. 

An example of a hotspot of poetic naturalism, with layers of meaning awaiting discovery, is the Sourdough Mountain Lookout. The lookout is part of the conservation management plan for tackling lightning-sparked wildfires at the heart of the US  North Cascades National Park. The lookout is situated a mile above the Skagit River canyon at the intersection of six major watersheds. In this respect, it commands one of the most spectacular views in the range. The naturalist and poet Tim McNulty spent the summer of 2003 in the lookout as the firewatcher and here is his gift of a poem when he connected briefly with the life of a migratory Townsend’s Warbler.  This bird is a colourful, distinctive wood-warbler that breeds among the treetops of mature fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Townsend’s Warbler also nests in montane spruce-fir forests in Idaho, Montana, and northwest Wyoming, and in boreal forests in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. In September, it begins its southward migration to California and the highlands of Mexico and Central America. Although Townsend’s Warbler populations remain stable, this species is predicted to lose large parts of its breeding range due to climate change. Like so many bird species, it’s also at risk from habitat loss.

Tropical Sunlight

Smoke from wildfires fills the valleys,

and a high veil of cirrus

dampens the morning sun.

Then a gift from Costa Rican forests —

Townsend’s warbler drops by.

Sunlit yellow face and breast,

dark Zorro-like mask,

quickly, neatly, shakes down

a subalpine fir crown

for bugs,

cleans his beak madly on a limb,

and takes leave south

across the Skagit,

heading back.

6 Internet references

Conservation education

Darwin timeline

Wallace timeline

Evolution library

Conservation poetry

Indigenous environmental values

Environmental humanities


Kenya state of environment

Conservation poetry

A poetic look at wildlife conservation


Decline of the Hull fishing industry

Fishing and poetry

Sourdough Mountain

Evolutionary humanism: a secular religion for zero growth?

December 28th, 2019

“…naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly.” In particular: “No gods worth having exist; no life after death exists; no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; no ultimate meaning in life exists.” These conclusions, “are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists” that they require little defense. 

William Provine

1 History

An essay entitled the New Divinity by Julian Huxley was published in Essays of a Humanist (Chatto & Windus, 1964).  It is a statement of Huxley’s idea for a new secular religion he called evolutionary humanism. He saw this as an inevitable outcome of a new vision of the world and humankind’s place and role in that world. His message is the destiny of humankind is to apply knowledge about evolution, which scientific knowledge has revealed, to maintain its progress. 

This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity”.

We are products of nearly three billion years of evolution through which the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. The fulfillment of evolutionary humanism is for Homo sapiens to take on responsibility for the whole further evolution of life on Earth.

This blog is a transcription and update of Huxley’s essay. 

2 Human social evolution

Homo sapiens emerged as Earth’s dominant species about a million years ago, but has only been a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, Homo sapiens has produced astonishing achievements.   During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities. Such was agriculture with its rituals of seasonality and annual rebirth as against hunting with its magic to guarantee success. Then came early civilization with cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods guarding universal and monotheistic religion.  Later came the scientific industrial age and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought. Now we have the beginnings of a humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out. However, it is clear that humanism, being about being human, has to integrate the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework encompassing the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process.  This process works on an entire cosmos made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appear as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm. All phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution which has taken place on planet Earth as a rare spot in the cosmos where mind has flowered through the evolution of Homo sapiens as a product of nearly three billion years of evolution.  

3  Religion

Religion, with or without a god, is a universal function of people in society.  It is the organisation made by humans for dealing with the problems of the destiny of individual men and women.  Its fulfillment is the task of societies and nations and of the human species as a whole. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, a religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny.  It will become progressively less effective as a social organisation. Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve and the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered with to bear the weight of the facts. A radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief.

There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both features  of evolving humanity. Major organizations of thought and belief may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of reorganisation of science was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position in the universe and led to the replacement of a geocentric pattern of thought by a Sun-centred one. A stepwise reorganization of western religious thought seems to have proceeded as follows. 

In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of supernatural forces inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to many beliefs in many divinities, supernatural beings and gods.  With the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity, which later branched off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth. 

God is a hypothesis constructed by humankind to help understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort of supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny.  

A drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a theocratic god-centered to a secular evolutionary-centered pattern.Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden on our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sense of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.  But once we have jettisoned an outdated piece of ideological theocratic furniture that is no longer fit for purpose, we must construct a secular ‘something’ to take its place.

4 The role of divinity

Magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly physical phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned, though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind. However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magical hangover or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. Huxley uses the term divine, though he says this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural.  It grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. 

The divine is what a person or group finds worthy of adoration, that which compels awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sense, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist secular, evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which we have anthropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its physical manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling us to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material, where land and landscape verge on the divine or sacred.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sense seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. The term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret man’s experiences of this quality.

Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework.  This can be a myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized.  Religions have some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. The codified morality and the ritualized expression of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework.  The framework is a practical aspect similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. It belongs to George Lindbecks`cultural-linguistic’ category of religions. He sees religions as resembling languages and their correlative forms of life, or culture.  They have idioms for dealing with whatever is most important, and whose doctrines are, in analogy with the grammar of a language, the communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action. Taking up this theme, Lindberg says that religions and doctrine can be looked at as neither truth claims or so many expressions of subjective experience, but as rules for how to speak and act in a religious community.   

Religions are  “comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world”. Becoming religious is like learning a language. Linbeck suggests that  when one acquires a culture or language they interiorize “outlooks that others have created” and they master “skills that others have honed.” Religious groups speak and live a “narrative” over time, that is to say, a religion is true to the extent that its community lives out what they claim to be ultimate and real. 

Doctrines are rules about communal religious life, but they are ultimately sourced in texts like the Bible or in the case of evolutionary humanism, Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.  What is the relationship between doctrine and text then? Does the religious text absorb the world or is the text absorbed by the world? Lindbeck wants the former to occur. We understand what the Bible, or Koran, “means” by adjusting that meaning to beliefs in the modern day world (i.e. the world absorbs the text). Creation science does this by absorbing Genesis.  Genesis must mean what we understand modern science to be telling us about the origins of biodiversity.. 

Doctrinal meaning has to radically change as the world changes or inner experience changes. Mark Mann writes “Primacy is given to the scriptural “narrative”: the Bible is unified by a complex but coherent narrative which centers on the personal agent Jesus, the Bible should not be read by attempting to impose a foreign or independent interpretive framework upon it.

Three main categories of functions religions can serve, as presented and defined by Gordon Lynch are: 

(i) a social function: religion provides people with an experience of community and binds people into a social order of shared beliefs and values that provide structure for their everyday lives;

(ii) an existential/hermeneutical function: religion provides people with a set of resources (e.g., myths, rituals, symbols, beliefs, values, narratives) that may help them to live with a sense of identity, meaning and purpose

(iii) a transcendent function: religion provides a medium through which people are able to experience ‘god’, the numinous or the transcendent.

 Lynch introduces these categories as potential ways to study the religious functions of popular culture, noting that a particular cultural phenomenon does not necessarily have to demonstrate all three categories of function to be considered “religious”.

This definition relies on people coming together to form a social order derived from shared beliefs and values to fulfill the classic function of religion, as characterized by Peter L. Berger as “constructing a common world within which all of social life receives ultimate meaning binding on everybody”.

The transcendent function of consumerism might well be the most important of the three approaches introduced in this article for the study of consumerism as an implicit religion in secular settings. As has been shown above, consumerism in the cultural context of the West seems to have little to do with objects of consumption per se and more to do with the symbolic value that they possess. For example, Joerg Rieger observes that the “desire promoted by advertising is not the simple desire for the product; it is for something more transcendent to which the product points, like the hope for happiness and a better life”. That is to say, the underlying meaning of the consumption of consumer goods as a method of participating in the kind of symbolic communication that is outlined above goes beyond the physical world of things and material objects. This transcendent function can be imagined as representing the ultimate promises or hopes that drive people to articulate the meaning of life in a “system of shared understandings that keep us working, consuming, and investing in the economy, maintaining it so that it maintains us”

The above line of argument was created by  Mikko Kurenlahti and Arto O. Salonen in their article ‘Rethinking Consumerism from the Perspective of Religion’.  One of their main goals is to problematize the standard egocentric interpretation of consumerism as being about the promotion of the individual against the collective. Instead, they argue that consumerism effectively binds the individual to the existential process of shared meaning-making in inescapable ways, and thus connects people together to form ever-expanding consumer societies prone to support the ideals of consumer culture. They also argue strongly against claims that consumerist lifestyles are inherently hollow, worthless, and purposeless. Instead, the perspective of religion reveals a most definite quest for the meaning of life and the construction of individual value.  Both these claims are directed outwards into the community, in order to be validated externally, define consumerism as a religion.

5 A secular religion embracing evolution

When scientists  talk about a scientific “fact” or a scientific “theory.” they denote a hypothesis, a tentative explanation that has never failed to be confirmed by empirical testing and observation, not a mere opinion. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, Huxley says that a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding.  Thus the central long-term concern of a secular religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities under humanism constitute the world’s greatest resource for human betterment, but at the moment, only a tiny fraction of them is being realized.   Homo sapiens has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. Looked at in the long perspective of evolution we are singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out our  planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provides a secular religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and creates and disseminates their own particular body of knowledge about what it means to be human and thereby contributing to evolutionary fulfilment.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take in the religion of the future it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition driven by global warning. But one can make some general prophecies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle of human existence. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occurred in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future, though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression.  Most important of all, an evolution-centered religion of the future can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled through the transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even greater human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But it’s consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of our place and role in the universe, which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief that we can confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process.  In place of salvation we have to think in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in meditation involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular humankind with connections to all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence.  Every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations of day-by-day existence have to be explored. This applies to the equivalents of shared worship, the secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence. Already there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies. Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external novelty.  Here the aim is to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcend the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self. There has to be a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.  

Exploring the ethical and philosophical significance of the theory of evolution by tracing the history of ideas that led up to and beyond Darwin’s great discovery leads to such questions as, “Does modern evolutionary theory adequately explain the origins of consciousness?” “Is it possible for conscious beings to evolve from completely lifeless and mindless matter?” “Does the recognition of humanity’s shared evolutionary heritage undermine our human-centered worldview, or require that we change, particularly with respect to how we treat nonhuman life?”   

6  Human uniqueness

There is a strong tendency in Western thought to place humans at the top of a hierarchy of being.  Modern evolutionary theory fundamentally challenges the assumption that humans are utterly unique. Rather than being at the pinnacle of creation, distinct from all other life-forms, the theory of evolution places humans on a continuum of being, a continuum that challenges the idea that those things that make us who we are, such as culture, language, reason, and so on, are unique to us. The theory of evolution opens the door to the idea that those beings from whom we developed and those that are genetically close to us today may hold these same characteristics, though perhaps to different degrees. Rather than being a singular exception to the forces that shaped the natural world, human beings are a great exemplification of such forces. In recognizing this, evolutionary biology in turn must abandon the notion that physical reality is best understood as a valueless machine, deterministically playing out its programming. If, as evolutionary science teaches, humans evolved from simpler organisms, and if human beings are subjects who are free, conscious, and capable of self-reflection, then this sense of freedom and subjectivity also must be found in humanity’s evolutionary ancestors. 

There is a fundamental intellectual inadequacy of not only atheistic evolutionary materialism and simplistic biblical creationism but also more sophisticated contemporary approaches, such as scientific creationism and intelligent design theory. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding. This counters the impulse to save religion by retreating into “separatism”; a view that science and religion are nonoverlapping domains of inquiry.. 

From the perspective of biblical creation stories, one can come to understand how these stories answer important transcendental questions, while realizing that one cannot expect them to address the questions posed by modern science. Today, one can build upon biblical creation accounts and, with the help of theology, address evolutionary theory, not as some construct that lies outside the theological sphere, but rather as a theory to be theologically engaged. 

The conclusion is that one must respect the autonomy and veracity of evolutionary biology, recognize the reality and ubiquity of suffering in the world, and begin to move toward an evolutionary theology that recognizes the richness that evolutionary theory can bring to one’s understanding of the transcendent’s relationship to creation. One of the great lessons theology can glean from a study of evolution is that all of reality is in the process of becoming. In this light, evolution is constantly offering us a world in transformation.

In the end, we need not choose between religion or science, faith or reason, Genesis or evolution.  Evolution is not a threat to faith, but rather an enrichment of faith. A thorough faith seeking understanding brings together Genesis and evolution.  This was the view of Catholic priest and renowned geologist and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) who wrote many works arguing that his own faith makes more sense after Darwin than it did before. Now evolutionary humanists see that the open universe has been created through natural processes rather than magic. The fact that this process involves struggling, chance, failure, and loss, along with grandeur and beauty,is completely consistent with the fact that the Universe remains unfinished. They interpret the whole of cosmic history as the path leading to our each contributing to the work of fulfilling the ongoing creation of a sustainable global ecosystem, opening the process of evolution to an ever-widening range of new possibilities as it moves toward a fresh zero growth economic future.

7  Evolution and conservation management

Hendry and a number of coauthors convincingly make the case that evolutionary biology is a necessary component for conservation. Evolution offers four key insights that should inform conservation and policy decisions.

First, they point out that evolutionary biologists are in the business of discovering and documenting biodiversity. They are the primary drivers behind long-term, sustained biological collections, because they need to know what exists in order to better understand the evolutionary history. With millions of species awaiting scientific discovery, their efforts are critical to measuring biodiversity. But not only are they discovering new species and enumerating them, they are uncovering their evolutionary relationships, which gives conservationists better information about which species to prioritize and the rationale for managing them.. Because of what Vane-Wright famously called ‘the agony of choice’, with limited resources, we need to prioritize some species over others, and their evolutionary uniqueness ought to be a factor. More than this, evolutionary biologists have developed pragmatic tools for inventorying and sharing data on biodiversity at all levels, from genes to species, which is available for prioritization.

The second key insight is that by understanding the causes of diversification, we can better understand and predict diversity responses to environmental and climatic change. By understanding how key functional traits evolve, we can develop predictions about which species or groups of species can tolerate certain perturbations. Further, research into how and why certain evolutionary groups faced extinction can help us respond to the current extinction crisis. For example, the evolutionary correspondence between coevolved mutualists, such as plants and pollinators, can be used to assess the potential for cascading extinctions. These types of analyses can help identify those groups of related species, or those possessing some trait, which make species more susceptible to extinction.

Third, evolution allows for an understanding of the potential responses to human disturbance. Evolutionary change is a critical part of ecological dynamics, and as environment change can result in reduced fitness, smaller population sizes and extinction, evolution offers an adaptive response to these negative impacts. Knowing when and how populations can evolve is crucial. Evolutionary change is a product of genetic variation, immigration, population size and stochasticity, and if the ability to evolve to environmental change is key for persistence, then these evolutionary processes are also key.

Finally, evolutionary patterns and processes have important implications for ecosystem services and economic and human well-being. Both genetic and evolutionary diversity of plant communities has been shown to affect insect diversity, primary productivity and nutrient dynamics. Thus understanding how changes in diversity affect ecosystem processes should consider evolutionary processes. Further, exotic species are often cited as one of the major threats to biodiversity, and evolutionary change in exotics has been shown to increase exotic impacts on native species.

All together, these key reasons why evolution matters for conservation, mean that developing sound conservation management plans requires considering evolution patterns and processes. We can use evolution to our benefit only if we understand how evolution shapes current species dynamics. The challenge to evolutionary biologists is to present their understandings and conservation ideas to a broader audience and to engage policy makers so as to incorporate evolutionary views into existing biodiversity and conservation programmes –most notably into DIVERSITAS.

Just as ecological processes cannot be fully understood without appreciating species ancestry and ts dynamics, so must the development of extensive, expansive conservation strategies take evolution into account. Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism signals the beginning of a new era of a synthesis between ecology and evolution, to  produce a precise, viable global conservation strategy. In particular, conservation management should aim at conserving evolutionary processes that generate biodiversity. For want of a better definition, this is the practical application of the world-changing teachings of darwinwallaceism. The objective is to practice economics with a specific social goal of conservation, not year on year monetary growth, remaining true to the ultimate social goal of all human economics, making people happier.  As a religion, evolutionary humanism has to create idioms from darwinwallaceism to deal with whatever are the most important issues facing society, The doctrines are analogous to the grammar of a language. The communally authoritative rules of discourse and attitudes are to be expressed in conservation management systems to maintain progressive human evolution and its wider co-evolving biodiversity.


Human biological evolution

The modern synthesis of the theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying conceptual framework that explains the origins of our species, Homo sapiens, and the millions of other life-forms on our planet.

We are primates members of the mammalian order Primates, which comprises two suborders: 

  • the prosimians (lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers) 
  • and the anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humankind).

All primates are descended from tree-dwellers, exhibiting adaptations which allow for tree climbing that include: a rotating shoulder joint, separated big toes and thumb for grasping, and stereoscopic vision.  Other primate characteristics include: having one offspring per pregnancy, claws evolved into flattened nails; and larger brain/body ratio than other mammals, and tendency to hold the body upright. Evidence that we are descendants of these early primates was first provided by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species, published in 1859.  

According to fossil records, primates originated in the Late Cretaceous (97.5 to 66.4 million years ago).  Primates, the ancestors of prosimians, first appear in the fossil record in the Eocene epoch around 55 million years ago; they were similar in form to lemurs.  Anthropoids ancestral to both Old World and New World monkeys appear in the fossil record in the Oligocene epoch around 35 million years ago. Apes are divided into two main groups of hominoids: lesser apes or hylobatids (gibbons and siamangs) and great apes (Pongo: orangutans, Gorilla: gorillas, Pan: chimpanzees, and Homo: humans).  

Hominids refers to the subfamily Hominidae within the superfamily Hominoidea.  Currently the superfamily Hominoidea includes the families Hominidae (great apes: orangutans, gorillas, chimps, humans) and Hylobatidae (gibbons and siamangs). Homininae is a subfamily of Hominidae that excludes orangutans. 

The term “hominin” refers to bipedal apes, which are all now extinct except for humans.  Examples of extinct bipedal human relatives are Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis , and Homo erectus.  Few very early (prior to 4 million years ago) hominin fossils have been found so determining the lines of hominin descent is extremely difficult.  Within the last 20 years, three new genera of hominoids were discovered: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Orrorin tugenensis, and Ardipithecus ramidus and kadabba, but at the moment their status in regards to human ancestry is somewhat uncertain  

Internet references

The new nature movement

The new divinity

Evolution ecology extinction

Evolution of aesthetic pleasure

Evolutionary biology and the meaning of life


Evolution and meaning


The biology of wonder

Radiation of hominids

Evolution of primates

Text absorbs word 


Milestones in humanistic education

December 14th, 2019

“The  world is  changing –  education must  also change. Societies  everywhere are  undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new forms of education to foster the  competencies  that societies  and economies need,  today and tomorrow. This means moving beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on new learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. This  is a humanist  vision of education  as an essential common  good. I believe this  vision renews with the inspiration of the UNESCO Constitution, agreed 70 years ago, while reflecting new times and demands. Education is key to the global integrated framework of sustainable development goals. Education is at the heart of our efforts both to adapt to change and to transform the world within which we live. A quality basic education is the necessary foundation for learning throughout life in a complex and rapidly changing world”.

I. G. Bokova (2014), UNESCO Director General  

1 Think globally: act locally

The quest for sustainable development is espoused by a multitude of international and local  organizations, governments, think tanks and academics. It is by far the world’s most important goal towards which collective local, regional and national actions are sought.  An important exhortation “think globally, act locally” has gained world-wide prominence, which resonates a broad understanding of the world’s contemporary problems including global warming and loss of biodiversity, prompting actions to address such issues. This blog presents two examples of humanistic education involving engagement with the local environment, each of which is set in a global knowledge system for learning about climate change.  

2 Humanistic  education: Skomer

Skomer, a small offshore island off the South West coast of Wales, played a significant historical role in the development of humanistic education because it was a focus of Julian Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism in the 1930s.  Huxley moved on to become a founder member of UNESCO.  His idea was applied by Denis Bellamy to establish a succession of field courses on the island organised on humanistic principles in the 1970s.  Global warming as an educational topic was hardly visible in those days. Now, to be an evolutionary humanist one has to acknowledge that global damage done to the environment has been caused by human action and constitutes an existential threat to humanity and many other species.  Only we humans can manage the climate crisis we have created. Therefore, the practical goal of humanism is to act on the understanding that the responsibility to create and maintain sustainable methods of living is a collective one. 

There are five basic principles of humanistic education which make it particularly suitable for online classrooms and lifelong learning:

  • Students should be able to choose what they want to learn. Humanistic teachers are facilitators, not disseminators of knowledge, who believe that students will be motivated to learn a subject if it’s something they need and want to know.
  • The goal of education should be to foster students’ desire to learn and teach them how to learn. Students should be self-motivated in their studies with a desire to build a personal body of knowledge on their own and communicate it to their peers.
  • Humanistic educators believe that grades are irrelevant and that only self-evaluation is meaningful because grading encourages students to work for a grade and not for personal satisfaction. In addition, humanistic educators are opposed to objective tests because they test a student’s ability to memorize and do not provide sufficient tutorial feedback to the teacher and student as a learning unit.
  • Humanistic educators believe that both feelings and knowledge are important to the learning process. Unlike traditional educators, humanistic teachers do not separate the cognitive (knowledge) and affective (attitudes) domains.
  • Humanistic educators insist that classrooms need to provide students with non threatening environments so that they will feel secure to learn. Once students feel secure, learning becomes easier and more meaningful. 

The five basic principles of humanistic education can be summarized as:

1) Students’ learning should be self-directed.

2) Classrooms should produce students who want and know how to learn.

3) The only form of meaningful evaluation is self-evaluation.

4) Feelings, as well as knowledge, are important in the learning process.

5) Students learn best in a non threatening environment.

Today, practical work in the context of a humanistic education involves assembling a personal body of knowledge about a particular feature of the local environment backed up with a digital library.  The outcome of the investigation is then presented online as a mindmap delineating connections with, and dependencies on, other features and a wider curriculum. These individual digital presentations thereby become information packages for others to build upon.  An example is the educational framework proposed by Julian Huxley for Skomer. The features contributing to a holistic view of the island are listed in the contents of the book ‘Island of Skomer’ (Table 1), published in 1950 as the report on the first field survey of the island in 1946.

Table 1 Features of Skomer Island suitable for humanistic education projects


The Flora

Spring Migration


The Petrels

The Auks

Gulls and Cormorants

Small Mammals

The Atlantic Seal

Marine Biology

Autumn Migration

The Rock Types 

This list can be regarded as the holistic catalogue of a Skomer digital library from which a student can select a feature of its biodiversity, geology or archaeology to assemble a personal body of knowledge that can be displayed on line (Fig 1; Table 2).

Fig 1 A humanistic mind map for navigating from a personal body of knowledge about Skomer’s  Puffins to enter the wider context of a syllabus about global warming

Table 2  Four examples of websites created collaboratively as classrooms as assignments to communicate personal bodies of knowledge. 

Skomer: a Mind Map

Skomer: a Knowledge Island

Rescue Mission Planet Wales

Global Warming

International Classrooms Online

3 Humanistic education: Rescue Mission

Agenda 21 is a non-binding action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. The “21” in Agenda 21 refers to the 21st century.  It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, which has been adopted by the UN, other multilateral organizations and individual governments around the world to be executed at local, national, and global levels.   

The Agenda has been affirmed with a few modifications at subsequent UN conferences with the aim of achieving global sustainable development. One major objective of the Agenda 21 initiative is that every local government should draw up its own Local Agenda 21 in consultation with its communities. Since 2015, Sustainable Development Goals are included in the Agenda 2030.

The book ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’ was launched in 1994 as an educational outcome of the 1992 sustainable development summit.  To communicate the language of the agenda, 28 young people from 21 countries assembled to edit the book, which is organized into four chapters containing 46 subject headings which correspond to the 40 chapters of Agenda 21. Each chapter clearly represents corresponding concepts detailed in Agenda 21, with excerpts from the United Nations document, quotes, commentary, poems and illustrations from youth around the world. Since 1992 the agenda has been confirmed by successive summits with ever increasing urgency.

The focus of part IV is on the role of young people in shaping local action plans that will give them a prominent role in protecting the environment. The goal of this chapter is summed up by the following quote: “You children of today are the hope for tomorrow.” The Law on Child Rights, signed by 148 governments, gave youth the right to participate in decisions that affect them. Rescue Mission clearly illustrates the need to adopt humanistic behaviours from the classroom to respond to the impact of a developing global political-economic structure that starts at the child’s local school/community and extends to international organizations promoting lifelong learning for living sustainably.  

At the time of its publication Rescue Mission was praised as the simplistic yet comprehensive overview of Agenda 21 telling future generations how they should act for humanity’s long term survival.  In this respect it provides environmental educators with information and tips for incorporating ideas into their classrooms. Moreover, it offers a wealth of information for everyone in the form of a glossary, index, listing of the Agenda 21 taskforce, an outline of Agenda 21 and contact information to participate in the national and international Resource Mission.

Rescue Mission singles out not only the profound institutional and cultural barriers to accomplishing a more sustainable development, but reflects on several of the necessary radical steps and strategies: 

  • the transformation of capitalism;
  • the transformation of politics and regulation; 
  • the restructuring of science and education;
  • and a peaceful  revolution in culture. 

The book points out several untapped forms of humanistic education, in part viewing society as a cradle-to-grave learning system where a multitude of small actions can make a major difference. It presents a tentative proposition of a new humanist agenda for a sustainable future. In general, Agenda 21 addresses the challenge of transforming the complex aggregate of modern society – its cultural, economic, political and scientific components — in order to tackle fatale environmental destruction.  

The call for a new humanism in the 21st century roots in the conviction that the moral, intellectual and political foundations of globalization and international cooperation have to be rethought. Whilst the historic European humanism was set out to resolve tensions between tradition and modernity and to reconcile individual rights with newly emerging duties of citizenship, the new humanism approach of Agenda 21 goes beyond the level of the nation state in seeking to unite the process of globalization with its complex and sometimes contradictory manifestations. As Irina Bokova postulated in her installation speech as UNESCO Director-General (November 2009), the new humanism constitutes; 

“a universal vision, open to the entire human community and embracing each and every continent […] it is to give fresh impetus to solidarity, to bring people together and awaken their conscience”. 

The new humanism approach to education exemplified in the creation of Rescue Mission by an international group of young people, advocates the social inclusion of every human being at all levels of society and underlines the transformative power of education, sciences, culture and communications. Therefore, human­ism today needs to be perceived as a collective educational effort that holds governments, civil society, the private sector and human individuals equally responsible to realize its values and to design creatively and implement a humanist approach to a sustainable society, based on integrated economic, social and environmental development. 

This “conscience of humanity”, to put it in the visionary words of Jawaharlal Nehru, reflects UNESCO’s normative principles and political mandate and indicates the way forward to multilateral strategies for sustainable development, “releasing a political energy that can deliver us right to the heart of contemporary thinking about cosmopolitan democracy”.

A new humanism as set out in Rescue Mission describes the only way forward if we want to live in a world that accounts for the diversity of identities and the heterogeneity of interests and which is based on inclusive, democratic, and, indeed, humanist values.  To this end the book was the starting point for a pilot in Welsh schools With funding from theTexaco refinery, the local authority and the Countryside Council for Wales, Rescue Mission was promoted through schools into the communities they served. The pilot, was known as SCAN (Schools and communities Agenda 21 network). Despite the success of the pilot which was coordinated in teacher’s resource centres, the National Curriculum and the embryonic Internet were limiting factors in its widespread uptake.  However, a practical component of environmental networking/monitoring role in schools continues to this day in the National Museum of Wales’ Spring Bulbs educational network.

4  Being as one with nature

The aim of lifelong learning is to focus on new digital classroom environments to teach the competencies  that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow. helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of global warming and over-consumption of Earth’s environmental services.  This means learning for living on a planet under pressure, with an emphasis on:

  •  cultural literacy;
  • greater justice;
  • social equity; 
  • global solidarity;
  • being as one with nature.

Being as one with nature is living for the mutual benefit of all life forms.  The phrase defines a land ethic which expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Aldo  Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of nature connectedness and caring relationships in a family of things.  This is elegantly stated in the following poem by Mary Oliver.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things”.

—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Nature connectedness is the extent to which individuals include nature as part of their identity. It includes an understanding of nature and everything it comprises, even the parts that are not pleasing.  Characteristics of nature connectedness are similar to those of a personality trait: nature connectedness is stable over time and across various situations. Schult describes three components that make up the nature connectedness construct:

  • The cognitive component is the core of nature connectedness and refers to how integrated one feels with nature.
  •  The affective component is an individual’s sense of care for nature.
  • The behavioral component is an individual’s commitment to protect the natural environment.

These components are evident in the holism of Skomer and Rescue Mission.  In fact they are now central for us to adapt to global warming in that they highlight the importance of effective teaching to define being at one with nature.  Everyone should be aware of this societal problem, takes action in solving the problem, and becomes socially responsible for future generations. A topic framework for a global warming syllabus is presented in Table 3.

Table 3 A topic framework for a ‘global warming’ syllabus.

1 Warming

2 Causes

3 Effects

4 Feedback dynamics

5 Climate models

6 Responses

7 Politics of global warming

8 Elements of a decarbonising economy

9 History of the science

10 See also

Although the syllabus can be entered  through any topic, ‘Responses’ is a good portal because it opens up a wider perspective for practical work, whereby students become engaged with the management of global and local biodiversity as adaptations to effects of  global warming (Table 4). 

Table  4 Responses to the impact of global warming on biodiversity

6.2 Adaptation

6.3 Nature connectedness

6.4 Biodiversity hotspots

6.4.1 Terrestrial regions

6.4.2 Water-bounded islands

6.3.3 Habitat fragments

6.4.4 Cultural islands

6.5  Conservation management

6.6 Climate engineering

5 ‘Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’: classrooms of the future

The humanistic classroom is, at its heart, a place to learn how to fix problems and live well.  With the evolution of computer technology, educational capabilities are growing and changing every day. The Internet is a vast electronic library of information, and both research and instruction can be achieved through a click of the mouse.  Educational technology in the digital classroom is generating new opportunities for personalized learning, engaging classroom strategies with much more collaboration between students, with teachers as facilitators. In the foreseeable future, the biggest impact of artificial intelligence in the humanistic classroom is likely to be in personalised tutoring and virtual reality learning.  Virtual reality makes learning fun, as students learn about things, places, objects from the comfort of their classrooms without spending money or time travelling. In a wider context artificial intelligence in the classroom can help address many of humanity’s most critical issues: including those related to education, the sciences, culture, media, access to information, gender equality, poverty alleviation and climate change. Yet these major opportunities that artificial intelligence offers can only be unleashed, if it is developed with respect to universal norms and standards, and if it is anchored in peace and humanism, with a focus on achieving ethical sustainable development. 

News that Pearson, the world’s largest textbook publisher, is phasing out print publications for higher education in order to adopt a resolutely digital-first policy may signal an eventual end for traditional book learning. But the wealth of technology coming on stream heralds an exciting new chapter for the future classroom.  In the view of Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents independent school head teachers in the UK, digital education will unlock a less rigid approach to classroom-based learning, Buchanan predicts individual academic achievement will be charted by artificial intelligence, rather than by a plethora of exams, and argues that for teachers disenchanted by the current need to “teach to the test”, will gain freedom to pursue a more rounded curriculum and foster a new optimism.  In particular, living in a zero carbon economy in an ethical equilibrium with Earth’s ecological productivity will require an education system for adapting to a state of prosperity independent of wealth. Prosperity will be defined as flourishing and thriving with good fortune or successful social status encompassing happiness and health. 

Rose Luckin, co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education steers developments in educational technology in a firmly ethical direction. She believes that while individual tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality or MOOCs (massive open online courses) will each play a role in the future classroom, close attention should be paid to the “over-arching intelligence infrastructure” as online education develops.

“We need to recognise that education for all ages must change to create the skills society will need in the future and this means looking at the possibilities of artificial intelligence in a more holistic way.  Cutting-edge technologies must be constructed from an ethical framework, which empowers both learners and teachers, rather than exploiting them for purely commercial gain.” she says.

Drawing a parallel with the growth in social media, Luckin believes: “We have all witnessed the power of the big digital networking platforms to shape users’ behaviour and habits, and there have been negative as well as positive, impacts from this. When we look at the future of the classroom, we can see that as long as there is an ethical purpose to what we do, individuals and society will benefit from a global education technology infrastructure which deploys a whole range of digital tools.”  But Luckin issues a warning to those who believe the future classroom needs to concentrate on computer coding alone.

“As society’s educational needs continue to change, we may well decide not to engage with some of the breakthrough things that we know artificial intelligence can deliver. We need advanced thinking around what we want to deliver in terms of lifelong learning for each individual citizen, rather than an obsession with clever algorithms and coding.”

Julian Huxley defined the ethics of lifelong learning in terms of treating all peoples as equals with respect to human dignity, mutual respect, and educational opportunity.  His idea of evolutionary humanism can be traced to his making of the first ever wildlife documentary in the 1930s as an exercise in mass communication about the wildness of nature.  After this he launched his vision of Skomer as an outdoor humanistic classroom with a steady stream of eager learners. In 1946 he became Unesco’s first Director-General and set out an education programme that was cosmopolitan in vision, one concerned with humankind in relationship with nature and with its past, one in which art and science were equally valued. During his tenure as Director-General he also began to articulate fully the concerns which would occupy the later years of his life: the relation of overpopulation to poverty and ignorance, the necessity for the conservation of wilderness and wildlife, and the importance of the renunciation of parochial views on religion and politics. Finally, he came to stress even more strongly than before his optimistic belief that humankind can and should take control of its own environmental and biological destiny.  His view of humanism as the foundation of UNESCO eventually bore fruit in the international group of young people who met after the 1992 UN environment summit to produce Rescue Mission as a prescription for planetary survival. Thus, both ‘Island of Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’ stand as milestones pointing to science, art and literature as part of the bigger picture of planet Earth with all its species, human and nonhuman, as one interacting entity.

A humanistic pedagogy for adapting to global warming

November 27th, 2019

1 Summary. 

The idea system of evolutionary humanism should be revisited as an educational scaffold to support lifelong learning for adapting to global warming. Google Classroom should be tested as a vehicle to establish a universal holistic digital pedagogy. The concept of island biodiversity hotspots should be explored to provide local access points to a global warming syllabus. 

2 Where it all began

In the 1960s and early 70s informal meetings were held at the Zoological Society of London to discuss the trend for many former UK university departments of zoology to merge into larger administrative units, encompassing more amorphous concepts, such as environmental science, resource management, earth sciences and molecular biology. Zoology was losing its unique position as a holistic subject encompassing all humankind and illustrating how all life emerged from a common ancestor through the process of natural selection. This cosmic perspective, presented to the public in zoos, educated people to think critically about the relationship between humans and animals and allowed the multitudes to experience daily the similarities between the human world and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Zoology was being dismantled in a piecemeal fashion and these new adhoc subjects were covering areas traditionally taught as small parts of general zoology courses. Key figures in these deliberations were  Julian Huxley, Solly Zuckerman, John Philips, Sam Berry, Denis Bellamy and Con Waddington. A major concern was that teaching the theory of evolution was under threat because historically, zoology had always been taught within a well defined evolutionary context. Indeed, evolution is still the backbone of zoology as a classical discipline and provides an efficient and striking explanation for how organisms today are different from organisms in the past and why there is such an amazing diversity of fascinating animals with awe inspiring lifestyles and body plans.  Yet the Zoological Society group recognised that there was a need for novel generalisms to position the old specialisms in a less confrontational and more holistic perspective. In other words, the aim should be to keep zoology in the mainstream of natural history and at the same time open up its traditional ideational boundaries to include all attachments of humans to other animals. Topics of inquiry linking people to other animals in a humanistic framework include the psychological and biological underpinnings of attachments to pets, attitudes toward the use of animals, cross-cultural similarities and differences in human-animal relationships, sex differences in human interactions with other species, the roles of animals in art, religion, mythology, sport, and literature and the choices made to study animals rather than plants and birds rather than insects. These topics now fall within anthrozoology, a subsystem of evolutionary humanism.  It was in this holistic context that Julian Huxley’s idea-system of evolutionary humanism came to the fore.  

An idea-system is defined as a process and a social environment for empowering people, allowing for continuous improvement of knowledge. Huxley had in mind that evolutionary humanism could be defined as a system of beliefs and practices by means of which people could confront the ultimate problems of human life such as health, poverty, inequalities and education. Traditionally these kinds of beliefs and practices characterised religion.  In contrast, evolutionary humanism is a secular perspective based on an understanding that every one of us is an organism built on the same biochemical body plan as all other living things whilst recognising we have unique cognitive properties and exhibit dominant destructive relations with the rest of nature. Huxley’s idea-system is organized around the facts and ideas of evolution that tell us we are part of a comprehensive evolutionary process and therefore at one with nature in everything we do.  Huxley added the codicil that being human means we cannot avoid playing a decisive role in this process to achieve a better future for ourselves whilst ensuring the survival of our sentient cousins. This perspective places evolutionary humanism at the centre of lifelong learning to adapt to an overcrowded planet undergoing rapid destructive climate change. He clarified this position in Essays of a Humanist (1964):

“Man is not merely the latest dominant type produced by evolution, but its sole active agent on earth. His destiny is to be responsible for the whole future of the evolutionary process on this planet. . . This is the gist and core of Evolutionary Humanism, the new organization of ideas and potential action now emerging from the present revolution of thought, and destined, I prophesy with confidence, to become the dominant idea-system of the new phase of psychosocial evolution”.

“The world has become one de facto. It must achieve some unification of thought if it is to avoid disaster. . . and this can only come about with the aid of education. We must remember that two-fifths of the world’s adult population. . . are still illiterate, that the world’s provision for education at all levels is lamentably inadequate, and that the underdeveloped countries are all clamorously demanding more and better education. . . make no mistake, the basic task before the educational profession today is to study and understand the evolutionary humanist revolution in all its ramifications, to follow up its educational implications, and to enable as many as possible of the world’s growing minds to be illuminated by its new view of human destiny”.

Giordano Bruno summarises the ethical foundation of evolutionary humanism as the principle of equal consideration of equal-ranking interests. 

“Therefore, discriminating ideologies such as racism, sexism, ethnocentrism or speciesism, as well as social Darwinist or eugenic concepts, which occasionally have been advocated by evolutionary theorists, are incompatible with evolutionary humanism. The starting point is that as children of evolution, we too are just “life that wants to live, in the midst of life that wants to live” (Albert Schweitzer).  Evolutionary humanists advocate values of enlightenment, critical rationality, self-determination, freedom and social justice. They do not view human beings as the pinnacle of creation, but as the unintended product of natural evolution, different only by degree, not fundamentally, from the other life forms on this speck of dust in space”.

An educational blueprint for evolutionary humanism had emerged from Huxley’s experience of wildlife inhabiting the small islands off the west coast of Wales  In 1934 he had directed a short film about a colony of Northern Gannets on the tiny rocky island of Grassholm. It received a special mention at the 3rd Venice International Film Festival in 1935 and won the Best Short Subject (One-Reel) at the 10th Academy Awards in 1938.  Huxley, had enlisted some of the top figures in the British scientific and cinematic world for what is classed by many as the world’s first natural history documentary. The title was chosen by producer Alexander Korda as a reference to The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), his breakthrough film of the previous year.

The wildlife status of the Welsh islands as national biodiversity hotspots highlighted their educational value to Huxley as ingredients for the practical development of his evolutionary humanism.  To this end he attempted to influence the adoption of a holistic educational programme for the islands. As President of the Pembrokeshire Bird Protection Society after the 2nd World War, he explained his wish that the Society should broaden the basis of its work to include botany, zoology, geology and archaeology in addition to the study of bird life and the interests of the West Wales countryside in general. To these ends his proposal that the Society be called the West Wales Field Society was unanimously adopted. Following on from this the Society’s Council decided adopt Huxley’s holistic approach, which requires a corresponding pedagogical atmosphere and practice, by renting the island of Skomer for a while. The base was to be at Skomer Island House, with a small seasonal staff consisting of an honorary warden, a married couple to act as boatman and cook, and a succession of students.  This model was actually tested on Skomer from Spring to Autumn in 1946. An account of the project was published four years later as ‘Island of Skomer’, edited by two Council Members, John Buxton and Ronald Lockley. Julian Huxley’s interdisciplinary thinking is evident in the team of experts that was assembled and their contributions listed in the following table of contents.  

Description and History;The Move to Skomer; Settling Down to Work; The Flora; Spring Migration; Land-birds; The Petrels; The Auks; Gulls and Cormorants; Small Mammals; The Atlantic Seal; Marine Biology; Autumn Migration; Last Days at Skomer;The Rock Types of Skomer;The Flora of Skomer; The Birds of Skomer; The Lepidoptera of Skomer; Marine List of Skomer; Measurements and Movements, etc., of Voles and Wood-mice; Contents of Barn Owl Pellets. 

The holistic geographical scope of the Skomer initiative was indicated by the choice of an introductory quotation from Michael Drayton’s poem Poly-Olbion, an expansive poetic journey through the landscape, history, traditions and customs of early modern England and Wales, published in the first decades of the 17th cent. The quotation referred to the St Brides seascape where  the Welsh Islands nestled in the fierce tidal races; Scalme is Skomer. It is a reminder that Huxley saw no barriers between the arts and sciences.

“Scalme, Stockolme with Saint Bride and Gatholme, neerer land 

(which with their veinie breasts intice the gods of Sea,

 that with the lustie Isles doe revell every day) 

As Crescent-like the Land her bredth here inward bends”

Michael drayton Poly-olbion Song 5

Sadly, there is no mention of education in ‘Island 0f Skomer’ and there was no follow up. Due largely its international importance for the study of bird life, the island became a national nature reserve in 1959 and Huxley dedicated much of his latter days to the cause of UNESCO, which sought to increase educational and cultural opportunities for people throughout the world. In this global context Huxley made an explicit connection between his educational advocacy and his humanistic worldview. It was not until the 1970s that this vision for Skomer was revisited through the efforts of Denis Bellamy, then a University of Wales Professor of Zoology in Cardiff, who ran year on year project-based field courses for his students on Skomer.  This episode is summarised in a previous blog.

In our private lives today we are not far from the Grassholm Gannets as they squabble over territory, perform spectacular dives and regurgitate fish mixed with waste plastic for their young. Sadly, after five decades of humankind’s rapacious occupation of Earth, evolutionary humanism remains on the periphery of education for living sustainably. It is the purpose of this blog to bring Huxley’s pedagogy to the centre of debate about the kind of holistic education necessary to adapt to global warming.

3 Towards a democratic ecopedagogy. 

Education provides the means of social adaptation with the goal of developing people to their fullest capacity, intelligence and freedom.  This goal informs the three basic strands of educational activity, which are:

  • to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to function in society;
  • to discover and cultivate the specific ‘hidden’ talents in the individual students;
  • to awaken a deeper interest in and concern for the wholeness of life.

There is little question that the field of education is currently in need of an in-depth revision which requires that all three strands now have to be plaited together to meet the urgent task of moving to a carbon neutral economy in the next 50 years.  An understanding of the wholeness of life of life is essential to devize plans and policies to meet this target.

Since the 1960s, globalization has accelerated the mingling of peoples and cultures.  The movement of people is now a simple fact of life along with the diversity and change that come with it.  But for reasons that seem to fuse insecurity with fear, some people do not like this, which has triggered the rise of populism.  Populist leaders attract the votes of people who do not want to adapt to change and want the world to return to the past; their mission is to return to the imagined glories of the nation state and push us into a chaotic, ugly future we cannot yet imagine. Running in parallel is the rapid development of information technology. This has multiplied opportunities for rapprochement and social interaction but has also exacerbated misunderstandings and expressions of discontent, whilst climate change and the depletion of natural resources have contributed to a hardening of national economic positions. economic globalization that undermines our sovereign states and local communities. Have we not had enough exploiting of the world’s resources, including ourselves as “human resources under the public and private sectors?  But there are three key sectors in society, not two. The other one is known by a variety of inadequate labels, including “not-for- profit” and “civil society”. Calling it plural can help it take its place alongside the ones called public and private, while indicating that it is made up of a wide variety of human associations.

Within the plural sector  globalization is no longer about “contacts” but about “sharing”. The global human community has become more self-aware. It has developed closer ties; time and space have contracted; different peoples are increasingly in contact with one another; cultures entwine and identities intermingle. All countries are actors in a single irreversible globalization process in which all must be able to participate equally. In this context, building an international community to combat global warming surely requires more than fostering mutual tolerance, respect or understanding. We need deeper cooperation and a stronger reconciliation pursued through common projects that may be seen as a preamble to a mutual understanding and equality of wealth and opportunity.  These changes call for the working out of a new humanism that is not only theoretical but practical, that is not only focused on the search for environmental values but oriented towards the implementation of concrete policies and programmes that have tangible results. Sustainability is now the greatest challenge facing humanity, but the current educational system perpetuates rather than alleviates the threats. Classrooms need to bring together students from humanities and sciences, engaging them in a common and critical humanistic dialogue. Above all, teachers and students should be networked globally.  

Being a humanist today means building bridges between North, South, East and West and strengthening the human community to take up global challenges together. It means encouraging scientific cooperation networks, establishing research centres, and disseminating information technology to accelerate the sharing of ideas. It means using culture, in all of its diversity of expression, as a tool for rapprochement and for crafting a shared vision of one planet living.  The Global Footprint Network states that humanity, as a collective, currently uses the equivalent of more than one planet to provide the common resources people across the world use. It currently takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what human beings use in a year. Therefore, this new humanism has to be oriented towards one planet living. It has to reach out to peoples, near or far who have been struck by disasters. It must guide us also in supporting the development of the poorest countries. In particular, education, communication, culture and the sciences are closely-linked disciplines that propose together a global, sustainable response to the challenges of global warming.  A new humanism means cultivating a better grasp of our environment by understanding and anticipating the consequences of climate change for millions of people affected by drought, desertification and rising water levels. It entails protecting biodiversity along with cultural divethe domain of the plural sector, which is not some “them”, but you, and me, and we, acting together. We need to engage in social movements and social initiatives that challenge destructive practices and replace them with constructive ones. We need not be passive human resources, in the service of imbalance, but can be resourceful human beings, in the service of our progeny and our planet.

Regarding the main principles of a humanistic democratic pedagogy, special attention has to be given to shift the focus from previous teacher-fronted classrooms to guide the classroom experience towards developing and maintaining good relationships, showing concern and support for others, and receiving these as well. Humanism is a special type of person to person interaction, consisting of sharing, caring, acceptance, and sensitivity. It facilitates understanding, genuineness, support and interdependence. Humanistic education is a way of relating teacher and student that emphasizes self-discovery, introspection, self-esteem, and getting in touch with the strengths and positive qualities of others and ourselves. It lets learning be concerned more for others and ourselves. To achieve these objectives the humanistic approach places a great deal of emphasis on students’ choice and control over the course of their education. Teachers become facilitators and students learn from each other. They are encouraged to make choices that range from day-to-day activities to setting future life goals.

By students drawing on their strengths and using examples related to climate change, sustainability may be described as an educational paradigm shift that releases individual potential to participate in a sustainability an environmental revolution of equalities and economics. Practical outcomes of this democratic shift would empower students to challenge the status quo, reject dominant practices driving year on year economic growth and rather than assume existing positions in society, take the lead in creating a better world.  It was in this context that ecopedagogy grew from discussions at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to formulate a mission for education that universally integrates an ecological ethic. Drawing from critical pedagogy, it encourages students to question dominating beliefs and practice to achieve a critical consciousness in a continuous process of unlearning, learning and relearning, and evaluation and reflection brought to bear on a future-oriented ecological vision. Ecopedagogy embraces environmental education but also engages students in a philosophical reflection on the ends and purposes of knowledge by challenging them to develop concrete actions. It forges an appreciation for the collective potentials of being human, empowering people to do good deeds by combining social activism with global awareness.   

4 A democratic pedagogy for climate action

The concepts of choice and control are at the heart of democratic education. Choice, the ability to have autonomy in the direction of one’s own educational path, and control, the ability to decide how to approach major educational needs, are the two main principles of democratic education.

In Europe, and in the Western World, a democratic pedagogy operates within  a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, where the student builds their own knowledge being facilitated by the teacher. In the Eastern world a classic top down teacher-dominated approach to education is favoured.  A willingness to express emerging thoughts is also paramount in a constructivist process and in doing so students are encouraged to share their own perspectives whilst engaging in dialogue. This sharing of perspectives is necessary as students are asked to complete a common goal in a cooperative task. Through face to face interaction ‘a classroom of many voices and ears’ is promoted (Fig 1,Table 1).

Fig 1 Dynamics of a democratic pedagogy

There are obvious links between cooperative learning classrooms and democratic classrooms. For a start, willingness to listen is certainly promoted in the cooperative classroom. Cooperative learning requires students to listen to each other whilst they work, in cooperation, on their individual tasks or whilst participating in their allocated cooperative role (individual accountability). When completing their own task and needing to explain this to others who listen and respond also helps develop this sense of a group. They as also become positively interdependent when trying to complete the common goal using their own individual contributions 

It is the ‘deliberate dialogues’ and the promotion of certain attitudes or ways of looking at the world (a democracy stance) that help to positively influence students to learn about democracy. In a cooperative classroom, teachers strive to encourage students to form their own opinions but also acknowledge that others may hold different standpoints. This is possible as students are encouraged in such classrooms to share their different views, in order to complete the common goal the class is striving to reach. They complete work together making choices due to their positive interdependence.

Table 1  Cooperative learning in a democratic classroom

Crucial to the development of a democratic pedagogy for climate action is an understanding of biodiversity hotspots.   Within science, a biodiversity hotspot is a place with significant levels of endemic species diversity that is threatened by human habitation.  The Welsh islands are biodiversity hotspots in a local context.

From a global viewpoint, Norman Myers described hotspots as ecoregions and wrote about the concept with two articles in “The Environmentalist” (1988) and 1990).  The global dimension was revised after thorough analysis by Myers and others and published in “Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions”. Also, a paper was published in the journal Nature.  To qualify as a biodiversity hotspot on Myers 2000 edition of the hotspot-map, a region must meet two strict criteria: it must contain at least 0.5% or 1,500 species of vascular plants as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70% of its primary vegetation.  Around the world, 36 areas qualify under this definition of a global biodiversity hotspot (Fig 2 ). These sites support nearly 60% of the world’s plant, bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species, with a very high share of those species as endemics. Some of these hotspots support up to 15,000 endemic plant species and some have lost up to 95% of their natural habitat.

Fig 2 Regional biodiversity hotspots

Global biodiversity hotspots host their diverse ecosystems on just 2.3% of the planet’s surface, however, the area defined as hotspots covers a much larger proportion of the land. The original 25 hotspots covered 11.8% of the land surface area.  Overall, the current hotspots cover more than 15.7% of the land surface area, but have lost around 85% of their habitat. This loss of habitat explains why approximately 60% of the world’s terrestrial life lives on only 2.3% of the land surface area.

Direct contact with biodiversity and a better understanding of its evolutionary importance and threats are essential to raise public awareness and engagement in community-driven biodiversity conservation and monitoring programs.  Most of the world’s population lives in urban areas and has a decreasing direct contact with nature within large terrestrial regions, limiting the efficacy of education towards environmental and biodiversity awareness. From this point of view, hands-on activities in smaller proximity habitats may help to overcome this gap by providing experiences to enhance ecological literacy and active participation in wildlife conservation.  In this connection, a wider range of small places with locally rare high species diversity are available as educational resources defined as, ‘water-bounded islands’, and ‘habitat fragments’, The latter are the remains of ancient habitats with significant levels of biodiversity that is still threatened by human activities. They include a variety of local public nature sites ranging from national nature reserves to locally managed community areas.  Such places are locally special and in need of management, so drawing the public into wildlife conservation conservation.  

A fourth kind of biodiversity hotspot is the ‘cultural island’, which could be a garden, a tree-lined avenue or a collection of potted plants on a windowsill, all augmented with a database as to the geographical origin and character of their species.  In his introduction to the 1961 anthology The Humanist Frame, Huxley wrote:

“This new idea-system, whose birth we of the mid-twentieth century are witnessing, I shall simply callHumanism, because it can only be based on our understanding of man and his relations with the rest of his environment. It must be focused on man as an organism, though one with unique properties. It must be organized around the facts and ideas of evolution, taking account of the discovery that man is part of a comprehensive evolutionary process, and cannot avoid playing a decisive role in it”.

Cultural islands provide urban schools and residents with opportunities for the application of citizen science to realise that humankind is part of a comprehensive evolutionary process  and shift thinking from a human-centered urban jungle to a life-centered ecological worldview.  There are new possibilities for knowledge, passion and action as three dimensions of this shift.  Humanism and ecology are not two separate and unconnected worlds. There are in fact many learning pathways to and from small biodiversity hotspots of all sizes to a syllabus for climate action, which sets humanity on the road to a zero carbon economy (Fig 3 ).

Fig 3 Learning pathways to global warming    

For example, studying a group of diverse species of potted plants on a windowsill can be a practical entry point to understand how evolution has made a species distinctive. It can also be a doorway into a comprehensive syllabus about global warming (Fig 4).  They can also function as climate change indicators (Fig 5). The basic pedagogy is to work from the specific to the general. Starting with questions arising from an awareness of, say, the morphological differences between the species could lead to an investigation of their survival strategies in evolution and the impact of global warming on their natural habitat.

Fig 4 Position of a biodiversity island in a global warming syllabus

At this point it is worth considering the idea of islands’ as special places where Huxley’s evolutionary humanism can at last become an educational reality.    

Fig 5 Local botanical indicators of climate change

5 Google Classroom for humanists

Education has long gone digital. Educators successfully use online platforms to exchange feedback with their students, share assignments, plan their lessons or check for plagiarism. One of such platforms is Google Сlassroom. Google Classroom is a reliable tool for classroom management. It is a special platform for student assessment, grading and teacher-student communication which helps all participants of the learning process to achieve better results, connecting all different Google services together to help teachers and institutions go paperless. Assignments are created through Google Drive. Gmail is used for classroom communication. 

There are some important features of Google Classroom which can be used by both teachers and students for better learning and interaction.

  • Grading. Google Classroom can work with different grading systems. Teachers are able to attach assignments in text files which students can view, edit and copy. Students can create files as well. They can attach their files to the assignment if it wasn’t done by the teacher. Instructors have a possibility to monitor the progress of each student working on the assignment. They can also comment and edit it.
  • Assignments. Teachers store assignments in Google Class and share it with students. Files are stored on students’ drive and then submitted when they are ready.
  • Communication. Teachers can post announcements for students and students can comment on them. Students can also post class streams, but their posts won’t have the same priority level as announcements.

Using Google Classroom can save teachers and students’ time and make the learning process more effective. High technology and understandable interface enable teachers to work much easier, so they can concentrate on their work and the main target of the course instead of concentrating on solving minor problems such as printing and sharing assignments or explaining material to each student individually. This can also significantly decrease costs for further improvement of the learning process.

Students control their own learning process, and they lead the way by reflecting on their experiences. This process makes them experts of their own learning. The teacher helps create situations where the students feel safe questioning and reflecting on their own processes, either privately or in group discussions. The teacher should also create activities that lead the student to reflect on his or her prior knowledge and experiences. Talking about what was learned and how it was learned is really important.

The constructivist classroom relies heavily on collaboration among students. There are many reasons why collaboration contributes to learning. The main reason it is used so much in constructivism is that students learn about learning not only from themselves, but also from their peers. When students review and reflect on their learning processes together, they can pick up strategies and methods from one another.

An old adage states: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” The last part of this statement is the essence of inquiry-based learning.  Inquiry implies involvement that leads to understanding. Furthermore, involvement in learning implies possessing skills and attitudes that permit you to seek resolutions to questions and issues while you construct.  The main activity in a constructivist classroom is solving problems. Students use inquiry methods to ask questions, investigate a topic, and use a variety of resources to find solutions and answers. As students explore the topic, they draw conclusions, and, as exploration continues, they revisit those conclusions. Exploration of questions leads to more questions. (See the CONCEPT TO CLASSROOM workshop Inquiry-based Learning)

6 The Skomer Classroom

There are many benefits from using Google Classroom:

  • Is easy to set up – Teachers can add students directly or share a code with their class to join. It takes just a few minutes to set up.
  • Saves time – The simple, paperless assignment workflow allows teachers to create, review and mark assignments quickly, all in one place.
  • Improves organisation – Students can see all of their assignments on the assignments page, while all class materials (e.g. documents, photos, videos) are automatically filed into folders in Google Drive.
  • Enhances communication – Classroom allows teachers to send announcements and start class discussions instantly. Students can share resources with one another or provide answers to questions on the stream.
  • Promotes home-based lifelong learning
  • Is affordable and secure – Like the rest of G Suite for Education services, Classroom contains no ads, never uses your content or student data for advertising purposes, and is free.
  • It allows the teacher to function as a facilitator and the students to cooperate in a democratic manner.

The latter benefit points towards the potential of Google Classroom to deliver humanistic education. The Humanistic approach emphasises the student’s personal freedom, their choices, motivation, self-determination and personal goals.  In order for this approach to thrive, it is crucial that a safe learning environment is provided to the students, based on empathy, warmth and acceptance of different viewpoints by the teacher. In this approach, the teacher acts as a facilitator while the student is in control of their learning; learning either individually or by cooperation with other students. Classroom enables face-to-face interactions, either in one-on-one interactions, or in small groups, and holds the student accountable for the learning process. This democratic constructivist pedagogy allows students to acquire academic, personal and life skills through understanding and viewing the world in a holistic way. Can this be encouraged by setting up Skomer as a digital ‘knowledge island’ for learning about evolutionary enriching humanism using Google classroom?  A menu offering student choice is the table of contents made for navigating ‘Island of Skomer’, updated as a digital library. How this might appear to a student is presented in Figs 6 & 7 .

Fig 6 The Skomer Classroom: screenshot of the introductory window


This digital classroom for lifelong learning has been produced by INTERNATIONAL CLASSROOMS ON LINE (ICOL) to illustrate the cross curricular subject of CULTURAL ECOLOGY. It is also an introduction to the pedagogy of humanistic education where the teacher functions as a mentor/guide and students are self directed and use IT to learn from each other. This education management system allows each individual to explore topics and subjects, based on their inherent aptitudes to learn through discovery and interconnection. With 2 Topics and 3 Assignments the aim is for each learner to build a personal body of knowledge that makes sense to them.Therefore there is no need for grading or a third party assessment. The new body of knowledge is to be presented as a Google website for the benefit of others.

Fig 7 The Skomer Classroom: screenshot of the classwork window


Reading assignment

Skomer: the island

Skomer in material terms is a tiny offshore island situated at the extreme South Western edge of Wales. The island is essentially a cliff-girt plateau about 200 ft above the sea, which was first occupied by a small group of prehistoric Celtic farmers. These pioneering families have left their mark to this day in a network of field walls, tracks, cairns and the bases of round houses that are now scarcely visible in a wilderness of bracken. A website was created as a tribute to these people living on the edge of a world and was launched in 1999 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the island being declared a national nature reserve.

Skomer Island quickly enters the imagination as a good place to be. It reminds us more than ‘environment’ that ‘place’ exists only after people have imagined it, either through personal contact or by assimilating other people’s experiences. These special imaginative structures of the Earth like Skomer foster a sense of belonging and unify land with its past and present peoples in powerful ways. They are places of wonderment and are the essence of conservation because they enable us to come to value the biophysical elements of scenery as visual triggers to relive the past use of land as a real or imagined spiritual experience.

Islands occupy a special place in our mythologies, often as the scene of mysterious or extraordinary occurrences. Being cut off from the rest of the world, they are often depicted as sanctuaries where human contact can be fled and danger escaped, or as places of seclusion, where atonement or redemption may be sought. This is why they are powerful dreamy places of self-education.

S.K.O.M.E.R: the concept

Through the imaginative transformation of ‘space’ to ‘environment’ and ‘environment’ to ‘place’ we enter the educational realm of ‘cultural ecology’. This is an interdisciplinary, social concept, which 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, whereby sustainability knowledge is organised to manage the environment responsibly. These personal projects under the acronym S.K.O.M.E.R chart the behavioural changes in the way the flows of materials and ideas between people, ecology and place are managed for smooth social continuity between generations.

These life projects define an individual’s place in society as the interactions between:

‘goods’: a human resource, managed scientifically for food, protection, wealth, recreation and knowledge; ‘nature’: a biophysical ecosystem consisting of habitats and species; and

‘notions’: personal spiritual experiences communicated in words, music and pictures.

A mindmap was created to celebrate the island’s 55th anniversary, in 2014. This presents the wider lessons of SKOMER’s ecology as a conservation management system alongside S.K.O.M.E.R. as a cross- subject educational framework in cultural ecology.

It is part of the COSMOS project , a web educational resource dedicated to learning about cultures of sustainability by making multi-subject organised syllabuses.

The unifying concept is ‘environmental management’, which encompasses environmental knowledge as a mind map linking goods, nature and notions through the operation of the basic human cultural systems of ‘food’, ‘shelter’, ‘possessions’, ‘roots’ and ‘beauty’.


7 Postscript

Education is evolving at a faster pace than any other period in recent history. There’s a growing awareness among educators and families that today’s curriculum needs to evolve to meet tomorrow’s reality. Beyond tools and technology, students need to develop new skills to solve tough problems, collaborate effectively, and express ideas in new ways,

A new report from Google for Education has revealed eight education trends across the world.

You might also like: Gartner report reveals top 10 strategic technologies impacting HE

The report, created in collaboration with behavioural insights consultancy Canvas8, also details three of the trends most prominent in the UK’s primary and secondary schools.

The eight key education trends are:

  • Digital responsibility
  • Life skills and workforce preparation
  • Innovating pedagogy
  • Computational thinking
  • Student-led learning
  • Collaborative classrooms
  • Connecting guardians and schools
  • Emerging technologies

The report is based on an extensive research project which included an academic literature review, expert interviews with global and country-specific education thought leaders, and media narrative analysis including policy research and teacher surveys. The global report is available here, and the UK report here.

In modern times, humanist movements are typically non-religious and aligned with secularism, and today humanism may refer to a nontheistic life stance centred on human agency and looking to science rather than seeking revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world.  Many humanists posit the existence of a community that binds every individual to all other living things. Now, more than ever before, the task of educators is to work towards building this ideal ecosystem. Crises connected to global warming raise challenges that cannot be resolved by any single country. Societies are interconnected and cannot act in isolation. It is up to every one of us to help bind humanity together, to build a common knowledge space that excludes no one, regardless of the continent, origin, age or gender. Through communication, through language and dialogue, through scientific cooperation, we can extend beyond the limits of ourselves, we can broaden our knowledge, discover other customs, and enter the ideal city of the peaceable mind.  These are the stakes of this new humanism.

8 Internet references

Provisional syllabus about global warming

Global warming mindmap 1

UNESCO: Purpose and Philosophy, Julian Huxley

UNESCO: New Humanism for 21st cent

Evolutionary humanism 1999

Biodiversity hotspots for kids

Google Classrooms 1

Google Classrooms 2

Conserving biodiversity in the Canary Isles

Resources for creative students

Pedagogy for a holistic education

The path of self knowledge

Cultural ecology

The Scope of Zoology

Bird’s-eye ecological microcosms

Spring bulb project for charting climate change

International Classrooms On Line

Twitter feed

Revelations of Nature

October 15th, 2019

1 Heritage economies

“ … It took Britain half the resources of the planet to achieve its prosperity; how many planets will a country like India require … ?” Mahatma Gandhi, when asked if, after independence, India would attain British standards of living. 

He also said “ “We are inheritors of a rural civilization. The vastness of our country, the vastness of the population, the situation and the climate of the country have, in my opinion, destined it for a rural civilization… To uproot it and substitute for it an urban civilization seems to me an impossibility.

Fig 1 Business creation associated with a UK World Heritage Site

The UK has a dynamic rural economy beyond farming.  Nearly half a million people work on farms. The total income from farming in the UK is over £5 billion. But while agriculture shapes the rural landscape, it is a minor component of the contemporary rural economy. Rural areas support about half a million businesses, mostly unrelated to farming. These are mainly small and micro enterprises that employ about 70 per cent of the workers in rural England. This figure compares with the 15 per cent of the rural workforce employed in agriculture, forestry and fishing. Social enterprise is a sector growing in importance, as more communities choose to run their own pubs, village shops or other key facilities. Overall, the Gross Value Added from rural areas of England is worth around £400 billion.  Aggregating all activities of England’s heritage sector yields the following macroeconomic contributions: Total estimated GVA contribution to the UK’s GDP of £13.1 billion in 2016, equivalent to 0.75 per cent of UK`s total GVA. The heritage sector in London generated the largest GVA contribution of £3.7 billion in 2016, accounting for 28 per cent of the total heritage sector in England. The South East accounted for the second largest GVA contribution with £2.2 billion. While the heritage sector in the North East had the lowest GVA contribution of £444 million in 2016. Total estimated employment of 196,000 in 2016, equivalent to 0.67 per cent of the workforce of the entire UK. London alone accounted for 41,000 workers in the heritage sector in 2016, followed by South East with 32,000 workers. The North East had the lowest employment with 8,000 heritage workers in 2016. 

In 2018, The British Council produced a report exploring the notion of using cultural heritage to develop an Inclusive growth economy for the future of developing countries.  Inclusive growth means working inclusively with and for all levels of society in order to reconcile the divide between economic growth, and rising poverty and inequality. By working inclusively with communities and wider society the British Council believes that an economy can be grown, that benefits a far wider cross-section of the community, and works to reduce the gap between rich and poor.  This will involve new and innovative ways of encouraging people to engage with, share and manage their rural cultural heritage as an educational/leadership contribution to the local economy. Thereby, quality of life can be improved, value can be created for craft communities, and economic prosperity can be more fairly distributed across urban and rural society and between nations.  

Cultural heritage in this context is used to mean many things, from the built environment through to cultural traditions such as music, gardening and language. It also includes artworks, manuscripts, monuments, archeological sites, oral traditions, festivals, the performing arts and traditional crafts. The British Council’s report was couched in terms of a growth economy. However, all the current major problems of society and their underlying causes can be traced to the conventional way in which the world, and humans’ role in it, are viewed.  We are in ecological crisis. Climate change, over-consumption and inequalities in the use of Earth’s renewable resources compel us to reinvent our economic life on a much more local and regional basis balancing rurality and urbanisation. We also have to forge a global steady-state economy that is socially, ecologically and economically sensible and that locally is ecologically sustainable?  

Claudia Múnera summarises the principles of biocultural heritage in a steady state economy as follows:

 “Protecting the biosphere comes down to making sure enough ecosystems around the globe maintain their structures and functions. A strong appreciation of biocultural heritage is a key to doing this job, especially in the face of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people maintain a sense of place and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm”.

According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, some 370 million indigenous people in the world depend directly on natural resources — they rely on their local biocultural heritage for survival.  Ecological economics is essentially a rethinking of this fundamental relationship with our natural resource base. It is a working out of the implications of a new way to manage our lives and our planet so that we become embodied in Nature as a process of self-education This perspective is the basis of education for sustainability where the outcome is an awareness of the learner’s greater self in the grand scheme of things set within a cosmic heritage of  time and space. In other words, education for sustainability has to develop new models of humanistic education that bring species evolution, and our part in it, into our environmental thoughts and acts with a sense of wonder. Technology-mediated instruction strategies have been found to be effective in skill acquisition of reading, writing, communication, collaboration, and negotiation. Examples of technology-mediated pedagogies that embed people in Nature are appended to this document..

Embodiment in Nature is all about feeling our own symbiotic relationship to Earth’s natural resources and ecosystem services where both heart and brain can understand the movements of our fellow creatures We are as one with the planet.  We are interconnected with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we walk upon. Earth and our survival depends upon the ability of future generations to ensure a steady supply of resources from global ecosystems in which we express our greater selves as committed conservationists for carbon-neutral, one-planet living.  Biocultural heritage also influences religious beliefs, sense of place (especially sacred places), and sense of self. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of connections when considering the biocultural heritage of a good or a service. But an astute observer can recognize that other goods and services, such as medicinal plants, tourism, or even health services, also flow from managing a rich biocultural heritage.

Therefore in  these days of climate change ‘biocultural heritage’ is a useful all embracing concept because heritage is about relationships between people and the natural environment, including biological resources, from genes and fossils to landscapes. Biocultural heritage also draws attention to the use of natural resources in the context of human history, from practices to pools of knowledge about the way humans shape their surroundings for survival and vice versa.  Cultural evolution involves changes in ideas, knowledge, morals, minds and technology within society

2 Things that will change

Fig 2  An educational  mindmap developing the concept of change

.All things evolve with time and must be fundamentally understood by their history, their biological evolution as well as their cultural development. The 6th Century Chinese Philosopher Confucius writes;

“Study the past if you would define the future. .. Men’s natures are alike, it is their habits that carry them far apart. .. I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there. .. If a man takes no thought about what is distant, he will find sorrow near at hand”. (Confucius, Analects)

As technology is rapidly changing the world around us, many people worry that technology will replace human intelligence. Some educators are concerned that in the near future, as technology takes over, tasks and abilities that we have been teaching our students for decades. Education will never disappear. It will just take up different forms. Here is a list of nine things that elearningindustry says will shape the future of education towards 2050.

  1. Diverse time and place.
    Students will have more opportunities to learn at different times in different places. eLearning tools facilitate opportunities for remote, self-paced learning. Classrooms will be flipped, which means the theoretical part is learned outside the classroom, whereas the practical part is taught face to face, interactively.
  2. Personalized learning.
    Students will learn with study tools that adapt to the capabilities of a student. This means above average students shall be challenged with harder tasks and questions when a certain level is achieved. Students who experience difficulties with a subject will get the opportunity to practice more until they reach the required level. Students will be positively reinforced during their individual learning processes. This can result in positive learning experiences and will diminish the amount of students losing confidence about their academic abilities. Furthermore, teachers will be able to see clearly which students need help in which areas.
  3. Free choice.
    Though every subject that is taught aims for the same destination, the road leading towards that destination can vary per student. Similarly to the personalized learning experience, students will be able to modify their learning process with tools they feel are necessary for them. Students will learn with different devices, different programs and techniques based on their own preference. Blended learning, flipped classrooms and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) are important elements within this change.
  4. Project based.
    As careers are adapting to the future zero growth economy, students will adapt to project based learning and working. This means they have to learn how to apply their skills quickly to a variety of situations. Students should already be acquainted with project based learning in high school. This is when organizational, collaborative, and time management skills can be taught as basics that every student can use in their further academic careers.
  5. Field experience.
    Because technology can facilitate more efficiency in certain domains, curricula will make room for skills that solely require human knowledge and face-to-face interaction. Thus, experience in ‘the field’ will be emphasized within courses. Schools will provide more opportunities for students to obtain real-world skills that are representative to their jobs. This means curricula will create more room for students to fulfill internships, mentoring projects and collaboration projects (e.g.).
  6. Data interpretation.
    Though mathematics is considered one of three literacies, it is without a doubt that the manual part of this literacy will become irrelevant in the near future. Computers will take care of every statistical analysis, and describe and analyse data and predict future trends. Therefore, the human interpretation of these data will become a much more important part of the future curricula. Applying the theoretical knowledge to numbers, and using human reasoning to infer logic and trends from these data will become a fundamental new aspect of this literacy.
  7. Exams will change completely.
    As courseware platforms will assess students capabilities at each step, measuring their competencies through Q&A might become irrelevant, or might not suffice. Many argue that exams are now designed in such a way, that students cram their materials, and forget the next day. Educators worry that exams might not validly measure what students should be capable of when they enter their first job. As the factual knowledge of a student can be measured during their learning process, the application of their knowledge is best tested when they work on projects in the field.
  8. Student ownership.
    Students will become more and more involved in personalizing their curricula. Maintaining a curriculum that is contemporary, up-to-date and useful is only realistic when professionals as well as ‘youngsters’ are involved. Critical input from students on the content and durability of their courses is a must for an all-embracing study program.
  9. Mentoring will become more important.
    In 20 years, students will incorporate so much independence into their learning process, that mentoring will become fundamental to student success. Teachers will form a central point in the jungle of information that our students will be paving their way through. The teacher and educational institution are vital to academic performance.

Added to this list is the future need of an outcome that embodies humans with nature’s production.  The process of embodiment is described by Jamie McHugh in his essay,

‘Embodying Nature, Becoming Ourselves’, as follows. 

“We are elements of nature: our soma and psyche are reflections of the planet. This relationship between the inner and outer ecosystems is key to any discussion about ecosomatics. Many conversations about ecology, with all of the doom and gloom statistics, often overwhelm people with despair. It is hard to hold a space for hope when fear arises. Returning to a direct sensory encounter with the natural world, though, can awaken a powerful passion and connection. As a faculty member at Tamalpa Institute, I have been taking groups to Point Reyes National Seashore for the past 20 years and have witnessed this in action. As we go to the beach each day, we open our senses and re-organize our civilized bodies to creatively embody our primal nature. Breath, sound, touch, movement, and stillness are the preverbal somatic languages of the organism. Their use creates the inner conditions for spontaneous responses to the outer environment. I can feel my breath, my solidity and fluidity, and am aware of the universe in me. I know where I am so I can give over to nature. The somatic elements give the organism security to abandon habit and try something new. Alternating between eyes closed and open, the inner meets the outer, and all of it becomes a resource for response”. 

Many would say the embodiment with nature as a process of self-education lies in new approaches to humanistic education to bring species evolution and our part in it into our environmental thoughts and acts. Embodiment in nature is all about feeling our own symbiotic relationship to our world. We are interconnected with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we walk upon. Our Earth and our survival depends upon our ability to protect global ecosystems in which we express our greater selves. Examples of school projects for self-education to embody studenrs in nature are outlined in Appendix 1-2.

3 Our greater self

Fig 3 The starting point for creating a personal body of knowledge 

 In the future a great part of learning will be to satisfy some level of curiosity and learning occurs naturally when there is curiosity. This means that people will be motivated to learn and will acquire much more knowledge when the drive comes from within rather than from outside sources. Building a personal body of knowledge becomes an adventure and capabilities are expanded each time something new is learned. Whatever the technology brings to bear, the  greatest change in the outcome of future education systems will be the development of the learner’s greater self. Humankind has evolved within Nature and a greater self ultimately depends upon a wider but finite Nature for survival. Until we understand what we are as humans, i.e. what living matter is, and how we are connected ecologically to the universe, from the Big Bang to Earth’s solar system, it is impossible for humanity to evolve deep cultural knowledge to live in harmony with Nature. As the ecologist Freya Matthews writes;

“What is wrong with our culture is that it offers us an inaccurate conception of the self. It depicts the personal self as existing in competition with and in opposition to nature. …..if we destroy our environment, we are destroying what is in fact our larger self”.

This larger self is a product of a cultivated sacramental imagination that allows us to see beyond the physical to contemplate the tangible mental realities that surround us conveying something of deeper meaning and purpose. This is an incarnational perspective of the world and human experience, which runs wider than religion.  Our sacramental imagination moves us beyond signs and symbols to the deeper spiritual meaning conveyed by everyday experiences, situations, objects, and persons. These deeper spiritual meanings have been called “revelations of secular grace” and connect us firmly with the survival strategies of all living things. 

In Christanity, grace is believed to be a divine influence acting within a person to make the person morally strong. For the non-believer, secular grace defines grace as the expression of a mental capacity to integrate the various components of an experience; the human with the non human, the physical with the mental, the unconscious with the conscious. 

Secular grace is not regarded as an expression of the divine.  Attaining secular grace is a mental process of creating a personal body of knowledge triggered by an object or place that fulfills the very human need to experience connection, belonging, awe, wonder and most of all love. The attainment of secular grace asserts human worth, dignity and rights and attempts to ethically follow all the implications from these assertions. It expresses a prescription on how to live life well and thrive as a human being in all of its diverse expressions.   Corixus has produced a series of microblogs exploring the attainment of secular grace through art at  Arts and culture provide intangible value to society; they transcend monetary values just as they transcend history. In a future clouded with economic and environmental uncertainty, subsistence endeavors such as the crafts should feature more prominently in society as we move towards a steady state economy with more time to build a deeper links between culture and ecology.  Hopefully, the pervasive notion that the arts need to be assigned a monetary value in order to be legitimized will be seen as quite simply misplaced in a future perspective of living well with less stuff. 

In a zero growth decluttered economy It is the responsibility of both the artist and the average person to understand the socioeconomic contributions of the arts. Understanding and enjoying the arts is a lifestyle choice that will sometimes require us to step away from the television and into art galleries, music and dance halls, places of worship, and libraries. The process has the positive side effect of building stronger relationships and communities. Not everything we experience will be perfect but that’s part of the adventure to build a greater self because every once in awhile we will come across something that changes our perspective a little. And there’s never been a better time to start thinking, seeing and doing things a little differently.   In this connection, the main goal of this blog was to verify how the activation of different socioeconomic roles (traditional or non-traditional) and different values placed on natural resources (utilitarian or aesthetic) may be reflected in financial and consumer choices.

As early as 1948 The Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti proposed:

 “Because we do not love the earth and the things of the earth but merely utilize them…we have lost touch with life…We have lost the sense of tenderness, that sensitivity, that response to things of beauty; and it is only in the renewal of that sensitivity that we can have understanding of what is true relationship.”

In his essay, ‘On Nature and the Environment’ he eloquently explains how ‘true relationship’ is brought about by knowing how our inner world of thoughts and emotions is inextricably linked to the outer world of humanity and the environment.  According to Ken Winograd, what is distinctive to the Krishnamurti pedagogy is the patience to allow time for awareness and sensitivity to places to grow, and for senses to become alert and attuned to quietude, intricacies, the tiny and delicate as well as the vast and awesome. We are very aware that through no fault of teachers, such patience is in short supply in the condensed, fast-paced world of many schools..  .  

4  Seeking grace with other species

Fig 4 Biodiversity in the Cambrian seas 

In search of grace

We are in an age of environmental instability requiring new forms of economics, radically efficient methods of production and cheap renewable energy.  In addition to practical action, a significant global change toward sustainability needs a new account of human identity, and a fundamental shift in our sense of who we are in relation to the planet that sustains us.  Life began its evolution some 2-3 billion years ago and it is possible to see this story as one of human irrelevance today; the outcome of random physical processes on a small rocky planet circling a minor star in an insignificant galaxy. Or we can see that human emergence, with reflective consciousness and intellectual, emotional, aesthetic capabilities are an outcome of an evolutionary, self-generating universe. Peter Reason in his book ‘In Search of Grace’ takes the latter view.


“We are part of the community of life on Earth, an aspect of the universe aware of itself, reflecting on itself, and celebrating itself. In this view, the human presence brings both enormous creative opportunities and alongside these substantial threats to the well-being of life on Earth. Part of the problem is that our reflective consciousness is so thoroughly self-absorbed: our interest and attention is focussed almost exclusively on ourselves and those close to us. At our best, we may feel part of a fellowship of humanity or a human family. While our understanding of evolution and ecology tells us that we are also part of the community of life on Earth, we rarely feel that in our bones or our hearts. However much we may assert that we are all part of the same universe, that we are part of the evolution of life on Earth, we still find it difficult to overcome a sense of estrangement, of otherness”.

Our greater self expands from our beginnings as animals without backbones that took the evolutionary leap that birthed the first fish-like vertebrates in salty coastal waters. Fishes first appeared as shallow swimmers around 480 million years ago and stayed in the shallows for about 100 million years, diversifying into many different forms. Here, a selection of illustrated ancient fishes is shown.  An illustration of what the sea creature Tiktaalik may have looked like.Tiktaalik bridged the gap between sea living and land living creatures, and played an important evolutionary role on our journey to becoming human.

Bivalves and corals

Our journey from coastal waters began during the Cambrian period around 500 million years ago. At that time, along with the fishes, lived corals and marine molluscs.  The latter two groups live on today largely unchanged. They are still part of our greater selves and require nurturing. 

Amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds evolved after fish. The first amphibians had a lobe-finned fish ancestor about 365 million years ago. They were the first of our vertebrate ancestry to live on land, but they had to return to water to reproduce. It is in a context of 500 million years of Earth’s history that this blog exemplifies the attainment of secular grace through a biocultural project that addresses the very human need to experience connections with animals which long ago shared a marine community with us, all of which humanity is currently driving towards extinction.  The animals chosen to establish these connections are the bivalve molluscs (clams) and hard corals. These groups are getting closer and closer to extinction whist we fret over climate change, which our growth economy is driving relentlessly towards a global disaster.

The time perspective is that molluscs have inhabited the Earth for over 500 million years. They first appeared in the Mid Cambrian, about 300 million years before the dinosaurs. A small bivalved fossil, Fordilla troyensis Barrande, from New York State is the oldest known bivalve dating to about 540 to 570 million years ago.  

Evidence for the recent decline of bivalves comes from the harvests of soft-shell clams along the coast of New England, where the shellfish are embedded in the regional food culture.  Soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria), also called “steamers” or “longnecks,” are one of the northeastern U.S.’s most sort after seafood items, delighting shoreside diners in fried clam rolls, clam strips and clam chowders. But the nationwide harvest fell to a little less than 2.8 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms) of meat in 2016, the lowest total since 2000, and there are new signs of decline in Maine which produces more of the clams than any other state.  Government regulators there say clam harvesters collected a little more than 1.4 million pounds (0.64 million kilograms) of the shellfish in 2017 the lowest total since 1930, and less than half of a typical haul in the early- and mid-1980s.

Corals are also around 500 million years old. Evidence from fossils suggests that they started as simple, solitary organisms but, in response to changes in their environment, later evolved into the colonial coral reefs we know today. Although corals first appeared in the Cambrian period, some 535 million years ago, fossils are extremely rare until the Ordovician period, 100 million years later, when rugose and tabulate corals became widespread.  

Now a fifth of the world’s coral has died in the past three years. There is now just half the amount of coral that was in the oceans 40 years ago. The northern third of the Great Barrier Reef has lost more than a third of its coral since 2015.

Our cultural interaction with fossil coral, found today as geological deposits of limestone, is exemplified by the industry of Nelson Fisk, who was Vermont’s lieutenant governor from 1896 to 1898.  He was the owner of a quarry on Isle La Motte, in Lake Champlain. Fisk limestone was loaded onto boats and floated down the lake to the Hudson River and points south, where it was used in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and, in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery of Art, among other structures. Stone from the quarry was covered with odd swirls and blotches, and therein lies a strange tale of geology, climate change and the history of life on this planet.

The “flaws” in the stone are fossils, evidence of sea creatures of stunning antiquity, some dating back nearly half a billion years, when the only existing animals lived in oceans. And what incredible animals they were! There was coral, of course, but also large, tentacled ancestors of squid; trilobites, arthropods related to horseshoe crabs; and spongy, cabbage-shaped animals called stromatoporoids. Indeed, Isle La Motte, which is some 175 miles from the Atlantic Coast, is the best place to see one of the oldest coral reefs on earth.  When the reef began to form, 450 million years ago, it lay in warm waters in the Southern Hemisphere. It thrived there for about five million years. Some 250 million years later, rotating tectonic plates deposited the fossilized reef where it is today. Other parts of the reef, which originally stretched a thousand miles, can be found all the way from Newfoundland to Tennessee. But it is in Isle La Motte where the reef best opens itself to scientific study.


How the vegetable kingdom first emerged on Earth and became established is mysterious. Plants have been evolving for many hundreds of millions of years.  One of the oldest fossils of any living form appears to be a microscopic single celled plant, trapped in a type of black chert rock in Swaziland, Africa, and reckoned to date back over three billion years. A simpler colonial relative of blue-green algae is dated at 2.8 billion years. Flowering plants suddenly appeared approximately one hundred million years ago towards the latter half of the Cretaceous Age. Now, we take it for granted that plants are essential for maintaining our ecosystem, for producing oxygen, and providing the primary human food source in a vast chain to which all humankind belongs.

Across the globe, and particularly in tropical regions rich in biodiversity, in villages, on farms, in homesteads, forests, common pastures, fields and borders, it is women who manage most of the semi wild plant resources that are used by humans. This means that women have the greatest local plant knowledge and are mainly responsible for the in situ conservation and management of useful plants, whether domesticated or wild. The simple explanation for this is that, throughout history, women’s daily work has required more of this knowledge. Globally speaking, it is women who predominate as wild plant gatherers, home gardeners, plant domesticators, herbalists and seed custodians. In several world regions and among many cultural groups, they also predominate as informal plant breeders and farmers. 

In many cultural and economic contexts, local wild and cultivated plant varieties are considered to be ‘minor’ resources, secondary to major staple crops and forest products; women are also seen as ‘minor’ actors, secondary to men who are presumed to be the knowledge holders, managers and preservers of most plant resources that are thought to be ‘valuable’, particularly to outsiders. However, because most plant biodiversity use, management and conservation occurs within the domestic realm and because the principal values of plant genetic resources are localised and non-monetary (use values and cultural values), they are largely invisible to outsiders and are easily undervalued.

With respect to the British Council’s Kenyan heritage project, the banana may be singled out as a significant plant of home gardening that played a substantial nutritional role in the early settlement of West Africa and is therefore an important part of the country’s food heritage to express engrained human attitudes towards plants that give agency to plants.  We first need to explore the philosophical underpinnings of our varied relationships to flora. This need is especially evident in the branch of ecological philosophy known as ‘environmental aesthetics’. 

Flowering plants as human companions have been represented textually and visually with vocabularies inherited from the appreciation of artistic objects. Plants have been objectified, dismissed or aestheticised in representation, depending on their adherence to traditional ideas of beauty. A more enlivened writing about plants emerges from new conceptualisations of the human perception of flora. The act of writing itself becomes a form of enquiry into the human-plant relationship, particularly in relation to the idea of plants providing a show. 

Ethnobotany is the study of relationships between people and plants in different cultural contexts and inside the framework of biocultural ecology where both natural and cultural dimensions are thought together. From a theoretical standpoint, ethnobotany is mainly based on the comprehension of the local botanical knowledge that guides the people’s actions regarding to plants, e.g., the selection of plants to cultivate or consume. In a methodological sense, the knowledge guides diverse actions (discourses, practices), and through analyzing these actions, it is possible to reformulate the knowledge that generated them.

Applying these principles to the context of showy plants, we might ask: Why we consider that a plant is ornamental? What botanical knowledge allows that consideration? What effective actions trigger that knowledge? What meaning have these plants in people’s lives? And also, in a reflective sense: What meaning have ornamentals for the ethnobotanists? What is the place of ornamental plants in ethnobotany?

Read more:

Appendix 1 Sisterhoods for crafting economies

Fig 5  Jaipur Rugs Company wins Eropean product design award for ‘Artisan Originals’ design by a rural home weaver

Human communities are microcosms of economic survival in which people can express themselves creatively in the context of the local biocultural heritage.  It was in these social microcosms with local natural resources such as wood, fibre and clay, that ideas and practices of craft permeated the very fabric of everyday life in the nineteenth-century and were central to professional and personal masculine identities As a material category, craft encompasses a diverse range of objects, produced within or outside of the art academy or studio.  Made singly or collaboratively, craft objects as artifacts were used to express both public and private selves. Indeed, craft provides a compelling metaphor for thinking about how masculinity was itself ‘made’ On the other hand, household crafts were created in the domestic sphere by a wide range of women in both Britain and America. In recent times, the changes occurring in the social roles of women and men have taken centre stage in political discourse. Traditionally, the dominating social role of women was as housewife, and that of the man was focused on work and family maintenance. Nowadays, the social role of women is evolving in the direction of taking a profession, while increasingly men are taking care of the household.  Although sometimes neglected by historians and viewed as frivolous and oppressive by some feminists, household crafts played a very important role in many women’s personal lives, and also played an important social role in family and community. They provided women with a form of self-expression, gave women more opportunities for social activities outside the home, and increased women’s social influence as educators in morality and science, and as contributors to the arts. This is the basis of modern sisterhood in the developing world, which can be the foundation of an inclusive local growth economy.

Women, who make up half of the world’s population, have benefited more than men from the progress in economic and social development in the last three decades.  Gender equality is a goal in its own right but also a key factor for sustainable economic growth, social development and environmental sustainability. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ajectory by world leaders in 2015, embody a roadmap for progress that is sustainable and leaves no one behind. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to each of the goals.  In this trajectory the economic goal has to be a zero growth steady state planetary economy.

Numerous social and anthropological studies have investigated gender in art and aesthetics. To narrow the area of study, the relationship between crafts and gender (especially women) has been widely studied in worldwide anthropology and social sciences literature.  Such work indicates that cultural heritage, in its widest sense (as a sector, physical space and intangible practice), can be the mainstay of an economy that is inclusive and sustainable if approached in a person-centred, creative entrepreneurial way. The British Council believes that this approach can particularly benefit emerging economies, which otherwise risk excluding individuals and communities from society and the economy.  An initiative in this direction to promote Kenya’s cultural heritage has been launched by the British Council. The British Council Kenya Country Director Jill Coates introduced the ‘Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth’ two-year pilot programme, which is being rolled out with local partners in the country.

“The programme aims to promote both social engagement and a wider understanding of the key role that Kenya’s diverse cultural heritage can play as a valuable contributor to economic growth, stimulating tourism, creating jobs and enhancing the investment climate,” Coates said.  In addition, Ms Coates explained that the programme will offer seed grants and skills training to individuals, groups, communities and organizations which are working in creative enterprises in order to support cultural heritage, in the fields of music, film, fashion, crafts, gaming and performing arts.

Kenya was chosen for this pilot programme because a demonstrable need for the initiative was identified along with there being opportunities for strong partnerships.  The British Council has the capacity and infrastructure on the ground to deliver the programme in a people-centric way. Columbia and Vietnam have also been selected for the pilot programme which is designed to promote local cultural heritage as an important contributor to social cohesion and economic growth across all levels of society.

As a follow up to the 2018 launch, a British Council survey looking into how Kenyans engage with their cultural heritage was released on the World Day for Cultural Diversity, May 21 2019.  The overwhelming majority, 98.8%, of the 519 respondents agreed that it was important to preserve Kenya’s cultural heritage with over half, 53%, agreeing it was important to do so because, they said, ‘it defines us’.  But while Kenya’s cultural heritage sector boosts economic growth by supporting creative industries and the people working in them, only 1.7% of respondents recognised this. More regular cultural events throughout the year was the most popular solution to improving engagement with cultural heritage, with 60% of people opting for this choice, while 34% thought a single major annual cultural festival would be the best way for people to engage more deeply with it. 48% of people wanted cultural heritage added to the school curriculum. (People were able to give more than one answer to this question which is why the percentage rates exceed 100.)

The sample survey is part of the Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth programme, known as #CultureGrows, run by The British Council through its East Africa Arts programme, in close collaboration with partners Heva Fund, Book Bunk Trust, Chao Tayiana, writer and Founder of African Digital Heritage, and Mount Kenya University in partnership with the University of the West of Scotland.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most people surveyed said they engage with their culture primarily through parents or grandparents, and then through the media, museums, cultural events (fashion shows, music concerts, etc.), and finally through libraries and schools. Oral traditions and language emerged as the most highly valued part of Kenya’s cultural heritage closely followed by music and dance. 

Architecture and artefacts together were in third place, a fraction ahead of those saying that Art and Photography was the part of culture they value the most. In fifth place it was fashion and national dress followed by books and libraries in sixth place, and finally food.

April Kamunde, Project Manager, East Africa Arts, British Council said: “People engage with their culture in different ways and Kenya’s very rich and diverse cultural heritage has an important role in creating jobs and improving livelihoods. We are delighted to be working alongside our partners in supporting Kenya’s creative economy through providing skills training and grants. And we’re keen to recognise and appreciate those figures who have played a vital role in inspiring others about culture and in promoting and preserving Kenya’s rich cultural heritage. So, over the next few months we’ll be looking at who those ‘Cultural Heroes’ are and celebrating them during Heroes’/Mashujaa Day on 20th October.

The survey findings will inform the British Council’s activities on how to engage the youth in promoting Kenyan cultural heritage.

This perspective is the basis for exemplifying the concept of an inclusive sisterhood for crafting sustainable local economies (Appendix 1).

The British Council’s 2018 report was couched in terms of a growth economy. However, climate change and over-consumption of Earth’s renewable resources compel us to reinvent our economic life on a much more local and regional basis. But how do we forge a steady-state economy that is socially, ecologically and economically sensible and locally sustainable?  In particular, is there a role for women in leadership. There is much evidence pointing to the importance of craftswomen in finding the answer.

The role of women participating in what are usually considered as “male crafts” (hard crafts) was investigated in an anthropological study, “Craft Development and Development Through Crafts,” which was conducted by Szala-Meneok and McIntosh. Predominance of any gender in certain types of craft was also explored by Jennifer McDowell, when she examined women fighting to get their position in the Japanese craft movement. Furthermore, evaluating craftswomen’s contribution to the economy is a major part in craft anthropological studies, and the issue of craftswomen’s skills and specialization was explored by Clark and Houston in their work “Craft Specialization, Gender, and Personhood.” To investigate gender as a subject in “crafts enterprises,” it is worth mentioning the contributions of Alila and Pedersen who investigated the socio-economic consequences of women’s domination of craft enterprises in South Africa, using the case study of Eldoret town.  The study of Clare Wilkinson-Weber focused on commoditization and commercialization of the craft industries in South Asia, and the study of Rogerson and Sithole investigated the small enterprise economy, in South Africa as a whole, and explored variations between groups of male wood carvers and women grass weavers in craft enterprises.

Example 1 The feminine economy

In 2015 Jennifer Armbrust, founder and director of Sister gave a talk entitled “Proposals for the Feminine Economy” outlining her holistic vision for a new economic paradigm, founded on what she called feminist principles. In fact she set out a leadership framework for the practical application of the tenets of a sisterhood economy distinct from the current brotherhood economy.   

Fig 6 The masculine and feminine economies are distinctly different 

The sisterhood economy is about a radical social transformation to make a future where women’s leadership training can bring about a new economic order.  In particular, women have the opportunity to agitate the current social, political and economic order by experimenting with new business models that redistribute power and resources based on the principles of sisterhood.  Ambrust’s principles are as follows.


Create structures that support and nourish your body and all the other bodies you know.


Cultivate loving, healthy relationships with plants, animals, people & the earth. Commune. Think about our shared future.


Gather all your parts. Reclaim the pieces you have lost or forgotten. Forgive yourself. Come home to Your body. Own your skills, talents & abilities. Step into wholeness.


As we learn to empathize with ourselves, we naturally begin to empathize with others. Attunement to feelings guides us to the fulfillment of needs. The regular fulfillment of needs is the foundation of a sustainable life.


Cultivate your inner authority. Act with intention. Innovate new business practices rooted in your principles. Making choices in alignment with your values is the root of healthy self-esteem. Thriving economically while living your values is deeply disruptive to the current social and economic order.


Release the life you were told you would, could, or should have and imagine anew. Seek happiness, pleasure, & the fulfillment of your needs. Move towards the things that bring you nourishment and joy.


—Sister Corita Kent

Do not wait until you know to act—anything you don’t know you will learn in the process. Improvise. Iterate. Ask questions. Ask more questions. Explore! Give yourself permission to not know and to make mistakes. Find freedom in uncertainty. Be receptive and responsive instead of predictive and protective.


There is no earning. There’s no deserving. There’s no reward. Divest your ego of the want to prove itself through struggle, sacrifice, and hard work. Become attuned to your needs and honor them as they arise. Feel into your body. Let inner wisdom be your guide. Go where you are called. Eat when you are hungry. Rest when you are tired.


We are being so thoroughly lied to it’s an epidemic. Say how you’re feeling. Admit when you don’t know. Speak your truth. Repudiate lies, deceptions and misrepresentations. Hold yourself and others accountable. Own your talents and abilities. Advocate for the people and things you believe in. Use your voice.


Feel your deep connection with the earth—nature is abundance embodied. Scarcity teaches us gratitude and responsibility. Be grateful. Remember, wealth has nothing to do with money. Practice radical self-love. Nourish, nurture, savor. Feel how rich you are already.


Everything that you are needing, someone else is needing, too. Everything you are healing for yourself you are healing for someone else, too. Make your business a medicine, a salve

Example 2 Artisan originals

The social venture Jaipur Rugs Company Pvt Ltd, was founded in 1999 as Jaipur Carpets by Nand Kishore Chaudhary who through this commercial venture has impacted the lives of 40,000 rural artisans spread across villages in North and West India. Over 80 percent of the artisans are women and about 7,000 are tribal untouchables. The company has built a profitable business from the export of hand-knotted carpets produced by these artisans. Its biggest market is the US where it serves 5,000 customers that comprise small retail stores and interior designers.

In 2015, the company expanded its women empowerment outreach by partnering with the government of Bihar to train women from the Maoist-hit areas of the state in rug-weaving. The aim was to skill the women so that they could earn a living working at home.  Chaudhary also built his social venture in a bid to remove the middleman and connect artisans directly with the end customer. The benefit is that artisans get paid their rightful dues and aren’t cheated.

“In a lot of these villages that we work in, you will see that women today don’t consider themselves inferior to men as many of them are running their households—they are the breadwinners of the family,” says Yogesh Chaudhary, the fourth child of Nand Kishore Chaudhary.

Impact investor Nagaraja Prakasam, part of the Indian Angel Network, narrates one such story of Chaudhary’s impact on women empowerment in rural India. When he visited the artisans of Jaipur Rugs in 2015, Prakasam met a girl at her home in Achrol, Rajasthan. He asked her why she was not studying to which she said her family could not afford to send her to college. “But she was doing a correspondence course, which she paid for from the earnings she made from knotting carpets for Jaipur Rugs,” says Prakasam.

Through a grassroots network that requires specialised logistical support, raw material is dropped off at an artisan’s home where they work on the product and pick up the finished rugs. To ensure customers receive high quality products, quality supervisors inspect looms to help ensure a consistent output while tracking progress. These supervisors also ensure artisan service to ensure they are not interrupted by the shortage of yarn or any other such disruptions to earning capacity. When completed, the rug is picked up at the weavers doorstep and sent on to the next stage of the rug making progress. These visits also ensure that weavers are paid every month at their home looms.

These networks stretch across 600 villages in India through an intense grassroots network to connect 40,000 artisans

Artisan Originals at Jaipur Rugs set out to accomplish two very different but equally important types of sustainable economies. As the world becomes more populated and the supply of resources shrinks, Jaipur Rugs are determined to ensure that every centimeter of yarn is utilized. Artisan Originals uses whatever yarn is leftover from our more prevalent consumer-facing lines to craft these one-off pieces. The weavers are given complete freedom in terms of patterns, intricacy, inspiration, and time to completion. Due to the materials being leftover from other lines, the colors and textures provided to the artisans are as diverse as their designs. The second sustainability goal is to revive and maintain the centuries-old domestic craft of hand-knotting rugs in India, which has traditionally been in the hands od women. Through financial empowerment, proper training, and a constantly available support system, Jaipur Rugs keeps the skills of hand weaving are kept alive as an important economic activity of female family members, for both present individuals and future generations.

For weavers in rural Rajasthan, to create something entirely of their own on an unassuming loom was something they never imagined would happen. This initiative has been introduced by Jaipur Rugs which taps into the untamed fashion from the villages of India. It experiments with the originality of rural craftswomen to nurture their creative potential, which is unexplored at a global stage. For the first time ever, village weavers get to be the designers of their own rugs. Each rug in the collection is a masterpiece for the design inspiration it weaves. It is imbued with the individuality of its artisan evident in unique artistry.

The U.S. textile industry, which includes the carpet industry, is expected to continue to consume a large amount of energy and generate a large amount of carbon emissions. Since the environmental impacts of the carpet industry are expected to grow in the next decade, it is necessary to estimate the energy consumption and carbon emissions generated at each stage of the entire life cycle of carpet to mitigate these environmental impacts. Thus, this study conducts a life cycle assessment of energy and carbon emissions on two types of carpet – a wool carpet and a nylon carpet – from raw material production to recycling and disposal, along with transportation activities. In addition, this study utilizes a system dynamics approach to investigate the impacts of the uncertainty of market share on total energy consumption and total carbon emissions. The results of this study indicate that the production of 0.09 square meter of a carpet tile requires 20.42 MJ of energy and generates 6.35 kg CO2-e of emissions for the wool carpet, and consumes 25.42 MJ of energy and produces 4.80 kg CO2-e of emissions for the nylon carpet. To reduce energy consumption, the use stage of a wool carpet and the raw material production stage of a nylon carpet need to made more efficient, while to reduce carbon emissions, the raw material production stage of a wool carpet and a nylon carpet need to be improved.

Producing the fibre, dying it, delivering it to the weavers home weaving the 

Appendix 2 Plants; survival and ornamentation

Fig 7 Diversity of house leek (Sempervivum)

There is increasing evidence that exposure to plants and green space, and particularly to gardening, is beneficial to mental and physical health, and so could reduce the pressure on health services. Health professionals are therefore encouraging their patients to make use of green space and to work in gardens.  Studies show that gardening promotes physical health, mental health through relaxation and satisfaction, and better nutrition.  

It is reasonable tp assume that our affinity toward nature is genetic and deep-rooted in evolution. For example, consider why most people prefer to book accommodations that have a great view from the balcony or the terrace? Why do patients who get a natural view from their hospital bed recover sooner than others? Or why does it happen that when stress takes a toll on our mind, we crave for time to figure out things amidst garden plants and woodlands?  The pioneering architect, Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Study Nature, love Nature, stay close to Nature. It will never fail you.” Wright originally coined the phrase “organic architecture” before the word ‘organic’ came to be associated with everything from juice and dry cleaning to farming and makeup. The architect is famous for designing structures that blend into their natural surroundings in ground breaking, innovative ways.

The latest research in cognitive science is revealing that cognitive phenomena such as spatial navigation, action perception and emotional understanding all depend on the human body: not only the body’s morphological, biological and physiological make-up, but also how it actively engages with a structured natural, technological or social environment. Meanwhile, an increasing number of studies in cognitive neuroscience suggest that brains are ‘protean’, continuously adjusting their functions in response to physiological and environmental changes. In a very profound way, it appears that human cognition is shaped and structured by the body and features of our socio-cultural environment.  This is why the starting point for an educational engagement with nature is the theory of embodied cognition in neuroscience.  

It is argued that explicit learning is actively supported by bodily involvement with the environment. This argument is placed in the context of ‘nature-based therapy’, which can be perceived as a generic term for treatments with therapeutic use of activities and experiences in natural environments.   How do our bodies work with our brains to generate patterns of creative thinking? Students who complete a task while sitting or walking outside a box think more creatively (“outside the box”) than those who sit or walk inside it. How can this finding be explained? The emerging viewpoint of embodied cognition holds that cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the body’s interactions with the world.

Gaining grace from plants is about assembling a personal body of knowledge about a species or group that enables you to embody them into your day to day life as a process of enrichment. Examples of this process are given in the following sections.

Example 1 Plants: the show-offs

Ornamental plants are plants which are grown for display purposes, rather than functional ones. While some plants are both ornamental and functional, people usually use the term “ornamental plants” to refer to plants which have no value beyond being attractive, although many people feel that this is value enough. Ornamental plants are the keystone of ornamental gardening, and they come in a range of shapes, sizes and colours suitable to a broad array of climates, landscapes, and gardening needs.

Some ornamental plants are grown for showy foliage. Their foliage may be deciduous, turning bright orange, red, and yellow before dropping off in the autumn.  Some ornamental foliage has a striking appearance created by lacy leaves or long needles, while other ornamental are grown for distinctively colored leaves, such as silvery-gray ground covers and bright red grasses, among many others.

Other ornamental plants are cultivated for their blooms. Flowering ornamentals are a key aspect of many gardens, with gardeners preferring to plant a variety of flowers so that the garden is continuously in flower through the spring and summer. Depending on the types of plants being grown, the flowers may be subtle and delicate, or large and showy, with some ornamental plants producing distinctive aromas which paint a palette of scents in addition to colours. This approach embodies sensory and cultural richness in human/plant companionship as the following account of its impact on John Ryan.

“In Kojonup, a small Western Australian town and regional hub for the wool industry, on an early winter afternoon, I decided to seek contact with a local expert to learn about native plants. The staff at the tourism office brusquely told me: ‘The show hasn’t started. The wildflowers aren’t out yet, you won’t see anything’. Nevertheless, venturing into the small bush reserves around town, my guide and I uncovered a world of sensory and cultural richness. Selecting nuts from the base of a quandong (Santalum acuminatum), we cracked open the convoluted outer shells to expose the crisp, white inner flesh tasting of macadamia. We then scrambled across the highway to a marri (Corymbia calophylla) to taste the medicinal kino, or gum resin, oozing from the bark. Back around town, we spotted a plant with distinct cylindrical fruits. My guide coyly told me that varieties of this plant with white flowers are known locally as a remedy more effective than Viagra! As the sun began to set, we discussed a species of gum, which can be used to assuage the sting of an ant bite, as we crushed the fragrant leaves in our hands and rubbed it all along our forearms. Whilst there were few flowers in Kojonup that day, there were instead a myriad of textures, tastes, smells and sounds emanating from the plant life. In fact, the show had never stopped”. John C. Ryan

In his essay entitled ‘Plants That Perform For You’? From Floral Aesthetics to Floraesthesis in the Southwest of Western Australia’ John Ryan explored a performative model of aesthetics, which develops the concept of ‘plants performing’ in a dynamic of spectatorship between plants and people. In other words, the catchphrase originates in the relation between an artistic botanical object and a rational human subject who probably starts from a utilitarian point of view. Flowers dominate our aesthetic sensibilities and are responsible for popular human imagining of nature, but natural cycles of growth, such as decay and the dehiscence of fruits, are always part of a post flowering show. In this sense plants are always on show. The relationship between plants and the human audience requires a gardener or wildlife conservation manager as puppeteer.  These directors ultimately point to a possibility of deeper human engagement with a more-than-human holistic spiritual dimension of the plant/people interaction. Ryan argues for this embodied aesthetics of plants distinct from traditional concepts of plants as objects of vision, objects of art, objects of disinterestedness and objects of scientific discourse. This emphasis on the faculty of vision enables disembodied apprehension of plants to be the basis of scientific knowledge production. A perspective based only on sight involves contact between the scientist/artist and the plant through the recognition of form, colour, symmetry, exposure, vista and other visual qualities. This detaches the audience from what Ryan conceptualises as the ‘intimate spheres of bodies’. He leaves us with the question, what if an aesthetics of flora situates the nexus of perception in the tissues and fibres of people and plant life as a multi-sensorial experience?  Such a script for the plant life show at Kojonup, which activated Ryan’s faculties of smell, taste, touch, hearing and movement, would close the perceptual gulf between the appreciator and appreciated. Alex Rhys-Taylor’s thesis ‘Coming to our senses: a multi-sensory ethnography of class and multiculture in East London’ gives an appropriate quotation from Juhani Pallasmaa 

“A particular smell makes us un-knowingly re-enter a space completely forgotten by the retinal memory; the nostrils awaken a forgotten image, and we are enticed to enter a vivid day dream. The nose makes the eyes remember.” 

Rhys-Taylor points out that Pallasmaa’s observations are echoed in Marcel Proust’s literary meditations and explored sociologically, demonstrating how the encounter with even the most diluted of smells or flavours from an individual or culture’s past or elsewhere, a biscuit, a fruit, a herb, an aftershave, a spice, enable the body to rekindle entire lifetimes of experience around the faintest ember in the present. No doubt their ability to awaken deeply embodied affinities and associations with cultural heritage is one of the reasons that the senses of smell and taste are, transculturally, the most important socialising sense modalities embodied in reinforcing  everyday life, particularly with respect to the preparation and eating of food. What follows develops these two kinds of cultural attachment, as food and ornament.

Example 2 The banana show

In a globalized world, we routinely move enormous quantities of food around the planet in trade and for aid. Many countries, including the U.K., would struggle to feed their populations without food imports. Most people are used to being able to buy a wide range of produce that domestic farmers would struggle, or find impossible to grow. A typical example is the banana, once a prized exotic novelty, but now a staple in many countries’ supermarkets.

Bananas are one of the most widely grown, traded, and eaten of all the crops, an essential and much-liked part of the diet for many people around the world. Modern bananas are sterile, containing only tiny residual seeds, so new banana plants are propagated from cuttings. Bananas are ranked 4th after rice, wheat and maize as the world’s most valuable crop consumed for their high nutritive value. It is an important crop in East Africa, a key staple food in the region and is a source of income to many households. Apart from being a staple food, it is also used to make puree, flakes, wine, jam, powder, and beverages.

Wild bananas can be found in the wet, hot forests of New Guinea and South and Southeast Asia, but for many years the origin of domesticated bananas was a complete mystery. Now, the sterile domesticated banana is believed to be the result of ancient crossbreeding between wild species which evolved in the biodiversity hot spots of Malaysia and Myanmar. Wild bananas are packed full of bullet-like seeds and contain very little edible fruit.  

East Africa is among the world’s leading countries in terms of banana production and consumption. Bananas occupy the largest cultivated area among staple food crops in Uganda and are primarily grown on small subsistence farms (plots of less than 0.5 ha). In addition to being a major food staple, bananas are an important source of income, with excess production sold in local markets. Average per capita annual consumption of bananas in Uganda is the highest in the world, estimated at close to 1 kg per person per day. Bananas are consumed as fruit; prepared by cooking, roasting, or drying; and fermented for the production of banana juice and alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, and gin). Most of the banana varieties grown in Uganda are indigenous to the East African highlands, a region recognized as a secondary centre of banana diversity. The East African highland banana is a unique genomic group, selected over the centuries by farmers. As many as 84 distinct varieties of endemic East African highland bananas, classified into five clone sets, are grown by farmers in the region.

The biological diversity of bananas in Uganda is well understood at the taxonomic levels of genomic group, use group, and variety. This diversity is impressive at all geographical scales of analysis—the household, farm, the village, and the region. Although banana specialists in East Africa have long made this observation, recent survey data confirm the high level of banana diversity both in the country as a whole and on individual farms. A total of 95 banana varieties are currently grown among the households sampled in Uganda, with the majority (86 percent) consisting of endemic types. Banana varieties, which are locally named and differentiated by characteristics that are observable to farmers, were classified in this research into synonym groups according to established banana taxonomy, resulting in five groups or types defined by use (cooking, beer-making, sweet, roasting, and multi-use).

The tissue culture banana (TCB) is a biotechnological agricultural innovation that has been adopted widely in commercial banana production. In 2003, Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International initiated a TCB programme that was explicitly developed for smallholder farmers in Kenya to help them adopt the TCB as a scalable agricultural business opportunity. At the heart of the challenge of encouraging more widespread adoption of the TCB is the question: what is the best way to introduce the TCB technology, and all its attendant practices and opportunities, to smallholder farmers. In essence this is a challenge of community or stakeholder engagement

Banana production in Kenya has gradually changed from subsistence back garden cultivation to a cash crop as demand rises. Many farmers especially smallholders, apart from growing the native varieties. have embraced TCB farming.

Kenya is one among the world’s leading countries in terms of banana production with an estimated annual production of 1.1 million metric tons. On a daily basis, one can easily spot trucks on Kenyan highways ferrying bananas especially to Nairobi.  The main Counties where Bananas are grown includes; Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu, Kirinyaga, Muranga, Kisii and Nyamira. Jackline Kemunto a banana farmer in Kisii County avers that the crop is one of the best known food crops in the region. Women in her locality use bananas to diversify the types of food consumed in their homes.

In Kenya, the general decline in traditional cash crop production has contributed to a major shift to other subsistence crops from the mid-eighties. A majority of small scale farmers have replaced the cash crops with banana farming. Previously, banana was considered a semi-subsistence women’s crop. The shift of banana farming from subsistence to commercial production has attracted many men and women into the industry. However, this has changed gender relations in the households and banana farms thereby generating gender concerns. Women have control of bank accounts, banana income and are renting land to plant bananas. However, this has brought intra-household gender conflicts especially in resource poor households further disempowering men who have resulted to drinking local brew and burdening women more. The potential of bananas to raise the standard of living among the resource poor is thus not being realised. A recent study signaled a need for awareness creation among stakeholders on gender mainstreaming which will lead to policy formulations. Such a move will assist in defining ways of introducing any technology that changes a woman’s subsistence enterprise into a commercial undertaking. The study further recommended empowerment of men and women in resource poor households through formation of gender responsive farmer groups.

Apart from its value as a food crop in Kisii, sales from banana production provide the much-needed income. There is a large and rapidly growing market for bananas due to the surging population as well as changing consumption habits and lifestyle.

Despite the sector being a banana stronghold, it faces a number of challenges that tend to hinder its progression. Jane Njeri a farmer from Gatundu says that brokers are to blame for the low prices they sell their bananas.

“We lack ready market for our bananas and the middle men usually take advantage of the situation to give us low prices while they themselves sell at better prices sometimes triple the buying price,” she lamented.

In addition, farmers lack access to key inputs such as quality planting materials, fertilizers, pesticides, farm machinery and tools among others. Farmers usually have a tendency of obtaining planting root stems from neighbour’s plantations through plucking suckers. This archaic method has greatly contributed to the spread of pests and diseases.  Farmers lack knowledge on the best variety to choose. Most opt for the big ones which demand more water and may not do well in certain areas. Introducing, developing and promoting pest and disease resistant varieties and use of integrated pest control technologies are the best options in developing the cultivation of bananas in Kenya.

Despite women claiming to have been empowered by banana income, some are more burdened instead. Out of frustrations from failure to control banana income, men are spending their time idling and taking local brew. Wives in these households are further burdened by performing reproductive and productive roles. In households where men are forcing their wives to surrender the income, it has led to separate banana farms for the wife and husband hence, causing conflicts in the household. 

For example, Oral Informants have indicated that they save banana income in bank accounts without their husband’s knowledge. A survey respondent had this to say concerning banana income: 

We own separate bank accounts. Our children no longer ask for school fees from their fathers. Our husbands drink the money they get from bananas. They spend their time at local markets playing the “Maune ”.

A recent development of banana cultivation is to plant them as an ornamental addition to temperate zone gardens.  They have to be protected against frost damage, but gardeners are now emboldened to invest in bananas because of the milder winters resulting from climate change.. The leaves are the main ornamental feature of the banana plant and impart a bold tropical look to the garden. The smooth, waxy leaves are generally quite large, reaching up to 6″ wide by 2′ long on dwarf plants, and up to 2′ wide by 9′ long on large ones. The leaves are normally dark green colour, but variegation is quite common. Variegation appears as white, red or purple/maroon splotches or sectors on the leaf blade. The leaf midrib may have a contrasting colour, which is usually red contrasting with the green leaf. Often, the color of the reverse side of the leaf contrasts with the front side and on windy days viewers are treated to flashes of colour.  Adding this aesthetic/protectionist dimension to the banana show provides a deeper sense of presence with the world against the bigger picture of widespread ecological disaster. 

Example 3 The Sempervivum story

Charlemagne, first Holy Roman Emperor and unifier of a large part of northern Europe, issued the following decree (circa 795) to all villagers on his Crown lands “Et ille hortulanus habeat super domum suam Iovis barbam” , which is translated as; ‘and the gardener shall have Jove’s Beard growing on the roof of his house’.  Jove’s beard refers to the common houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum. This plant is native to the Alps, the Rhine Gorge and the Pyrenees. The name Jove’s beard reflect the plant’s ancient association with the Roman bearded God Jupiter. Hence names such as “Jupiter’s beard” and the German Donnerbart (“thunder beard”),  the latter a reminder that there was a cultural shift in mythology from the Roman pantheon to that of the Nordic peoples.  Although the reasoning behind Charlemagne’s decree is not known it is taken as evidence for peasant’s roof gardens being the precursors of contemporary green roofs movement. 

The earliest documented roof gardens were the hanging gardens of Semiramis in what is now Syria, considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Today, similarly elaborate roof-garden projects are designed for high-profile international hotels, business centers, and private homes. These green roofs, known for their deep substrates and variety of plantings as “intensive” green roofs, have the appearance of conventional ground-level gardens, and they can augment living and recreation space in densely populated urban areas. Intensive green roofs typically require substantial investments in plant care. Furthermore, they emphasize the active use of space and carry higher aesthetic expectations than “extensive” green roofs, which generally have shallower soil and low-growing ground cover. 

Sempervivum is an example of a typical extensive green roof species,  The name has its origin in the Latin semper (“always”) and vivus (“living”), because this perennial plant keeps its succulent leaves in winter and is very resistant to harsh conditions for plant growth.The common name “houseleek” is believed to stem from the traditional practice of growing plants on the roofs of thatched houses to ward off fire and lightning strikes. Some Welsh people still hold the old folk belief that having it grow on the roof of the house ensures the health and prosperity of those who live there.  The plant is not closely related to the true leek, which belongs to the onion family. It is not approved by the European Medicines Agency for Traditional Herbal Medicinal use and is for the most part grown in domestic gardens for its ornamental qualities.

Extensive green roofs  typically have shallower substrates, require less maintenance, and are more strictly functional in purpose than intensive living roofs or roof gardens. In their simplest design, extensive green roofs consist of an insulation layer, a waterproofing membrane, a layer of growing medium, and a vegetation layer. This basic green-roof design has been implemented and studied in diverse regions and climates worldwide. The modern green roof originated at the turn of the 20th century in Germany, where vegetation was installed on roofs to mitigate the damaging physical effects of solar radiation on the roof structure. Early green roofs were also employed as fire retardant structures. There are now several competing types of extensive green-roof systems, which provide similar functions but are composed of different materials and require different implementation protocols. In the 1970s, growing environmental concern, especially in urban areas, created opportunities to introduce progressive environmental thought, policy, and technology in Germany. Green-roof technology was quickly embraced because of its broad-ranging environmental benefits, and interdisciplinary research led to technical guidelines, the first volume of which was published in 1982 by the Landscape, Research, Development and Construction Society. Many German cities have since introduced incentive programs to promote green-roof technology and improve environmental standards. Building law now requires the construction of green roofs in many urban centers. Such legal underpinnings of green-roof construction have had a major effect on the widespread implementation and success of green-roof technology throughout Germany. Green-roof coverage in Germany alone now increases by approximately 13.5 million square meters (m2 ) per year. Approximately 14% of all new flat roofs in Germany will be green roofs; the total area covered by green roofs is unknown. The market for sloped green roofs is also developing rapidly, and accessible green roofs have become a driving force in neighborhood revitalization.

Rooftop conditions are challenging for plant survival and growth. Moisture stress and severe drought, extreme (usually elevated) temperatures, high light intensities, and high wind speeds increase the risk of desiccation and physical damage to vegetation and substrate. Plants suitable for extensive green roofs share adaptations that enable them to survive in harsh conditions. These plants have stress-tolerant characteristics, including low, mat-forming or compact growth; evergreen foliage or tough, twiggy growth; and other drought-tolerance or avoidance strategies, such as succulent leaves, water storage capacity, or CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) physiology. However, frequent drought-related disturbance to green-roof vegetation also favors some ruderal species that can rapidly occupy gaps. Green-roof communities are dynamic, and with time, vegetation is likely to change from the original composition. Since then, researchers have tested many herbaceous and woody taxa in different rooftop conditions compared combinations of various Sedum species, grasses, and herbaceous perennials, planted at two substrate depths in simulated roof platforms. Sedum species outperformed the other taxa, except in consistently moist substrate deeper than 10 centimeters (cm). In these conditions, a taller grass and herbaceous canopy layer created shaded conditions that proved unfavorable to the Sedum species. Other studies support the suitability of low-growing Sedum species for use in green roofs because of their superior survival in substrate layers as thin as 2 to 3 cm. Physical rooftop conditions, suitability for plant growth, and the cost of various substrates have also been examined.  Sempervivum comes second Sedum in popularity. Both are members of the Crassulaceae or Stonecrop Family Worldwide, there are 35 genera and 1,500 species, including 9 genera in North America. Many are cultivated as ornamentals, including: Aeonium, Cotyledon, Crassula, Dudleya, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedum and Sempervivum.  None are grown for human food and have suddenly emerged as human/plant companions as components of the extensive green roof.

Green roofs represent a class of technology that can be considered bioengineering or biomimicry: the ecosystem created by a green roof’s interacting components mimics several key properties of ground-level vegetation that are absent from a conventional roof. Green roofs, like other constructed ecosystems (e.g., sewage treatment wetlands, bioswales for storm-water management, or living walls), mimic natural ecosystems to provide ecosystem services. In particular, extensive green roofs represent the potential for the establishment of shallow soil habitats and their accompanying biodiversity: in temperate ecosystems, some of the highest rates of plant species diversity and endemism occur in relatively unproductive habitats such as rock pavements, scree slopes, and cliff faces. Plant selection is not limited to any particular habitat, however, and the potential diversity of green-roof habitats—as well as their potential for supplying goods and services, such as herbs and vegetables or other crops—awaits further research. The beneficial functions of green roofs, and their economic and environmental costs, require more investigation. Their functioning as biological systems, and the interaction of the organisms that inhabit them, represents a frontier in applied ecology and an opportunity to put interdisciplinary research into practice at the interface between constructed ecosystems and the greater urban environment.

SEMPERVIVUM plants for sale at Rumsey Nursery a UK garden centre.

Species are listed in bold text.


– ‘Alpha’


– arachnoideum subsp. tomentosum ‘Minor’

– arachnoideum subsp tomentosum Schinz  & Thell (‘Laggeri’)

– ‘Black Knight’

– ‘Blood Tip’


– calcareum ‘Mrs Giuseppi’

– ‘Commander Hay’

– ‘Corona’

– ‘Engle’s’

– ‘Flanders Passion’

– ‘Gamma’

– ‘Granat’

– ‘Hey-Hey’

– ‘Icicle’

– ‘Jewel Case’

– ‘Jubilee’

– ‘King George’

– ‘Lilac Time’

– ‘Lipari’

– ‘Mahogany’


– marmoreum ‘Ornatum’ 

– ‘Mercury’

montanum ‘Rubrum’

– ‘Mount Hood’


– octopodes var apetalum

– ‘Patrician’

– ‘Pekinese’

–           ‘Pseudo-ornatum

– ‘Pilatus’

– ‘Pseudo-ornatum’

– ‘Red Mountain’

– ‘Red Wings’

– ‘Reginald Malby’

– ‘Reinhard’

– ‘Robin’

– ‘Rosie’

– ‘Royal Ruby’

– ‘Rubin’

– ‘Ruby Star’

– ‘Silver Jubilee’

– ‘Spring Mist’

tectorum ‘Nigrum’

– tectorum subsp tectorum ‘Triste’

– tectorum subsp tectorum ‘Violaceum’

– ‘Topaz’

– x calcaratum

Crassulaceae, the stonecrop or orpine family, has about 30 genera of perennial herbs or low shrubs, in the order Saxifragales, native to warm, dry regions of the world. Many species are grown as pot plants or cultivated in rock gardens and borders. They have thick leaves and red, yellow, or white flower clusters. Sedum (stonecrop), Sempervivum(houseleek), Kalanchoë, Monanthes, Umbilicus (pennywort), Bryophyllum, Echeveria (seephotograph), Crassula, and Cotyledon are well-known members of the family.Houseleeks belong to the stonecrop family Crassulaceae, also known as the the orpine family, They are a group of dicotyledons with succulent leaves. They are generally herbaceous but there are some subshrubs, and relatively few treelike or aquatic plants. They are found worldwide, but mostly occur in the Northern Hemisphere and southern Africa, typically in dry and/or cold areas where water may be scarce. The family includes approximately 1400 species and 34 or 35 genera, although the number of genera is disputed and depends strongly on the circumscription of Sedum (stonecrop).

Aeonium, the tree houseleek, is a genus of about 35 species of succulent, subtropical plants of the family Crassulaceae. Many species are popular in horticulture. The genus name comes from the ancient Greek “aionos” (ageless).[1] While most of them are native to the Canary Islands, some are found in Madeira, Morocco, and in East Africa (for example in the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia).



What is it we want really? 

For what end and how? 

If it is something feasible, obtainable, 

Let us dream it now, 

And pray for a possible land 

Not of sleep-walkers, not of angry puppets, 

But where both heart and brain can understand 

The movements of our fellows; 

Where life is a choice of instruments and none 

Is debarred his natural music, 

Where the waters of life are free of the ice-blockade of 


And thought is free as the sun, 

Where the altars of sheer power and mere profit 

Have fallen to disuse, 

Where nobody sees the use 

Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and 


Where the individual, no longer squandered 

In self-assertion, works with the rest, endowed 

With the split vision of a juggler and the quick lock of a 


Where the people are more than a crowd. 

So sleep in hope of this — but only for a little; 

Your hope must wake 

While the choice is yours to make, 

The mortgage not foreclosed, the offer open. 

Sleep serene, avoid the backward 

Glance go forward, dreams, and do not halt 

(Behind you in the desert stands a token 

Of doubt — a pillar of salt). 

Sleep, the past, and wake, the future, 

And walk out promptly through the open door 5 

But you, my coward doubts, may go on sleeping, 

You need not wake again — not any more. 

Environmental spirituality

September 1st, 2019

1 Spiritual values

No society can function without some comprehensive framework of values. Every time we apply the Endangered Species Act or choose between carbon-derived energy and more oil-drilling, we are expressing a sense of what is important to us, how we ought to live, and what we regard with reverence. This is the spiritual dimension of what can be called secular environmentalism. A full understanding of environmentalism requires seeing it as a secular faith movement concerned with acting out green policies and campaigns based on ecological science.  Scientific reason is employed to answer ultimate questions about the place and purpose of humans in the world. In this respect the human mind in its dreaming, imagining and wandering modes is as much a part of nature as a boreal forest. Creating mythologies about origins, being and destinations is key.

The word ‘spiritual’, which relates to the human spirit, as opposed to material or physical things, does not imply a religious institution and many people who experience spiritual emotions about nature, including secular scientists, do not belong to a formal religion. Where does this kind of environmental spirituality come from?  It has to start with an understanding that there is more to our mental lives than the current content of our day to day awareness. 

Our conscious mind contains the immediate, critical thought function of our brains. The conscious mind is the part of the mind you identify with in everyday life.  Some, but not all, memories are here, only the memories you need on a day to day basis. The conscious mind uses the intellect to come up with choices and logical solutions to problems. It learns and understands through input from our senses. It also moves our body in the way we decide. 

In contrast, the subconscious mind (also known as the unconscious mind) operates all the body’s automatic systems.  It’s in charge of breathing, heart rate, kidney function, digestion and more. The subconscious is also the storehouse of  long-term memory, all of our experiences and emotions; everything we have ever encountered, everything we are unaware of that can be brought into play to inform our decision making process.  It learns from our experiences and stores the information. 

Our subconscious affects what we sense, think, feel and do. Remember something that has taken you completely out of yourself.  Perhaps it was a newborn baby or a thunderstorm, a beached whale or a piece of music. Try to remember how it made you feel in the moment when you stopped thinking and just let yourself be lifted out of your everyday experiences.  The subconscious is the powerful layer underneath that encompasses the awareness of all things the conscious mind cannot recognize. Our subconscious is continually chewing things over in the background of our minds and taking note of things without us knowing. The product of that subconscious analysis appears as our intuition; we suddenly know something without knowing why.  Items from this long term library of memories can pop up without warning or conscious control and enter our spiritual realm.

Spiritual values are innate mental energies common to the whole of humanity, which when fully embodied in individuals as a faith system can create harmonious relationships between individuals, nations, and ecosystems. All evidence points to humanity evolving towards a fuller alive expression of spiritual values.  So spiritual values are often recognized as aspirational goals. Gandhi pointed the way to achieve this evolutionary transformation irrespective of your faith system : “be the change you want to see”, he stated. Paradoxically, it is the striving of each individual to live by spiritual values that results in humanity adopting cultural ecology to conceptualise being part of nature in all that we do.  These innate mental energies come from being a social primate. We demand relief from the friction, chaos, and conflict engendered by lower regressive values, selfishness, separatism, greed, and the like. Spiritual values enable us aspire to love, wisdom, enlightenment, selfless service and goodwill in action, unity, harmony, and sacrifice.  Suffering, in this context, is merely the intuition of wrong relations based on wrong values.

Sam Harris argues that much of our unease with nonreligious spirituality, and the integration of science and spirit, comes from the narrow view of both camps:

Scientists “generally start with an impoverished view of spiritual experience, assuming that it must be a grandiose way of describing ordinary states of mind,” while New Age thinkers “idealize altered states of consciousness and draw specious connections between subjective experience and the spookier theories at the frontiers of physics” — a fault line that erupts with semi mathematical mysticism that leaves us with the lose-lose choice “between pseudo-spirituality and pseudo-science.”

Regarding the question whether or not environmentalism is a religion, William James, a pioneering psychologist, defined religion as a belief that the world has an unseen order, coupled with the desire to live in harmony with that order. In his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, James pointed to the value of a community of shared beliefs and practices. He also appreciated the individual quest for spirituality — a search for meaning through encounters with nature. More recently, William P. Alston outlined in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy what he considered the essential characteristics of religions. They include: 

  • a distinction between sacred and profane objects; 
  • ritual acts focused upon sacred objects; 
  • a moral code;
  • feelings of awe, mystery, and guilt;
  • adoration in the presence of sacred objects and during rituals; 
  • a worldview that includes a notion of where the individual fits.  

A majority of like-minded people are happy to go along peaceably with this philosophy.  It is this kind of thinking that allows many people to adopt environmentalism as a religion.

As an ideology, environmentalism is based on ecological values applied to counter the excesses of industrial modernity. Secular environmentalism is a system of values, separate from religion or politics, that defines what people expect of themselves and of others.  The system is based on the beliefs they hold about their personal relationship to Earth and the wider cosmos. Such values can represent core principles that guide daily decision making. They help people determine which actions to take, and to make judgments about right or wrong and good or bad. The world’s most commonly practiced religions often have similar values, although variations exist in the way some values are prioritized over others. Since secular environmentalism has been a key part of the environmental movement from its inception to the present, it makes environmental politics particularly fertile ground for an alliance with religion. This alliance has been manifest in a host of particular circumstances from the common ground of spirituality.   

Environmentalism was born out of the industrial revolution and has no mythical template from the past with which to create the good life.  As Michael Crichton notes:

There is no Eden. There never was. What was that Eden of the wonderful mythic past? Is it the time when infant mortality was 80%, when four children in five died of disease before the age of five? When one woman in six died in childbirth? When the average lifespan was 40, as it was in America a century ago. When plagues swept across the planet, killing millions in a stroke. Was it when millions starved to death? Is that when it was Eden?

And what about indigenous peoples, living in a state of harmony with the Eden-like environment? Well, they never did. On this continent, the newly arrived people who crossed the land bridge almost immediately set about wiping out hundreds of species of large animals, and they did this several thousand years before the white man showed up … And what was the condition of life? Loving, peaceful, harmonious? Hardly, the early peoples of the New World lived in a state of constant warfare. … The warlike tribes of this continent are famous: the Comanche, Sioux, Apache, Mohawk, Aztecs, Toltec, Incas. Some of them practised infanticide, and human sacrifice. And those tribes that were not fiercely warlike were exterminated…

However, we can use this reality of an Eden-free past to be aware of what we have gained from economic growth, gains that must be protected whatever the future economy.

2 Sacramental awareness

Human beings are transcendent creatures oriented to myth, mystery and religion through sacramentalism.  Our innate faculty of sacramental imagination is the ability to form mental images in our minds of things we have not experienced through our senses.  We are ultimately striving for communion with ‘the other’. Richard McBrien sums up this process as follows: 

“A sacramental perspective is one that ‘sees’ the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical.”  

Sacraments are signs and symbols that convey a depth of meaning. A sign specifically points to something beyond itself and communicates a sense that is deeper than the concrete object that it is. A symbol is a type of sign that often has numerous connotations and reaches beyond the sign itself to touch the imagination and emotions as a way of communicating feelings and ideas about place.  Therefore, symbols convey a series of meanings and delineate a path to the very depths of things. They allow us to see beyond the world of our senses, to feel deeply, and to contemplate on our surroundings. Symbols can take us to what we think are the depths of things, a pathway that can be experienced through contemplation and reflection.  

Artists often think symbolically and have a peculiar sacramental awareness that many people do not possess. Artists tend to reach toward mystery, the unexplainable, the existential. They extend us toward feeling, sensitivity, and reflective cognition.  We enter into the mystery while reflecting on human experience. Sacramentality involves taking objects as symbols and signs that need our contemplation, but not necessarily our decoding. For this reason, art employs symbols that reach beyond the tangible realities to deeper truths of human existence. We look at art and ask what it is that it desires of us, not what it means. This is the same of sacraments and sacramentality. We discover not what they mean but the deeper responses they bring up because signs always point us to something beyond themselves.  We must remember that visual arts are done precisely because words are insufficient to hold the concepts alluded to in the art form. An artist may attempt to give meaning in the title and an explanation. But the moment other minds see the work, because of their individual and unique thinking and perceptual patterns, they will bring their own impression of what the work may mean to them.

John Shea explains: 

“Sacramental consciousness does not desert the concrete, historical world but turns it into a symbol.” 

Poets do this with language. The Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins sees the beauty present in nature as an expression of deep ecology, and exclaims, 

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” 

He observes a spiritual presence in trees that shines forth with brilliancy more than natural light can convey. He sees the sacramentality present in creation of the universe, in the light flickering off the leaves, in nature’s wondrous beauty. His is a sacramental awareness which goes on in his head.  His poetic expressions on a page prompt others to share the mental image.  

Sacramental awareness is transferred to canvas in such master artists as DaVinci, Carravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe, as well as in contemporary artists such as Jay DeFeo and Jasper Johns. It is also present in the works of filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman.  

Sacramental imagination refers to the everyday events, persons, situations, and experiences that are moments of revelation.   A contemporary example in art is ‘Jalobayu’ (climate in Bengali). This is Monica Jahan Bose’s collective performance piece. Bose uses the sari, eighteen feet of unstitched handwoven fabric that is commonly worn by women in South Asia, to represent women’s lives and the cycle of life on our planet. The sari she uses in the show is written on and worn by a group of coastal women in Bangladesh. Jalobayu juxtaposes women’s words on their sewn together worn saris stretched against the backdrop of the rising ocean in Miami Beach. The intent is to raise awareness of climate change and link Miami Beach to coastal Bangladesh, both of which face devastation due to climate change.

Modern mother and child images of today are the most up-to-date symbol of our planetary home, a sacrament encoding the extreme demands that we, her most demanding offspring, are making of her. In one way, it’s a twist on Leonardo’s Madonna Litta, with its knowing baby gorging himself on his mother’s milk. But in new planetary versions of this image, the infant’s excessive demands have left Mother Earth far from serene.

The demands of mass production are symbolised in Chris Jordan’s series of pointillist paintings Running the Numbers.  This series presents the subject of human consumption, human waste, in fact our whole buy-it-now-throw-it-away-later culture. His method is to start with a statistic, say, the 2 million plastic beverage bottles used in the United States every five minutes and to create an image that translates those astonishing numbers into something you can see at a glance. From a distance, his “Plastic Bottles, 2007” looks like an abstract-expressionist painting, buzzing with texture and colour. Step up closer and it begins to resolve itself into discernible shapes. Zoom right in, and there are all our empty soda and water bottles: an infinite wasteland receding in a strangely thrilling vanishing perspective.  In Oil Barrels, 2008, he presents 28,000 barrels in a mandala-like formation of concentric circles, recalling the volume of oil burned in the United States every two minutes. Of course his message has to be explained to the viewer in words that travel with the image because the barrels by themselves are meaningless.

Having a sacramental imagination means that we can see beyond the physical to contemplate tangible realities as conveying something of deeper meaning and purpose. This is an incarnational perspective of the world and human experience which runs wider than religion.  Our sacramental imagination moves us beyond signs and symbols to the deeper spiritual meaning conveyed by everyday experiences, situations, objects, and persons. These deeper spiritual meanings have been called “revelations of secular grace.” In Christanity grace is believed to be a divine influence acting within a person to make the person morally strong. For the non-believer, secular grace defines grace as the expression of a mental capacity to integrate the various components of an experience; the human with the non human, the physical with the mental, the unconscious with the conscious. Secular grace is not regarded as an expression of the divine.  It is a mental process triggered by an object or place that fulfills the very human need to experience connection, belonging, awe, wonder and most of all love. It asserts human worth, dignity and rights and attempts to ethically follow all the implications from these assertions. It calls forth a prescription on how to live life well and thrive as a human being in all of its diverse expressions. 

Most people agree that the moment of grace at the heart of Japanese haiku poetry is what’s called the haiku moment.  This is when you are so struck by a scene – like snow covering apple trees – or an event – such as hearing a flock of geese – that you can’t help but want to share it with someone.  the philosophy of haiku has been preserved: the focus on a brief moment in time; a use of provocative, colorful images; an ability to be read in one breath; and a sense of sudden enlightenment and illumination.     The haiku moment has a “whoa!” quality to it. You are so taken by the scene that you may literally stop in your tracks. Whoa! If someone were with you, you might have said, “Did you see that?!” The haiku moment happens quickly.  We need to pay attention or we will miss such moments.”

Cultural artifacts engage our sacramental imagination and sacramental imagination allows us to view their reality through the lens of faith where the finite mediates the infinite, and all of creation can be a mediation of integration of the two graces. Both kinds of grace are needed today in order to transition to a world of no growth and equal opportunity.  They generate a long-term equilibrium state of deep ecology, where the basic material needs of each person on Earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his/her individual human potential. The equilibration requires trading certain human freedoms, such as producing unlimited numbers of children or consuming uncontrolled amounts of resources, for other freedoms, such as relief from pollution and crowding and the threat of collapse of the global ecosystem.  But the downsizing and the sharing, would have to be voluntary and an orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially-just sustainability for all.

In 2008, Peter A Victor pointed to what a zero-growth economy could look like? He said:

“There are lots of things that can grow in a zero-growth economy. For example, well-being, literacy, life expectancy, fairness, security, conviviality, community-mindedness, environmental quality, and the resource efficient sectors of the economy can all grow, in principle. However, the material and energy throughput of the economy must stabilize and even go down. Human population must likewise stabilize or even go down. The stock of physical capital and artifacts—infrastructure and all the things that we build—requires a huge amount of resources just to maintain, let alone grow, and thus may also need to stabilize or even contract”. 

Many of these positive features that could thrive in a zero growth economy highlight the emphasis that most individuals still place on the personal benefits derived by their spirituality.  But education is needed to promote them alongside ecological awareness and concern for protecting the environment.

Deep ecology bridges sacramental awareness with ecological awareness.  It does not separate humans nor anything else from the natural environment. It sees the world not as a collection of isolated objects but as a network of phenomena that are fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. Deep ecology recognizes the intrinsic value of all living beings and views humans as just one particular strand in the web of life.  Here are some of the questions that stand between ecological awareness and its applications to the economics of everyday life.

  • How does ecological awareness inform spiritual practice?
  • What does it mean to have faith in something transcendent yet seek to protect the material world?
  • Is environmentalism in conflict with spirituality?
  • How does faith influence ecological perspectives?
  • Should communities of faith be doing more to protect natural resources?
  • Is sustainable living possible as prescribed by religious tradition?

All economic value is derived from nature by way of society.  Economic value is therefore rooted in human values and ultimately in the spiritual values that give purpose and meaning to human life.  In the absence of purpose, there is no logical motivation for sustaining human life or sustaining human economies. Thus, economic sustainability is deeply rooted in spirituality.  So, fundamental challenges to achieve sustainability in all its dimensions are ethical, moral, and ultimately spiritual rather than technological or economic. Therefore, sustainability ultimately depends on creating a deep, moral and ethical culture that gives long term ecological sustainability priority over short term economic expediency. This deep sustainability goes beyond the normal shallow or instrumental strategies which focus on resource efficiency and substitution, motivated by economic incentives. Deep sustainability explores the philosophical, ethical, and transcendental roots of ecological, social, and economic integrity. In so doing, it calls for a spiritual-rooted, cultural revolution. This revolution must be motivated by an understanding that the pursuit of economic sustainability is synonymous with the pursuit of authentic happiness, which is inherently social and spiritual as well as material. A degrowth economy would be one which simply provides the material requisites and means for a pursuit of happiness motivated by a spiritual sense of wellbeing.  “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” were the lode stones for spiritual wellness established by the first European settlers in North America and are evident in this phrase embedded in the United States Declaration of Independence. The phrase gives three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says have been given to all humans by their creator, and which governments are elected to protect.

Spiritual wellness, as the European colonists of North America were only too aware of, comes, in general, from having connections to something greater than yourself.  It is about having a set of values, principles, morals and beliefs that provide a sense of purpose, hopefulness and meaning to life. By spiritual is meant that which affects and directs the moral compass of human beings.  It is the everyday orientation by which we navigate our jobs, our homes, our friendships, our minds. The important outcome for education is the application of secular grace to form better citizens, neighbours, professionals, colleagues and families.  Applying those principles as a guide to actions generates a personal prosperity of hopefulness that can make life worthwhile in a steady state economy. It is in this sense that everyone has to navigate a personal spiritual trail to establish and maintain a happy position in a non-monetary economy.  If we are lucky, this position will inevitably bind us to a material place where the spiritual gateway first appeared. Here, deep ecology runs alongside deep place where we can reencounter the past in the hope of a better today.

3 Grace through cultural heritage

Rodney Harrison discusses the ways in which “natural” heritage projects, focusing on the use of wild resources by Indigenous Australians, simultaneously raise questions of economic, social, cultural, and scientific concerns. If one holds that Wedge-tailed Eagles are one’s kin, then questions of their conservation management touch on more than the utilitarian values of biodiversity, but are equally concerned with what we might, under existing heritage taxonomies, refer to as “social” or “spiritual” values. Harrison describes this way of understanding heritage in terms of “connectivity ontologies”.  These are modalities of a mindful process of attaining secular grace. Life and place combine to bind time and living beings into local continuities of history, These work collaboratively to keep the past alive in the present and for the future. Harrison says:

“I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.”

These sentiments, it turns out, are shared by about a quarter of the population, who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”,  a seemingly paradoxical proposition that, Sam Harris argues, captures the crux of our ancient struggle for integration with the environment:

“Although the claim seems to annoy believers and atheists equally, separating spirituality from religion is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is to assert two important truths simultaneously: Our world is dangerously riven by religious doctrines that all educated people should condemn, and yet there is more to understanding the human condition than science and secular culture generally admit”

Although Harris uses the word rubble in a metaphorical sense there are spiritual messages in real ruins.  ‘Ruins’ refers to the actual material traces of a bygone era and are the defining feature of former economic growth.  Ruination is a process incorporating such traces with cultural experiences and perceptions that continue into the present  For example, recent ruins have emerged as symbols of deindustrialization and are most often associated with a former failed capitalist modes of production. As Peggi Eyers says

“When the stories a society shares are out of tune with its circumstances, they can become self-limiting, even a threat to survival. This is our current situation.”

Because of their symbolic nature, ruination and decline are enduring urban themes in popular culture, literature, history, and urban sociology. From classical ruins of ‘great’ civilizations, to bombed-out buildings in the aftermath of war, to abandoned factories and derelict cinemas, ruins have provoked reflection for centuries  Ruination brings the dynamics of the infrastructure of human ecology to a spiritual focus because infrastructure is the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise. Ruined infrastructure carries social messages about institutions, economic systems, and media forms and produces intellectual trajectories dreamt up by human ingenuity and expressed materially.   Infrastructure is meant to last but in reality is doomed to be outmoded, ruined, and exceeded. 

Ruination is a lived process that continues in the present and can be an important process to project lessons learned from the past into the future.  Processes of decay and disintegration can be culturally, as well as ecologically, productive. Caitlin DeSilvey says; 

“Where the process of physical decay is going on, and nature is moving in, we can try to see this in a positive light and ask ourselves what we can learn from those changes.”  

Theodor Adorno’s long view of the future is: ‘eternity appears, not as such, but diffracted through the most perishable’  

Interest in processes of ruination has correspondingly focused on the capacity for material decomposition to expose the conceptual limitations of modernization, notably through the literally deconstructed ideas of planned, ordered, Cartesian space and of linear progressive time.  In a landmark account of the modern experience, the political scientist Marshall Berman remarks: 

“One of the distinctive virtues of modernism is that it leaves its questions echoing in the air long after the questioners themselves, and their answers, have left the scene.” 

Ruins are a platform for spiritual awareness and the search for secular grace.  But, what lessons do we learn from ruins? One is about the failure to learn. Arguably, this is the root cause of the decline of all enterprises. The people,usually beginning with their leaders, reach a stage at which they fail to understand and adapt sufficiently to the new threats and opportunities that lay before them. They do not comprehend their own fragility.  This is illustrated by nations who are currently defying planetary logic by clinging hopefully to economic growth. 

Another lesson from ruination that sets the scene for experiencing secular grace is the spirituality of monastic remains.  The question that often arises is whether monasticism, especially Christian monastic life, has any relevance in our modern world?  How could a movement that occurred nearly 18 centuries ago be of any value for us today, especially in our Western acquisitive culture which has very little tradition or exposure to this form of religious life?  What real value do the monasteries and monastic men and women have in the modern age?

First, we need to understand that even back in the 3rd century, the very idea that someone would sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, then spend his life living in hunger, poverty and solitude in a tomb in the desert was considered extreme even for those distant times.  This was the life of the christian Saint Anthony. Some would say that monastic life goes completely against “human nature,” which has always been defined by the world as seeking out the most comfort and the highest level of status that we can possibly achieve in our lifetime. To withdraw from the chaos of the world is considered by most to be “insane.”  The rest of the world is constantly competing with your time and resources, trying to convince you that the ways of the world are the only right way to live. But, the inner voice is more often heard in the quietness and stillness of our solitary retreats to discover secular grace through contemplating the sustainable lifestyle the monks and nuns were trying to develop.  

The monks and nuns of today are not that much different from the rest of us: They have parents, siblings, and friends and loved ones.  They came into the world much like everyone else and someday they, too, will die. They are tempted by the same demons and face similar challenges that we must encounter as well.  Monastic ruins provide for us an island for peaceful focus, where we can spend time in contemplation, allowing us to recharge our spiritual batteries and thus be prepared for further battle with our daily demons, helping us to find the inner stillness we all desire.

Where did modern Earth storytelling begin? Perhaps it was with Rachel Carson, who challenged people to think about the potential long-term effects on the environment. Maybe it began with Walt Whitman or Henry David Thoreau, nature lovers and pioneers that viewed nature as an inspiration. Or maybe it’s today, in the digital age, with someone like Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer.  He has produced powerful images that transform our minds and hearts to the conviction that we need to take action now. The UK Natural Environment Research Council brings together stories of scientific endeavour in its Planet Earth news platform.

Pegi Eyres says we have to make new Earth Stories.  So, what are they? Eyers believes they are narratives that arise from our localized re-landing and her thoughts and “chapters” may be a good beginning:

  • To return to our pre-colonial Paganism or indigenity knowing we are all children of Earth, and that our place is within, not above, the circle of creation,
  • To reorient our consciousness toward a more integral relationship with the Earth,
  • To move toward a paradigm shift that includes the land and the other-than-human world,
  • To look to nature as a knowledgeable and inspiring teacher, providing us with the stories for a new era,
  • To address ecological solutions that maintain and improve the health of natural systems and the diversity of all life,
  • To revive and embrace the natural law of species diversity in a multiplicity of ethnicities, belief systems, partnerships, unique societies and Earth communities,
  • To revalue our bodies, the dignity of materiality, and working with our hands,
  • To live each day as a sacred act,
  • To love the land as central to our most cherished dreams and memories, to care for and restore the Earth, and
  • To take a stand for ecological defence.

4 Economics of cultural heritage

Being able to connect oneself to the past, and to the collective past of others via the recollection of, or re-creation of specific memories and histories, is a form of cultural capital that relates to heritage’.  Heritage, if properly managed, can be instrumental in enhancing social inclusion, developing intercultural dialogue and shaping the identity of a territory. This proposition is behind a growing movement to engage a new biocultural heritage agenda for a steady state economy.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital formulated in 1986 describes the skills and knowledge that people accumulate within the course of their lives and how these skills can be employed culturally in a way that resembles the use of economic capital. Being able to connect oneself to the past, and to the collective past of others via the recollection of or re-creation of specific memories and histories, is a form of cultural capital that relates to heritage.

The British Council produced a report in 2018 exploring the notion of Cultural Heritage for Inclusive Growth. Cultural heritage in this context is used to mean many things, from the built environment through to cultural traditions such as music and language. It also includes artworks, manuscripts, monuments, archeological sites, oral traditions, festivals, the performing arts and traditional crafts. Inclusive growth means working with and for all levels of society in order to reconcile the divide between economic growth, and rising poverty and inequality. By working inclusively with communities and wider society the British Council believes that an economy can be developed, that benefits a far wider cross-section of the community, and works to reduce the gap between rich and poor.

Biocultural heritage is about relationships between people and the natural environment. It consists of biological resources, from genes to landscapes. But biological heritage also consists of human history, from practices to pools of knowledge and the way humans shape their surroundings and vice versa.The definition of cultural heritage considered in its widest sense includes: 

• Built heritage: industrial, significant architecture, world heritage sites, historic cities and property, and ancient and indigenous sites 

• Intangible heritage: festivals, exhibitions, showcases, performances, markets, hubs, media, language, traditions, folk art, craft 

• Natural heritage: eco-villages, caves, underwater, landscape/scenery, resources (minerals etc.) 

• Museums: visual art, archives, cultural objects, libraries.

The British Council classifies the types of interventions to implement a heritage agenda as:

• Contemporisation and innovation 

• Digitisation and the use of digital technology 

• Community engagement 

• Preservation and protection 

• Capacity building 

• Promotion and outreach 

• Policy influence 

• Networking and collaboration Expected outcomes 

• Local ownership and sustainability 

• Professionalisation of the sector 

• Growing the market 

• Learning from exchange and best practice 

• Network and relationship building with partners and experts 

• Internationalisation and cultural relations

Cultural heritage, in its widest sense (as a sector, physical space and intangible practice), can be found to contribute to an economy that is inclusive and sustainable, if approached in a person centred, creative development way. This approach can particularly benefit emerging economies, which otherwise risk excluding individuals and communities from society and the economy. Through new and innovative ways of encouraging people to engage with, share and manage their cultural heritage, quality of life can be improved, value can be created for communities, and economic prosperity can be more fairly distributed across society and between nations.

The British Council report was couched in terms of a growth economy. According to the International Institute for Environment and Development, some 370 million indigenous people in the world depend directly on natural resources — they rely on their biocultural heritage for survival. Biocultural heritage also influences religious beliefs, sense of place (especially sacred places), and sense of self. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tangle of connections when considering the biocultural heritage of a good or a service — maybe that’s why food is a good place to start when trying to get a feel for it. But an astute observer can recognize that other goods and services, such as medicinal plants, tourism, or even health services, also flow from a rich biocultural heritage  Claudia Múnera states the principles of biocultural heritage in a steady state economy as follows:

 “Protecting the biosphere comes down to making sure enough ecosystems around the globe maintain their structures and functions. A strong appreciation of biocultural heritage is a key to doing this job, especially in the face of pressures from ongoing economic growth. Local economies in which people maintain a sense of place and a sense of their ecological and cultural limits provide an alternative, resilient model to the infinite growth paradigm”.

Degrowth: a syllabus for a democratic pedagogy

August 12th, 2019


In his book ‘When Giants Fall’ (2009), Michael Panzner makes a case for the turbulent social changes to come if we stick fast trying to maintain economic growth.  According to Panzner, the changes will be widespread. Businesses will struggle amid wars, shortages, logistical disruptions, and a breakdown of the established monetary order. Individuals will be forced to rethink livelihoods, lifestyles, living arrangements, and where to live  Political structures will be in flux, as local leaders gain influence at the expense of national authorities. For many people, it will be nothing short of a modern Dark Ages, where each day brings fresh anxieties, unfamiliar risks, and a sense of foreboding. He blends the present generally negative ecological, demographic and geopolitical trends of a global growth economy to project a downward trend.  In contrast, we keep hearing from politicians and business leaders that economic growth is indispensable in order to guarantee prosperity, peace and liberty. However, fewer and fewer people believe these incantations, as it has become too obvious that growth does not benefit all, but only a small class of the rich and super-rich. The current global economic and social paradigm is “faster, higher, further“.  It is built on and stimulates competition between all humans. In many countries the damages caused by economic growth already outweigh its benefits: environmental destruction, stress, noise, loneliness and social divide. Many believe that global competition for increasing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) destroys much of what makes life worthwhile. On top of this, economic growth is ruining the ability of global ecosystems to regenerate – thereby threatening the long-term survival of humanity. In the face of these destructive consequences of growth, an intensive quest for alternatives to growth started in the 1970s, a debate which has been revived with vigour over the last years focussing on the term “degrowth”.  

By “degrowth“, we understand a form of society and economy which aims at the well-being of all by sustaining the ecological basis of life. To achieve degrowth, we need a fundamental transformation of our lives and an extensive cultural change. As a minimum response, degrowth requires policies for a basic income, reduction of working hours, environmental and consumption taxes, controls on advertising and reduction in air travel. To avoid Panzner’s catastrophe closely intertwined cultural and political change is needed to construct a society that lives better with less.

‘‘We do not claim to have a recipe for the future. . .’’, stated the Barcelona degrowth declaration. . .but we can no longer pretend that we can keep growing as if nothing has happened’’. This declaration synthesized the results from the Second International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, which took place in 2010. The conference followed an innovative and participatory process that stimulated many proposals offering a fertile ground for exploring alternative degrowth solutions and future scenarios. During the event, more than 500 attendants, collaborating in 29 thematic groups, jointly worked out hands-on policies for degrowth across many futures.  In all of them, degrowth was put forward as a transition pathway towards a socially and ecologically sustainable future. A new thrust in interdisciplinary education will be required to implement the change.

In the first week of January 2018 the UK government launched its much anticipated 25 year plan to improve the environment. It largely ignores the Barcelona outcomes. Although it sees a positive role for schools and for other community-based education providers,  it has a limited view of how to educate people for life in an overcrowded world with declining resources and an unstable environment. As the President of the National Association of Environmental Education (NAEE) Justin Dillon noted in an NAEE blog:

“The 25-year plan seems to miss a fundamental point. … Schools and their leaders have a key role in influencing public attitudes and empowering students to support the reverse of decades of environmental degradation in both urban and rural areas, but this plan, for all its merits, only plays lip-service to a challenge that must be at the heart of social change in the UK.”

Attendees of the Barcelona conference were trying to adequately address the relevance of culture for economic growth. Numerous initiatives followed up on the conference are being discussed in public debates, research publications, political programmes and conversations.   These have fed into subsequent degrowth conferences (Montreal, Venice, Leipzig) and ecological economics conferences (Istanbul, Lille). 

Analyzing how cultural patterns shape our lifestyles, habits and thinking is crucial for socio-ecological transformations. In this context, education plays a preeminent role in teaching to the theme of cultural ecology: How does the content of education, its organization and structure prepare individuals for a steady state society in terms of knowledge, skills and values? What kind of education do we need for transformations? Which promising alternatives already exist and do they match with existing visions? Answers to these questions come from three levels in an education system, the pedagogy, the curriculum and the syllabus


Pedagogy is defined simply as the method, and practice of teaching. It encompasses teaching styles, methods feedback and assessment, and teacher theory.  When people talk about the pedagogy of teaching, they will be referring to the way the content of a curriculum is delivered to learners. Above all, in the context of degrowth, the emphasis should be on systems thinking, mind mapping and cross-curricula dialogue.  Although environmental education was granted cross-curriculum theme status some years ago, in secondary schools an entrenched subject curriculum and the dominance of specialist teachers tend to combine to militate against cross-curricular work. What is needed is a root and branch change in pedagogy from single subject specialisms to cross disciplinary learning at all levels of education.  Indeed, the availability of free online open educational resources, combined with social networking, enables large numbers of learners to access a great spread of specialist knowledge and discuss it widely with their peers. They can do this without the necessity for meeting institutional admission requirements, following a set course, or having an instructor. In this connexion, there is much free software available for making and reporting to assemble and test personal bodies of knowledge. 

Online interaction with information supports Integrative learning, cutting across disciplinary lines and learning styles.  Making connections of learning across subjects focuses on connections rather than isolated facts. Such a pedagogy aims to blend what is learned with real life situations because it about developing problem solving and having discussions about issues in the real world. This marks a large shift towards a lifelong inquiry based on a constructivist pedagogy.  Learners acquire knowledge by investigation of an issue. They then promulate questions, investigate to build understanding to finally create meaning and new knowledge which can then be applied in the real world. A constructivist pedagogy is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process to construct meaning and knowledge as opposed to passively receiving information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge. Such are the working and outcomes of a constructivist social change pedagogy, which is inquiry based, raising questions, posing problems or scenarios and letting learners discover the answer. 

The need for a social change pedagogy is essential to bringing the Paris Environmental Agreement to the centre of all education systems.  It was signed in December 2015 and the UN has demanded that countries work to realise the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Taken together, and if successful, these programmes will transform the lives of billions of people across the planet. The Paris Agreement and the SDGs not only embody the hope of a better world – socially, economically and environmentally – they also represent a race against time. In a narrow sense, this is a race faced by people, often volunteers, who dice on a daily basis with preventable destitution, social exclusion, discrimination, malnutrition, illness and an early death.  This highlights the need for the broadest possible pedagogy for everyone to run the race. It’s a race faced by us all as we each do our bit to limit climate change and global warming before lasting damage is done to planetary systems. 

Participatory systems thinking tools have much to offer in envisioning contractional, macro-pathways towards sustainability.  For example, complementarities between emblematic degrowth proposals provides a toolkit for developing a more coherent picture on how overdeveloped societies may make a transition to more frugal and convivial futures. These complementarities may be investigated using the method of Causal Loop Diagramming in a collaborative setting for learners engaged with gaining an understanding of degrowth issues. First they derive collaboratively the dominant feedback processes in the current social, ecological and economic systems and identify leverage points for systemic interventions to facilitate degrowth. By explicitly representing the main causal chains of effects it is possible to reveal insights on the consequences of a given proposal and explore ‘‘what-if?’’ questions and future pathways. In addition it is possible to construct a compatibility matrix to identify possible synergies between emblematic degrowth proposals. The results from these two exercises are integrated to provide plausible pathways for the implementation of degrowth policies, with a systemic identification of risks, uncertainties and leverage points of intervention to create a steady state economy

A pedagogy for social change aims to immerse learners and teachers in the process of finding out who they are and what they want to become based on shared experiences of contemporary environmental issues. Therefore a humanistic, democratic, learner‐centered pedagogy is needed to deliver the curriculum.  In school learners have a significant role in defining course policies, materials covered, and other aspects of the learning environment, e.g., allowing students in school to vote on an attendance policy or to engage in self‐evaluation and using technology to facilitate democratic goals, e.g.,having students blog regularly and incorporating that into curriculum objectives.


Curriculum is about what is offered by the education system for understanding a subject or topic.  It covers the knowledge, attitude, behaviour, manner, performance and skills that are imparted or inculcated in a learner. It contains the teaching methods, lessons, assignments, physical and mental exercises, activities, projects, study material, tutorials, presentations, assessments, test series, learning objectives, and so on.  These are the skills necessary for questioning a subject or topic to gain understanding. Hence, the major question of a degrowth curriculum is can we have prosperity without economic growth? The educational objective is to promote social justice and ecological sustainability with a transition from the present growth economy to a lifestyle that is prosperous and stable, rather than a catastrophic descent. Some would say such a lifestyle should be an expression of the intertwining of intuition and bodily awareness pertaining to a relational view between human beings and the planet. Such a view is at the heart of the concept of Earth spirituality (Ecospirituality), which has been influenced by the ideas of deep ecology and is characterized by “recognition of the inherent value of all living beings and the use of this view in shaping environmental practices and governance policies” Earth spirituality also refers to the connections between the science of ecology and psychology (ecopsychology).


A syllabus is an outline/plan/list of a specific course prepared by the instructor. It includes the topics to be covered, their order, the required and suggested reading material, and any other relevant information. It presents the units of knowledge for a curriculum. “Degrowth2050‘’ is a project launched by International Classrooms On Line to create an international syllabus for future generations to participate in a democratically-led decrease in the production of greenhouse gases and overconsumption of Earth’s resources.  It is centred on a ‘Group’ created at whose members are invited to submit ideas, reports and actions exemplifying degrowth at different levels, local, national and global.  Inputs from the web are being assembled to support a democratic pedagogy and develop a curriculum that blends culture with ecology for living sustainably in the 2050s.  If a group member does not want to have conversations with other members they can use the Group’s archive of messages, files and the Group wiki as a compendium of information about the philosophy of degrowth and how to achieve it.

The focus is a time when future generations are educated to take up cultural ecology with a humanistic democratic pedagogy to prosper in an international society fuelled by renewable energy.   Members of Degrowth2050 will also be able to contribute to help assess the reality of a global steady state economy, where people are consuming only their fair share of Earth’s resources measured by their country’s ecological footprint. By joining the Group people will have a facility to pose and address questions about the main drivers of change.  They will also be able to measure the rate of progress to ‘life without carbon’. The Degrowth group’s wiki is being developed around the concepts of sustainable development imported from Wikipedia to create a syllabus for understanding how to live sustainably (Table 1). These concepts are the backbone of a syllabus about living sustainably and are applications of the sustainable development curriculum.

Table 1  Degrowth; a sustainable development syllabus

1 Degrowth

1.1 100% renewable energy

1.2 Carbon neutrality

2 Post growth

3 Path to degrowth

3.1 Carbon capture and storage

3.2 Carbon capture and utilization

3.3 Carbon neutral fuel

3.4 Decarbonisation

4 Genuine Progress Indicator

5 Carbon footprint

5.1 Low carbon economy

5.2 Carbon offset

6 Ecological footprint

7 Sustainability

8 History of sustainability

9 Ecospirituality

10 Deep ecology

Appendix: 1 Two visions for 2050

Culled from Reports of UK Committee on Climate Change and Expert Opinions

Essentials for degrowth (1)

  • Striving for the good life for all. This includes deceleration, time welfare and conviviality.
  • A reduction of production and consumption in the global North and liberation from the one-sided Western paradigm of development. This is aimed at allowing for a self-determined path of social organization in the global South.
  • An extension of democratic decision-making to allow for real political participation.
  • Social changes and an orientation towards sufficiency instead of purely technological changes and improvements in efficiency in order to solve ecological problems.  It has historically been proven that decoupling economic growth from resource use is not possible.
  • The creation of open, connected and localized economies (deep place).

A survey of a total of 128 peer-reviewed articles focused on degrowth were reviewed, and 54 that include proposals for action were analysed. The proposals identified align with three broad goals:

  • Reduce the environmental impact of human activities
  • Redistribute income and wealth both within and between countries;
  • Promote the transition from a materialistic to a convivial and participatory society.

The proposals include common-sense ecological plans, like the reduction of energy and material consumption, carbon caps, bans on harmful activities, and incentives for local production and consumption. Degrowthers are also looking to transform traditional ideas of the economy with the promotion of community currencies and alternative credit institutions, reduced working hours, basic and maximum incomes, and voluntary simplicity and downshifting

UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) takes the view that government should lead the global fight against climate change by cutting greenhouse gases to nearly zero by 2050. The CCC maintains that if other countries follow the UK, there’s a 50-50 chance of staying below the recommended 1.5C temperature rise by 2100.  A 1.5C rise is considered the threshold for dangerous climate change. Some say the proposed 2050 target for near-zero emissions is too soft, but others who believe in a growth economy will fear the goal could damage the UK’s economy. The CCC says it would not be able to hit “net zero“ emissions any sooner, but 2050 was still an extremely significant goal.  

The report by the Committee on Climate Change makes it clear that things we take for granted now would have to be seriously restricted. Petrol and diesel vehicles will need to be phased out and replaced by electric or hydrogen powered ones by 2035. Consumption of beef, lamb and dairy must be cut by 20% by 2050 to reduce the methane emitted into the atmosphere by livestock. And no houses built after 2025 would be connected to the gas grid, whilst the owners of older buildings will need to switch their heating system to a low carbon one by around 2035.

The main author  of the CCC’s report, Christopher Stark says: “This report would have been absolutely inconceivable just a few years ago. People would have laughed us out of court for suggesting that the target could be so high.”

The main change was the huge drop in the cost of renewable energy prompted by government policies to nurture solar and wind power.

In an interview Stark said the BBC’s David Attenborough climate documentary, protests by Extinction Rebellion and speeches by the teenage campaigner Greta Thunberg had persuaded the public that the problem needed urgent action.  But there is no way the 2050 target would be achieved unless the government backs it with policies and money.  The UK is already slipping away from a legal obligation to cut its emissions step-by-step between now and 2032.

The CCC estimates the cost of the new proposal is tens of billions of pounds a year and may reach to 1-2% of national wealth (as measured by GDP) each year by 2050. That doesn’t count the benefits of decarbonisation – such as cleaner air and water. The CCC said England should aim to eliminate emissions by 2050, while Scotland could go carbon-free sooner – by 2045. Scotland has exceptional potential for planting trees (which absorb carbon dioxide) and is more suited for carbon capture and storage. Wales can only cut 95% of its emissions by 2050 because of its large upland livestock industry. Northern Ireland will follow England’s targets.

The government is studying the report, which has substantial implications for public finances, and says it “sets us on a path to become the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to global warming entirely”.

The plan is for “net zero“ emissions by 2050, which means balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal. In practice, which means slashing the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere. Unavoidable emissions need to be captured and stored (for example, where CO2 is collected from a power station chimney and put underground) or offset by planting trees.  The CCC believes that achieving zero emissions depends on low-carbon technologies and changes to industry and public behaviour. Here are some of the report’s recommendations for the public.

Home heating

The report has one controversial recommendation: to turn down the home thermostat to 19C in winter.  We will need to insulate our homes much better. Some of us will use heat pumps – a sort of reverse refrigeration technology that sucks warmth from the ground – and convert natural gas boilers to hydrogen ones.  The committee expects consumer bills to rise at first, then fall as a newer, cheaper electricity generators are introduced.


The aviation industry is trying to bring down the cost of making jet fuels from waste materials.  But the CCC says this won’t be enough. The number of flights we take is increasing, and the report predicts that government action will be needed to constrain the growth. However, it doesn’t say how – and the committee chair, John Gummer, ducked a question about Heathrow expansion at the report’s launch.


The report says we won’t need to overhaul our motoring habits, but eventually we will be driving electric cars. The government has set a target date of 2040 beyond which conventional car sales will be banned. However, the committee says that deadline should be 2030.


The committee notes many people are already eating less red meat for the health of the planet and themselves. It says people can reduce their diet-related emissions by 35% if they transition from a high-meat diet to a low-meat one. But it only predicts a 20% drop in meat consumption by 2050.


Bio-degradable waste should not be sent to landfill after 2025. This means we would all be obliged to separate our food waste from other rubbish. The report recommends reducing food waste as far as possible.

The CCC says people can also take the following steps:

  • Choosing to walk, cycle or take public transport
  • Choosing LED light-bulbs and electric appliances with high energy efficiency ratings
  • Setting the water temperature in their heating systems to no higher than 55C
  • Using only peat-free compost
  • Choosing quality products that last longer and sharing rather than buying items, like power tools, that are used infrequently
  • Checking your pension funds and ISAs to see if your investments support low-carbon industries

The big push is to decarbonise industry and heat generation. Carbon capture technology will be needed on many of the major emitters: the steel, aluminium and paper industries.

Farmers would need to find ways to reduce methane emissions from cows  Agriculture is a major emitter of greenhouse gases through sheep and cattle burping methane, and from fertilisers.  Farmers would need to reduce the amount of land in pasture, increase woodland, and feed cattle food that creates less methane gas.

The fracking industry would also be affected – the committee says we should only use fracked gas in the UK if it replaces gas that would otherwise be imported.

Environmental groups are supportive – although many think 2050 is too conservative. The UK Health Alliance on Climate Change has called on the government to adopt the recommendations but “adopt a net-zero target before 2050”.

Essentials for degrowth (2)

Lorna Greenwood of Extinction Rebellion says: “2050 condemns us to a bleak future… Others are already dying around the world thanks to inaction and far-off target setting.”

The environmental campaign group WWF has said: “The problem is, we’ve been acting as if we have time. But if we want a world with coral reefs, safe coastal cities and enough food for everyone, we must act now.”  Business and industry groups have expressed support but argue they need government help. 

Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says: “The UK should do all it can to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. What we need now is a supportive and timely response from the government to enact this ambitious target. 

Minette Batters, president of the farm union NFU, says: “We take the climate issue very seriously. With Brexit and the government’s Agriculture Bill the government can shift farm support towards helping farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Shaun Fitzgerald, director of The Royal Institution, says: “I am a massive supporter of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he added: “Will people be prepared to set their winter time thermostat to 19C? Asking people to put up with a reduction in comfort/quality is going to be difficult.”  Imagine a world where petrol cars are banned, there is no gas central heating, and meat-free Monday is no longer a choice. That is the future that awaits us if the Government’s pledge to go carbon neutral by 2050 is to be met. Under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the UK and almost 200 other countries vowed to work together to keep global warming in check. The agreement seeks to keep temperatures to 1.5 degree or at the very least to “well below 2 degrees” above pre-industrial levels so it is vital that we cut emissions. If Britain is to get greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” it means the amount of gases emitted into the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken out. If we can do it by the deadline of 2050, Britain will become the world’s first major economy to stop contributing to climate change. But to achieve that goal means drastic and life-changing action has to be taken – and fast.

So is going carbon-neutral by 2050 a realistic goal and how can we achieve it? Roger Harrabin BBC environment analyst interviewed Robert Ward, Policy and Communications Director of the London School of Economics Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, (2018).  The following account in includes some highlights of the conversation.

In your home

Every house would have to be better insulated to reduce energy wastage. And every home would also be connected to smart devices to make sure things like lights, computers and TVs weren’t using power when they weren’t needed. But perhaps the biggest change would be in how we heat our homes – with gas central heating becoming a thing of the past.

New homes would be designed in a way where they required minimal energy to maintain their temperature

“Gas central heating will have to end.  “Initially there will be a generation of boilers that are a combination of gas and also heat-pumps which use refrigerants, which create a heat exchange with the natural heat from the air or from below ground.”But they need to increase their efficiency and initially you would have them backed up with gas central heating that would turn on when the pump wasn’t doing quite enough, in the same way that you have hybrid cars that run on electricity but occasionally need to use petrol.

“Eventually we just won’t be burning gas – you won’t have any gas cookers any more, everything will be electric. “It certainly requires an investment upfront but the idea is that all of these appliances are going to be much more efficient, so in fact the running costs will be much lower than people have at the moment.  “Yes there will be an investment in a new cooker, but it will cook things more quickly and in a more energy efficient way. “The same things for you heating – by not using gas your energy bills will be much lower.”

On the road

In order to achieve net zero carbon emissions, petrol and diesel cars will become a thing of the past. Not only will we all be driving electric cars but driverless cars – which are computer operated to find the most dynamic routes around our cities – could replace traditional cabs.

And public transport systems would have to improve to reduce congestion.

“The prices of electric cars are coming right down, and the running costs of an electric car are a lot less than those of a petrol or diesel car. “A lot of people when they come to the end of life of their current car, electric cars will be the only thing available. “For people who have to buy one earlier there may be incentive schemes. “One of the more interesting developments is that at night when you plug your car in, if you have any charge left then the grid might take that out of your car to use at peak times, and then charge the car during the night, which will help with the supply and demand of electricity.

“Some electric car companies are looking at autonomous vehicles which are almost like cabs are now – so when you need to make a journey, you hire a car, it turns up, it doesn’t have a driver but takes you to your destination. “Because it is controlled by computers it gets around the city much more efficiently than if it was driven by a person. “So people will spend less time actually commuting and then don’t have to worry about parking.  “If we invest more money in public transport, everyone may knock 10 minutes off their daily commute which is ten minutes more that everybody spends being more productive. “So when you work these sums out it is far more economical than people sitting in traffic jams. Many of the changes we make for climate reasons will also generally improve life.”

In the air

The huge greenhouse gas emissions caused by air travel are one stumbling block to a carbon neutral future.  But technology is moving so quickly that battery-powered short-haul flights are not too far away. “We think we will probably have good enough battery technology that it will be possible to have short-haul flights by battery powered planes.  “But it seems unlikely at the moment that battery technology will move on to where we could do a long international flight using electric. “So it is hoped that we will develop new biofuels which are based on plants so when the plants grow they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so when you burn them when you fly, you release carbon dioxide but you haven’t added to the overall concentration of carbon dioxide so it is effectively carbon neutral.”


Livestock create massive emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, which we will have to tackle if we are to become carbon neutral by 2050 – which means eating less meat and dairy products.  But technology is already being developed where meat is being created in science labs so we will no longer need cows to enjoy a juicy steak or burger. “We are already seeing a change where a lot of people are eating less meat for health and ethical reasons,”

“The environment gives you another reason to think about your meat consumption.

“When livestock belch they produce methane and that is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. “When you work out all the resources you have to put in to having a cow, it is very inefficient.

“Scientists have also started to grow meat in laboratories using stem cells.  The cost of this is now coming down, and some burger companies are already experimenting with this, so we will get to the stage where you can buy a burger made of meat but it hasn’t come from a cow it has been grown in a lab and you won’t be able to taste the difference”.

“Another reason we need to reduce our consumption of meat is that we need the space that is used to keep the livestock to grow biofuels. “So we will grow trees to burn for energy and create electricity. The trees are burned in an electricity power station but instead of releasing the cartoon dioxide they will store it underground in disused oil fields. ” So effectively you are reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because the plants take it in to grow, but then when it is burned it isn’t released again.”

At work

By working less, we produce fewer goods and services that require precious resources to make. We also consume less in the process of getting our job done. Less work means less carbon-intensive commuting, less energy-demanding office space, and less time on power-hungry computer systems. In addition, working less would help to break down the work-spend cycle. Fewer hours at work mean we have more time to do other personal things such as travelling, preparing food or fixing broken household items. We are also less likely to rely on environmentally costly timesavers such as high-speed air travel or takeaway food delivered in plastic containers by someone riding a motorbike. 

The politics

A new left wing economics is emerging that wants to see the redistribution of economic power, so that it is held by everyone – just as political power is held by everyone in a healthy democracy. This could involve employees taking ownership of part of every company; or local politicians reshaping their city’s economy to favour local, ethical businesses over large corporations; or national politicians making co-operatives a capitalist norm. They want this change to be only partially initiated and overseen by the state, not controlled by it. They envisage a transformation that happens almost organically, driven by employees and consumers – a sort of non-violent revolution in slow motion.

The result, the new economists claim, will be an economy that suits society, rather than – as we have at present – a society subordinated to the economy. This isn’t really economics at all. It’s “a new view of the world” focussed on the concept of Deep Place, a holistic approach to sustainable place-making. The deep place idea is grounded in a concern with how to achieve more economically, socially, environmentally and culturally sustainable places where communities are in control. It seeks to overcome what it identifies as the harmful consequences of the current dominant Neoliberal economic competitive paradigm adopted by rootless people on the move. Although it is not anti-capitalist, degrowth economics recognises the weaknesses and failings of Neoliberalism, which exploits the human factor of production and in doing so consumes more resources than the planet can regenerate.  The glue of deep place sustainability consists of a ‘mosaic of peoples, traditions, beliefs, and institutions uniquely shaped by long term pressures of geology, human history, culture, local environment, and changing human needs’. 

The cost

Experts estimate that for Britain to reach its net zero carbon target by 2050 it will cost £1trillion. But  the benefits not just for climate change, but for our general well-being, may well far out-weigh that investment in the long-run.

“Air pollution currently kills about 30,000 people a year in the UK,. “When you start adding up all these benefits – reducing congestion etc – it looks like we will end up being better off from that £1 trillion investment.“That number is over 30 years but it doesn’t take into account any of the benefits. Yes £1trillion is a lot of money, but if the benefits are £3 trillion well that is a good deal.

“One thing that really strikes me is that when you tell people all the benefits they get it, but the one thing that seals it for them, particularly older people, is that the impacts of climate change are getting worse and if we don’t act promptly then our children and grandchildren will have to deal with them. “And I think most people would agree they would rather leave the world in a better place so that our children don’t have to deal with the catastrophic impacts of climate change.”

The spirituality

All economic value is derived from nature by way of society.  Economic value is therefore rooted in human values and ultimately in the spiritual values that give purpose and meaning to human life.  In the absence of purpose, there is no logical motivation for sustaining human life or sustaining human economies. Thus, economic sustainability is deeply rooted in spirituality.  So fundamental challenges in achieving sustainability are ethical, moral, and ultimately spiritual rather than technological or economic. Therefore, sustainability ultimately depends on creating a moral and ethical culture that gives long term economic sustainability priority over short term economic expediency. 

“Deep sustainability” goes beyond the normal shallow or instrumental strategies which focus on resource efficiency and substitution, motivated by economic incentives. Deep sustainability explores the philosophical, ethical, and transcendental roots of ecological, social, and economic integrity. In so doing, it calls for a spiritual-rooted, cultural revolution. This revolution must be motivated by an understanding that the pursuit of economic sustainability is synonymous with the pursuit of authentic happiness—which is inherently social and spiritual as well as material. A degrowth economy would be one which simply provides the material requisites and means for a pursuit of happiness motivated by a spiritual sense of wellbeing.  

Spiritual wellness comes from having connections to something greater than yourself.  It is about having a set of values, principles, morals and beliefs that provide a sense of purpose, hopefulness and meaning to life.  Applying those principles to guide your actions generates a personal prosperity that can make life worthwhile in a steady state economy.

Sustainability in the 2050s

July 27th, 2019


In September 2015, the town of Woking published a paper entitled ‘Woking 2050’ which takes a look at its whole way of living and how it can influence the local environment. It presents a balanced view of the town’s environmental aspirations and its needs for development to help reach the UK’s target of a carbon neutral economy by the year 2050.  The aim is to coordinate a wide range of objectives into one comprehensive document that can be used by the Council and Woking’s residents, businesses, community groups and others to reduce the Borough’s impact on the environment. Essentially, Woking 2050 is a vision of the type of place and community it is hoped the town will be and how everyone can help shape and achieve it.  The document also looks at the opportunities, threats and challenges to achieving this vision. 

Woking was one of the first communities to take this long term objective to heart which placed it at the forefront of local actions to tackle climate change.  This decision has now become part of a growing movement embedding into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a timeline covering  25 Years of effort and achievement highlighting key milestones in the evolution of international climate policy.  Analysis of Woking 2050 and similar visionary town and village strategies that have been produced during the last decade highlights the following seven structural concepts underlying planning for sustainable development:  

  • networking ideas; 
  • simpler lifestyles; 
  • community agendas, 
  • steady-state living; 
  • intergenerational wellbeing; 
  • re-defining prosperity; 
  • and cultural richness.

These concepts are now examined in more detail.

Networking ideas

The first UK action plans for sustainable development and biodiversity envisaged a citizens environmental network to share ideas and know how. This did not materialise.  But citizen groups are still needed to share conversations about living sustainably. The term Group refers to Internet communication, which is a hybrid between an electronic mailing list and a threaded Internet forum,  Group messages can be read and posted by e-mail or on the Group’s webpage like a web forum. Members can choose whether to receive individual, daily digest or Special Delivery e-mails, or simply read Group posts on the Group’s Web public access site.  Here are three examples of networking ideas.

1   Conversations2050 

This is an online discussion Group to promote international conversations about the socioeconomic changes necessary to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Group members will also be able to contribute to help assess the reality of a global steady state economy, where people are consuming only their fair share of Earth’s renewable resources measured by their country’s ecological footprint. By joining the Group people will have a facility to pose and address questions about the main drivers of change.  They will also be able to measure the rate of progress to ‘life without carbon’. The target is a time when future generations can take up cultural ecology as a humanistic democratic pedagogy to prosper in an international society fueled by renewable energy. Hence, the major question is can we have prosperity without economic growth? Conversations2050 has been created by Denis Bellamy, Professor Emeritus of Cardiff University, as part of his long standing research into online education for living sustainably. 

To obtain some information for starting conversations about potential drivers of change Technology Education and Design, TED2014 , challenged attendees to vote on ten potential drivers. Three of the ten topics received 56% of the votes.  These were, climate crisis, rising inequalities and machine intelligence. The TED list is one basis for establishing conversations2050 another is the 2015 all-Wales conversation that led to the government’s Future Generations Act 

2 The economic and social impact of small community hydro schemes in Wales.

This report examines the economic and social impacts of small scale and community-owned micro-hydro in Wales. It is intended to present a factual picture of the economic benefits of small scale community hydro projects in Wales.

3 Climate change and overconsumption

This is an experimental database of Tweets as windows on climate change and overconsumption. It has also been singled out to highlight the networking potential of social media.  The context is a democratic pedagogy to embed cultural changes in education at all levels required to adopt a 2050s steady state economy.

Simpler lifestyles

 There are three fundamental lines of argument for the rejection and replacement of consumer-capitalist society. The first is to do with its unsustainability, the second is to do with its injustice and moral unacceptability, and the third to do with deteriorating cohesion of humanity and quality of life.  

There is something fundamentally wrong in treating Earth as if it were a business in liquidation.  The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse. According to Ted Trainer the central theme in the transition to a sustainable and just society,  is a powerful, inescapable logic connecting the ‘‘limits to growth’’ analysis of the global situation with the form that an alternative society must take. Thus, when the magnitude and nature of humankind’s global predicament is understood it becomes obvious that a satisfactory vision for future society must be some form of ‘Simpler Way’.  Surely the enjoyment of non-affluent lifestyles is the desired outcome within mostly small and highly self-sufficient economies under local participatory control and not driven by market forces. The Simpler Way is about ensuring a very high quality of life for all without anywhere near as much production, consumption, exporting, investment, resource use, environmental damage, work etc. as there is now.  There are many rich alternative sources of satisfaction other than materialistic acquisition and consuming. Consider having to go to work for money only two days a week, having much time for arts and crafts and personal growth, living in a rich and supportive community, living in a diverse and productive leisure-rich landscape, having socially worthwhile and enjoyable work with no fear of unemployment… and knowing you are not contributing to global problems. There is no need to sacrifice modern technology to achieve these benefits.  

This vision of the only way to create a sustainable society can be traced to 1992, when the United Nations released a ground-breaking global action plan for sustainable development called Agenda21.  This process is called the Local Agenda 21 (LA21). It was quickly realised that sustainability cannot be achieved, nor significant progress made toward it, without the support and involvement of individual communities geared to a common purpose. The Local Agenda 21 (LA21) is a blueprint that sets out actions that ordinary people can all take to move towards global sustainability in the 21st century. It recognises that most environmental challenges have their roots in local activities and therefore encourages Local Governments to promote environmental, economic and social sustainability by translating the principles of sustainable development into strategies that can be operated by their communities. 

A LA21 programme adopted by a town or village comprises systems and processes to integrate environmental, economic and social development. Founded on a strong partnership between local government and the community, progress towards local sustainable development is guided by the preparation of a long term strategic action plan that integrates existing policies and programs to realise an agreed vision of the future for families and their community.  At a community level this operates in four action areas.

Action Area 1: Building partnerships — establish an understanding of the community and develop ways and means of extending awareness and involvement in Local Agenda 21

Action Area 2: Determining vision, goals, targets and indicators — set out what the community wishes to achieve, ideally broken down into goals with indicators and targets

Action Area 3: Creating a local action planning document — prepare a statement of actions that the community will undertake in order to realise each target; this includes a timeline, budget and people responsible for each action.

Action Area 4: Implementing, reporting, monitoring and reviewing — consider whether the actions are helping to achieve the targets, whether progress is being made towards the goals and whether any aspect of the Local Agenda 21 needs changing 

The goal of a LA 21 is development that improves the total quality of life, both now and in the future, in a way that maintains the ecological processes on which life depends. The core objectives are:

  • to enhance individual and community welfare by following a path of development that safeguards the well being of future generations; 
  • to provide for equity within and between generations; 
  • to protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and ecosystem services

Producing a LA21 is a tailor made process that facilitates sustainable development at community level. It is based on participation that respects the social, cultural, economic and environmental needs of the present and future citizens of a community in all its diversity.  It relates to a specific community and its future within the regional, national and international community of which it is a part. Any LA21 project will take into account the quality of life of the entire community in the long term, will include a high level of participation at local level and is integrated into other aspects of community life.  Projects should focus on environmental awareness and actions which complement national environmental policies such as those on waste, biodiversity, water conservation and climate change including community gardens and allotments, compost schemes, rainwater harvesting, biodiversity projects, waste reduction initiatives, educational initiatives and environmental exhibitions.

Community agendas

1 Schools and Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN)

SCAN was created in 1993 at St Clears Teacher’s Resource Centre for West Wales with funds from the Countryside Council for Wales, Dyfed County Council and Texaco Pembroke Oil Refinery. The stimulus was the young people’s Agenda 21 that emerged from the Rio Environment Summit  in 1992 as ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth. SCAN was designed by a group of Pembrokeshire teachers to act as an online focus for community action in the context of curriculum targets being integrated with neighbourhood objectives for the LA 21. The assumption was that schools working with the communities they serve could play a key role in the introduction of sustainable development principles into everyday living.  Adopting the Simpler Way, the procedure was to state what was good and bad about where they lived, highlighting what should be done to protect the good and improve the bad. Links were made with the European Schools Network based in Portugal for pupils to compare their concerns about the environment and spread ideas about how they could be tackled locally by school and community working together.

SCAN’s first community action plan was produced by Johnston Primary School in Pembrokeshire and it activated the local authority to make significant environmental improvements in the village. 

For more information about School Scan and related topics go to:

2 Community Parish SCAN

The idea for a Community Parish Scan grew out of a network of Suffolk villages striving to take advantage of the newly invented Internet to say:

 “look how different we are, but we are bound together by a common deep history as a Saxon tribal group who settled on the upper reaches of a small river, which defined the physical boundaries of the Blything villages (the people of the River Blyth).  

Cultural heritage Blything 

The following article from a local paper sets the scene for an account of the invention of Community Parish SCAN by the Suffolk village of Parham in the late 1990s to celebrate the Millennium.  

Parham’s  tale of flowers, hedges, and 310 people 

A BOOK delving into almost every aspect of one small village comes out this week. 

“”The Suffolk village of Parham has produced a 173-page book containing information collected by its own villagers to celebrate the millennium. It is the first parish scan of its kind, and was the brainchild of Professor Emeritus of the University of Wales, Denis Bellamy. It will give future historians an insight into village life at the end of the 20th century. It will be distributed to each of Parham’s 113 households, and to various bodies who have helped along the way. 

Among the subjects covered are the 279 wildflower species that can be found in the parish, a survey of the 310 villagers, and a count of every hedgerow and what it contains. 

Annette Gray, parish clerk and co-ordinator of the scheme, said she felt ‘elated’ that the mammoth task had been achieved.  “I never imagined that it would take so much of my time just collating the information that’s come in”.  “There was so much people had done, such large quantities that we had to reduce it”. “We had hundreds of pages and we had to whittle it down to what is here” she said.””

Essentially Parham’s Millenium SCAN published in 2000 provided a solid baseline of the village as a ‘deep place’ with a well-researched cultural heritage that continues to enrich the people who live there and are adding to it. It is the basis for producing sustainability plans for conservation of their biophysical heritage assets.  The villagers were acting on a deeply held belief that community shapes their identity, quenches their thirst for belonging, and bolsters their physical, mental, emotional, and economic health. But in the chaos of modern life, community ties have become unraveled, leaving many feeling afraid or alone in the crowd, grasping at shallow substitutes for true community.  Paul Born describes the four pillars of ‘deep community’ as sharing our stories, taking the time to enjoy one another, taking care of one another, and working together for a better world.  

Two decades have elapsed since the parishioners took up the challenge to reveal Parham as a special place worth sustaining.  But what should they be planning for now? In the 1990s Agenda 21 was a pointer towards community planning for sustainability.  A much stronger international focus on poverty alleviation and international development came to the fore in September 2000. Building upon a series of United Nations conferences and summits, world leaders met at United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt the United Nations Millennium Declaration (UN, 2000).  The Declaration committed nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty, and set out a series of time-bound global targets to be achieved by 2015. These have become known as the Millennium Development Goals. Then in 2018 came the strategic long-term EU vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050. 

Paham is now at the cutting edge of local moves towards decarbonising the national economy.   Planning permission has been obtained to build a solar panel farm on the village’s World War 2 airfield site.  The plan is to install 64,200 panels to generate 15 megawatts of electricity, which is enough for 4,600 homes.  The mindset of development is now beginning to be dominated by the need to abandon fossil fuels and make the transition to a steady state economy, adopting policies of degrowth to prevent over consumption of Earth’s renewable resources. 

Steady-state living

Economic growth is a primary policy goal of most governments but there is now a fundamental conflict between economic growth in the developed world and the impact of its carbon-based economy through global warming.  A majority in the international community believe this is a global crisis. 

Degrowth is a voluntary transition towards a just, participatory, and ecologically sustainable society.  The objective of degrowth is to meet basic human needs and ensure a high quality of life, while reducing the ecological impact of the global economy to a sustainable level, with natural resources equitably distributed between nations. Once right-sizing has been achieved through the process of degrowth, the aim should be to maintain a “steady state economy” with a relatively stable, mildly fluctuating level of consumption.  Regarding the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, on 28th November 2018, the European Commission presented its strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050. 

The European strategy shows how nations can lead the way to climate neutrality by investing into realistic technological solutions, empowering citizens, and aligning action in key areas such as industrial policy, finance, or research, while ensuring social fairness for a just transition.  The Commission’s vision for a climate-neutral future covers nearly all EU policies and is in line with the Paris Agreement objective to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5°C.

For a post 2050 climate-neutral future the visionary elements of a sustainable society are: 

  • a decarbonised steady state economy operating within the limits of the world average ecological footprint;
  • stabilized/declining greenhouse gases;
  • births plus immigrations equal deaths plus emmigrations;
  • communities supported by national health services;
  • arts applied in the service of cultural prosperity; 
  • each generation adding to the pleasures of local sociobiological heritage 

How do we get there?

To reach this goal we need to make the transition to a steady state economy (SSE) by adopting the right macroeconomic goal which means restricting resource use, stabilising population, limiting inequality, reducing working hours, eliminating fractional reserve banking, and changing the way we measure progress and prosperity.

The following steps will gradually change existing policies from growth towards a SSE, all of which will be life changing at the community level and involve conversations between neighbours, schools and local government to establish community wellbeing.

1. Limit Resource Use 


There are few controls on use of resources and emission of pollutants  The Montreal Protocol: limits ozone-depleting substances The EU Emissions Trading Scheme: limits CO2 emissions 

In a SSE:  

Impose strict resource and emission caps  Employ a cap–auction–trade system Caps set based on ecological criteria  Permits auctioned by government Trade between industries to allow efficient allocation 

2. Stabilise Population 


Natural increase is low in many wealthy countries  But many rich countries are trying to encourage population growth 

In a SSE:  

Births plus immigration must equal deaths plus emigration  In wealthy countries: Balance immigration with emigration In poorer countries:  Provide education, access to birth control, and equal rights for women 

3. Reduce Inequality


Economic growth is used as an excuse to avoid dealing with poverty  “A rising tide lifts all boats” 

In a SSE:  

No growth, so no excuses!  Finite resource use = Finite amount of wealth  Must deal with distribution explicitly Need a minimum and maximum income 

4. Reduce Working Hours


Technological progress is used to increase production of goods and services  A better widget machine equals more widgets! 

In a SSE:  

We cannot increase production if it results in higher resource use  Instead, shorten the working day, week, & year Same salaries but more leisure time!

5. Reform the Monetary System


 Fractional reserve banking  Most money is created by private banks in the form of debt  Increasing debt drives economic growth 

In a SSE:  

All money would be created and spent into existence by a public institution  Banks would be prohibited from creating money, but would instead have to borrow existing money to lend it 

6. Change How We Measure Progress 


Rely on GDP, which doesn’t distinguish between:  Benefits and costs Quality and quantity 

In a SSE:  

What happens to GDP is not important  Replace GDP with two sets of accounts: Well-being to be maximised  Resource use to be reduced and kept within ecological limits 

7 Change How We Measure Prosperity


Prosperity is the income for an entire country measured as gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the value of all market goods and services produced in the county in a year.

In an SSE

Within ecological limits becomes the guiding principle for design and the key criterion for success

Intergenerational wellbeing

As the planetary systems fail under a rapidly growing population now over 7 billion and expected to grow to 11 billion by the end of the century, intervention programmes focus on helping leaders define a framework to achieve “intergenerational well-being,” in which global needs for natural resources, shelter, food, water, and social systems, such as education, health care, and good governance, are met not only for today’s population but in the future.

A report produced by the Welsh Sustainability Commissioner in 2014 draws together the lessons about intergenerational wellbeing from a year-long National Conversation.  It distills discussions around vulnerable areas of Welsh sustainable development that impact on individuals, their communities and Wales; for example health, a growing and ageing population, education, unemployment, affordability, security of energy, inequality and the provision of adequate services.  Discussions also focused on areas of opportunity such as technology, skills, leadership, diversity, identity, local enterprises and preventative action. The combination of these areas has resulted in the following seven foundations for the well-being of future generations. As such they may be taken to indicate conversations within communities that are necessary to envisage life post-2050.

1. Children need to be given the best start in life from very early years 

2. Future generations need thriving communities built on a strong sense of place 

3. Living within global environmental limits, managing our resources efficiently and valuing our environment is critical 

4. Investing in growing our local economy is essential for the well-being of future generations 5. Well-being of all depends on reducing inequality and placing a greater value on diversity 

6. Greater engagement in the democratic process, a stronger citizen voice and active participation in decision making is fundamental for the well-being of future generations 

7. Celebrating success, valuing our heritage, culture and language will strengthen our identity for future generations.

Bearing in mind recent targets set for national decarbonisation and equalising the use Earth’s renewable resources between nations, an important topic to add to ongoing conversations is the need to define local prosperity.

Included  in the report were the following selective quotations from the 2014 conversation:

“We need to have greater parental involvement in children’s education, with more opportunities for skills-based learning, and means of encouraging independent thinking to better equip children for the future. ”

“We need to create a Wales where communities find it easier to do things for themselves through for example increasing people’s ownership of their community including spending.” 

“Many of these inter-generational challenges are interdependent that need a co-ordinated not an isolated approach. ”

“Natural environment should be accessible to all and used sustainably because people depend on it for food, fuel, clean water and clean air. ”

“Climate change needs to be top of the agenda and politicians have to take it seriously. ”

“We need to sustain local jobs in the area that pay living wages and help to grow the local economy and “unleash more entrepreneurial creativity through encouraging and developing more leadership networks” by creating “an employment, skills, enterprise framework based on natural assets, energy, food and transport” through “locally sourced skills and products to develop the local community and reduce reliance on public funds. ” 

“If Wales becomes a more equal nation where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and are able to contribute fully to the economy, Wales will inevitably become more prosperous and innovative. ” 

“Everyone should be accepted for the way they are and children with disability should be treated fairly – with more parks and play centres for the disabled. ”

“The role of government needs to be re-imagined. Government needs to see itself as having a different purpose in the 21st century, and that is one of system stewardship rather than just deliverer of public services and guarantor of security. ”

“There is a need to showcase and build on the very essence of Wales – its language, culture, context and pride, and communicate the value of its differences to others and other countries. Media has a key role to play to actively promote and help establish the new belief that ‘Wales can be best in the world.’ ”

Welsh case study initiatives

Re-defining prosperity

Most supporters of the move towards a steady state economy do so in order to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and establish fair shares of Earth’s renewable resources. They proceed as if we can, and should, eliminate the growth element of the present economy of mass production while leaving the rest of the economic system more or less as it is. However, this is not possible because if economic growth is eliminated then radically different ways of carrying out many fundamental processes currently associated with it will have to be found.  In particular, the central societal consumer-capitalist goal of year on year growth in personal incomes will have to be abandoned. Major problems of climate change and the redistribution of Earth’s limited renewable resources from rich to poor nations cannot be solved unless fundamental systems and structures within the consumer-capitalist culture are radically remade. For example, current systems aimed at the pleasures of monetary prosperity cannot be reformed or fixed; they will have to be largely scrapped and replaced with systems that deliver cultural prosperity aimed at the pleasures of sustainability .  

At present, the widely acceptable definition of prosperity is such that continuous economic growth is deemed a necessary condition for its achievement. Tim Jackson seeks to prove an argument for “prosperity without growth” by undermining the claims made by supporters of continued growth. He begins with the old idea that in order to flourish with access to basic needs, and maintain economic and social stability, we need a year on year growth in monetary wealth. In this context, our attachment to ever more material consumption is borne out of our desire for social meaning related to our sense of belonging, identity and social status, where participation in society is through economic competition. Therefore, if societies were more equal we could perhaps extricate ourselves from this trap of “positional competition” whereby an individual’s well-being is founded on stable relative wealth, and he/she would seek less materialistic ways to participate in society. However, monetary wealth is not in itself the goal.  It is the means to well being suggesting there may be other strategies for meeting intrinsic psychological needs that are pre-requisites for personal ‘flourishing’ in a sustainable world.  

To support this flourishing Jackson proposes a radically different kind of economic structure he calls “ecological macroeconomics”. This economy is one in which “stability no longer relies on ever-increasing consumption growth… economic activity remains within ecological scale… our capabilities to flourish – within ecological limits – becomes the guiding principles for design and the key criterion for success”. Parallel to this, society must address the “social logic of consumerism” to deliver a more sustainable, equal, happy, and less anxious society. Requirements for social change towards prosperity without growth, include establishing the ecological bounds of human activity, fixing the “illiterate economics of relentless growth”, and, finally, transforming the social logic of consumerism so that it delivers enough to meet needs but not more to satisfy wants. 

Of course the whole discussion about moving towards sustainability isn’t popular because it’s always presented as a downgrade. It is inevitable that redistributing wealth to remove global inequalities will mean western countries taking a hit in so far as the process will involve a downward adjustment of their ecological footprints.  Picking up on this point, urban architect Bjarke Ingels asks for a new approach he calls “hedonistic sustainability,” which is “sustainability that improves the quality of life and human enjoyment”. 

The position has been, there’s a limit to how good a time we can have. We have to downgrade our current lifestyle to achieve something that is sustainable. That makes it essentially undesirable. People can be to the left [politically] and maybe shop a little bit green, but they’re not going to drop their car if they have to pick up their kids from football and go to the movies. It becomes an impossible mission.

Ingels believes it is important for sustainability to enhance the personal pleasure of living with a smaller ecological footprint by creating innovative interactive architecture on a humane scale and redefining the value of localised placemaking.  Both will increase cultural prosperity to the extent that they enhance the pleasures of living. Bertolt Brecht is more direct than either Jackson or Ingels in listing the personal everyday pleasures that cannot be bought. His list is a celebration of the simple joys in life.  This goes along with making things for the enjoyment of it.

“1 The first look from morning’s window/  2 The rediscovered book/ 3 Fascinated faces/  4 Snow, the change of the seasons/ 5 The newspaper/  6 The dog/ 7 Dialectics/ 8 Showering, swimming/ 9 Old music/  10 Comfortable shoes/ 11 Comprehension/ 12 New music/ 13 Writing, planting/  14 Traveling/ 15 Singing/ 16 Being friendly”.

Escaping from societal collapse by adopting a steady state economy would have us reliant on cultural prosperity based on our experiences of what we are grateful for and that helps us be present as unique individuals.  How else can we ground ourselves and know that we belong to a bountiful planet that needs urgent maintenance. By living sustainably we come to live with a variety of pleasures and a larger sense of who we are, inseparable from the web of life and finding contentment with the world around us.  The greatest pleasure in a sustainable world is to want to be there. We see this want in the 2030 vision for life in Saudi Arabia. “The happiness and fulfillment of citizens and residents is important to us. This can only be achieved through promoting physical, psychological and social well-being. At the heart of our Vision is a society in which all enjoy a good quality of life, a healthy lifestyle and an attractive living environment”.

Working from within culture innovators of the social platform of zero growth understand do not see poverty only, or even primarily, as an economic phenomenon. Individuals and even entire communities today are suffering from a poverty of relationships; knowledge, social and legal structures that can support fairness and justice and most importantly, guiding visions for the future. Taken together, these represent a poverty of culture, and this is the kind of poverty that cultural innovators are working to eliminate in the new cultural spaces they are creating.

Innovators of cultural prosperity are not development gurus or community professionals. Rather, they are the masses, individuals, people often working in small groups empowered with technologies and connections to one another that do the kinds of things large institutions simply can’t accomplish. In the process, they are re-writing the fundamental principles of what prosperity means and how to achieve it. And they are perhaps our best hope for discovering how to build prosperity that is in sync with our rapidly changing environment.  This is what the European 2050 strategy means by investing into realistic technological solutions which empower citizens to control their own futures.  

Ted Trainer sets a vision of local governance that goes with a new prosperity for zero growth:

“If we must abandon growth and greatly reduce production and consumption then there is no alternative but to develop an economy which is basically under social control, i.e., in which we discuss, decide, plan and organise to produce that stable quantity of the basic things we need to enable a high quality of life for all. In the coming conditions of intense resource scarcity, viable communities will have to be mostly small, self-sufficient local economies using local resources to produce what local people need. Such economies can only work well if control is in the hands of all citizens, via participatory-democracy exercised through whole town assemblies. This vision would enable most of the firms and farms to be privately owned or community cooperatives, and would involve little role for councils, state or federal governments”. 

This paragraph is a basis for conversations to be scheduled in a community agenda which is the vehicle for developing a local participatory democracy to adapt future generations to a climate neutral, equal shares simpler way to and through the 2050s.   

Cultural richness

Sustainability is already present in many aspects of our everyday life. We ensure we take care of the environment, we desire balanced economic development, and we defend social wellbeing in many fields. One of these fields is art as a medium of expression, a promoter or an indictment on behalf of sustainable development.

Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a revealing work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt and this feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action.  Art influences society by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time. Art is often a vehicle for social change. It can give voice to the politically or socially disenfranchised. A song, film or novel can rouse emotions in those who encounter it, inspiring them to rally for change.  Painting, sculpture, music, literature and the other arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory. Art preserves what fact-based historical records cannot: for instance how it felt to exist in a particular place at a particular time. Art in this sense is communication; it allows people from different places and different times to communicate with each other via images, sounds and stories.  Research has shown how art affects the fundamental sense of self-in-place and so is central to learning to live in a zero growth economy where culture is a term that describes the entire way of life shared by a group of people. Cultural richness includes diversity in anything that has to do with how people live: music, art, recreation, religion or beliefs, languages, dress, traditions, stories and folklore, ways of organization, ways of interacting with the environment, and attitudes toward other groups of people. Cultural heritage is the legacy of physical artifacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations.  Cultural heritage includes tangible culture (such as buildings, monuments, landscapes, books, works of art, and artifacts), intangible culture (such as folklore, traditions, language, and knowledge), and natural heritage (including culturally significant landscapes, and biodiversity) specific or technical meaning in the same contexts in the other dialect.

Each of us seeks to know our personal identity and where and how we fit into the scheme of things so that we can make sense of our lives and plan for the future… Whereas we are Kenyan South Asians, we are not a monolithic community with an organised leadership. We are a conglomeration of many diverse communities, languages, religions and customs. Occupationally, though predominantly business-oriented, we also are professional, artisans and service workers.specific or technical meaning in the same contexts in the other dialect.

Each of us seeks to know our personal identity and where and how we fit into the scheme of things so that we can make sense of our lives and plan for the future.

It’s important to understand cultural richness at different scales, from individual identities to groups and societies—local, regional, national, and global. Cultural landscapes are continually changing due to migration, globalization, and modernization. All of these factors impact forces of cooperation and conflict among communities.

Living with prosperity without growth involves combining diverse knowledge systems. Art may be used as the bridging tool to promote resilience and adaptability of social-ecological systems to cope with unprecedented environmental changes and social uncertainty.  In particular, the combination of the knowledge systems of culture, heritage and ecology is necessary for communicating sustainability and for envisioning the good life in a world of environmental limits. The main difference between culture and heritage is that culture is based on what people create anew in the here and now, whereas heritage is what people inherit by nature, by history, by culture.  Therefore, art, culture, heritage and ecology are the inherent elements for bonding non monetary prosperity to everyday life. They are the targets for life’s fulfilment in future generations, adapting to climate change and establishing equal shares of Earth’s renewable resources. They are the foundations of tomorrow’s economy. 

Over the years, a significant number of people have weighed in on theories surrounding the correlation between art and culture, and the manner in which it impacts our day-to-day lives, particularly when it comes to our core beliefs. Some of these individuals, all with rather different views, come from all walks of life. Some of them are artists, playwrights, designers, academicians, and cultural directors.  Art in the service of culture, heritage and ecology is a tool for communicating sustainability and for envisioning the good life in a world of environmental limits. In fact it is an inherent component of non monetary prosperity, supporting life’s fulfillment in a zero growth economy where collective memory passes on cultural practices from generation to generation. It is in this context that art is an important facilitator in the life of society.  In particular, it contributes to a creative and fulfilling quality of life. For most people this interaction is activated through a personal exploration of the complex interaction between culture, ecology and place, involving the quality and availability of employment, leisure, and the rights to self-expression. Travel is an important component of this search for self awareness.

In a survey commissioned by American Express in 2017, travellers were found to demand more enriched lives and personal fulfillment through experience and learning. Over 72% of respondents said they would rather spend money on experiences than on things. Further, 88% said travel is their number one dream, ranking higher than family or wealth.  Travellers want to have life-fulfilling experiences when they travel, and they are seeking travel experiences that closely align to their own personal values. In this connection, people are seeking travel experiences that will allow them to interact with the local community; “they want to visit private homes, schools, orphanages and smaller villages”. They are “specifically looking to immerse themselves in the destinations they visit and to travel like a local.”  Over 20% of respondents indicated that they want to experience adventure, arts and culture, e.g. experiences “… that include gondola lessons in Venice and pastry-making classes in France.” Boomers and older generations are demanding more experiential and adventurous travel options, although their definitions of experiential and adventure travel are sometimes just a little different. We may therefore need to expand our understanding of cultural learning and education as part of lifelong learning, to include consideration of the many different ways people can be creative outside the arts and culture, for example in disciplines which combine scientific and artistic skills such as architecture, engineering and programming. Looking at the wider creative sphere might help us better understand the intersecting communities, sectors and industries which form this landscape.

The inherent value of art in culture, its contribution to society, its symbiotic relationship with education and its economic power makes the holistic case for public support of arts and culture. When we talk about the value of arts and culture to society, we always start with its intrinsic value: how arts and culture can illuminate our inner lives and enrich our emotional world.  This is what we cherish. However, we also understand that arts and culture has a wider, more measurable impact on our economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. It’s important we also recognise this impact to help people think of our arts and culture for what they are: a strategic national resource. The value of arts and culture to people and society outlines the existing evidence on the impact of arts and culture on our economy, health and wellbeing, society and education.  Indeed, the primary reason we make both public and private investments in the arts is for the inherent value of culture: life-enhancing, entertaining, defining of our personal and national identities.

Art and culture at their very core serve as some of the most significant, dynamic, participation, and social influences of human behavior and interaction. When put together, they have the ability to generate empathy, stir up dialogue, induce reflection and charter new relationships and ideas.

Art and culture also provide a commanding and democratic way of sharing, shaping, and expressing human values. They allow us to explore our inner capabilities and give us insight on how we imagine and use different means to relate with each other. Art and culture also provide us with a way to create useful and meaningful things whilst increasing the value of our livelihoods.

To fully understand or comprehend the potential of art a person must look deep inside themselves to find out what factors actually impact their lives and values. You have to basically rethink how you view and appraise art because these two aspects play a vital role in steering our principles, behaviors, and general perceptions towards the world we live in.

Art and culture also help to shape the manner in which we view and understand the world around us. Native American artist John Nieto states that the two help to build our mental structures and how we form ideas. They act as the frame through which we can develop stories to tell ourselves and those around us regarding the most important things in our lives.

According to art enthusiasts and experts, art and culture serve as part of the basis for shaping the values we have, some of which include:

  • A sense of community or belonging
  • Affiliation
  • Self-acceptance
  • Creativity
  • Self-respect
  • Equality
  • Unity
  • Nature
  • Freedom

In their study, ‘An empirical examination with Inuit artists from Nunavut, Canada’, Kaitlyn J. Rathwell and Derek Armitage consider enhanced resilience in the context of social-ecological change as an outcome of bridging knowledge systems via art and artistic processes. They take the view that the role of art and artistic processes is one fruitful yet underexplored area of social-ecological resilience. Art and art making can nurture Indigenous knowledge and at the same time bridge knowledge across generations and cultures (e.g., spanning the small Inuit culture and the global scientific establishment).  The mechanisms are:

(1) embedding knowledge, practice and belief into art objects; 

(2) sharing knowledge using the language of art; 

(3) sharing of art making skills; 

(4) art as a contributor to monitoring social-ecological change; 

(5) the role of art in fostering continuity through time; 

(6) art as a site of knowledge coproduction.


“….at the end of the day, prosperity goes 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. Prosperity 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 urgent task of our times”. 

Tim Jackson Economics Commissioner

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Internet references

Research & Degrowth, 2010. Degrowth Declaration of the Paris 2008 conference. Journal of Cleaner Production 18 (6), 523–524.

The Aquisition of Things

June 25th, 2019


Fig 1 Advert for Mark Ellis’ ‘Bazaar of Fancy Goods’ placed in the 1850 visitor’s Directory to Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire: an ‘improved bathing place’  

 Historian Frank Trentmann sees ‘the acquisition of things’ as the very foundation of culture and he argues it’s central to our understanding of the self and society.  Since the late Middle Ages we have built a vision of prosperity which is based on people’s insatiable propensity to acquire things. So far we have not discovered how it might be possible to live better by consuming less.  Learning how to sustain well being with less stuff is essential for our survival on a planet with finite resources.  

Humanity now exists in a world where relationships between culture and ecology dominate present day life and our view of the future. Our relationships and actions primarily operate  through a matrix of consumption. Consumption is a system of meaning. We assign value to ourselves and others based on the goods we purchase so that identity is now constructed by the clothes we wear, the vehicle we drive, and the music on our smartphone. We are what we consume and consumerism is the driver of economic growth and the goal of world development. 

Against the surge of consumerism there are already those who have resisted the exhortation to ‘go shopping’, preferring instead to devote time to less materialistic pursuits (gardening, walking, enjoying music or reading, for example) or to the care of others. Some people (up to a quarter of the sample in a recent study) have even accepted a lower income so that they could achieve these goals.

A limited form of flourishing through material success has kept our economies growing for half a century or more. But ever-growing consumption it is completely unsustainable in ecological and social terms and is now undermining the conditions for a shared prosperity within and between nations. The materialistic vision of prosperity has to be dismantled. The first step is the obvious need for government to get its message straight. Urging people to Act to reduce CO2 emissions, to insulate their homes, turn down their thermostat, put on a jumper, drive a little less, walk a little more, holiday at home, buy locally produced goods (and so on) will either go unheard or be rejected as top down manipulation for as long as all the messages about the importance of highstreet consumption point in the opposite direction.The idea of an economy whose task is to provide capabilities for flourishing within ecological limits offers the most credible vision to put in its place. But this can only happen through changes that support social behaviours broadly defined as anti-consumerism and reduce the structural incentives to unproductive competition based on status.  Achieving a lasting sense of well being relies on providing capabilities for people to flourish, but within certain limits. Those limits are established not by us, but by the ecology and resources of a planet with limited resources. Unbounded freedom to expand our material appetites just isn’t sustainable. Embracing degrowth and the fair sharing of resources between peoples are essential.  

Looking to the future, most people now accept that it is imperative that we consume less carbon-based energy to combat climate change.  However, few people understand that the developed world is consuming year on year more natural resources than Earth can regenerate. This is overconsumption. Climate change and resource scarcity together are today’s problems. Generally, the discussion of overconsumption parallels that of human overpopulation; that is the more people, the more consumption of raw materials takes place to sustain their lives. But, humanity’s overall impact on the planet is affected by many factors besides the raw number of people. Their lifestyle, including overall affluence and resource utilization and the pollution they generate are equally important. 

Currently, the inhabitants of the developed nations of the world consume resources at a rate almost 32 times greater than those of the developing world who make up the majority of the human population.  An index of the level of resource consumption is the ecological footprint, which measures human demand on nature, i.e. the quantity of nature it takes to support people or an economy. It tracks this demand through a  year on year ecological accounting system. These accounts contrast the biologically productive area people use for their consumption to the biologically productive area that is actually available within a region or the world.  Biocapacity is the productive area that can regenerate what people demand from nature. In short, reducing humanity’s ecological footprint is as important as reducing our reliance on carbon energy, which in any case is also part of the ecological footprint.  

By taking more than Earth can provide and maintaining unequal ecological footprints between nations the globe is inching towards a disaster. A global ecological disaster can only be averted if the principles of one planet living, together with equality, non-discrimination and the fair distribution of the benefits of development are taken seriously.  These changes have to be implemented and monitored at the national and international levels. When the benefits of development can be shared, allowing effective opportunities and access for the 80 per cent of the world’s population and the 80 per cent of populations within nations that suffer discrimination, we will have begun to pull back from the precipice. What has been lacking consistently is the collective will to put any of those ideas into practice.  Indeed, between the invention of the concept of ecological footprint in the early 1990s, by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, and the present moment, a remarkable paradox has unfolded. On the one hand, the evidence for the imminence and catastrophic potential of overshooting Earth’s productive capacity has grown steadily more convincing. On the other hand, the prospect that any constructive response will actually be implemented has grown steadily more distant. Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major political party in every major nation in the industrial world supports pro-growth economic policies that move the world further away from a transition to equitable sustainability with each passing day.  Further, the more imminent and obvious the dangers become, the more stubbornly the world’s political and economic systems cling to exactly the policies that guarantee the worst possible outcome in the not very long run. For example, it has been calculated that if the world is to meet its 2 degree goal for global warming a global average decarbonisation rate of 6.4 per cent per annum will be needed. This goal was set at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, but in 2018 none of the signatory countries had come anyway near meeting the target. The UK could take a great leap towards the target immediately by banning oil fracking, abandoning plans to build a third runway for Heathrow airport and reinstating the policy on carbon capture and storage, which is an essential technology for least cost decarbonisation of the UK economy.  Instead, the government is dragging its feet, looking over its shoulder to see what other nations are doing.

Origins of consumerism

Medieval serfdom began in Europe with the breakup of the Carolingian Empire around the 10th century. The demise of this empire, which had ruled much of western Europe for more than 200 years, ushered in a long period during which no strong central government existed in most of Europe. During this period, powerful warlords who had gained land by conquest encouraged the establishment of serfdom as a source of agricultural labour. Without the peace guaranteed by Charlemagne’s unified rule, the serfs needed a lord’s protection. In the absence of a strong centralized government, the threat of violence lurked everywhere: from bandits and the armed bands of warlords. 

Serfdom was an institution that reflected a common practice whereby great landlords ensured that others worked to feed them and were held down, legally and economically, while doing so. Serfdom was a component of feudalism, the dominant social system in medieval Europe.  The nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles.  The peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.  In exchange for tending a lord’s demesne, a serf could expect the lord’s private army to protect them.  The lords needed the serfs, too; labour shortages caused by war and disease limited the available workforce in Western Europe. This is part of why the terms of serfdom constrained a peasant’s rights to resettle—it maintained a servile labour pool for the lordly class. The terms of these agreements could vary widely, as they were derived from a variety of sources, such as”barbarian” codes of the Germanic kingdoms, Church law, and Roman property ordinances, but some labour practices were relatively standard.

Feudalism was a combination of legal and military customs in medieval Europe that flourished between the 9th and 15th centuries. Broadly defined, it was a way of structuring society around relationships derived from the holding of land in exchange for service or labour.  In the early Middle Ages the payment was generally “payment in kind” and through “service,” sometimes also called “boon work.” Payment in kind means it was goods—so much milk, eggs, meat, hay, and so on. Book work is labour done for free on the lord’s own land, including plowing and harvesting, fixing fences, collecting wood, repairing buildings, tending animals, and so on.

Medieval serfs (aka villeins) were unfree labourers who worked the land of a landowner (or its tenant) in return for physical and legal protection and the right to work a separate piece of land for their own basic needs. Making up at least 75% of the medieval population, serfs were not slaves as only their labour could be bought, not their person, although they were subject to certain fees and restrictions of movement, which varied according to local custom. The hub of the medieval rural community and reason for a serf’s existence was the manor or castle.  This was the estate owner’s private residence and place of communal gatherings for purposes of administration and legal matters. The relationship of the peasantry to these manors and their lords is known as manorialism. Manors usually attempted to be as self-sufficient as possible. The work of making and repairing equipment, for example, was carried out as far as practicable within the manor. Towns were few and far between, and transporting goods to and from them was slow and expensive, so self-sufficiency was a sensible aim.

Even though the word “serf” comes from the Latin “servus” and means “slave,” the situation of medieval serfs was quite different from that of the slave of Classical times. There were two kinds of serf: those who were bound to the soil and those who were bound to the lord. Servants were drawn from the latter class. The serf usually had a separate hut with an attached garden and lived with his family.  The serf had duties assigned to him by the steward of the manor and was responsible for the tilling of demesne land and the provisioning of the manor house. He received, in return, food and clothing for himself and his family. He could produce things which he was allowed to keep for himself or sell.

Serfdom declined by the 14th century CE due to social and economic changes, particularly the wider use of coinage with which serfs could be paid, allowing some the possibility of eventually buying their own freedom.

The unfree farming that elite landlords oversaw, sustained the military units that protected their estates and the people who worked and lived on them. The wealth generated by these feudal estates powered the Crusades, and, following the Black Death and the Peasant Revolt, would begin to concentrate in the peasant class. This would lead to artisan specialization, the growth of cities, and a desire for goods from far-off places. Those factors together would lead to the rise of guild economies, the Renaissance, and the colonial voyages of discovery.  Self sufficiency of serfdom was giving way to consumerism, which developed into materialism driving consumer spending, fed from top to bottom of society by year on year economic growth.   

Then there was the rise of leisure mobility.  There were new opportunities in Britain for buying stuff with the appearance of cheap railway excursions in the 1850’s.  People took day trips and holidays from inland cities to the nearest ‘improved bathing places’, a cherished experience to be remembered by the purchase of souvenirs, also described as fancy goods, to decorate the home (Fig 1).  This general behaviour characterised a developing Western tourist culture that was already destroying the attractive environmental features that spawned it. It was vilified as a disease in 1906 by the American writer John Walker Harrington when he declared his country’s addiction to tacky souvenirs purchased abroad as an “incipient mania for cherishing the useless”  It was reaching fever pitch and was being “propagated with amazing rapidity”.

Cultivating a Culture of Hope

Now, consumer society, deeply embedded in history, seems hell-bent on disaster; but dismantling the social logic of consumerism doesn’t look easy. Overthrowing it completely could drive us even faster along the road to ruin. But incremental changes are unlikely to be enough. Faced with this kind of intractability it’s tempting to retrench. To cling more tightly to existing tenants. Or we could resort to a kind of fatalism, a position where we accept the inevitability of a changing climate, an unequal world, perhaps even the collapse of society and concentrate all our efforts on personal security.

The social logic that locks people into materialistic consumerism as the basis for participating in the life of society is extremely powerful, but detrimental ecologically and psychologically. An essential prerequisite for a lasting prosperity is to free people from this damaging dynamic and provide opportunities for sustainable and fulfilling lives. This is the prescription for a ‘green consumer’.

A green consumer wants to buy things produced in a way that protects the planet and is compatible with safeguarding the environment for the present and the next generations.  He/she behaves in an environmentally-friendly way within a culture of hope. As a concept, ‘to be green’ ascribes to consumers the responsibility or co-responsibility for addressing environmental problems through adoption of environmentally friendly domestic behaviors, such as the use of ‘organic products’, renewable energy and goods produced with zero, or reversable environmental impact. 

Hoping for something is to wait expectantly and eagerly; looking forward to the day when your hope will become reality.  A culture of hope utilizes four “Seeds of Hope” which provide the social/emotional learning that grows into ecological prosperity.  These seeds are:


Place & Belonging

Pride & Self-Esteem

Purpose & Passion

Five recommendations of Tim Jackson in ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ focus on the task of producing green consumers and their hopeful behaviour, which is the basis of new definition of non-material prosperity as something to be hoped for. 

1 Working time policy

 Working time policy is important to a sustainable economy for two reasons. Firstly, the number of hours that people work bears an important relation (via labour productivity) to output. Specifically, output is equal to the number of hours worked multiplied by the labour productivity. In an economy in which labour productivity still increases but output is capped (for instance for ecological reasons), the only way to maintain macroeconomic stability and protect people’s livelihoods is by sharing out the available work. This often happens already on a smaller scale during recession. 

Secondly, reduced working hours have been sought for their own sake for various reasons. One of these, ironically, was in the belief that it would increase labour productivity. This was the rationale for example for the French ‘experiment’ with a 35-hour working week. The reasoning behind this is that when people work shorter hours they are more productive during those hours because they are better rested, more alert and fitter. These benefits of course have been called for in their own right by employee organizations and campaigners. Specific policies to reduce working hours and improve the work-life balance could include:

  • greater flexibility for employees on working time; 
  • measures to combat discrimination against part-time work as regards grading, promotion, training, security of employment and rate of pay; 
  • better incentives to employees (and flexibility for employers) for family time, parental leave and sabbatical breaks.

2 Tackling systemic inequality 

Systemic income inequalities increase anxiety, undermine social capital and expose lower income households to higher morbidity and lower life satisfaction. In fact, the evidence of negative health and social effects right across unequal populations is mounting. Systemic inequality also drives positional consumption, contributing to a material ‘ratchet’ that drives resources through the economy. Tackling inequality would reduce social costs, improve quality of life and change the dynamic of status consumption. Yet too little has been done to reverse the long-term trends in income inequality, which are still increasing, particularly in the liberalized market economies, even policies and mechanisms for reducing inequality and redistributing incomes are well-established. These include revised income tax structures, minimum and maximum income levels, improved access to good quality education, anti-discrimination legislation, anti-crime measures and improving the local environment in deprived areas. Systematic attention to these policies is now vital. 

3 Measuring capabilities and flourishing 

The suggestion that prosperity is not adequately captured by conventional measures of economic output or consumption leaves open the need to define an appropriate measurement framework for a lasting prosperity. This must certainly include a systematic assessment of people’s capabilities for flourishing across the nation (and in different population segments) and between nations. Such an assessment would set out specifically to measure flourishing ‘outcome variables’ such as healthy life expectancy, educational participation, trust, community resilience and participation in the life of society. A number of suggestions along these lines have been made already. Perhaps the closest model to what is being suggested here is the Dutch work on developing a ‘capabilities index’. But suggestions to develop national well-being accounts also draw on this logic of ‘measuring what matters’. A further step would be to integrate such accounts systematically into the existing national accounting framework and perhaps even adjust economic accounts for changes in the flourishing accounts. 

4 Strengthening social capital.

Understanding that prosperity consists in part in our capabilities to participate in the life of society demands that attention is paid to the underlying human and social resources required for this task. Creating resilient social communities is particularly important in the face of economic shocks. The strength of community can make the difference between disaster and triumph in the face of economic collapse. A whole raft of policies is needed to build social capital and strengthen communities. These include: 

  • creating and protecting shared public spaces; 
  • encouraging community-based sustainability initiatives; 
  • reducing geographical labour mobility by placemaking; 
  • providing training for green jobs; 
  • offering better access to lifelong learning and skills; 
  • putting more responsibility for planning in the hands of local communities, and protecting public service broadcasting, museum funding, public libraries, parks and green spaces. 

There are some signs that the systematic erosion of social capital is being addressed. Third sector initiatives are beginning to focus specifically on building the resilience of communities. Examples of this include the International Resilience project in Canada, the Young Foundation’s Local Well-being Project in the UK and the growing international Transition Town movement.

Some support is beginning to emerge from governments’ own recognition of the importance of social capital. But state initiatives still remain isolated and sporadic. A systematic policy framework is needed to support social cohesion long term and build resilient communities. 

5 Dismantling the culture of consumerism 

Consumerism has developed partly as a means of protecting consumption-driven economic growth. But it promotes unproductive status competition and has damaging psychological and social impacts on people’s lives. The culture of consumerism is conveyed through institutions, the media, social norms and a host of subtle and not so subtle signals encouraging people to express themselves, seek identity and search for meaning through material goods. Dismantling these complex incentive structures requires a systematic attention to the myriad ways in which they are constructed. Most obviously, there is a need for stronger regulation in relation to the commercial media. Particular concerns exist over the role of commercial advertising to children. Several countries (notably Sweden and Norway) have banned TV advertising to children under 12. The creation of commercial-free zones such as the one established by São Paolo’s ‘Clean City Law’ is one way of protecting public space from commercial intrusion. Another is to provide systematic support for public media through state funding. As the Institute for Local Self-Reliance argues, ‘communities should have the right to reserve spaces free of commercialism, where citizens can congregate or exchange ideas on an equal footing’. There is also a role for stronger trading standards to protect citizens both as workers and as consumers. The Fair Trade initiative is a good example of what can be achieved by companies prepared to act on a voluntary basis. But it isn’t yet extensive enough to protect ecological and ethical standards along all supply chains. Or to ensure that these questions register on people’s buying behaviours. 

Trading standards should also systematically address the durability of consumer products. Planned and perceived obsolescence are one of the worst afflictions of the throw-away society and undermine both the rights and the legitimate interests of people as consumers and citizens. 

Unravelling consumer culture and changing the social logic of consumerism to create ever hopeful green consumers will require the kind of sustained and systematic effort it took to put it in place to start with. Crucially though, this effort clearly won’t succeed as a purely punitive endeavour. Offering people viable and prosperous alternatives to the consumer way of life is vital. Progress to reach this new prosperity depends on building up capabilities for people to flourish in less materialistic ways.  Fortunately, a small but growing group of psychologists is beginning to tackle issues such as these in the emerging discipline of conservation psychology. Conservation psychology equips us with better tools for effecting change in human behavior, including the behavior of green consumers. The starting point is that green consumers have, for the most part, used their gut instincts, rather than an empirical understanding of human behavior, to attempt to reshape human culture.

What lessons can embryonic green consumers glean from the findings of conservation psychologists? Among other benefits, studies show that cultivating hope is a critical element for motivating behavioral change in most people. While justifiably acknowledging that psychology cannot offer a one-size-fits-all approach to individuals who inherently vary in motivation and temperament, there is a strong case, theoretically and empirically, for making several generalizations about behavioural change. We know, for example, that when we create confident expectations for future success, effort will increase. By contrast, low expectations (i.e., lack of hope) robustly predict giving up.  If people expect little improvement they will invest little effort into achieving it. Attributing our current environmental predicament to inevitable factors, such as human greed or large, amorphous, multinational companies, is commonplace even among green consumers, but this habit may be counterproductive.

Another emergent behavioural concept is to “own” problems of moving to one planet living.  People must believe they can exercise some control over the situation. In effect, they must believe they are empowered to make a difference. These findings lead to the inevitable conclusion that people need to feel their contributions are desired and valued. This raises the possibility of another powerful yet underused tool that green consumers can employ.  There is no greater way to get people to internalize a biodiversity ethic than to have them participate in ecological stewardship. If geen consumers really want to make a difference, as opposed to just documenting decline, then they must strive to engage the larger public in the process of transition. Having citizens invest in creating a transition economy may have additional but important byproducts: Witnessing hope rekindled in the eyes of their disciples may rejuvenate hope in those who are fighting the loss of biodiversity in the trenches.


The other powerful behaviour to be cultivated by green consumers alongside hope is empathy.  Icons pointing in this direction are John Donne, born in 1572, the founder of the Metaphysical Poets and Adam Smith, born in 1723, a Scottish political economist and philosopher.  Both expressed the view that we all have the innate capacity to empathize with our fellow men and women. Donne famously wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”  A century and a half later in his Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith wrote, “How selfish whatsoever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith referred to this as a ‘sympathy’ for others, though in modern parlance we might call it an ’empathy’ with our fellow human beings.

Empathy refers to the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When you are empathetic, you put yourself in another person’s shoes, make an effort to see the world from their perspective, and feel the emotions that they feel. Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.  When we buy into today’s ever-present marketing messages that living “the good life” actually means buying “goods” without end, not only do our levels of happiness and empathy decrease, but we also waste Earth’s natural resources. The cultivation of empathetic behaviours is an antidote to consumerism and coming to be seen as one of the fundamental forces for tackling global challenges ranging from humanitarian emergencies and violent political conflicts to the climate crisis and loss of biodiversity.

 When you can understand where other people are coming from, it is easier to treat then with compassion and kindness. You build stronger and more satisfying relationships that are based on mutual respect and understanding. When you focus only on your own emotions and happiness, you are left with little meaning beyond family. But when you work to enhance the experiences of others around you, you experience a more fulfilling flavour of happiness through making a difference to the lives of others.  In this context, prosperity is about things going well for us: in accordance with our hopes and expectations. Everyday exchanges come to convey more than casual greeting. They reveal a mutual fascination for each other’s well-being. Wanting things to go well is a common human concern. Here lies in a vision of prosperity as the ability of all to flourish as human beings within the ecological limits of a finite planet.

Empathy is one of the most effective tools at our disposal for shifting us from consumers within a ‘self-interest frame’ of thinking to a ‘common-interest frame’, where our underlying mode of thought is structured as green consumers by a concern for both ourselves and others.  At present, the self-interest frame is dominant, especially in Western societies that have inherited the hyper-individualism of a free market ideology within the consumer culture that characterized twentieth century capitalism. But if we want people to take practical action on issues such as poverty in developing countries or the related issue of how to manage the equal distribution of Earth’s resources between countries, it is essential to promote empathy.  Hopefully it helps transform people’s worldviews at the deepest level, moving them beyond the boundaries of the ego and the individualist thrust of consumer society. ‘Empathy is at the heart of progressive thought,’ writes George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, who has popularized frame analysis. It is by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others, such as oppressed minorities, future generations or even other species, that we extend our circle of moral concern, developing our sense of justice to make the leap from a self-interest to a common-interest frame of thinking. As he points out: ‘Empathy is at the heart of real rationality, because it goes to the heart of our values, which are the basis of our sense of justice’. 

Empathy is the reason that we have the principles of freedom and fairness, which are necessary components of justice. Moreover, there is convincing evidence that taking a rationalist approach of feeding people a barrage of facts and information about the extent of global inequality or environmental degradation is not enough to motivate action, and may actually exacerbate levels of denial.  So it is vital to work at a more profound level of using empathy to shift our mental frames to become one with the Earth’s ecosystems. An anthropocentric worldview that human beings are at the centre of the universe is no longer valid. Satish Kumar puts it this way as the basis for adopting ‘a declaration of dependence’.

“We are utterly dependent on other species and we have to take care of them. We are members of one Earth community and need a new trinity that is holistic and inclusive, that embraces the entire planet and all species upon it. So I propose a new trinity of soil, soul, society. Soil represents the entire natural world. Without soil there is no food and without food there is no life, trees, forests, animals or people”.

In this context, soul is equated with an individual’s emotional and intellectual energy, especially as revealed in the commitment to care for the environment.  In Kumar’s trinity, society is where caring individuals as green consumers come together in hope for adopting one-planet living and thereby harvesting ecological prosperity as an outcome of communitarianism.   Communitarianism is a social philosophy that, in contrast to theories that emphasize the centrality of the individual, emphasizes the importance of society in articulating the good. Communitarianism is often contrasted with liberalism which promotes individual autonomy holding that each individual should formulate the good on his or her own. Green communitarians examine the ways shared conceptions of the good life are formed, and transmitted, justified, and enforced globally..


We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming evermore resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues and is amplified.  The very foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are being undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is still a response of affluent nations to intermittent crises and not a commitment to the permanent establishment of fair shares of Earth’s resources.  Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit, dribbling only a small percentage of their increasing wealth into ‘overseas development’.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Internet References