Poetic blueprints for the human ecological niche

June 9th, 2016

With special reference to nature metaphors in the works of

William Blake, Dylan Thomas, Graham Sutherland and the pupils of Halesworth Middle School.


1 Blake’s ecological legacy

‘I am in the path of Blake’, wrote the 19 year old Dylan Thomas to Pamela Hansford Johnson on 15 October 1933, ‘but so far behind him that only the wings on his heels are in sight’.  On Christmas Day of the same year, Thomas wrote again to Johnson, telling her that he was reading Blake’s letters for the first time and also listing his Christmas gifts, among which was `the complete Blake’.  The image of a poetic master who was not standing authoritatively in front of a rapidly developing young poet but flying ahead of him defines Blake as a living presence which Thomas was eager to pursue.

Born in 1757, Blake lived in relative poverty, was considered an eccentric by his generation, and died with little acclaim. Yet his influence has grown through the decades. The Pre-Raphaelites admired his poetry and artwork, as did W.B. Yeats, James Joyce, the French surrealists, and the American beats. To be a follower of William Blake means taking on a prodigious output of verse and accept that from his youth much of it was based on spiritual visions. When he was nine years old he told his mother that he had seen “a tree filled with angels,” and not long after, in a field of workers gathering hay, a vision of “angelic figures walking.”  Following Blake also meant following a trail of “illuminated books” written in a range of forms:prophecies, emblems, pastoral verses, biblical satire, and children’s books and addressed various timely subjects such as poverty, child exploitation, racial inequality, tyranny, religious hypocrisy. Not surprisingly, these works rank among Blake’s most celebrated achievements.  They represent the interplay between youthful innocence and hard adult experience and for Dylan Thomas Blake’s swinging moods chime with Thomas’  oscillations between memories of childhood happiness and the harshness of adult relationships to which he was in thrall.

The role of poets in an ecological sense is to establish metaphorical bonds between people and the variant things of the environment. This is part of the cognitive blueprint whereby we ‘naked apes’ establish a mental ecological niche. The philosopher and ecologist David Abram points out that all poets engage in a process of incorporating elements of their surroundings into a cultural context.  In particular, they use their imagination to animate the inanimate, because “the fundamental unit of poetry, metaphor, is a kind of active participation with the interplay of variant things. Metaphor is a kind of perceiving, and this perception requires an isomorphic exchange.”  We assemble a home by replacing things around us with others that have the same appearance but express a different ancestry.  

As a primordial and embedded cultural mode of perception, poetry also “admits to no clear distinctions between that which is animate and that which is inanimate”; what is natural and what is supernatural.  This casts the modern terminal ecological assaults we make on planet Earth, like clear-felling, overfishing, oil spills, and carbon emissions, in a very awkward spotlight. The damage we incur on nature becomes nothing less than a reflection of a very sick society with a self-harming complex. If we are unable to self-identify poetically with our physical and social surroundings, then we experience an amputation from our cosmic origins. We embrace nature as ‘Us’ and ‘ It’.  Our affinity with environment is non adaptive, moving automatically  towards polarization, rather than towards the spectrum offered by a perspective of humanity rooted in ecological evolution.

This modern view was encapsulated by William Blake two centuries ago.

“I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing which stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity, & by these I shall not regulate my proportions; & Some Scarce see Nature at all. But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is, So he sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers. You certainly Mistake, when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not to be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination”.

Blake’s vision is simple and universal; we are part of nature in all we do and there are surely few of us who have not at some time seen the simplest things imagined “apparel’d in celestial light”—a  phrase of the 17th century English poet, Thomas Traherne.  For him the simplest pebbles on the path were radiant with that light. In the modern era, it is not the pebbles or the trees that have changed: it is we who no longer participate in that light of poetic vision. Brian Keeble believes that there are poets, such as Larkin, who at best regret its absence.  There are few indeed who attempt to re-kindle that vision at the source, though there have been some such as Eliot,  Yeats and Rilke.  Then there is Dylan Thomas, who, chasing after Blake, used that unfashionable word “holy” and wrote many poems about the sacralization of his homeland of West Wales.  He took an inspirational path which, is also traceable from Blake to the painter Graham Sutherland, whose creative life in West Wales overlapped that of Thomas.

William Blake is a romantic poet. The sparks of romanticism are vividly marked on his poetry. His poems and pictures deal with ecological dynamics and are characterized by reliance on the imagination and subjectivity of approach, freedom of thought and expression, and an idealization of nature.  Similarly, Dylan Thomas may be regarded as a romantic poet, along with his Welsh contemporaries, Vernon Watkins and Leslie Norris.  The output of all three, together with the works of another contemporary, Graham Sutherland, deal firmly with the sacralization of nature.

Nowadays the sacralization of nature is defined as expressing eco-wisdom which is one of the literary criticisms created by American scholar William Rueckert in 1978. He advocated applying the concept of ecology into literary research.  Although many people struggle to define ecocriticism, at its simplest level it encompasses an interest in place-making; how we position ourselves cognitively in the world and the biological, social, and political ways in which we define where we are.


2  The human cognitive niche

The term “niche”, coined by the zoologist Charles Elton in the late 1920s, refers to “the place a species occupies in the biotic community” or the environmental structure and condition which can maintain its life.  The ecological niche of human beings is much more complicated than that of any other creature.  Like other species, humans need an ‘ecological niche’ or ‘habitat that provides food and shelter.  But over and above that, humans require an imaginative ‘sense of place’ for their flourishing. To put it another way, situating humans within a suitable physical niche is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for their well being. Humans may survive within such an environment, but without a mental picture of where they live, which includes its past, present and future, they will not take root. Part of this distinction between ‘survival’ and ‘flourishing’ applies to all living things but the human ecological niche relates people to their local natural environment in cognitive or symbolic-cultural ways.

At the same time, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, the environments faced by human societies have been transformed by past and current human behaviour. There is a real, material basis to the claim that the global environment is now ‘socially constructed’. It is not just that our understanding of the environment is mediated by human social relations and culturally symbolic meanings, but the environment faced by human culture is often partly the ‘product’ of previous social modification which resulted in new norms for making human relationships  It is therefore difficult to maintain a strict division between a ‘natural’ environment and one which is the outcome of human purposive action in conjunction with that of a prehuman era.

The ecological niche for humans is as much a ‘humanised’ one as a ‘natural’ one.  A naturalistic social theory views this transformative activity as central to understanding human nature and human culture. The significance of this cultural dimension is that the human ‘ecological niche’ is both culturally and biologically-ecologically determined.

Regardless of how habituated or conditioned the organism may be, individuals are engaged in the transformation of the environment through desire and the impact of their actions. The unique character of humankind is an ability to use language and culture to redirect and channel individual and collective desires and actions to accommodate their impact on the environment. This capacity for conscious and intentional creativity or change makes all the difference. For humans, such cognitive appropriations of nature provide the mental resources to stabilise the ecological niche and include the scientific and aesthetic appreciation and experience of the natural world, and other cultural modes of apprehension, valuing and experiencing the natural environment.

Because we are social animals with an imagination, an important aspect of place-making is the process of bonding with others with which we share the same physical environment. The writer Paul Shepard once suggested that human beings underwent an epigenetic process of maturation which occurred in stages, each stage representing an activity of bonding. The first of these stages is social bonding with family and neighbours.  The next most significant bonding involved becoming one with Nature, a period of sensate curiosity and exploration in which the concept of a self-identity became acquainted and synonymous with the natural world. It is at this stage that poetry can be an expression of ecological wisdom.  An individual who had fully experienced this stage can not only acquire a kind of recognition of his or her surroundings, but could identify with it in such a way that damaging it would equate to self-mutilation.  Modern living and urbanity does not allow for this experience of bonding through affinity, and the handful who are given the opportunity are often only able to experience it superficially. It will occur from time to time with those people whose vocations take them into the deep places of the world – loggers, environmentalists, treeplanters, wilderness guides, and the like. What about the rest of us?  

Ecological wisdom can come soon, as in the following poem by 10 year old Robert Filby  of Halesworth Middle School.  


‘A shrew’ (1993)

A shrew

is fierce.

A versatile sort of chap

with a long pointed nose,

like a pen nib with a black pimple on the end,

which sniffs its way through pebbles, stones or wire netting-

or gives each obstacle a nudge in a temper.

Its long brows hang over its eyes with a sharp look.

It’s like the water trickling over pebbles in a stream

as it scurried about.

Just bones

with a short covering of fur and a long pink tail.

The trap goes.

The shrew was fierce.

The Chinese academic, Jingcheng Xu who has studied the mature poetry of the American writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, goes so far as to declare the view that Longfellow, expresses ecological wisdom to remind us of respecting, protecting and caring for nature.  He is convinced that through his writings we can reconsider the relationships between nature and human beings, between nature and society, and between nature and human spirit. Thereby, Jingcheng Xu believes that Longfellow’s ecological wisdom will provide a spiritual blueprint for human beings to create a low carbon economy of sustainable development, and help us dwell poetically on Earth.

The poetical creativity of Filby and Longfellow demonstrates that there is no doubt that our conceptions of nature are reflected in our language and that nature-friendly language has the power to create a sense of kinship with the natural world. Conversely, the opposite kind of metaphor is capable of separating us from nature and keeping us from peaceful coexistence.

Unfortunately, many of the metaphors we unconsciously use are violent and anti-nature, militaristic, or mechanistic and devoid of any talk of ecological unity.  Several authors have lamented the evolution in our language away from nature-connected terminology, such as “mystery” and “wonder”,  love for the Earth, and references to the Earth Mother.  We in the West have, by and large, rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection.  Our worldview shapes the language and root metaphors we use, and language holds them in our worldview and its ideologies. In Euro-American cultures, our largely unquestioned root metaphors are based on the view of science as the most powerful and legitimate source of knowledge about place. A culture incapable, or unwilling, to utilize a loving metaphor as a daily instrument for grounding itself in a place will instinctively distance itself from that place because the bonding capacity of those metaphors is absent.


3  Living in a poetic ecological equilibrium

When we normally speak of poetry we think of written “works”, poems which have been written by poets. Poets receive their title by virtue of the fact that they have produced such works.   Kenneth Stickkers uses the example of the life of the great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau, to make the point that the poetic does not  lie within any works. Instead, it resides within Nature.  Poetry, for Thoreau was the song of Nature. Thus, says Stikkers, the poet is not one who necessarily created works, but rather one who listened to the poetry of Nature by living a life in harmony with her song. The word-crafting of what was heard was not of primary importance. Thus, the communication problem Thoreau faced, as a poetry mute, was not one of writing poems, but rather a question of how to live his life poetically and wholly  ‘according to nature’. Here, the principle is that an individual’s, works are judged “poetic” by the way in which they reflect the poetic life of their creator; they are outcomes  flowing from the poetic life rather than conscious achievements of the individual. Thoreau at his small-holding by Walden Pond sought for himself a poetic life.

If one were asked to name the cardinal virtue of Thoreau’s environmental philosophy, it would be hard to identify a better state of mind than ‘awareness’. He attests to the importance of “being forever on the alert,” and of “the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”. This exercise may enable one to create remarkably minute descriptions of a sunset, a battle between red and black ants, or the shapes taken by thawing clay on a sand bank: but its primary value lies in the way that awareness affects the quality of our experience. “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look” .

Awareness cannot be classified as exclusively a moral or an intellectual virtue, either, since knowing is an inescapably practical and evaluative activity—not to mention, an embodied practice. Thoreau portrays himself not from a presumably neutral or impersonal vantage point, but from an embodied point of view in which his somatic sensory experience puts him knowingly in touch with his surroundings. For such reasons as these, he has sometimes been interpreted as a philosopher of the senses, who offers an original response to the central problem of modern living sustainably as a consequence of recognizing that knowledge is dependent on the individual’s ability to see, and that “the world as known is thus radically dependent on the  character of the individual”.

Nevertheless, we have to ask where the impulse to write a poem comes from.  In particular, is the poetic muse latent in us all and if so can it be permanently released through education?.  Here, the model is a UK teacher of English by the name of Jill Pirrie.

In the 1980s the London bookseller WH Smith sponsored an annual poetry competition for schools with a set of judges chaired by the UK  poet laureate Ted Hughes.  In 1987 the judges were astonished to find amidst the many thousands of poems received from schools all over the British Isles 60 poems came from a single school. They were written by pupils of the English teacher, Jill Pirrie.  They represent the work of this extraordinary teacher and the young poets she called into existence.  These were children who had in common only the fact that they were pupils of Halesworth Middle School in Suffolk.   Their poems were of great quality, true poems, exciting in their phrasing, startling as a good poem must be, but never startling for the sake of it, all strongly individual, all clearly from the same stable.  This in itself was an unusually massive block entry.

That year the total intake, from schools all over the country, was just under 40,000, with the main bulk of this number falling within the two upper age categories. In these two categories, the competition offered 40 prizes. And of these 40 prizes, Halesworth Middle School took ten. In other words, Jill Pirrie’s pupils carried off 25% of the prizes for the entire country. This is by no means the whole story. Of the remaining Halesworth entries, 50 received Commendation Awards. This division of ten prizes and 50 Commendation Awards, out of Halesworth’s 60 or so entries, conceals something even more remarkable, which confronted the judges as a problem. This problem was an immediate, practical one, how to fit the volume of Halesworth’s achievement into a competition that had never encountered anything like it before; but it anticipates the much bigger question which Jill Pirrie’s example poses to English teaching in particular and perhaps to education in general.

Eventually the entries were published as an anthology, entitled ‘Apple Fire’, by Bloodaxe  in 1993. Edward. Blishen, children’s author and broadcaster, in his introduction said:

“Unless there is something in the air of this corner of Suffolk that under encouragement makes

ready poets of its natives — and that plainly is nonsense ~ then what is proved is that most children, certainly between the ages of ten and thirteen, are able (and, as it turns out, most seriously and unfussily eager) to make the response to experience that we recognise as poetry. But a feat of teacherly magic is required, of an obviously rare order”.

Jill Pirrie has given her own account of the achievement But the judges felt that she had invented for herself, out of a passion for originality that becomes the children’s passion

for it, the form that work in the classroom will take.  This is a combination of the character of her own presence in the classroom, her relationship with the children and theirs with her: the pace at which they work, and the way in which their eagerness is tapped.

She knows how to cause children to be eager. And that, like everything else she does, lies

in the work. They are eager because from the moment they enter the classroom they are at work, and because an atmosphere is created in which it is obvious to everyone present that the work is deep and worth doing, and leads to an extraordinary sense of well-being (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Imaginative Interplay in the classroom between poetry and art


Edward Blishen after visiting the school went on to say:

“Jill Pirrie talks of peer expectation being as important as teacher expectation. The fact is that here is a room in which you cannot imagine the teacher ever saying, in whatever refined form, what some perfectly decent teachers commonly say: You have let me down, or You have done well by my teaching. In Jill Pirrie’s class-room that is never the point. After sitting there for a memorable day during which the presence of an intruder was absorbed into the busyness, I could not explain how she made herself the plain mistress of the occasion without ever causing her power io dwarf or lessen the power of the children. But I guess it is a political matter, partly: her whole conduct, out of which theirs springs, makes it seem desirable to the children that they should have high expectations of each other, and that each should attempt to justify those expectations. Add to this a curious and very robust delicacy in her. She does not thrust an observation at her children. As I felt it, what she did was to enfold them in it: it was hers, but it was instantly theirs. A great courtesy — but, as I say, robust. She simply and convincingly takes it that they are with her.

I’ve never seen a teacher so close to those she’s teaching, without reducing herself in any way. Her language is at times quite grand. It’s one of the reasons for the success of her teaching, I think: that the children know she’s giving herself as she is, not some teacherly simplification of herself. I was reminded of those marvellous lines of Lawrence’s, in the poem he called ‘The Best of School’:

I feel them cling and cleave to me

As vines going eagerly up; they twine

My life with other leaves, my time

Is hidden in theirs, their thrills are mine.

Except that in Jill Pirrie’s classroom you feel that it works both ways: the teacher’s thrills are also theirs. It is an order of reciprocity I haven’t encountered elsewhere. And a swiftness and attentiveness of it: nothing is spilled, because there’s a constant readiness to receive. Nothing priggish about it. They’re too honestly busy for that. Their being country children, many from working backgrounds in which it would be daft not to be down-to-earth, may help in providing that ‘robust commonsense’ that Jill Pirrie points to as an essential ingredient of their work: but I would guess that this is a teacher who could just as well tap the commonsense in urban children.

Another point about what I saw: she roots what she and the children do together in the plain — or fancy — facts of their experience. That’s where the commonsense comes from. They may send their imaginations far beyond the daily scene, think of ghosts, or of looking down on the earth from space: but it’s the need to note what’s really felt, what might really be seen — the practicality of it — that is clung to even when, perhaps specially when, the aim has some touch of exaltation about it. They form a guild whose business is the making of poetry, and the exchanges between them, provided by Jill Pirrie with a quite tense timetable, are craftsmen’s exchanges. They struggle privately with a subject: switch urgently to swapping news of work in progress: return to privacy. It’s all urgent, but easily urgent: all tense, yet relaxed. They’ll switch again, to reading aloud completed or half-completed work, and discussing it. There’s a floating of ideas and principles and perceptions and guesses and suggestions sometimes instantly withdrawn and replaced…about handling an image, finding the useable items in an experience, borrowing from one experience to enrich another. It’s poet’s talk, not a doubt about it. Theirs is a poetry of images, resemblances, connections. Audacities are admired. I said they didn’t startle for the sake of it: what Jill Pirrie constantly says in the classroom, in one way or another, is that the seizing of attention is everything, and that attention can’t be seized unless you discover what is fresh in your response, or locate the oddness there is in everything. Their alertness to this notion provides some of the tension there is in what they do.

A feature of a lesson, if that’s what it is, is the exorcising of cliché: a running labour, but sometimes attempted by giving attention, for a packed ten minutes or so, to a poem or story that demonstrably has no laziness or staleness in it. Because what they create together is so unusual and stirring, and one wants to celebrate and insist on that, as well as to think about the extraordinary implications (for instance, how much of this can be copied, and what there is to copy), it’s easy to make Jill Pirrie and her pupils sound like prodigies and paragons, which is exactly what they are not. I remember that classroom in terms of the ‘state of concentration, dreamlike in its intensity’ that Jill Pirrie says is her aim. I remember it rapt and unlazy as no other classroom I’ve ever been in. I remember realising that they’d all been infected, with complete success, with the habit of looking hard at what they saw, registering keenly what they felt, and finding words and images for sight and feeling (and clearly doing it all the time, and not just in the classroom), and that they’d very simply become intolerant of idleness of language. But the classroom was full of the usual human stuff. They rallied each other amusingly (though never with irrelevance to the matter in hand. The irrelevant had ruled itself out).

The secret of it is not to be sought in the phenomenal. It is an astonishing achievement: but one thing certain about it is that it springs out of a very great diligence in the matter of being ordinary, everyday, plain observers of the world, plain recorders of what is observed. The ultimate excitement of it is that, working with children who are like other children, and making poetry her medium (and no one should under-estimate the professional strength and courage required in doing that), Jill Pirrie has demonstrated that plain literacy is an infinitely larger affair than most of us ever allow it to be. You can aim to promote it through cautious banalities, anaemic exercises, dullnesses and smallnesses of every kind, believing that if you know one thing about those you teach it is that grandness is not for them: they are incapable of it and do not seek it. Jill Pirrie works on the perfectly opposite principle: and gives her children, by way of literacy, a fantastic measure of what makes a poet: and habits of language and outlook that must, for a lifetime, be grander than they would ever otherwise have been. This happens to be a moment in the history of education in Britain when it is a particular joy to celebrate the achievement of a defiantly original teacher of English”.

From the example of Jill Pirrie we know the classroom recipe for releasing a latent poetic ability that is present in everyone.   The sad thing is that we do not know how the experience of being with Jill Pirrie, stayed with her pupils nudging, their behaviour towards living poetically as adults.  Particularly with respect to their growing up in a society that worships possessions and acquisitiveness we would like to think that poetry insinuated its way into their lives staying on to make them think again about how we live and what we are capable of changing for the better.


4  Internet references


















Appendix 1

A trail of some nature metaphor makers


Metaphor is traditionally defined as a type of trope, a transmission of the properties of one object (or phenomenon or aspect of life) to another because of their similarity in any aspect or by contrast (in Greek, metaphora is a figurative meaning). For some authors metaphor is defined as a hidden comparison in which the words ‘like’ and ‘as if’ are omitted but implied. Metaphor is remarkable for its conciseness and reticence; thus, it activates the reader’s perception. Unlike comparison, in which both of the objects that are being compared remain independent, even though the degree of independence differs, metaphor creates a single image.  In other words, it reduces the difference between objects or concepts..

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish, a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. On the contrary, metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system that defines our ecological niche, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think about what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.  Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, most of our ordinary conceptual system, from analysing human relationships to defining landscape, is metaphorical in nature.  This truism is evident from the following examples.

William Blake

Although he made his living through visual art and practised it all his life Blake is remembered today first and foremost for his poems.

The principal theme of Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree” is not anger itself but how the suppression of anger leads to the cultivation of anger. Burying anger rather than exposing it and acknowledging it, according to “A Poison Tree,” turns anger into a seed that will germinate and grow. Through the cultivation of that seed, which is nourished by the energy of the angry person, wrath grows into a mighty and destructive force.

‘A poison tree’ (1794)


I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.


And I waterd it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.


And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.


And into my garden stole,

When the night had veil’d the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.


Nathan Cervo describes the metaphorical structure of another of Blake’s poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, as “one of the most baffling and enigmatic in the English language”   The rose and worm have been considered by critics as “figures of humanity”.  Blake believed that inhibitions within human relationships lie primarily within the mind, rather than in external factors. Society makes its fears, guilt and shame into rules and laws which are then enshrined in social institutions such as the authority of parents, the Church and the State or Monarchy. Here, repression and prohibition mean that love has to be associated with secrecy and with forces that are perceived as destructive.  A second, related theme is the effect on human relationships of a divided selfhood which jealously defends its pleasures, denying them to others – the love is ‘dark’ and ‘secret’. One chief pleasure is exerting control over others, which can often masquerade as showing affection. This makes love devouring and destructive, as we find in this poem.


‘The sick rose’: (1789)


O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.


Dylan Thomas


The imagery of Dylan Thomas’ poetry owes much to his walking the estuarine environment of the river Towy in West Wales.  The temporal context of Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘I make this in a warring silence’ is a marital row and temporary break-up. The speaker registers the temporary collapse of his confidence in the couple’s splendid sexual world, and the qualities of the beloved are then recounted in terms of the opposites of fire and ice, innocence and guilt, pride and humility. This is succeeded by his histrionic reaction to her ‘absence’, involving his imaginary murder of her,

In the section starting ‘I make a weapon’, the narrator’s destructive impulses suggest murdering her with the ‘ jawbone of an ass’, an idea taken from The Bible:(Judges 15: 15) with which Samson slew a thousand Philistines, as the author presents himself as a blustering, asinine figure.


Extract from ‘I make this in a warring absence’, (1937)


… I make a weapon of an ass’s skeleton

And walk the warring sands by the dead town.

Cudgel great air, wreck east, and topple sundown,

Storm her sped heart, hang with beheaded veins

Its wringing shell, and let her eyelids fasten.

Destruction, picked by birds, brays through the jaw-bone,


And, for that murder’s sake, dark with contagion

Like an approaching wave I sprawl to ruin.


The poem ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’, came from the contemporary threat of global weapons of mass destruction It rests on the horrors of war and from his mourning not just the deaths of individual children or of his own childhood in the blitzed town of Swansea, but once the idea of childhood from the violation of that war is constituted, he develops a pastoral sense of the green planet, of the green world, of restoring a kind of Eden.


Extract from ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’ (1949)


Flash, and the plumes crack,

And a black cap of jack-

Daws Sir John’s just hill dons, and again the gulled birds hare

To the hawk on fire, the halter height, over Towy’s fins,

In a whack of wind.


Where the elegiac fisherbird stabs and paddles

In the pebbly dab-filled

Shallow and sedge, and ‘dilly dilly,’ calls the loft hawk,

‘Come and be killed,’

I open the leaves of the water at a passage

Of psalms and shadows among the pincered sandcrabs prancing


And read, in a shell

Death clear as a bouy’s bell:

All praise of the hawk on fire in hawk-eyed dusk be sung,

When his viperish fuse hangs looped with flames under the brand

Wing, and blest shall


Green chickens of the bay and bushes cluck, ‘dilly dilly,

Come let us die.’


Graham Sutherland


Graham Sutherland (1903 – 1980) started his career as engraver and teacher at Chelsea Art School. As an artist, he showed great interest in landscapes, the open landscape of the extreme south west Wales in particular.   At the beginning, he was inspired by English neo-romanticism, but from the 30s his painting could be described as disturbing and impregnated with visionary dramatic power, getting close to Surrealism.  Sutherland was clearly inspired by Romanticism and William Blake’s sublime poetics, but he reinterpreted it in a negative, malevolent and bitter viewpoint.  Blake’s Prophetic Books deal with the revolutionary spirit of the age, not historically or realistically, but metaphorically in the emergence of Orc who is the embodiment of energy.  Blake’s bitter awareness of the evil of the world led him to a dualist belief, which introduced an original force of evil called URIZEN.. The name “Urizen” comes from the Greek oriezein, “to fix a limit” and is identified with the Jehovah of the Old Testament by Blake in opposition to Jesus of the New Testament, whom he identified with the force of good. This basic opposition he extended by adding to Urizen-Jehovah the attributes of reason, restraint, and law, as opposed to imagination, freedom, and love for one’s neighbour, which he associated with Christ.

Fig 1 Birth of Urizen’s Daughters, William Blake (1795)

078Urizen's Daughters in matter

Sutherland’s take on Blake is the warning that nature’s forms, which should satisfy our hunger for beauty, are only mental reconstructions which are imposed on us by our need for certainty; reality is destabilizing, hard, mechanical in its being: almost a romantic “pleasurable terror”, a real threat and not only a literary fear. Sutherland catches and depicts the metaphor, looking into organic life, in which the mystery of existence is held: he analyses forms and recognizes their ambiguity and disturbing cruel essence, contrasting with colour’s intensity and sometimes its mildness. He manages to take out nature’s poetry and drama, giving his work a surreal, and sometimes, gloomy atmosphere (Fig 2)..

Fig 2  ‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, (1936) Graham Sutherland


‘Welsh Landscape with Road’, by Graham Sutherland, depicts a lane through a valley in the hills near Porthclais on the outskirts of St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Sutherland wrote that paintings like this expressed the ‘intellectual and emotional essence’ of a place, a sense of the ancient past hinted at here by the inclusion of the animal skull and the standing stones in the distance. Sutherland painted icons of deep country, but, as Alexandra Harris writes in Romantic Moderns, ‘in a manner so abstract that all sense of a through road disappears, leaving concentric forms that both embrace and repulse’.  Sutherland remarked: ‘Surely if English painting is to gain strength it will do so in the open … and not behind the sheltered wall’.

The use of nature metaphors is also illustrated by Sutherland’s ‘thorn tree’ paintings made in Pembrokeshire in the immediate post-war period.  Sutherland experimented relentlessly with the motif of thorn trees, bushes and thorn heads of the ecosystems he discovered in roadside verges and common land  (Fig 3):

“About my thorn pictures: I had been thinking of the Crucifixion (I was about to attempt this subject), and my mind was preoccupied by the idea of thorns, and wounds made by thorns. In the country I began to notice thorn bushes and the structure of thorns, which pierced the air in all directions, their points establishing limits of aerial space. I made some drawings and in doing so a strange change took place. While preserving their normal life in space, the thorns rearranged themselves and became something else – a sort of paraphrase of the Crucifixion and the Crucified Head – the cruelty”.

Fig 3 ‘Thorn Head’ (1949), Graham Sutherland,

(c) Dr Robert Karrer; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Dr Robert Karrer; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Conservation communities

April 4th, 2016

1  Man and the biosphere

Fig 1 Summary of UNESCOs Man and the Biosphere Programme

man and the biosphere

UNESCO’s ‘Man and the Biosphere’ programme (MAB) proposes an interdisciplinary research agenda and education for capacity building aimed at improving the relationship of people, as citizens, with their local environment viewed as community capital in a global context.  Launched in the early 1970s, the programme targets mass consumerism through the ecological, social and economic dimensions of biodiversity loss with conservation management to counteract this loss. It uses its World Network of Biosphere Reserves for knowledge-sharing, research and monitoring, education and training, and participatory decision- making in plans for sustainability.

MAB was launched in 1970 and initiated work in 14 Project areas covering different ecosystem types from mountains to the sea, from rural to urban systems, as well as more social aspects such as environmental perception. MAB’s work over the years has concentrated on the development of the World Network of Biosphere Reserve Areas.

2  Biosphere Reserve Areas

Biosphere Reserve Areas were the outcome of the “Biosphere Conference” organized by UNESCO in 1968. This was the first intergovernmental conference examining how to reconcile the conservation and use of natural resources, thereby foreshadowing the present-day notion of sustainable development. This Conference resulted in the launching of the UNESCO MAB Programme in 1970. One of the original MAB projects consisted in establishing a coordinated world network of sites representing the main ecosystems of the planet in which genetic resources would be protected, and where research on ecosystems as well as monitoring and training work could be carried out. These sites were named “Biosphere Reserves”, in reference to the MAB programme itself. Sub sectors of Earth’s biosphere, which were geographically and governmentally distinct, were to be eligible for biosphere reserve area status.

The biosphere reserve concept was developed initially in 1974 and was substantially revised in 1995 with the adoption by the UNESCO General Conference of the Statutory Framework and the Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves. Between these two dates, ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, was published (1987).  Its targets were multilateralism and interdependence of nations in the search for a sustainable development path.

Today, with more than 600 sites in over 100 countries, the network provides context-specific opportunities to apply scientific knowledge about conservation of natural resources to planning at all levels, from government to community, with the objectives of:

  • Reducing biodiversity loss
  • Improving livelihoods
  • Enhancing social, economic and cultural conditions for environmental sustainability

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Areas (BRAs) are centred on species-rich, core protected sites.  The high level of core biodiversity requires conservation management of habitats and species and which integrates cultural values of traditional natural resource management systems. The objective is to emulate the conservation management system for the core protected sites in the biosphere area, applying its logic to the management of ecosystem services in surrounding homes, businesses and community organisations for living sustainably.

The UNESCO BRAs are generally large rural areas, with most of the core in a semi natural condition under sustainable natural resource management.   One of the main features of the surrounding buffer area is the low-level, non-industrial use of natural resources compatible with the principles of management for nature conservation.  The BRA concept is presented diagramatically in Fig 2.

Fig 2 Pantanal model of a biosphere reserve area

pantamal model

The local adoption of the BRA model of UNESCO’s MAB Programme reflects a shift towards more accountable conservation and the creation of conservation communities.   The programme evolved to put communities first with regards maintenance of their ecosystem services, which may be far removed in distance from the BRA.  In attempting to reconcile environmental protection with sustainable development BRAs explicitly acknowledge humans, and human interests in the global conservation landscape while still maintaining the ecological values of locally protected areas upon which they are aesthetically and scientifically  focussed.  Thus the biosphere reserves contribute to the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular MDG 7 on environmental sustainability.  Conceptually, this model is attractive. Yet the practical reality of implementing dual ‘conservation’, ‘development’, ‘educational’ and ‘research’ goals, based on the local conservation management system of the core’s biodiversity, is challenging, with few examples successfully conforming to the model’s full criteria.  

2  Time for a rethink?

Since its inception in 1968  the Biosphere Reserve programme has only recruited a few hundred reserves into its portfolio, which prompts the question, What is its present day value? This question was at the heart of a paper published in 2013 by L Kaera and colleagues entitled ‘Reviewing Biosphere Reserves globally: effective conservation action or bureaucratic label?  

For a start, UNESCO BRAs are too few and far between to influence most people.  More importantly, by emphasising that only a few places are special, the official designation of a BRA by UNESCO inevitably  downgrades most of the places inhabited by people, mainly urban dwellers, whose biodiversity does not attain the status of a National Park, or a National Nature Reserve. In this respect, the use of the term ‘reserve’ to describe a geographical area signals that protectionism is the major objective of the designation.  Indeed, this was the original basis of the biosphere idea five decades ago and although there has been a shift to stress their role to educate the local population for living sustainably, the high biodiversity core tends to be managed in isolation.  On paper, biosphere reserves appear more like the ‘transition’ communities which emerged to define towns in the UK that were moving towards economic self-sufficiency in 2006.  However, having a low biodiversity is not a barrier to joining the Transition Towns network.  

Therefore, to get more people to embrace plans for living sustainably it very important to adopt a wider definition of community outside the UNESCO scheme to include those centred on urban parks, open spaces and local nature sites, using their management plans as urban conservation models. In this context, the local designations of ‘Conservation Communities’ would integrate plans for living sustainably in home and neighbourhood with management of their biodiversity assets. In this wider nature conservation context the objectives of the Conservation Community would be similar to those of a biosphere reserve, namely:

  • To promote sustainable use of natural resources, considering ecological, economic and social dimensions;
  • To promote social and economic benefits to local communities where relevant;
  • To facilitate inter-generational security for local communities’ livelihoods – therefore ensuring that such livelihoods are sustainable;
  • To integrate other cultural approaches, belief systems and world-views within a range of social and economic approaches to nature conservation;
  • To contribute to developing and/or maintaining a more balanced relationship between humans and the rest of nature;
  • To contribute to sustainable development at national, regional and local level (in the last case mainly to local communities and/or indigenous peoples depending on the protected natural resources);
  • To facilitate scientific research and environmental monitoring, mainly related to the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources;
  • To collaborate in the delivery of benefits to people, mostly local communities, living in or near to the designated protected area;
  • To facilitate recreation and appropriate tourism.

These objectives would be the basis of a comprehensive community action plan, like that produced by the UK’s first Biosphere Reserve (Fig 3).  In this respect, conservation communities have the aim of encouraging people to get involved with the management of these functions and replicate them as exemplars to other communities following a similar pathway.

Fig 3 http://www.culturalecology.info/version2/Manandthebiosphere.html

northdevon bioisphere

A community conservation management system is needed that is open, integrative, evolving and adaptive, in order for the local community to better respond to external political, economic and social pressures, which would affect the ecological and cultural values of the area.  This can best be achieved through organising the community system of ‘people and environment’ as an interdisciplinary knowledge framework of cultural ecology. Cultural ecology then opens up routes to engage people with:

  • managing consumerism to reduce inequalities;
  • managing resources to improve livelihoods;
  • managing resources for environmental sustainability;

As a process of enablement, the aim of cultural ecology is to encourage people to create self-made knowledge maps to position themselves within local and national plans for sustainability in work, school, community, neighbourhood and home. The practical objective of cultural ecology is to promote managerial solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use. Therefore, involvement in making and operating a management plan, presenting local issues in their wider interdisciplinary aspects of a Conservation Community, promotes both local and global citizenship

Fig. 4 highlights the mutual interdependencies within Conservation Communities between land cover, land use and biodiversity to support human well-being. The various components of biodiversity (at the individual, population and community levels) and the ecological services that they provide have a central place in the emerging understandings of how people and ecosystems are connected,  through land use and land cover. The physical aspect of land cover depends on, and is influenced by, the uses to which land is put and its biodiversity. Similarly the range of potential uses that an area of land can support constrains its contribution to human well-being.

Fig 4 Connections between well-being and ecosystem functions.



  • Land cover is the physical characteristics of the land surface determined by both its biological and physical features.
  • Land use is determined by the purposes of active and passive management of land by people and the material non-material benefits they derive from it.
  • Biodiversity is the variety of ecological elements present in a place(genes, species, communities and habitats,etc.).
  • Land and ecosystem functions are the potentials or capacities that land and ecosystems have to generate useful outputs for people.
  • Ecosystem services are the specific and final contributions that ecosystems make to human well being

3  Categorisation of ‘community conservation areas’ (CCAs)

As an important historical definition, the term “biosphere” was coined by the geologist Eduard Suess in 1875 as the global sum of all Earth’s ecosystems. It is the zone of life on Earth; the planetary ecosystem which integrates all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with Earth’s distinct zonal elements of  lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.  Earth’s biosphere is postulated to have evolved, beginning with a process of  biogenesis at least some 3.5 billion years ago.   

In a more general sense, ‘community conservation areas’ are any spaces with a well defined boundary, enclosing distinct habitats and species, which are maintained through some kind of conservation management system where local biodiversity and community plans for living sustainably come together. This includes engineered biospheres for education and research (Fig 5).

Fig 5  Categorisation of community conservation areas


In 2008, for the first time in history, the world’s urban population outnumbered the rural population. This milestone marked the advent of a new ‘urban millennium’ and, by 2050, it is expected that two-thirds of the world population will be living in urban areas. With more than half of humankind living in cities and the number of urban residents growing by nearly 73 million every year, it is estimated that urban areas account for 70 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product and has therefore generated economic growth and prosperity for many.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development tackles this challenge through its Sustainable Development Goal 11, which aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.  This has been taken up by planners to design new transition economies.  

The concept of the transition economy has gained currency to a large extent because it provides a response to the multiple crises that the world has been facing in recent years – the climate, food and economic crises – with an alternative paradigm that offers the promise of growth while protecting the earth’s ecosystems and, in turn, contributing to poverty alleviation. In this sense, the transition will entail moving away from the system that allowed, and at times generated, these crises to a system that proactively addresses and prevents them. There is no unique definition of the transition economy, but the term itself underscores the economic dimensions of sustainability or, in terms of the recent UNEP report on the ‘Green Economy’, it responds to the “growing recognition that achieving sustainability rests almost entirely on getting the economy right”. It also emphasizes the crucial point that economic growth and environmental stewardship can be complementary strategies, challenging the still common view that there are significant tradeoffs between these two objectives – in other words, that the synergies prevail over the tradeoffs. This underscores a view  that the concept of transition economy should be seen as consistent with the broader and older concept of sustainable development.

The specificities of the broader concept are its holistic character, as it encompasses the three pillars of development – economic, social and environmental – and its particular focus on inter-generational equity. This is reflected in UNEP’s definition of a green economy as “one that results in improved human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.  Indeed, growing urbanization can be a plus for the environment, because people who live in dense cities drive less, their living spaces use less energy, and they require fewer resources. But there are also troubling trends, like increased traffic congestion, smog, and blight. Beijing’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than China’s national average, and many U.S. cities are surrounded by suburbs with large carbon footprints. On the other hand cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social, human and economic development. Urban planning, transport systems, water, sanitation, waste management, disaster risk reduction, access to information, education and capacity-building are all relevant issues a programme of transitional  urban development.

“Promoting sustainable human settlements development” is the subject of Chapter 7 of Agenda 21, which calls for

  • providing adequate shelter for all;
  • improving human settlements management;
  • promoting sustainable land-use planning and management;
  • promoting the integrated provision of environmental infrastructure: water, sanitation, drainage and solid waste management;
  • promoting sustainable energy and transport systems in human settlements;
  • promoting human settlements planning and management in disaster-prone areas;
  • promoting sustainable construction industry activities; and 8) promoting human resource development and capacity-building for human settlements development.

These issues are the targets for, urban conservation communities in transition (Fig 6).

Fig 6 Conceptual model of an urban biosphere reserve area

4  Who is going to be the first to blink?

Natural Capital can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets, which include rocks, soil, air, water and all living things.  It is from this natural capital that humans derive a wide range of services, often called ecosystem services, which make human life possible.

The term natural capital implies an extension of the economic notion of capital. Just as all forms of capital are capable of providing a flow of goods and services, components of natural capital interact to provide humans and other species with goods and services that are wide-ranging and diverse. The collective benefits provided by the resources and processes supplied by natural capital are known as ecosystem goods and services, or simply ecosystem services. These services are imperative for survival and well-being. They are also the basis for all economic activity.

The most obvious ecosystem services include the food we eat, the water we drink and the plant materials we use for fuel, building materials and medicines. There are also many less visible ecosystem services such as the climate regulation and natural flood defences provided by forests, the billions of tonnes of carbon stored by peatlands, or the pollination of crops by insects. Even less visible are cultural ecosystem services such as the inspiration we take from wildlife and the natural environment

In practical terms, a biosphere reserve area represents community capital for understanding how to integrate land cover, land use and biodiversity to support long-term human well-being.  The management plan for conserving its core biodiversity is actually a model for meeting the goals of the 1992 ‘Report of the The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio environment summit).  Chapter 2 deals with promoting sustainable development through trade and making trade and environment mutually supportive.  In the latter area it summarised the basis for action as follows:

“Environment and trade policies should be mutually supportive. An open, multilateral trading system makes possible a more efficient allocation and use of resources and thereby contributes to an increase in production and incomes and to lessening demands on the environment.

Agenda 21 sees environmental protection as the key to sustainable development. On the other hand the report says that a sound environment provides the ecological and other resources needed to sustain growth and underpin a continuing expansion of trade. We can’t have it both ways because in the end, Earth’s natural resources are not limitless.

When Karl Marx spoke of religion as the opiate of the masses he might well have been referring to the catechism of contemporary economic theology that an expanding economic pie will bring universal prosperity to everyone. This widely espoused article of faith then becomes the foundation of arguments for a whole range of policies to sustain economic growth, that almost invariably favour the strong over the weak.

A simple bit of arithmetic demonstrates the point. Let us assume that the call of the Brundtland Commission for a global growth rate of 3% without redistribution were to be realized. In ten years time the average Ethiopian would be earning an additional $41. The average American would enjoy an additional $7,257.20

Without concurrent redistribution, an expanding pie brings far greater benefit to the already wealthy than to the poor, increases the gap between rich and poor, and increases the power advantage of the former over the latter. This advantage becomes a life and death issue in a resource scarce world in which the rich and poor are locked in mortal competition for a depleting resource base.  In both scenarios, there is no doubt that we need to use natural resources more efficiently, a change in approach known as dematerialisation (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Increased efficiency of resource utilisation is key to living sustainably


Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek, from the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, first proposed the dematerialisation concepts in the early 1990s. He concluded  that 80% of the world’s resources are distributed among ‘First World nations’, which contribute 20% of the global population, so those nations are prompting an unsustainable system of development. Six years after the Rio Environment Summit, Hunter and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and Ernst von Weizsäcker, founder of the Wuppertal Institute, published ‘Factor 4’, a book that explains how relatively easy it is for businesses to operate more efficiently with existing technologies. It has many examples of real-world projects that save money and reduce pollution simultaneously.

The goal of being twice as productive with half the resources (materials and energy), leads to a factor 4 improvement in efficiency. Alternatively, practices which are just as productive with 1/4 of the resources or 4 times as effective with the same resources, also count.  Another way of phrasing the Factor 4 efficiency gain is that it reduces energy and materials usage by 75%.  

While ‘Factor Four’ is a common term representing a minimum four-fold increase in economic efficiency for transition plans, ‘Factor Ten’–ten times as much productivity from the same inputs (ranging to the same productivity with 1/10th the resources)–represents an even greater challenge. ‘Factor Ten’ equates to a 90% decrease in resource usage. ‘Factor 10’ evolved from the less dramatic ‘Factor 4’.  It also requires the creation of new technologies, policies, and manufacturing processes along with sociocultural change to create a global economy that is sustainable for a long period of time.

The goal of ‘Factor 10’ is to assure that nations do not exceed the planet’s carrying capacity but leave sufficient resources for future generations.  ‘Factor 10’ goes further as a response to the United Nations’ Environment Programme call for a tenfold reduction in resource consumption in industrialised countries as a necessary long-term target if adequate resources are to be released for the needs of the developing countries.  With the predicted rise in population and economic growth so as not to exceed the level of pollution we have today, we need to be able to produce the same output for 10% of the impact.

In terms of which nation will be the first to adopt Factor 10 wholeheartedly,  F. Schmidt-Bleek, President of the Factor 10 Institute, writing at the start of the new millennium, put it this way:

“Sustainability requires that environment and economic development be made mutually supportive at the front end of the cycle when the goals and policies are being set, not at the tail end after society has already incurred the damage costs of unsustainable development.

Dematerialization creates synergies for changing values of society, particularly in western countries. Indeed, the Factor 10 concept offers in itself a valuable stimulus and basis to advance structural change toward a more innovative and service-focussed economy and provokes sustainable consumer choices. Thus, Factor 10 emerges as a key component to guide development in the new Millennium.

Despite the prevailing uncertainties I remain convinced that if the process of dematerialization does not begin soon, both the social fabric of our societies and the global ecosystem are seriously at risk in the medium term. Furthermore, by starting now, we would have the option of achieving a transition slowly by evolution rather than being forced to change suddenly through revolution”.

Fifteen years later the world is still fixing its sights on annual growth rates that cannot be maintained!.

L Kaera and colleagues referenced the fact that continuing to emphasise ‘development’ as a core function of Biosphere Reserves is deflecting from the importance of the roles of biosphere reserve areas as ‘learning sites’ for sustainable development.  That critique prompted this blog.  It will be continued as comparative study of conservation communities, particularly in relation to their management plans, as a comparative concept map and wiki.  The central question is how can transition communities, large and small become, established.



5  Web references


Kaera L. Coetzer∗, Edward T. F. Witkowski and Barend F. N. Erasmus  









The gentle struggles of ecologism

March 20th, 2016

‘Wise consumption is a far more difficult art than production’. John Ruskin


1 Ecology and culture

Ways of thinking based on the assumption that human beings hold a privileged or central position in the social evaluation of our use of natural resources are on the sidelines of radical environmental politics.  However, future historians may well look upon the years 1978-80 as a revolutionary turning point in the world’s social and economic history towards rectifying this.  It was certainly a time when the relationship between culture and environment entered the political discourse regarding the future course of world development.

Four significant political events acted like epicentres in the unfolding of the transformation of the post war economic order: in 1978, Deng Xiaoping took the first steps toward liberalising the Chinese economy; in 1979, Paul Volcker took command of the US Federal Reserve and changed monetary policy, whilst in that same year Margaret Thatcher took on the power of the unions and pledged to end inflationary stagnation with a burst of neo-liberalism. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the USA, and armed with Volcker’s policies, set about implementing a set of reforms that were aimed at curbing union power, deregulating industry, and creating more liberal conditions for finance to operate freely on the national and the global stages.

“From these several global epicentres, revolutionary impulses seemingly spread and reverberated to remake the world around us in a totally different image” (Harvey, 2005).

The distinction between ecologism and environmentalism now has a wide currency among ecologists.  Indeed, it  was already in being when ‘The Ecologist’ published an editorial entitled ‘Down with Environmentalism!’ In 1972.   As Jonathon Porritt and David Winner argued at the time when the term was gaining wider recognition, ecologism is radical for it seeks nothing less than a non-violent revolution to overthrow our whole polluting, plundering and materialistic industrial society. The economic system was portrayed as dehumanising, making decisions on the basis of profitability rather than human need: a revolutionary  argument that was played out most dramatically in the UK 1980s coal miner’s strike.

The revolution that E.F. Schumacher advocated in his book ‘Small is Beautiful’‘,  was a people-centred economics because that would, in his view, enable environmental and human sustainability.  Accordingly, the term ‘ecologism’ applies to positions that are both more radical and more complex than environmentalism.

Andrew Dobson is keen to distinguish between environmentalism and ecologism. His standpoint is that environmentalists do not necessarily subscribe to the limits to growth thesis, nor do they typically seek to dismantle industrialism.  They are likely to argue for the intrinsic value of the non-human environment but would balk at any suggestion that we as a species require ’metaphysical reconstruction’ as proposed by Schumacher.  Environmentalists will typically believe that technology can solve the problems it creates and they will probably regard any suggestions that only frugal living will provide for sustainability as wilful nonsense.  Dobson therefore makes the point that what passes for green politics in the pages of today’s newspapers is the philosophy of environmentalism, not the ideology of political ecology properly understood’ and distinguished by the term ecologism.

However, both Schumacher and Dobson fail to specify the institutions required to support the controlled metaphysical reconstruction demanded by ecologism.

The economist, James Robertson has no such qualms.  His first involvement with practical  political economy covered the period from 1957, and Prime Minister Macmillan’s ‘never had it so good’ speech, to working as a civil aide on Macmillan’s 1960 ‘wind of change’ African tour, which kick started decolonisation .  He was witness to the rapid unravelling of the post War economic boom and the failure of the following labour administration to halt the boom bust cycle.


2 Robertsonian economics

Roberson says that the 20th century showed that a centralised socialist economy cannot work efficiently, justly or ecologically. On the other hand, the idea of a free market economy based on objective prices that can continue for ever is a fantasy. His view is that we need to rediscover the purpose of money, which ought to be to facilitate fair participation in the production and exchange of goods and services, within the planet’s capacity.  His stance is that it is our money system that is propelling us toward self-destruction.  Further, he proposes how it could be gently reformed so that it acts for the benefit of people and society rather than the opposite, and describes the obstacles that currently prevent that reform.

“If we were now starting from scratch to arrange how money should be supplied to a democratic society,” Robertson says, “nobody in their right mind would dream of setting it up as it is right now.”  What they would not dream of doing is creating the money supply by giving private banks the authority to create money out of thin air and put it in their customers’ bank accounts as a loan on which they are obliged to pay interest.  In this way roughly 97% of the money circulating in the economy passes into the bank accounts of other customers while we are using the original loans to do our business.  Further, as we do our business we pay interest to the bank as we are also repaying the capital.

“When customers repay their loans to their banks, the banks write off the money and return it to the ‘nothing’ from which they had originally created it.  But the money that has been paid on it as interest remains in existence as the property of the banks.  This makes it continually necessary for enough money to be lent into existence to replace both what was originally lent but has now been written off, plus what has gone into the banks as interest on it. Otherwise there will not be enough money in circulation to support the non-financial activities of the economy.”

In summary, to maintain the banking system the economy must grow continually and it must continually expand (economic growth) to keep up.  Moreover, because this arrangement requires people and businesses to continually take out loans from the bank, it automatically causes rising indebtedness in societies.

“You don’t have to be the proverbial rocket scientist—or even a professional economist or statistician,” says Robertson, “ to figure out who, apart from the banks themselves, will benefit most from increasing indebtedness in society and who will suffer most. In general, those who benefit most will be people and businesses with enough spare money to lend or invest it and get back more money for doing so.  Those who suffer most will be those who have to borrow money at interest, and so pay more in order to meet the needs of themselves and their families.  In short, the present way of providing the money supply systematically works to increase poverty and widen the gap between rich and poor.

Robertson then goes on to point out that in addition to creating economic and social inequality, the current system, because it requires growth in debt and growth in economic production, “has the general effect of making us earn our living by extracting and wasting more of the Earth’s resources than would otherwise be needed.

Robertson makes a final point about the problem of allowing the banks to be the prime source of money creation.  This essentially allows the banks to decide how the money they create will be used on its first entry into circulation, which leads to problems like excessive lending for speculative purposes (like land and buildings), and ignoring projects that have a high long-term value to society (like preventive health and public services).

So the framework provided by the state institutions that deal with money must be redesigned to encourage ways of using money that serve, not damage, the interests of citizens now and in the future. Within such a new revolutionary framework:

  1. The market economy, freely responding to money values, would tend to deliver outcomes which combine economic efficiency with social justice and environmental care;
  2. The government would be able to let the market economy operate more freely, with less intervention than most economies today; and
  3. Citizens, who wished to do so, would find it easier than now to reduce their need for goods and services bought from the market economy, and also therefore to reduce the amount of money they need to earn by working as employees.

The state’s new role towards the market and the citizen should thus be to decolonise and empower. Robertson says that whether to call this a basically capitalist or basically socialist approach is a matter of personal choice. It will aim to integrate economic efficiency with economic justice. So you could call it both capitalist and socialist or neither, whichever you prefer.


3 Free lunches

Robertson firmly believes that Milton Friedman’s teaching that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”  is false. Starting with the enclosure of the common land, whether it be in an English village or the vast tracts of central Africa, modern economies have given massive free lunches to powerful individuals, organisations and also nations. In the sustainable way of doing things the value of these commons, as inputs to local economic activity, should be shared as a source of public revenue, to be divided between the local commoners in place of the economically, socially and environmentally damaging taxes we have now.  This is the main principle of ecologism.

This will involve a shift from the idea of redistribution to the idea of predistribution. Whereas redistributive taxes aim to tap into the outcomes of economic activity, predistributive taxes and charges will share the value of essential inputs, ‘the commons’, to economic activity. Whereas redistribution is dependency-reinforcing, predistribution will be empowering. It will correct an underlying cause of economic injustice, inequality, exclusion and poverty.

In a globalised world economy, we need to evolve institutions of governance embodying those principles at supranational and subnational levels, as well as national level.

In particular, Robertson argues that we need to reform national money systems. He believes that governments should be at the heart of the money system by deciding (a) how the money supply should be created, (b) what is taxed and not taxed, and (c) what public expenditure is spent on and not spent on.

Concerning the money supply, he argues that the money creation should be transferred from commercial banks as a source of private profit for themselves to a public agency – the central bank – as a source of debt-free public revenue to be spent into circulation by the government for public purposes.

Robertson believes the practical key to sustainability lies in changing the tax system.  In developed countries today taxation takes a third of the total value of the economy (GDP) out of some activities, and public spending puts it back selectively into others. The taxes add to the cost of what is taxed and the public spending subsidises the cost of what it supports. This affects relative prices all through the economy and does nothing to even out the distribution of wealth. Therefore,  the price structure of any economy is bound to be skewed in favour of some things and against others. The proverbial ‘level playing field’ for investment and returns is a mirage.

For reforming taxation, he argues that we should;

  • take taxes off incomes, profits, value added and other financial rewards for useful work and enterprise
  • put taxes on to value subtracted by people and organisations for private profit from common resources (such as land) and from the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution and waste (such as carbon emissions); and
  • reduce the present opportunities (through tax havens, etc) for rich people and businesses to avoid paying their dues to society.


4 Tragedy of the commons

In 1833 the English economist William Forster Lloyd published a pamphlet which included a hypothetical example of over-use of a common resource. This was the situation of cattle herders sharing a common parcel of land on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze, as was the custom in English villages. He postulated that if a herder put more than his allotted number of cattle on the common, overgrazing could result. For each additional animal, a herder could receive additional benefits, but the whole group shared damage to the commons. If all herders made this individually rational economic decision, the common could be depleted or even destroyed, to the detriment of all.

In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin explored this social dilemma in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, published in the journal Science. The essay derived its title from the pamphlet by Lloyd, which he cites, on the over-grazing of common land.

Hardin discussed commons in relation to the growing awareness of Earth’s loss of its ecosystem services.  The loss of the commons cannot be solved by technical means, as distinct from those with solutions that require a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values. Hardin also pointed out the problem of individuals acting in rational self-interest by claiming that if all members in a group used common resources for their own gain and with no regard for others, all resources would still eventually be depleted. Overall, Hardin argues against relying on conscience as a means of policing commons, suggesting that this favours selfish individuals – often known as free-riders – over those who are more altruistic. In the context of avoiding over-exploitation of common resources, Hardin concludes by restating Hegel’s maxim, “freedom is the recognition of necessity.” He suggests that “freedom” completes the tragedy of the commons.  By recognizing resources as commons in the first place, and by recognizing that, as such, they require management, Hardin believes that humans “can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms.”

Hardin’s article was the start of the modern use of “Commons” as a shared resource term. Like Lloyd and Thomas Malthus before him, Hardin was primarily interested in the problem of human population growth. But in his essay, he also focused on the use of larger (though finite) resources such as the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, as well as pointing out the “negative commons” of pollution (i.e., instead of dealing with the deliberate privatization of a positive resource, a “negative commons” deals with the deliberate commonization of a negative cost, pollution).  The commons metaphor illustrates the argument that free access and unrestricted demand for a finite resource ultimately reduces the resource through over-exploitation, temporarily or permanently. This occurs because the benefits of exploitation accrue to individuals or groups, each of whom is motivated to maximize use of the resource to the point in which they become reliant on it.  The costs of the exploitation are borne by all those to whom the resource is available (which may be a wider class of individuals than those who are exploiting it). This, in turn, causes demand for the resource to increase, which causes the problem to snowball until the resource collapses (even if it retains a capacity to recover). The rate at which depletion of the resource is realized depends primarily on three factors: the number of users wanting to consume the common in question, the consumptiveness of their uses, and the relative robustness of the common.


5 Modern commons

The tragedy of the commons can be considered in relation to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, forests, fish, and non-renewable energy resources such as oil and coal.

Actual situations exemplifying the “tragedy of the commons” include the overfishing and destruction of the Grand Banks, the destruction of salmon runs on rivers that have been dammed – most prominently in modern times on the Columbia River in the Northwest United States, and historically in North Atlantic rivers – the destruction of the sturgeon fishery – in modern Russia, but historically in the United States as well – and, in terms of water supply, the limited water available in arid regions (e.g., the area of the Aral Sea ) and the Los Angeles water system supply, especially at Mono Lake and Owens Lake.

In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Negative externalities are a well-known feature of the “tragedy of the commons”. For example, driving cars has many negative externalities; these include pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic accidents. Every time ‘Person A’ gets in a car, it becomes more likely that ‘Person Z’ – and millions of others – will suffer in each of those areas.   Economists often urge the government to adopt policies that “internalize” an externality.

More general examples (some alluded to by Hardin) of potential and actual tragedies include:

Planet Earth’s ecology

    • Uncontrolled human population growth leading to overpopulation
    • Air, whether ambient air polluted by industrial emissions and cars among other sources of air-pollution, or indoor air
    • Water -Water pollution, water crisis of over-extraction of groundwater and wasting water due to over-irrigation
    • Forests – Frontier logging of old growth forest and slash and burn
    • Energy resources and climate – Environmental residue of mining and drilling, Burning of fossil fuels and consequential global warming
    • Animals-Habitat – destruction and poaching leading to the Holocene mass extinction.
    • Oceans – Overfishing
    • Antibiotics – Antibiotic Resistance Misuse of antibiotics anywhere in the world will eventually result in antibiotic resistance developing at an accelerated rate. The resulting antibiotic resistance has spread (and will likely continue to do so in the future) to other bacteria and other regions, hurting or destroying the Antibiotic Commons that is shared on a world-wide basis

Publicly shared resources

    • Spam email degrades the usefulness of the email system and increases the cost for all users of the Internet while providing a benefit to only a tiny number of individuals.
    • Vandalism and littering in public spaces such as parks, recreation areas and public rest-rooms.
    • Knowledge commons encompass immaterial and collectively owned goods in the information age.  Including, for example, source code and software documentation in software projects that can get “polluted” with messy code or inaccurate information.


6 Taxing the commons

James Robertson takes an economic view of commons as a collection of common resources whose value is due to Nature and to the activities and demands of society as a whole, and not to the efforts or skill of individual people or organizations’. Robertson gives as an example the sudden increase in the value of properties located near the Jubilee line on the London Underground after the route was published, an increase which he valued at £13 billion. Although land is the most obvious and important example of a commons there are others, of which the radio spectrum is one that is now the subject of government fees rather than taxation. EU governments raised considerable revenue by auctioning off the right to use various bandwidths, some £22.5 billion in the case of the UK government.

Such commons are shared resources, the bounty of nature, whose value should be shared. If it is to be exploited by a few then they should pay for that privilege. The Land Value Tax, or as Robertson refers to it, the ‘Land-Rent Tax’: is a tax on the annual rental site value of land. The annual rental site value is the rental value which a particular piece of land would have if there were no buildings or improvements on it. It is the value of a site, as provided by nature and as affected for better or worse by the activities of the community at large. The tax falls on the annual value of land at the point where it enters into economic activity, before the application of capital and labour to it.

A new approach is clearly needed, based on collecting the value of common resources as public revenue for the benefit of all citizens.  Common resources are resources whose value is due to Nature and to the activities and demands of society as a whole, and not to the efforts or skill of individual people or organisations. Land is an obvious example.  The value of a particular land-site, excluding the value of what has been built on it, is almost wholly determined by the activities and plans of society around it. For example, when the route of the London Underground Jubilee line was published, properties along the route jumped in value. Access to them was going to be much improved. So, as a result of a public policy decision, the owners of the properties received a £13bn windfall financial gain. They had done nothing for it; they had paid nothing for it; they had been given a very large free lunch.   In 1994, based on 1990 values, it was calculated that the absence of a site-value tax on land was costing UK taxpayers £50bn to £90bn a year in lost public revenue

By contrast, the auction three years ago of twenty-year licences to use the radio spectrum for the third generation of mobile phones raised £22.5bn for the UK government. The governments of Germany, France and Italy also raised very significant sums from that common resource. Important common resources include:

  • land (its site value)
  • energy (its unextracted value)
  • the environment’s capacity to absorb pollution and waste
  • the use of limited space (e.g for road traffic, airport landing slots)
  • water – for extraction and use, and for waterborne traffic
  • the electro-magnetic (including radio) spectrum
  • the value created by issuing new money – on which I shall say more.

The annual value of these is very great. Collecting it as public revenue would remove the need for many damaging existing taxes

Land tax

Greens share with libertarian economists a fondness for the land tax because of its extreme simplicity and efficiency. According to classical economists rents were to be eschewed since they encouraged decadence and idleness: increasing the value or quality of a piece of land, or producing something from it was to be encouraged; merely living from its wealth should be discouraged, preferably by high rates of taxation. This simplicity is the object of obfuscation by many writers on economics. Their argument is that economic rent cannot be quantified and hence is not a secure basis for taxation.

Richard Bramhall provides an amusing critique of their argument concluding that economists have ‘dumped a valuable fiscal tool on the scrap-heap of history, leaving the burden of tax to fall on labour and enterprise, while the landowner grows fat doing nothing’.

In today’s planning environment, where local authorities have the legal right to decide what land can be used for, vast quantities of value can be generated by the stroke of a computer keyboard, as when agricultural land undergoes a ‘change of use’ and becomes development land.

Those who argue for a land value tax claim that this value is democratically created and hence should be shared between all the citizens of the local authority. For many proponents of a land tax it can be a single tax, simply because of the vast sums it can generate.

Robertson’s calculation for the potential revenue from site-value tax on land in the UK was between £50 billion and £90 billion annually in 1994.  Other taxes in the green economist’s knapsack can be justified on the basis of being taxes on commons. For example the streets of a thriving city belong to all; if only a few choose to use them for private transport then that right can be charged for and the proceeds shared with others through a congestion charge. By a similar argument the right to pollute the Earth’s atmosphere with greenhouse gases, causing economic disaster for others, should be paid for with a carbon tax.


7 The congestion charge

A carbon tax can be considered a ‘commons tax’, since it attempts to reduce behaviour that adds to the amount of CO2 pollution in the atmosphere, which is a shared commons. There are several variants of the scheme, but the basis of the tax is that it should be a unified tax on the carbon content of fuels to replace the complex array of fuel-related taxes that are in effect in many countries. Such a tax would provide a strong incentive for both businesses and individuals to reduce their energy consumption, their driving, and to switch to non-fossil-fuel heating as well as renewable electricity supply. In the mid-1990s the EC considered a proposal to introduce a carbon tax throughout the European Union. This was rejected, although Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark introduced related taxes. The Swedish carbon tax achieved a reduction in CO2 emissions of 7 per cent, while the Danish energy tax resulted in a 10 per cent reduction in energy use.

Rather than taking a view that automobiles were polluting London’s atmospheric commons, the congestion charge in London was motivated more by irritation at the slow pace of traffic in the city than by environmental concern, but it has none the less been an important example of how taxation money can be redistributed locally in one of the world’s largest cities. By the 1990s traffic was moving more slowly in the UK’s capital than it had been at the beginning of the 20th century before cars had been invented! Following his election as mayor in 2000, Ken Livingstone launched an 18-month period of public consultation and the outcome was a decision to introduce a congestion charge based on area licensing rather than parking levies.

Considerable research and modelling were undertaken to predict the correct level of the charge to deter the desired number of people (30 per cent) from continuing to drive into the capital. In February 2003 a daily charge of £5 was introduced between 7.00am and 6.30pm on weekdays; this was increased to £8 in July 2005. Research had predicted that, at a rate of £5, car miles travelled in central London would be reduced by 20–25 per cent and total vehicle miles would be reduced by 10–15 per cent. Car traffic was actually reduced by 33 per cent representing up to 70,000 journeys no longer made by car on a daily basis.

‘Transport For London’ estimates that about half these journeys are now made by public transport; a quarter divert to avoid the zone; 10 per cent have shifted to other forms of private transport including bicycles; 10 per cent have either stopped travelling or changed their time of travel. There have been sharp rises in journeys by bus, taxi and bicycle. Meanwhile, travel speeds have increased by some 17 per cent. The reduction in vehicle usage within the charging zone was greater than expected, leading to less revenue than had been predicted.

The London Congestion Charge appears to have been a political and environmental success. It has encouraged changes in behaviour towards less polluting forms of transport, reducing CO2 emissions. It is also an example of a tax which is flexible, since the rate can be increased or decreased depending on the relative balance of traffic and public transport desired by the city’s residents.


8 Shale gas commons

In 2014, the UK Government announced that councils who support fracking will get to keep 100 per cent of the business rate generated from any shale gas projects in their area. The mining industry will also offer local communities £100,000 for test drilling, and transfer 1 per cent of revenues to them if shale gas is found.

Fracking is strongly supported by the Government (for its potential to bring in new investment, support thousands of jobs and reduce energy bills) and strongly opposed by environmentalists and many local communities (due to potential risks relating to water contamination, earth tremors and other environmental hazards).

Notwithstanding the difference in perspectives, fracking is an example of how the pursuit of the national interest requires action at the local level which is likely to have mainly negative impacts on local areas and communities (the expansion of Heathrow is another example, as is HS2 and nuclear power plants).

In these circumstances, national government has two broad choices. One is to impose the national interest on the local area through the law or regulation, while the second is to offer incentives that encourage and reward local communities to accept the proposed actions. Most commonly, these take the form of financial payments. In the case of fracking the Government has taken the second approach, and local councils (possibly in consultation with local communities) now have to assess whether the ‘value’ of the compensation on offer outweighs the risks that accompany fracking (for economists this is a typical cost-benefit analysis approach).

The decision that each council will make will be determined by a number of factors including: strength of local opinion (for or against); the number of people who could be affected; and, the amount of compensation on offer. Whilst the significance of the first two will depend on the circumstances and priorities of each council, the third criterion can be more objectively evaluated.

Transition modelling

The transition to sustainability entails maximizing human development and wellbeing as much as possible, and minimizing ecological impacts as much as possible, in a manner that leads to economic and ecological stability. Clearly, maximizing human wellbeing and minimizing ecological impact are mutually contradictory goals as long as human wellbeing is measured in terms of material consumption per capita. Since there are resource limits, and there are limits to efficiency improvements via technological innovation, something must give: humans must adapt by shifting expectations of wellbeing from economic affluence to other human development goals. It is impossible to predict how this adaptation process will unfold, but the following synopsis of the transition phases has been proposed as a point of reference:

The first phase is concientization to enable incentivation. The objective is to create widespread popular support for the required revisions of tax codes and energy subsidies. In other words, the first phase is about creating a collective mindset of global citizenship and social responsibility, strong enough to translate into political will to face the inevitable transition and implement required reforms. Gender equity is key.

The second phase is incentivation to enable redistribution. The objective is to reform tax codes and energy subsidies to expedite the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. Applicable reforms include shifting taxes from earned income to the usage (extraction) of unearned resources and the release of pollution, as well as taxing financial transactions of dubious social value. Gender equality is key.

The third phase is redistribution to enable democratization. The objective is to institutionalize democracy with gender balance and distributive justice. This may entail adopting a Universally Guaranteed Personal Income (i.e., a basic minimum income rather than a minimum wage) and a Maximum Allowable Personal Wealth (i.e., an upper limit on financial wealth accumulation) that can be democratically adjusted periodically.

The fourth phase is worldwide democratization. The objective is democratization of global, national, and local governance with deeply ingrained gender balance and widely institutionalized implementation of the solidarity, subsidiarity, and sustainability principles. Decisions are to be made at the lowest possible level consistent with governance capabilities and the common good of humanity.

*The four phases are not envisioned to be strictly sequential. They most probably will overlap, with recursions and convulsions along the way.

*The term “gender equality” is not to be understood as “gender uniformity.” By gender equality is meant equality of dignity and personal development opportunities across the entire gender continuum. In other words, full equality in all dimensions of human life: physical, intellectual, psychological, vocational, spiritual.

*The term “clean energy” is to be understood as “clean renewable energy” that is naturally replenished and does not produce GHG emissions when used. It does not include absurdities such as “clean coal.”

*The combination of gender balance and energy balance is hereby proposed as the necessary and sufficient driver for a civilized (i.e., humane) transition, and are expected to have a multiplying effect throughout the global human system.



9 Web references











Subjects of the Sea Empress: the 20th Anniversary of an Oil Spill

February 14th, 2016

1  The spill

The Sea Empress oil spill occurred at the entrance to the  Milford Haven Waterway in Pembrokeshire, Wales, on 15 February 1996.  Sailing against the outgoing tide and in calm conditions, at 20:07 GMT the tanker was pushed off course by the current and became grounded after hitting rocks in the middle of the channel. The collision punctured her starboard hull causing oil to pour out into the sea.  The Sea Empress, a state of the art supertanker, was en route to the Texaco oil refinery on the shores of the Haven near Pembroke.

Tugs from Milford Haven Port Authority were sent to the scene and attempted to pull the vessel free and re-float her. During the initial rescue attempts, she detached several times from the tugs and grounded repeatedly – each time slicing open new sections of her hull and releasing more oil (Fig 1).

A full scale emergency plan was activated by the authorities.

Fig 1 The site and scale of the problem


During the next few days, frantic efforts were made to pull the vessel from the rocks.. Tugboats were drafted in from the ports of Dublin, Liverpool and Plymouth to assist with the salvage operation.  Over the course of a week, she spilt 72,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. The spill occurred within the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park – one of Europe’s most important and sensitive wildlife and marine conservation areas. It was Britain’s third largest oil spillage and the twelfth largest in the world at the time (Fg 2).

Fig 2 Sensitive areas around Milford Haven

milford map

2 The place

The Sea Empress disaster occurred in Britain’s only coastal national park and in one of only three UK marine nature reserves. The tanker ran aground very close to the islands of Skomer and Skokholm – both national nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Protection Areas and home to Manx shearwaters, Atlantic puffins, guillemots, razorbills, great cormorants, kittiwakes, European storm-petrels, common shags and Eurasian oystercatchers.  The whole area is one of National Park and Heritage Coast, with over 30 SSSIs, 2 of the UK’s 3 marine nature reserves (Skomer, Lundy), and sites of European conservation importance.

Birds at sea were hit hard during the early weeks of the spill, resulting in thousands of deaths. The Pembrokeshire grey seal population didn’t appear to be affected too much and impacts to subtidal wildlife were limited. However, much damage was caused to shorelines affected by bulk oil. Shore seaweeds and invertebrates were killed in large quantities. Mass strandings of cockles and other shellfish occurred on sandy beaches. Rock pool fish were also affected. However, a range of tougher shore species were seen to survive exposure to bulk oil and lingering residues.

Bird counts by the RSPB, CCW and other groups had revealed 12-13,000 birds in the Haven estuary on 13 February. Outside the Haven, guillemots were returning 2-3 weeks early to their colonies of which Skomer, Stack Rocks and Ramsey Island are the largest. There were also over 60,000 gannets and 10,000 seaducks (scoters) in the adjoining bays and sea areas. Manx shearwaters had yet to return and are were generally beyond the range of the oil. Birds in the area were very vulnerable to the many patches oil and by  Feb 27, over 1,200 oiled birds were in treatment and some 400 bodies had been picked up (some experts consider these are likely to have represented only 10% of the total number so affected). In addition, some 5,000 of the birds that were flying were seen to have been oiled to some degree.  A rescue centre for oiled birds was set up in Milford Haven. But, according to the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), the government’s conservation organisation in Wales at the time, over 70% of cleaned, released guillemots died within 14 days. Just 3% survived two months and only 1% survived a year.

The Pembrokeshire coast is home to common porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. Significant numbers of both species were recorded in the waters off the Skomer Marine Nature Reserve during the spring and summer of 1996.  But he effects of the oil and chemical pollution on these species remains unknown.

3 The effects

Oil spread some 10km up the estuary. Mortality of intertidal fauna was  100% near the main spill and oil also spread over wide areas of coast to the north and south of the Haven entrance; additional contamination is likely to have taken place with onshore winds. Potentially sensitive estuaries were boomed by the  river authority , but the foreshore could not be so protected.The main commercial resources at risk outside the Haven were coastal crab and lobster fisheries and offshore fin fisheries – both from the reality and perception of contamination.  Most vulnerable were the Haven’s shellfisheries (mainly mussels).  Fishermen applied a voluntary ban on sales from the area and there was an immediate ban on fishing off the coast of Pembrokeshire and south Carmarthenshire, which had a devastating impact on the local fishing industry. The ban remained in place for several months and was lifted in stages. Many local fishermen received financial compensation for the loss of income due to the ban.

The major problem encountered initially with the Sea Empress was the failure to offload the oil from the vessel until it had been badly damaged and lost over half its cargo. Offloading to tankers was thwarted by the heavy weather and the inability of the tugs available to prevent the Sea Empress from repeated grounding. The tanker was removed from the rocks and berthed to allow off-loading the remaining oil on February 21/22, but not before 70,000 tonnes had been spilt. The oil was Forties (North Sea) crude, which is comparatively light and therefore contains a substantial proportion of volatile components. This is amenable to dispersant spraying provided it can be attacked within several hours, after which ‘mousse’ (water in oil emulsion) can be formed, rendering it less amenable to dispersion.

In view of the richness of the local marine life the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, (MAFF) withheld approval for the use of dispersants within Milford Haven, in a coastal strip one nautical mile from the shore and within one nautical mile of Skomer Island National Nature Reserve. Six aircraft were able to spray the bulk of the slick as it moved into the outer Bristol Channel, and reported success (combined with the generally active sea conditions) in dispersing much of the oil in open water.  After the vessel was moved inside the Haven on 23 Feb, spraying was discontinued because there was no oil outside the Haven amenable to dispersion. By this time, some 440 tonnes f detergent had been sprayed – perhaps dispersing 4-8,000 tonnes of oil.

With evaporation removing perhaps 30-40% of the oil, many thousand tonnes of weathered oil and mousse remained to contaminate seabirds and the sandy and rocky shores. Remnants in the form of sheens and weathered oil/mousse were widespread, affecting waters and shores from North Devon to north of Skomer, and as far as Porthcawl into the Bristol Channel.

4 The outcomes

The main containment and dispersement of the oil slick at sea was completed within six weeks. However, the removal of oil on shore took over a year until the late spring of 1997. Three years after the spill, small amounts of oil were still found beneath the sand on sheltered beaches and in rock pools.

Bad as they were, the effects of the spill on local wildlife were not as serious as initially predicted. This was due in part to the time of year when the spill occurred. In February, many migratory birds had not yet arrived back in Pembrokeshire for breeding. Along with stormy weather, which helped break-up and naturally disperse the oil, the effect on wildlife would have been much worse if the spill had occurred just a month later when the prodigious colonies of sea birds would have been nesting.  The spill would undoubtedly have been catastrophic for both the environment and local economy if it had occurred during the summer months.

The spill occurred just a few weeks before the Easter break when many holidaymakers would be visiting the area. Some sheltered beaches and tidal estuaries were still covered with oil (Fig 3), but the main tourist locations of Tenby, Saundersfoot, Pendine, Manorbier and Bosherston were superficially cleaned .

A large clean-up operation began as soon as the Sea Empress started spilling oil. Volunteers and paid hands alike, came together to restore the beautiful beaches of Pembrokeshire. In the immediate days and weeks that followed, one thousand people, including local celebrities, worked around the clock to rescue oiled birds and remove oil from beaches using suction tankers, pressure washers and oil-absorbing scrubbers. The main clean-up operation lasted several weeks and continued on a reduced scale for over a year.

Fig 3 Clean up at Tenby


Almost three years after the spill in January 1999, Milford Haven Port Authority was fined a record £4m after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement.

The cost of the clean-up operation was estimated to be £60m. When the effects to the economy and environment are taken into account, the final cost is estimated to have been twice that, at £120m.

By 2001, it was officially accepted that the affected marine wildlife population levels had more-or-less returned to normal.

5 Resilience

The rapid recovery of the ecosystems affected by the oil spill illustrate ecological resilience, also called ecological robustness,  the ability of an ecosystem to maintain its normal patterns of nutrient cycling and biomass production after being subjected to damage caused by an ecological disturbance. The term resilience is a term that is sometimes used interchangeably withrobustness to describe the ability of a system to continue functioning amid and recover from a disturbance.

The resilience or robustness of ecological systems has been an important concept in ecology and natural history since Charles Darwin, who described the interdependencies between species as an “entangled bank” in  On the Origin of Species (1859). Since then, the concept has come to hold special importance in the areas of environmental conservation and management. Its significance to the well-being of humans and human societies has also been recognized. The loss of an ecosystem’s ability to recover from a disturbance—whether due to natural events or due to human influences such as overfishing and oil pollution—endangers the benefits from ecosystem services (e.g., food, clean water, and aesthetics) that humans derive from that ecosystem.

Despite the scientific evidence that is available to the contrary, there is frequently a basic presumption that long-term damage must have been caused by an oil spill. Predictions of an environmental disaster therefore frequently accompany the first reports of a spill, long before any assessment of the true impacts and their likely duration has been made.  It is in this sense that oil spills as ecological experiments’ do not generate principles of ecological resilience, because of possible underlying ecological processes from an unknown pre-spill baseline.

6 The responsibility

The official 1997 report into the Sea Empress oil tanker spillage in Wales blames the pilot for the initial error – but also catalogues a whole series of subsequent mistakes. In a separate move, the Milford Haven port authorities were prosecuted for their handling of the incident.

The report, by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, says that the pilot, failed to keep the 147,000-tonne Liberian-registered tanker in the deepest part of the navigation channel. This was partly due to inadequate training and his lack of experience with such large vessels. One of the MAIB’s recommendations is improved training and examination of pilots.

The pilot was found guilty of incompetence by the Milford Haven Port Authority and was demoted. But he successfully appealed and was able to resume working with large tankers.

After the tanker had run aground, however, the report says there were not enough tugs of the right power and manoeuvrability available to refloat her. In addition, the authorities did not understand the effect of local tidal currents, the MAIB concludes. This led to the vessel being swept aground for a second time.

It was this second grounding which caused most pollution. The initial accident spilled some 2,500 tonnes of oil compared to nearly 70,000 tonnes in the second incident.

The MAIB also criticises Milford Haven Port Authority’s disaster planning. The accident was outside the scope of its emergency plans and the crisis management team became too unwieldy for effective action in a rapidly-changing environment.

National authorities also come in for criticism from the MAIB. The Marine Pollution Control Unit’s national contingency plan is described as “deficient”. It did not deal clearly with the unit’s involvement in the salvage of a vessel within harbour waters and it did not cater sufficiently for an incident which quickly worsened.

7 The culture shock

Natalie Beyer, who was living in Germany at the time, but who had relatives in the local community, wrote a dissertation on the disaster.  She described the reaction of the people living in and around Pembrokeshire to the disaster was one of anger and sadness first of all which was followed by a ground swell of public opinion to prevent it happening again.

‘They saw all the beaches they loved to visit covered with thick black oil and they could smell the stinking fumes. The newspapers were full of letters from the public, in which people expressed their bitterness and frustration about the situation and called it “shameful” and “a complete tragedy”. Even young children were obviously very upset and touched, as they were forced to realise that their former “playground” beaches, with all their rock-pools, containing interesting creatures like sea anemones and water fleas and the occasional crab or star fish, with their huge variety of shells they loved to collect, the rocks and cliffs they enjoyed climbing on, the safe clear water for bathing in and with all the adventures these beaches had to offer, had turned into horrible, oily, ugly places covered with dead fish and birds and other sea creatures. During my visit in Wales I talked to many parents who told me they had been too worried to let their children go to the beaches, as they had been afraid that they might be harmed in their health by the oil lying everywhere, not to mention the problem of removing the oil stains from their clothing. The children wrote down their feelings or expressed them in paintings, composed poems, wrote little stories and also sent letters to the Prime Minister to tell him their disgust and sadness at what had happened. Everyone was upset and angry that the disaster had occurred in the first place and that, when it had taken place, the salvage operation had been so slow and full of mishaps. Most local people I talked to were demanding an independent public inquiry, so that those responsible for the catastrophe would also be made responsible for it with all consequences. Action groups were formed and these involved themselves in the clean-up processes. Local collections to support these groups raised high sums of money. One housewife in Freshwater West, a magnificent beach, which was particularly badly polluted, started collecting signatures against the use of single-skin tankers, in order to reduce the risk of another similar disaster.

Natalie Beyer’s account in full

8  What happened next

Following the spill, the Sea Empress was repaired and renamed five times. In 2004, she was sold and moved to Chittagong as a floating production, storage and offloading unit. In September 2009, she was acquired by Singapore-based Oriental Ocean Shipping Holding PTE Ltd, renamed MV Welwind and converted from an oil tanker to bulk carrier. In 2012, she was renamed for a fifth time and is currently known as Wind 3.  She remains prohibited from entering Milford Haven.

Since the Milford Haven disaster, globally, there have been about 100 more oil spills up to 2015.

The disaster happened when the schools of Pembrokeshire had opted to take part in the Schools and Communities Agenda 21 network, the Welsh educational initiative outlined in the previous blog. The young people were very upset and these emotions sparked a burst of creativity to express their feelings in poems and pictures. This is exemplified by the following poem by Bethan Swaine.  The National Museum in Cardiff hosted SCAN fora for children, affected and unaffected to discuss the issues of dependence on an oil economy in a pristine nature conservation area.


A Fisherman’s Life

A lonesome figure at the clifftops being battered by the sea.

Hands in his pockets, shoulders shrugged, head bowed, weeping unashamedly.

Thinking of how for all his life, he’d fished around the Pembrokshire coast,

And how with pride when asked what he did  “I’m a fisherman” he’d boast.

What now for his future?   What would become of the team?

What would be moored in the harbour,  where his fishing boat had been?

No other life had he ever known – the sea set him free.

No seabirds flying,  no seals playing,   no dolphins for company.

Then he turned his head and looked at the crowd.

And realised they too were sharing the sound.

Instead of the sea crashing full of life onto the shore,

It crept in carrying its burden of oil,  each wave bringing more.

The air reeked of oil, of death, of human sorrow.

We all knew that today was the same recipe for tomorrow.

The desperate fight to clean oil off the beach.

Crying with frustration for the wildlife just out of our reach.

This thick black stuff – the produce of modern man’s needs.

This stuff called oil,  at what cost for man’s greed?

To take another man’s living,  to spoil our beautiful coast,

And leave its memory behind like a sorrowful ghost.

                                                       Bethan Swaine  Yr.9

                                                               Ysgol Gyfun Dewi Sant

9  Newspapers and reports

A database of newspaper cuttings was produced as a memorial resource for the Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network (SCAN), which had the aim of encouraging pupils to engage in the problems, issues and challenges of cultural ecology associated with local economic development.  It was part of the response of children trying to understand, and come to terms, with the oil spill which had assaulted their coastal paradise (Fig 4).

Their cuttings can be accessed as a Google document from HERE

Fig 4 Oiled seal on Skomer Island NNR: pictured by Warden Mike Alexander

seal skomer

Learning for the future through action education

February 8th, 2016

“The study of futures is intellectually stimulating and seeks to empower students. It draws on the innate capacity of the human mind to engage in foresight, or futures thinking enhanced by concepts, tools and techniques. When this enhanced capacity to engage with ‘the future’ is implemented in specific areas … Futures can contribute substantially to social and economic well-being. Students … [can] be encouraged to transform their view of the world. As they develop informed foresight about the 21st century they may experience many shifts of value, focus and attitude and they should discover that most fears, negative attitudes and ‘doomsday’ images of the future rest on misperceptions. In learning how present actions will shape future consequences, students gain access to new sources of understanding and action”.

Source: Slaughter, R. (2008) Futures Education: Catalyst for our Times, Journal of Futures Studies, 12(3), pp.15-30

1 Educational additions to subject-based curricula

“Learning for the future’ was the title of a document adopted at the sixth meeting of the United Nations steering committee on education for sustainability in 2011. The context was that education should play a more relevant role in enabling people to live together in ways that take no more resources from Earth than it can regenerate and share equally.

The problem is that subject-based education contributes to thinking of Earth as an infinite resource. This happens through a lack of opportunity for classroom  learners to question their own lifestyles and their demands on systems and structures that are often far away but promote and support those lifestyles. In other words, these old education systems designed to initiate an industrial revolution fail to position today’s learners’ own thinking and actions in relation to what is demanded to maintain a post-industrial society.

In particular, schools fail to prepare their pupils for this future because they reproduce unsustainable economic models and practices that dominate day to day living. Therefore the recasting of learning for sustainable lifestyles calls for the reorientation of education, backed by concrete practical experiences that are relevant to the long term resilience of communities served by the schools.

This will only be achieved by developing the capacity for cross-curricular critical reflection and systems thinking with regards to three vital dimensions of learning for the future, namely;

  • Learning from the past;
  • Inspiring engagement in the present;
  • Exploring alternative futures.  

Such learning involves applying the basics of systems thinking to understand the functions of social and economic systems and how they may be interrelated across professional boundaries.  It should explore new economic transactions, such as ‘timebanking.  It should highlight the interdependent nature of relationships within and between present generations as well as those between rich and poor and between humans and nature.  The learners’ personal worldviews and their cultural assumptions should be questioned, whilst seeking to understand those of others.  Above all, education for sustainability should clarify the connections between sustainable futures and the future ways in which we will have to think, live and work differently, as politically engaged citizens, consumers and long lived individuals requiring increasing medical care.  These are the global realities for educating future generations.

2  The UNESCO on line teacher training modules

Because education is entrenched for the perpetuation of  subject-based professions, including the teaching profession itself, there is no way that the backwards facing Western system can be overturned.  The best that can be expected is that the holistic futuristic  principles of education for sustainability can be offered in parallel as a collection of multimedia resources for lifelong learning.  In the introduction to its on line multimedia-based Internet programme for teaching teachers how to promote  learning for a sustainable future , UNESCO points out its numerous advantages of multimedia in teacher education. For example:

  • the information contained on the Internet is unlimited and evolving. It is up to date, inexpensive to obtain, and searchable for building personal bodies of knowledge.
  • it is democratic as it reflects the view of many authors and sources of authority.
  • bespoke multimedia professional teacher education can be highly interactive and engaging through the use of animation, audio and video files, games and on line discussions. All these can be undertaken at any time and at any place and without the need for an expert workshop facilitator.

Thereby the  the ‘medium’ for learning is a part of the ‘message’. In order to achieve this goal, the learning experiences have to exemplify  three principles of effective professional development:

  • academic rigour,
  • experiential learning
  • and reflection.

Academic rigour

Teaching and learning for a sustainable future requires up-to-date knowledge about key issues related to global realities and sustainable development themes from many disciplines. Since it is produced by an international body the UNESCO programme has been developed through extensive consultation, review and evaluation and is as free as possible from cultural or other biases. Links to numerous Internet sites also provide multiple perspectives on a variety of topics and can enhance access to information and critical thinking. The on line learning experiences also integrate contemporary thinking in educational circles on curriculum reform and effective teaching and learning strategies. The modules illustrate the following blueprint for building an education programme for living sustainably.

Experiential learning

All the modules for on line learning should be based upon an experiential learning process that:

  • invites users to analyse and interpret information in a variety of forms (e.g. text, tables, diagrams, computer games, and linked WWW-sites);
  • allows reviews of new knowledge in the light of current understandings;
  • allows reflection upon and generalises from learning experiences;
  • promotes skills in a wide variety of teaching and learning strategies;
  • encourages learners to adapt and apply new ideas and skills to practical educational tasks.


Reflection is integral to the professional development experiences.  A deepening appreciation of topics is encouraged by the use of what UNESCO describes as a ‘Learning Journal’.  Answering questions in the ‘Learning Journal’ is a practical way of learning. It also provides a record of what has been learned, ideas and plans for applying these ideas in local situations, and opportunities for on-going professional reflection. Some questions in the Learning Journal may also be used as starting points for student learning material.  Indeed, the  teacher training modules as a whole can be accessed directly by learners at any level with an Internet connection.

Fig 1 UNESCO teacher training modules


An important criticism of the modules offered in the UNESCO education resource is that they represent an arbitrary collection of issues (Fig 1), with no hierarchical categorisation or binding story. This probably reflects the inputs from a ‘committee’ of experts.

3  Cultural ecology

Cultural ecology emerged in the 1980s from relative isolation in ethnography.  It was given the name  ‘natural economy’ and promoted as a subject dealing with world development  for international clients of the University of Cambridge General Certificate of Education. If it was adopted by a school, it was through the international baccalaureate, and replaced, or was an alternative to, geography and/or biology.

Cultural ecology was further developed, with a sponsorship from the European Union, by the Natural Economy Research Unit in the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff, with inputs from teachers and their students sponsored by the Countryside Council for Wales and Chevron/ Texaco.  It was delivered throughout Europe as part of the European Satellite Education programme.  

Cultural ecology presents two sides of the story of global economic development. The latter has taken place by the ‘unlocking of nature’, at first by self-sufficient groups in bands, and tribes. Now it involves networks of nations interlocked in competitive industrial mass production and the movement of resources and goods rapidly over vast global distances, measured in hours or days. This process has taken place not by biological evolution, but by inventions, which, from age to age, have created an economic system, which defines betterment as year on year monetary growth. This expansion began with the application of ideas about the living world, which produced the hunter and the forager and led to fire and water being harnessed as physical aids for comfort and to lighten labour.

Looking to history, economic development has taken place by behaviours that arose early in the simplest human cultures from basic and specific faculties. From these beginnings, human production, through inventions to exploit natural resources, has occurred by the political organisation of groups of people for production; the so-called political economies. This has, in the long run, inevitably stimulated demand for more and more goods and services. By 1750 water had become the engineer’s element that set off the British industrial revolution. The water wheel was the first multipurpose machine for the new manufacturies. Increased exploitation of natural resources through mass production and increased demand for products had an increasing environmental impact. An ‘age of plenty’ for a few had begun.

So great is the current impact of mass production that it is evident that conservation of natural resources, which has always been part of indigenous  cultures, has to be built into generally acceptable international strategies for economic development and long-term survival of industrial cultures. The first ‘minimal impact of cultural ecology’ was about hunting and gathering. The future maximal impact is about sustainability of industrialism.

Global industrialism is a scientific civilisation in which knowledge and its integrity supplies a set of educational principles according to which we shape our conduct. Citizens in most industrial countries are educated to share a belief in progress, faith in the steady increase of material affluence, which unfortunately is equated with progress, and belief in the necessity and goodness of economic growth. Other central features of the industrial educational system include:

  • high values placed on work, the nuclear family, and career-oriented formal education;
  • a strong faith in the efficacy of science and technology (as opposed to religion) to solve problems;
  • and a view of ‘Nature’ as something to be subdued by humankind.

These values led to the development of educational systems in which subjects were built according to the knowledge required to educate the specialists who were to carry forward this exploitative culture.

A new educational map is needed to replace the fragmented one that has been shaped by the industrial revolution and that is now leading inexorably toward the destruction of industrial society.  Earth cannot supply sufficient resources for all to realise the Western dream.  Industrial mankind must remake its culture and direct its future cultural evolution. A rationally controlled technology does give us a means of survival for ourselves and many generations to come, although it must be supplemented by a social technology that encourages people to value and reward ecologically sound behaviour. A new economics must bottom out with zero growth and equitable wealth.  Humanity must respond to survival imperatives with meaningful social action.Culture must again become an ally, rather than an enemy, in realising the sensible strategies for survival that were set out as long ago as the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit.

This concept map of cultural ecology (Fig 2) maps the undercurrents of knowledge about people and environment that flow between and into conventional subjects. It is an overview of the integration of knowledge required to produce a story of humankind’s progress into the future.  This is an holistic view of the topics that have to be brought together to explain human cultural evolution and is needed to develop managerial operations so the international community can balance its use of natural resources in relation to their continued availability. Subjects have been replaced by topics. Topics are the links between knowledge and action and are guideposts for a sustainable society. In the mind map of cultural ecology it will be seen that traditional subjects, which are designed to produce specialists, are to be found three to four levels deep.

The concept map of cultural ecology tells the story of the fundamental  interactions between place and people. Place may be categorised as biological niches or environments.  Environments may be subdivided as built environment, the natural environment and designed environment.

Cultural ecology deals with the interactions between people and place to produce material values and spiritual values for the cultural management of consumerism to reduce social inequalities, of material resources to improve livelihoods and biophysical resources to maintain environmental sustainability.  These managerial actions thereby ensure sustainable development.

Fig 2 Concept map of cultural ecology


As a cross curricular storyline, cultural ecology maps the flows of materials from the stars to the body fluids of plants, animals and microbes. The starting point has to be a mind map which delineates the relationships as a panel of nested topics, and as a topic mind map and a concept map. Each topic has text notes. The notes are concise statements of the main elements to be considered for expansion with links to websites resources .

The two flows of ideas about cultural ecology begin with the major topics of ‘exploiting resources’ and ‘conserving resources’.

Exploiting resources

Viewed through the human economic system and its consequences, one set of second-level topics represents the exploitation of natural resources governed by people’s ideas about human production. This starts with knowing how to tap resources for making goods.. When basic survival needs have been met, ‘making things’ is accelerated by ever demanding markets. Demand is now so great by all nations across the world that it is impacting on the limited stocks and the planet’s finite space, is producing changes in culture, society and environment. The stocks and flows of nature’s production represent the intrinsic organisation for producing the resources we loosely call ‘natural’, and are the sources of ecosystem goods and services. Humankind has grown by spreading to find these services and current migration out of Africa is an example of this age old imperative.

Conserving resources

Conservation of natural resources takes place around ideas about how to cope with the impact of human production through concepts of culture, society and environment. The aim is to sustain production from generation to generation by developing a global culture committed to conservation strategies and action plans to turn these strategies into operations. The planned objectives of action plans have to be met through, outcome- based conservation management systems with monitored performance indicators.

But following these flow of ideas, and agreeing with the conclusion that the present cultural attitudes towards the dominance of exploitation have to be moderated by conservation management in home and community, is not enough. There has to be the application of a paradigm for living in an overcrowded world.  If each person fails to see, feel and act in relation to the long-term consequences of what he or she is doing, all will be lost. In the end, each person must come, through education, to feel responsible for the present and future welfare of all humankind. Education can only become relevant to future needs when its content corresponds to, or gives valid and acceptable guidance for, needs to deal with problems and issues of global consumerism.

Designing a new culture for living sustainably means adopting an activist attitude against continuous growth of a monetary economy, and passive acquiescence to the results of technology.  But most importantly it means actively intervening to modify norms, values, and institutions to bring them into line with the physical and biological constraints of the ecological economy within which humanity must operate.

The entire world society must soon reach a consensus on what is meant by a livable world and must cooperate in using science, technology, and social institutions to construct that world, rather than forcing people to conform to a world shaped by these forces out of control.  The overall aim is social betterment, which involves the organisation of nature to maintain ecosystem services through democratic participatory governance, also known as co-production, to manage these services where the flows of minerals and carbon are the real currency (Fig 3)

Fig 3 Relationships between conservation management and participatory governance for cultural betterment.


As an indication of the popularity of cultural ecology as a useful cross-curricular  educational framework, currently the natural economy.info web site receives over a million unique hits a year. Its wikis, such as educationforsustainability, have around two hundred international visitors a day. Also, over 60,000 people are registered readers of its blog.

4  Governance for sustainability (the Welsh model)

In 2015 the Welsh government passed the ‘Well-being of Future Generations Act’.  Now, by law, every aspect of governance in Wales has to comply with the principle of sustainable development.  The Act makes provisions requiring public bodies;

  • to do things in pursuit of the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales in a way that accords with the sustainable development principle;
  • to report on such action;
  • to establish a Commissioner for Future Generations to advise and assist public bodies in doing things in accordance with this Act;
  • to establish public services boards in local authority areas;
  • to make provision requiring those boards to plan and take action in pursuit of economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in their area; and for connected purposes.

Sustainable development In the Act, means the process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales by taking action, in accordance with the sustainable development principle, aimed at achieving seven wellbeing goals (Fig 4).

Fig 4 Well-being goals


In summary, the Act places a well-being duty on public bodies each of which must carry out sustainable development. The action a public body takes in carrying out sustainable development must include—

(a) setting and publishing objectives (“well-being objectives”) that are designed to maximise its contribution to achieving each of the well-being goals,

and (b) taking all reasonable steps (in exercising its functions) to meet those objectives

Any reference to a public body doing something “in accordance with the sustainable development principle” means that the body must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Act will be operated through local public service boards who will, in consultation with communities, prepare action plans with measurable objectives for improving well-being.  The outcomes of the plans will  be monitored against national performance indicators.

In order to behave in that manner, a public body must take account of the following things;

(a) the importance of balancing short term needs with the need to safeguard the ability to meet long term needs, especially where things done to meet short term needs may have detrimental long term effects;

(b) the need to take an integrated approach, by considering how;

(i) the body’s well-being objectives may impact upon each of the well-being goals;

(ii) the body’s well-being objectives impact upon each other or upon other public bodies’ objectives, in particular where steps taken by the body may contribute to meeting one objective but may be detrimental to meeting another;

(c) the importance of involving other persons with an interest in achieving the well-being goals and of ensuring those persons reflect the diversity of the population of;

(i) Wales (where the body exercises functions in relation to the whole of Wales), or

(ii) the part of Wales in relation to which the body exercises functions;

(d) how acting in collaboration with any other person (or how different parts of the body acting together) could assist the body to meet its well-being objectives, or assist another body to meet its objectives;

(e) how deploying resources to prevent problems occurring or getting worse may contribute to meeting the body’s well-being objectives, or another body’s objectives.

Boards are required to improve the well-being of their area by contributing to the well-being goals, which they are to do by assessing well-being in their area, setting local objectives designed to maximise the board’s contribution (within its area) to the achievement of the well-being goals and taking steps to meet those objectives.

The Act establishes the office of Future Generations Commissioner for Wales  and  provides for the Commissioner to promote the needs of future generations by monitoring and reporting on the extent to which the public bodies are setting and seeking to meet their well-being objectives in accordance with the sustainable development principle.  The Commissioner will carry out reviews of public bodies with a panel of advisers.

Wales is the first nation to enshrine the principle of sustainable development in law and establish mechanisms to plan for the well-being of future generations.

5 Rescue mission; an international action-education model

An international youth group came together after the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit to turn the summit’s strategic plan for the 21st century, ‘Agenda 21’ into a user-friendly booklet for young people.  Their aim was  to activate global youth to change their behaviour for a sustainable future.  The group was funded by the UN and their booklet, entitled ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’, was published on International Earth Day in 1994.

Two years earlier Hungerford and Volk had published their research on environmental education as a practical process, demonstrating that people tend to do what they believe they are capable of and what can cause an intended effect. When facing huge environmental issues (e.g. climate change), people simply do not believe they can do anything to change the situation. Moreover, such a feeling is often connected with personal traits. Some people do not believe they are able to change much in their lives. They believe that many things they experience are influenced by a chance or by the will of someone else. The lack of belief in their own capacity to change things undermines their willingness for pro-environment behaviour. To change this attitude, people need to experience a success they can clearly match with their own effort. Being only informed about environmental issues, they often say something like, ‘OK, but what can I do to help…someone else should solve the problem’. Such kind of ‘awareness based’ education programmes often deepen their frustration and apathy. Because of this, a well-working environmental education programme should be ‘action-based’. It means learners at any level should not only be informed about an issue but they should be provided with an opportunity to deal with that issue; to act and to see a change.

Experience of a success might have two positive educational effects. At first, it can develop a belief in their capacity to promote changes in their environment. They can then start to believe that there is sense in doing something when they can make a difference. Furthermore, they develop practical skills for dealing with environmental issues with a belief they are able to effectively apply them more widely.  

Action education as a process of empowerment is set out in Fig 5.  The essence of taking an action approach to education in order to generate environmentally responsible behaviour is that the education experience leading up to it should be problem based.  For example, in the 1990s, Agenda 21 set out the global problems of living sustainably in terms of the environmental risks of ‘business as usual’.  The ‘Rescue Mission’ project was aimed at issues concerning what should be done to manage the problems locally and at the same time generate a willingness to assume environmental responsibility in day to day lives.  

Fig 5  Model of behaviour change by ‘learning through action’ (Hungerford & Volk).


The original Rescue Mission team felt that a first step in the global context was to make all young people aware of the problems by publishing a version of Agenda 21 in their own words.  This was to be followed by setting up a global network of young people to communicate results of local actions to tackle the issues and spread ideas, so generalising the knowledge and skills to all issues world-wide. However, because of the embryonic state of the Internet this objective was beyond them. They moved on with their lives and Rescue Mission was all but forgotten.

The international scientific community is now 95% certain that human activity is driving global warming, and it is of critical importance that all learners need to have acquired knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development in their day to day lives. Therefore, education is now tasked with equipping upcoming generations to adapt to inevitable changes of a +2 ºC world, while inculcating a greater understanding of, and responsibility for, the environmental consequences of human actions to implement effective mitigation.

The ultimate aim of education is shaping behaviour. Societies throughout the world establish education systems in order to develop young people who will behave in desirable ways for the public good.  In education, some of the desired behaviours are sharply defined e.g. skills useful in reading and mathematics.  Other desired behaviours, such as being environmentally responsible, are more complex e.g. sustainable consumerism, eco friendly employment, equitable citizenship.  

There is a wide range of personal, social, and environmental factors that influence behaviour. Most can be assigned to three levels:

  • Personal or individual: beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, genetics;
  • Social: interaction with other people including friends, family and the community;
  • Environmental: the area in which an individual lives, e.g. school, work place, local shops and facilities, and wider factors including the economy (such as prices) and technology.

Rescue Mission addressed all three factors and stimulated teachers and students in the Welsh county of Dyfed to develop a practical scheme for harnessing the National Curriculum to meet objectives of their Local Agenda 21.  The scheme developed as an all-Wales bilingual programme named SCAN (Schools in Communities Agenda 21 Network).  It was intended as a practical action planning network where the school was in co-production with its families and the local authority to implement the Rio Agenda in the area served by the schools.   Cultural Ecology was to be the on line educational framework.  

As an example of  the power of action learning, the Year 6 Class in the primary school of the small Welsh community of Johnston, in Pembrokeshire, walked around their village with a teacher recording what they felt expressed the unsustainable management of their community’s resources. This was part of the SCAN work described above and a community orientated action response to Rescue Mission Planet Earth.  Their environmental appraisal focused on the broken swings, discarded hypodermic needles and dog fouling that blighted their small recreation area.  They launched a rescue mission with objectives to improve the situation, presented it to their local elected council and within a few days, councillors turned up at the school to discuss the plan with the class and within a month their play area had been totally refurbished, and other environmenal improvements set in motion.

They networked their feelings and actions by fax within the European Schools Network.

Despite initial successes, which led to a national award for educational innovation, SCAN did not embed in the schools.  Nevertheless, it still continues as an on line website run by the National Museum of Wales for schools to monitor local climate change.  It failed in the broader sense because it was not mandatory for schools to incorporate the topic of community action planning within the national curriculum.  If the rescue mission approach is to change adult behaviour environmental appraisal leading to action plans has to be a constant drip into the classroom from the primary level onwards.  

Regarding the Welsh Well-being of Future Generations Act, the provisional list of its performance indicators highlights how Agenda 21 is now perceived in relation to today’s problems of living sustainably (Appendix 1).  The first step in launching a new Rescue Mission for Wales would be to use the Act as a platform to engage a group of young people to make their own bilingual version. The 1994 Rescue Mission booklet would be the template.  This could form the reference point of a network for individuals and groups across Wales to plan their own local rescue missions, individually or collectively, to address issues of how to tackle the problems locally.  Environmental appraisals would define local problems. No doubt opportunities would arise on the way to develop the sense of ‘ownership’ and ‘empowerment’ for behaviour change.  There is a constructive role for social networking to present achievements, ideas and methodologies.

From this futures perspective the new Welsh model of governance for sustainability not only needs to work in an operational sense, but it should be promoted as a global educational model for living sustainably.    A start has already been made by Resilience-Wales to produce such a model (Fig 6) with the aim of helping young people to produce their own Rescue Mission for widespread communication through social media.

Fig 6  The five pillars of a ‘learning about governance’ education model



This kind of engagement of young people in a rescue mission, learning through action education process would encompass the following 5 of the 40 proposed performance indicators by which the measureable objectives of the Act are likely to be measured.

Numbers of:

04 Young children developing the right skills

05 School leavers with skills and qualifications

06 Educated and skilled population

17 People feel involved in local decision making

39 Active global citizens

Some of the other performance indicators could pinpoint the problems and issues to be addressed by making an action plan (Fig 7).  

Fig 7  Seven steps in making and operating a rescue mission action plan




Appendix 1  

How do you measure a nation’s progress?

Proposed National Well-being Indicators


01 Babies born at a healthy weight

02 Healthy life expectancy for all

03 People making healthy lifestyle choices

04 Young children developing the right skills

05 School leavers with skills and qualifications

06 Educated and skilled population

07 People not in education, employment or training

08 People in work

09 Productive workforce

10 Innovative businesses

11 Levels of household income

12 People living in poverty

13 People able to afford everyday goods and activities

14 People satisfied in their jobs

15 People satisfied with where they live

16 A sense of community

17 People feel involved in local decision making

18 People who volunteer

19 People satisfied with access to facilities and services

20 People feeling safe in their communities

21 People feeling lonely

22 Positive mental well-being for all

23 Quality of housing

24 Levels of homelessness

25 People engaged in arts, culture and heritage

26 People using Welsh Language in everyday life

27 People participate in sports

28 Looking after our cultural heritage

29 Properties at risk from flood

30 Energy efficiency of buildings

31 Greenhouse gas emissions

32 Healthy ecosystems

33 A biodiverse natural environment

34 Water quality

35 Air quality

36 Soil quality

37 Non-recycled waste

38 Global footprint

39 Active global citizens

40 International responsibilities


Appendix 2

Education/training web sites and wikis supporting the knowledge framework of cultural ecology






Education for All!

November 17th, 2015

1  Matching education to world development


The UNESCO ‘Education for All Global Monitoring Report’ was established in order to inform, influence and sustain a genuine commitment to achieving the ‘Education for All’ goals by 2015. The annual Report monitors progress towards the goals across some 200 countries and territories, and acts as an authoritative reference for education policy-makers, development specialists, researchers and the media.

In 2008, the EFA Global Monitoring Report asked – ‘will we make it?  By the time of the 11th EFA Global Monitoring Report in 2014 it was clear that we will not!   Today, more than fifty million children are still failing to learn, simply because they are not in school. Access is not the only crisis, poor quality is holding back learning even for those who make it to school. One third of primary school age children are not learning the basics, whether they have been to school or not. To reach the goals, this Report calls on Governments to redouble efforts to provide learning to all who face disadvantages, whether from poverty, gender, where they live or other factors

Nevertheless, as the international community prepares to formulate post-2015 goals for future world development, the Reports have all made a compelling case for giving education a central place in the new global socio political framework.  They  present the latest evidence from around the world of the power of education, especially of girls, to help improve health and nutrition, reduce poverty, boost economic growth and protect the environment.  At the same time there is a need to imagining novel educational responses to the forthcoming new framework of world development.

2 New visions of  world  development education

A consensus appears to have emerged at the February 2013 meeting of UNESCO’s Senior Experts’ Group that the starting point for this process of rethinking education should be the move away from the dominant (‘neoliberal’) model of development. It was agreed that the challenges generated by globalization cannot be resolved by education alone. However, the aspiration is that education help address some of the fundamental contradictions upon which the old dominant model of development is based   There is no doubt that the increased complexity of the challenges associated with the changing pace of world development requires new educational frameworks set within an international curriculum designed for learning how to cope with change.

The key propositions of the old paradigm of development (OPD) were based on the underlying premise that the goals and characteristics of the developing countries were fundamentally similar to those of developed countries except that the former were in an earlier stage of their development process.   Furthermore, it was believed that the best way to advance the material living standards of the poorer countries was for them to replicate the institutions and economic policies of the wealthier nations, which, it was assumed, had helped the latter to grow and prosper in the first place.

In the two decades following the election of the Thatcher government in the United Kingdom and the Reagan administration in the United States, the global economic scenario and its implications for thinking on the purposes and characteristics of development has changed dramatically. The main triggers to rethinking development were two-fold.

The first was the post-1980 liberalization of markets and technological advances in cross-border transport and communication. Both events were the result of the changes in political and economic ideologies following the emergence of the Reagan and Thatcher governments and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Between them, they led to an enlargement of the economic opportunities of businesses and a widening and deepening of social intercourse between people of different cultures.

The second driving force comprised a series of dramatic advances in all forms of information, learning and knowledge relating to the wealth-creating process. Such information and knowledge are embedded in physical assets, human capabilities and entrepreneurship. They embrace all stages of any given value-chain and across value-chains. They incorporate both micro and macro organizational capital.

The unique features of contemporary capitalism is that it interconnects different behavioural mores and belief systems , in a variety of ways, which, though they are not easily reconcilable with each other, need to be respected if international commerce is to be conducted in a peaceful and productive way. Globalization has, in fact, widened and changed the physical landscape and human environment for doing business. The number of new players on the world economic stage, each with its own distinctive ideologies and values, is increasing all the time. Technological advances have made economic and social life more volatile, complex and challenging. Television, travel and the Internet have increased the awareness and understanding of the peoples of the world about both the commonality and diversity of their values, needs and aspirations. They have facilitated the crossborder exchange of knowledge, ideas and information. Dwindling transport and communication costs have widened the radius of interpersonal transactions, and have facilitated new forms of inter- and intra-corporate cooperation. All these events are compelling a re-evaluation of the means and ends of development and are leading to a questioning of the means by which poverty and the other downsides associated with our contemporary global economy might be contained or resolved

What may be the elements of this new vision of education and learning required to live and prosper in the new paradigm of world development? It may be argued that it is through education and learning that humanity will realise its hopes and aspirations. Indeed, education cannot ignore the transformations induced by globalization, and the accompanying social challenges. Teachers, learners, families, and communities cannot but transpose the effects of the rapid social changes they experience into the reality of educational systems. At the same time, there are growing political, economic, and social demands being placed on education to accompany these changes and/or to provoke new ways of thinking and living in a rapidly changing world. The societal transformations associated with globalization will enevitably have an impact on education systems and are forging new paradigms which not only suggest new practices, but also new prisms through which to understand education for development.

3  The three time-frames of education

What role should education play in promoting human dignity, respect for equal rights, in raising awareness about global issues, in fostering a sense of global responsibility that could lead to concrete acts of solidarity and common action at the global level? How can education help construct a new reality of global development? Can this be imagined in what Fernand Braudel referred to as the three time-frames of history? That is;

  • the short-term that attempts to respond to more immediate and urgent concerns;
  • the mid-term perspective that refers to policy, educational structures, pedagogical approaches;
  • the longer-term perspective that has to do to with mentalities and a transformation of mental structures? It is this longer-term perspective, the transformation of our worldviews, which is the most challenging

The aim of this first phase of the ‘Rethinking Education in a Changing World’ initiative is that the Senior Experts’ Group prepare a report (for April 2014) that will stimulate debate around the fundamental principles that can guide educational policy and practice in the decades ahead. The report should enable an ‘educational philosophy of aspirations’ based on social and economic confidence and hope. It was agreed that such aspirations should not to be an-unattainable utopia, but rather, a ‘necessary utopia’, in the spirit of what Paolo Freire would claim was an ‘optimistic realism’.  There is a need for an educational philosophy of humanistic aspirations.

4 Globalization and education for a ‘New’ Humanism

As an intellectual movement born of the Renaissance in Europe, humanism was characterized by an attempt to raise the value and dignity of the human spirit.  With the unfolding of the twenty-first century, the time has come to rethink humanism in a universal perspective. This can be done through an objective and in-depth re-reading of:

  • history;
  • the foundational principles and realities of cultural diversity;
  • the dialogue between civilizations;
  • a novel approach to science and technology in an inter and trans-disciplinary perspective that links natural and human sciences in the context of cultural ecology.

While the economic functions of education are important, there is a need to go beyond the utilitarian vision that characterizes international development discourse. We need to recall the role of education as a means of cultural and social development. This highlights the importance of producing a values-based curriculum. Education is not simply about knowledge and skills, but also about values of respect for human dignity and diversity required for achieving harmony in a diverse world. There is a need to ‘rediscover’, and rethink, the humanistic dimensions of education for the 21st century, stressing that education is a public good that should be made available to all.

5  Learning beyond the classroom

While the State has a custodial role for formal education, it is important to recall that the delivery of formal and non-formal education is a collective responsibility that involves families, communities, civil society organizations, private business and other stakeholders. There is a need to rethink the ‘educational pact’ or the social contract on education.   This contract considers education is a basic human right. This is understood as the right of all children, youth and adults to learn throughout life through formal, non-formal and informal learning experiences. It is important to conceive education as not being limited to classroom teaching and learning. There is a need to be innovative in imagining mechanisms for learning that are not restricted to the classroom setting. Education cannot be reduced to formal schooling – there is a need to consider the role of non-formal education and informal learning.  A broad vision of education is needed; one that is lifelong and life wide, and that encompasses formal and non-formal learning, articulating these with diverse informal learning spaces for building personal bodies of knowledge.

In particular, due respect must be given to local knowledge systems which are losing out in a global economy based on the dominant industrialized model of knowledge. These systems must be recognized, not only as part of the present, but also by giving them a future and by imagining greater connections between alternative yet complementary knowledge systems and livelihoods and work.

Science education must be rethought beyond the training of specialists. It should include ethical dimensions of the development of science as a contribution to active and responsible citizenship. Beyond literacy, academic knowledge and ‘transferable skills’ (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, communication), the question is how do we assess broader social outcomes of education?  This raises the issue of the role of information technology and social networking, both of which are driving informal learning outside school, when most countries in the developing world are locked the blackboard and paper age (Appendix 1).

6  Education centred on the interactions between culture and environment

The environmental viability of the dominant educational model of economic development, as well the unsustainable patterns of consumption, production, and lifestyles on which it is based, are now seriously being challenged.  Sustainability and resilience have now emerged as central social
objectives in the face of accelerated climate change, the degradation of vital natural resources such as water, as well as the loss of biodiversity.   With the aim of kickstarting a process of rethinking education in light of such global societal transformations, UNESCO has initiated an international laboratory of ideas and a platform for dialogue,  The objective is to provide practical answers to the question, what role should education play:

  • in promoting human dignity;
  • in generating respect for equal right
  • in raising awareness about global issues;
  • in fostering a sense of global responsibility that could lead to
    concrete acts of solidarity and common action at the global level;
  • in developing an international pedagogy to help construct a new
    reality of global development?

These objectives can only be met by an education focussed on the interactions between culture and environment where individuals are aware that they are part of a rapidly changing global ecosystem, which they share with all other living things.  This raises possibilities of exploring the use of social media for creating a cross-boundary conservation syllabus for critical learning.  The aims of learning would be to create integrated and humanistic personal bodies of knowledge that acknowledge we are part of nature in everything we do to promote and maintain human betterment.

Appendix 1  Twittering to a purpose

An analysis of the potential of Twitter.com for transmitting information to build a personal body of knowledge about culture and ecology

This document, which is being constantly updated is available as a view only Google doc at:


It presents the current state of research into the use of Twitter.com for assembling and transmiting personal body of of knowledge about trees and people.  The experiment is based on a collection of pictures that can be regarded as artifacts of culture.

Web references





Visualising the human ecological niche

October 23rd, 2015

1  Naturalisation of the land

Fig 1  Frozen Zuider Zee  with people participating in outdoor sport and leisure. Hendrick Avercamp (1608)


“It is a commonplace in history that the so-called naturalistic European landscape first emerged in Holland in the seventeenth century.   Histories of western European landscape painting frequently illustrate this point for example by juxtapos­ing a Flemish sixteenth-century imaginary world landscape, such as Joa­chim Patmir’s ‘St. Jerome in a landscape’ (1515), with an early seventeenth-century Dutch naturalistic vision, such as Pieter Molijn’s ‘Dunescape with Trees and Wagon’ (1626).   Something dramatic happened around 1620 in Haarlem, so the narrative goes, as if scales had suddenly and collectively fallen from seventeenth-century Dutch artists’ eyes, and they could suddenly see, and faithfully transcribe, the land in which they found themselves”.

Ann Jensen Adams (2002)


Adams argues that the selection by artists of identifiably Dutch land formations and sites for their subjects, their dramati­sation and physical manipulation, and above all their “naturalisation” ap­pealed to the unique conjunction in seventeenth-century Holland of three historical elements. Specifically, the change in political regime, growth of capitalism, and the religious Reformation.  These social upheavals centered on individual freedom, which gave new meaning to the local, the domestic, the prosaic, and the valued features of home and country:

  • first, on a political level, the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands together declared their independence from Spain in 1579 and almost immediately were inundated by waves of immigrants;
  • second, on the economic front, they exploited to an unprecedented degree many of-the practices of the open market economy of today’s consumer-culture, including amassing the national capital to undertake the largest land reclamation project in the world;
  • and third, in the reli­gious sphere. Protestantism replaced Catholicism as the professed religion of all the people.

The Reformation focused on the individual’s rights and responsibilities according to the dictates of his or her conscience  Dutch landscape imagery responds to and “naturalises” the topics of politics, money, and religion with freedom of thought. The so-called naturalisation of the homeland is also inte­gral to the creation of new, and competing, communal identities within a rapidly evolving nation composed of a very high percentage of immigrants.

Adams believes that one cannot escape the conclusion that many realistic landscape paintings were created pri­marily for the pleasure of the middle class viewer at home.  Seventeenth-century Dutch art has long been recognized as a distinctly urban form of visual expression. Rapidly expanding cities and towns were the main location for artists, patrons, and the market, while much of the subject matter of Dutch art reflects the experiences and aspirations of middle-class urban elites. In this sense, ‘urban origins’ is one of the key criteria in classifying Dutch art. Artists working in close geographical proximity in a common style and with shared iconographic interests are grouped together under such designations as ‘the Leiden fijnschilders’ and ‘the Utrecht Caravaggisti.’ Others have gone further to assign labels to entire communities and coin terms such as ‘the Haarlem School’ or ‘the Delft style.’”

In their travel diaries, many foreigners, among them, Englishmen John Evelyn and Peter Mundy and the Frenchman Samuel Sorbière, commented on the amazing abundance of paintings in the Netherlands. Mundy, visiting Amsterdam in 1640, wrote:

“As for the Art off Painting and affection off the people to Pictures, I thincke none other goe beeyond them, … All in generall striving to adorne their houses … with costly peeces, Butchers and bakers … yea many tymes Blacksmiths, Coblers, etts. [etc], will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle. Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Native[s] have to Paintings”.

At this time the efforts of European landscape artists fell into genres of imaginary ideals, such as the pastoral and heroic, and often expressed a network of the upper class social hierarchies of church and state and their moral standards.  In contrast, Dutch landscape painting marked a new focus on the observation of the natural world and social processes. The images demonstrated a system of investment/extraction of meanings into and out of landscape images and these works often served as expressions of the social changes, cultural sensibilities and conflicts.  Landscapes are normally thought of as formed by, and consisting of, natural and cultural forces which can be identified and studied. In 16th century Holland, landscape is the medium that holds and channels these forces.

The study of the forces and their dynamics is the subject of geographers, sociologists and historians. This academic tradition of “reading,” decoding and interpreting landscapes is an approach aimed to extract meanings from the landscape as a visual text. In his essay “The beholding eye: ten versions of the same scene,” Donald Meinig identifies ten approaches to this discipline. As described by Michael Conzen they are;

  • nature (stressing insignificance of man),
  • habitat (as man’s adjustment to nature),
  • artifact (reflecting man’s impact on nature),
  • system (a scientific view of interacting processes contributing to a dynamic equilibrium),
  • problem (for solving through social action),
  • wealth (in terms of property),
  • ideology (revealing cultural values and social philosophy),
  • history (as a record of the concrete and the chronological),
  • place (through the identity that locations have),
  • aesthetic (according to some artistic quality possessed).

This list summarises the ways in which a picture represents a human habitat.  It becomes acceptable as a desirable social object around which a community of like-minded people can coalesce.

2  Affiliations and coalitions.  

People bond together as coalitions through participating in, and evaluating, behavioural displays.  They merge into social affiliations through owning and valuing the same social objects.  The importance of affiliation in forming social networks has been popularized by David McClelland.  Affiliation with other persons is the outcome of an individual’s need to feel a sense of involvement and “belonging” within a social group.  McClellend’s thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, who first identified underlying psychological human needs and motivational process. It was Murray who set out a taxonomy of needs, including achievement, power and affiliation—and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model of society. People with a high need for affiliation require warm interpersonal relationships and approval from those with whom they have regular contact. Having a strong bond with others makes a person feel as if they are a part of something important that creates a powerful social grouping. People who place high emphasis on affiliation tend to be supportive team members, but may be less effective in leadership positions.Such persons, who take part in a group, whether it be a movement or project, help create a sense of achievement and satisfaction for the individual and the whole.

A social hierarchy of needs was represented as a pyramid diagram by Maslow (Fig 2) who believed that the needs are satisfied in stages.  Affiliation was the outcome of the stage, where the need to belong was paramount.

Fig 2 Hierarchy of needs


Stage 1 Survival Needs.

Biological necessities such as oxygen, food, and water are the most basic and most urgent when threatened. People share this need with all living things.

Stage 2 Security Needs.

Survival needs projected into the future include such items as shelter and a reliable supply of food and water. When survival needs are met, we worry next about security, in other words survival over time. Many other species share this need with humans; e.g. squirrels gather nuts in the fall and migratory birds plan ahead for summer or winter habitat.

Stage 3 Belonging Needs.

These needs are sometimes called social needs, affiliation needs, or relationship needs. When our survival and security needs are met, our attention turns instinctively to our web of relations. Our belonging needs are shaped and conditioned by early experiences within the universal ‘belonging laboratory’, the family.

Whenever we move from one social group to another, as in leaving full time education or getting a new job, we confront the need to figure out where we belong in relation to the other people around us. This need is directly related to the primitive needs for survival and security in light of the helplessness we all face at birth and the need to be nurtured for years before we can fend for ourselves. In some preindustrial cultures, people never go anywhere alone and are terrified if they ever find themselves alone even for a moment. It is strong enough to distort or override rational decision processes. Humans share this need with other primates and with some other species, but in humans it is much more complex. and is central to consolidation of the human ecological niche.  Affiliation is exemplified by the Dutch 17th century burgers, who socialised around naturalistic paintings, distinct social objects, which depicted their day to day lives in a shared and uncertain watery environment.

The term ‘social objects’ and the related phrase ‘object-centred sociality’, were used by the engineer and sociologist Jyri Engeström to address the distinct role of objects in online social networks  Engeström argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful social networks  These artifacts and experiences are the engines of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversations happen.  Social objects, such as pictures, allow people to focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.

People can connect with strangers and develop friendships when they have a shared interest in specific objects. For example, online, some social networks are about celebrity gossip. Others center around custom car building. Others focus on religion. We affiliate with people through our interests and shared experiences of the objects around us.  The objects don’t have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. Engeström explained object-centered design this way:

“Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Sharing of social objects go hand in hand with membership of physical behavioural units.  They are parts of the spatio-temporal continuum of cultural reality, the same reality that is described by physics. They are, from the perspective of physical science, parts of humankind’s ecological reality, from ‘molecules to man’.  The social parts will never be capable of being understood as the products of any combination of physical building-blocks. But they are parts nonetheless.   How are we to do justice ontologically to the fact of complexity? How, more specifically, do separate persons become joined together into social wholes of different types – committees, teams, battalions, meetings, conversations?   Barry Smith believes that to answer this question we need to distinguish, first of all, two categories of object – ‘continuants’ and ‘occurrents’ – which serve in a certain sense as the building blocks of common-sense social reality. He believes that:

“Continuants are such as to endure self-identically through time. They continue to exist from moment to moment and from day to day. Examples of continuants would include, in the first place: you and me, my pet rock, the planet Earth, and, from the instant of its formation to the instant it hits the ground: a raindrop. The family of continuants thus includes what are called ‘substances’ in the Aristotelian terminology (also sometimes called ‘things’ or ‘bodies’ or ‘extended spatial magnitudes’). But it includes also entities of other sorts: for instance media (bodies of air and water)”.

“Occurrents (which include ‘accidents’ in Aristotelian usage , and which include also what in more recent terminology are sometimes called events or processes or states) occur or happen in time.  Examples of occurrents would include: whistles, blushes, speakings, runnings, my present headache, your knowledge of French”.

The surge in the 16th century Dutch market for naturalistic paintings was satisfying a need for affiliation continuants. The naturalistic landscape paintings were surrogates for the population’s new, developing homeland.  At this, time for the Dutch, art functioned as a social cement, reinforcing the shared beliefs and aspirations that helped tackle communal concerns in unity. In the works of most artists both style and content reflected taste, not of the wealthy and sophisticated, but of people in moderate circumstances. For this, international fashion could be largely ignored. This allowed the full development of native art form.  Hendrick Avercamp’s winter scenes represent the extraordinary social and artistic cohesion exclusive to the Netherlands among European nations.

3  Surrogates and metaphors

One could call this affinity between artist and the landscape, and then between the viewer and the painting, a form of resonance.  It had appeared centuries before in China, where the oldest tradition of landscape art is Chinese monochrome ink landscape painting. Chinese art, from early times, has always been understood as “experience art”. Making reference to a text dating from the 4th century, the art historian James Cahill wrote in ‘The Theory of Literati Painting in China’:

“The feeling inherent in natural scenery can be lodged in paintings of this scenery, because of the affinity between the soul of the artist and that of his subject.”

Such a resonance is possible, because, in Chinese understanding, principles like the concept of the opposites, Yin and Yang, underlie the relationship between nature and humankind. Chinese landscape has been strongly characterised by the symbolisms of opposites, like shanshui, ‘mountains and water’, which are the two most important symbols of nature. An artist who succeeds to implement Yin and Yang in a landscape painting, e.g. through light and dark contrasts, motifs and composition, can create resonance with the viewer. Not surprisingly the Chinese name for landscape painting is “Mountain and Water Painting” or, as mountain and water are emanations of Yang and Yin, one could say Yin and Yang Paintings where the two opposites unify the naturalisation of  mountainous land (Fig 3).

Fig 3  Kuo Hsi: Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys, Northern Song Dynasty c. 1070, detail from a horizontal scroll.

song dynasty 1070

Based on this resonance induced in the viewer, these paintings were meant as true surrogates for being in nature.  Natural features admired by the ancient Chinese, all had symbolic moral and aesthetic meanings. Symbolic meanings of landscape were continuously constructed throughout Chinese history. For a period of about 700 years, from the Middle Tang Dynasty to the Middle Qing Dynasty, the Chinese continuously developed the subjectivity of nature and brought these values into daily life until all its details were developed to an extremely fine degree. This period had a great influence on views of nature and brought Chinese landscape painting to its peak time during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and Chinese gardens during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During these periods, nature was extensively observed, touched and examined, and ways to experience nature were carefully theorised. Also, while “constructing subjectivity”, the Chinese were also attaching cultural meanings to nature and symbolic meanings were fully developed. Metaphor was highly advanced in Chinese arts. Chinese landscape paintings, literature, poems and gardens were never separated and all these forms were usually used at the same time. Chinese paintings always had poems on them, and gardens always contained inscriptions. The expression of symbolic and abstract meanings of landscapes strongly depended on metaphorical texts. This is one of the most important characteristics of Chinese landscape art,  because experience of landscape defined the  task of art to bring these understandings into full reality in human discourse.  Just as in our post-modern world the Chinese landscape discourse is aimed at conserving the human ecological niche.

After the Ming Dynasty, landscape forms became more abstract and landscape meanings were expressed more in metaphorical texts. The material landscape gardens that once had the most artistic qualities began to be destroyed, and this severed the link between landscape art and discourse about human ecology.

4  Art in human discourse

Landscape art defines cultural aspects of the human ecological space.  The noun ‘scape’, as in ‘landscape”, is a bounded view of scenery: a space extracted from the environment as a ‘scene’ that is representative of the wider environment.  It can include interior architectural spaces and, increasingly, virtual digital cyberspaces.  Other scape categories  include dreamscapes, seascapes, townscapes, roofscapes, moonscapes and cityscapes. Scapes serve as environmental media that envelop the observer. They are produced by the act if scaping.  Scaping is any process that adds aesthetic value to an unbounded view of the environment.

When people produce scapes by cropping scenes from the environment in words, music or pictures,  they are producing works of art using  a process called inscaping to capture a personal aesthetic quality called inscape.

The concept of inscape was devised by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and is central to his idea that everything in the universe is characterized by a distinctive design that constitutes its individual identity.  Hopkins’s idea of inscape corresponds nearly exactly to John Duns Scotus’s ‘formalitates’. Scotus (1266–1308) was one of the most important and influential philosopher- theologians of the High Middle Ages.  Scotus acknowledges that a shaping imagination moulds the experiences recorded by any­one’s senses.  The mind organizes experiences by what Scotus calls formalitates., These are aspects of a thing perceived that are sep­arable realities and yet do not destroy the unity that makes that entity a single thing. Being real, formalitates are independent of individual perceivers, but they require for their existence the possibility of a per­ceiving intellect. No two people perceive the same things; we therefore must trust, and not demand a single vision.

Hopkins used the concept of ‘inscape’ to define the unique aesthetic identity, or character, of things. His ideas pre­date his first encounter with the writings of Scotus.

According to Hopkins, this identity is dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other objects through an act that Hopkins calls instress.  Instress is the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of mental energy toward it that enables one to realize its specific distinctiveness. It is this process of finding inscape in an object that captures an aesthetic experience that may lead to the production of a work of art.  Hopkins invented the concepts of inscape and instress as ways of talking about the particular perceptions of multiple realities.  The modern dictionary definition of  inscape is ‘the unique essence or inner nature of a person, place, thing, or event, especially depicted in poetry or a work of art’. Any single thing can have as many inscapes as there are perceiving minds to call them forth; each thing is a bounded infinity of inscapes. In this respect, the spatial selving of social objects defines a person’s ecological space, particularly its aesthetic qualities, which are revealed in the arts of landscape and still life..

Hopkins’ notebooks show the tremendous care with which he details what he thinks is unique about a particular sunset, cloud formation or even waves.  For example, in his diary of a tour of Switzerland in 1868, Hopkins made minute notes of his often eccentric impressions of the Alpine peaks. The Matterhorn struck him as resembling a stranded Greek galley. “How fond of and warped to the mountains it would be easy to become!” he wrote. “For every cliff and limb and edge and jutty has its own nobility.”  He added a note, “ ….that a slender race of fine cloud inscaped in continuous eyebrow curves hitched on the Weisshorn peak as it passed”  The Weisshorn is one of the many peaks surrounding Zermatt, with Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn.

Hopkins never formally defined the term inscape but its meaning is found in one his letters to Robert Bridges:

“But air, melody or what strikes me most is all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling inscape, is what I above all aim at in poetry”.

Hopkins compared inscape to design and pattern, but he was not fully satisfied with either of them.

The following quotations, all taken from his diary and journal, well illustrate the use of inscape: They make it clear that inscape is the qualitv that gives a special virtue to an object. It is this pattern or design that distinguishes it from the rest. For Hopkins, nature is universal. Its objects are its specific parts having beauty of their own and complete the universal design of nature.

“Spanish Chestnuts: their inscape here bold, jutty somewhat Oak-like attractive, the branching visible and leaved peaks spotted so as to wake crests in: eyes”.

“The Horned Violet pretty thing, gracefully lashed. Even in withering flower ran through beautiful inscape by the screwing up of the petals into straight barrels or tubes.”

“One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is”.

“This is the time to study inscape in the spraying of trees, for the swelling buds carry them to a pitch which the eye could not else gather—for out of much much more, out of little not much, out of nothing nothing: in these sprays at all events there is a new world of inscape”.

“The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense: if you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle [sic] with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them”.

“The sharp nape of a drift is sometimes broken by slant flutes or channels. I think this must be when the wind after shaping the drift first has changed and cast waves in the body of the wave itself. All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods And broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom”.

“The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pain and I wished to die and not to see the shapes of the world destroyed any more”.

“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timber frames— principals  and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big arms with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again”.

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped”.

“… he [Sir Samuel Ferguson, promoter of  Yeats  was a poet as the Irish are—to judge by the little of his I have seen—full of feeling, high thoughts, flow of verse, point, often fine imagery and other virtues, but the essential and only lasting thing left out—what I call inscape, that is species or individually-distinc­tive beauty of style. …”

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

5  Ethics and aesthetics

Hopkins’ concept of inscape allows access to discussions of beauty as the core of all social objects and central to the art of perception.  Frederick Franck, author of ‘Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action’, and eminent teacher of drawing as an art of perception, says that the capacity to draw is the same capacity “for empathy, wonder, and reverence, for awe for the simplest things of nature, for a leaf, a scallion”, and that “to see is that specifically human capacity that opens one up to empathy, to compassion with all that lives and dies”. Franck contrasts “seeing” from “looking-at” and argues that what distinguishes the former from the latter is transformed consciousness wherein the subject-object dichotomy no longer holds. Franck explains:

The thing I draw, be it leaf, rosebush, woman, or child, is no longer a thing, no longer my

“object” over and against which I am a supercilious “subject.” The split is healed. When I am drawing leaf or caterpillar or human face, it is at once de-thingified. . . By drawing it, I

dignify it, I declare it worthy of total attention, as worthy of attention as I am myself, for

sheer existence is the awesome mystery and miracle we share.

In another passage, Franck recounts his non-dual meeting with a cow:

One day I was drawing a cow in a meadow near our house. As I stood there drawing, our

eyes met, and at that instant she stopped being “a cow.” She had become this singular fellow being whose warm breath mixed with my own in the cold fall air.

In as far as art-making is a practice of “deep seeing”  that heals the subject-object duality, it goes straight to the heart of morality, since the heart of morality is compassion and caring for our fellow beings, humans and nonhumans alike.  The notion that ethics and aesthetics overlap, and might even somehow be the same thing, is ancient.   Plato linked Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and this multiminded approach to modelling these drivers of sociocultural systems represents the successive historical shift in our understanding of  human society, from a mindless mechanical tool, to a uni-minded biological entity and, finally, to a multi-minded socio-cultural system using technology to develop and expand an ecological niche.

Certain human capacities, such as perceptual sensitivity, imaginative freedom and creativity, seem to be involved in both moral decisions and aesthetic engagement.  We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.  We therefore have to enquire into how images, sounds and cultural memories shape our religious, spiritual and ethical lives and consider the distinctive potential of art, religion and ethics to open up new transformative ecological spaces for human beings searching for Hopkins’ inscape as an ecosystem service.  Since Manley’s time, ecology has provided a scientific model to manage ecosystem services as a resource currency linking microbe /plant/animal.  In particular, deep ecology provides an ethical supplement to guide humanity’s relation to land as a beauty system for future survival.

The only difference between an ecosystem and a technology is that the latter is intentionally made by a human being.  It becomes part of an ecosystem by the gathering and processing of the resources required for its manufacture.  The functioning of either one can be described by the same conceptual models and because they are systems they both follow the same rules of operation.  In a biological perspective, human technology is an evolutionary extension of the instinctive behaviour underpinnng the nest building skills of bower birds or the the dam-making activities of beavers.  We, like birds and beavers are part of nature in everything we do.  This fundamental truth is expressed graphically in the biotic pyramid (Figs 4 and 5 )

Fig 4 A generalised biotic pyramid


Fig 5  Biotic pyramid of a human whale hunting community


A resource pyramid is an artistic expression of the living social objects with which we interact in the act of accessing ecosystem services. The species in each layer of the pyramid are alike, not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat.   It is through food that species enact their identity.   Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance.

In the web site ‘Live Lucid’, the idea is developed that our personal inscaping is closely linked with, and in many respects the same as’ the workings of our imagination. That is to say, it is about the living field of images that continually and dynamically constellate the ‘Common Inscape’ we call reality.  Our ‘Common Inscape’ is the hosting space in which also “physical reality” unfolds according to very strict rules governing the biotic pyramid, which we call natural law. But obviously this particular niche of the ‘Common Inscape’ is just a certain region within the larger ecology. The ‘Common Inscape’ is the ecology that every personal inscape, our personal theatre in the ‘Common Inscape’, participates in and shapes to a certain degree.


The other graphical presentation of the human ecological niche, which takes a long step back into the bigger picture of the ecosystem from a human perspective, is the socio cultural system in which we exist (Fig 6).

Fig 6  The human ecological niche as a system

human niche


The main components are:

  • an economic system
  • a political organization
  • a social structure
  • a belief system
  • a system of arts and leisure

Figures 4, 5 and 6 are works of art, human cultural artifacts into which viewers can project their own inscapes.

The socio-cultural view of human ecology considers the system to be a voluntary affiliation of purposeful members who have a choice. They get together to serve their own purpose by collectively serving a personal need in their particular socio-physical environment. Mechanical or biological models cannot explain behaviour of a system whose parts display an ability to choose. However, to get a handle on socio-cultural systems, we need to explore the essence of information-bonded systems and explain the self-organizing behaviour of multi-minded purposeful systems.  This is the journey in which social objects are encountered on the way and endowed with inscapes.The land sculptor, Richard Long, early in his career established the precedent that art could be a journey and that a sculpture could be deconstructed over the distance of a journey. His beguilingly simple works use raw materials such as mud, stones and driftwood, found along the way. These works are often simple environmental interventions, marks of passage. Also, these works often leave little or no trace and are documented through photographs or texts  that record his ideas, observations and experiences as he encounters and socialising objects (Fig 7 ).

He views his world in the same vein as Hopkins.   About his works, Long says:

They are a sort of simple celebration of the place, like its stones, or the horizon, or the mist, and of me being there, at that particular time, possibly never to pass that way again. I sometimes think of these works as songs. I have said that a sculpture can be as far as the eye can see, meaning the stones can be aligned to a feature on the horizon, for example, or a passing cloud, at that moment, in relation to the viewer.

Richard Long, 2014

Walking as a medium has enabled Richard Long to articulate ideas about time and space. He seeks a freedom of movement and expression, and a balance with the natural world though a physical and personal engagement with the land, working with nature to reflect its impermanence and the changing processes of time. These often remote works made in wilderness landscapes have inscapes that feed the imagination.

In summary,  there are multiple intellectual realities in individual things, waiting to spring into actuality through the work of an observing mind to turn them into social objects, which add an aesthetic value to their environment. .  Indeed, Hopkins used poetry to express his religious devotion, drawing his images from the natural world. He found nature inspiring and developed his theories of inscape and instress to explore the manifestation of God in every living thing. According to these theories, the recognition of an object’s unique identity, which was bestowed upon that object by God, brings us closer to Christ. Similarly, in a post-religious world, the beauty of  nature, and our appreciation of that beauty, helps us worship the act of creation that set in motion the evolution of our universe.   Many of Hopkins’ poems, including “Hurrahing in Harvest” and “The Windhover,” begin with the speaker praising an aspect of nature, which then leads the speaker into a consideration of an aspect of our physical origins. For instance, in “The Starlight Night,” the speaker urges readers to notice the marvels of the night sky and compares the sky to a structure, which houses Christ, his mother, and the saints. The stars’ link to Christianity makes them more beautiful.  A pity that their origin in a Big Bang does not resonate with post modern viewers in the same way.

Fig 7  Richard Long: Walk from London to Dawlish, with social objects he encountered on the way.


6  Web References

Evolution of human decoration


Social objects



Beauty and the human ecological niche


Kenneth Clark shttp://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2014/may/16/kenneth-clark-arrogant-snob-saviour-art









Dutch art market


Greg Dunn


Community carbon

October 5th, 2015

1  Bruno Manser’s struggle

In 1984 Bruno Manser travelled to the Malaysian state of Sarawak where he spent six years living with the Penan tribe. He learnt the language and customs of this people, who are the last on the island of Borneo to live exclusively from hunting and gathering. During the time he was there, he saw the living environment of his Penan friends being gradually laid to waste by the logging companies. Bruno supported the Penan in their fight to resist this process of deforestation, carried out with complete contempt for their property rights, and helped them to organise peaceful protests in which they blocked the roads built (illegally) by the logging companies. In the end he was forced to flee Malaysia and was only able to re-enter the country by roundabout means. In Basel he set up the Bruno Manser Fund to support the Penan and other forest peoples. In 1993 he went on a hunger strike in an attempt to halt timber imports from Malaysia, but his campaign failed. Nonetheless, he did succeed in convincing hundreds of Swiss, French and Austrian municipalities to refrain from using wood derived from unethical logging in the construction of their public buildings. In 2000, Bruno Manser tried once again to visit his friends and organise a campaign to alert world public opinion to their plight. It may be that this cost him his life. He has not been seen since 23 May 2000, two days after he crossed the wooded border into Sarawak.

2  Adding a cultural value to trees

It was during Manser’s first year living with the Penan that a joint UNEP international conference published an assessment of the role of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on climate change and concluded that greenhouse gases were expected to cause significant global warming in the next century.  Up until then the only economic value of tropical forest trees was to produce high quality timber to meet the demands of rich Western consumers.  In 1997, the value of tropical forests in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide was part of the discussions which led to the Kyoto Protocol.  The talks established legally binding emissions targets for industrialized countries, and created innovative mechanisms to assist these countries in meeting these targets (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Adding value to trees as an ecosystem service


One of these mechanisms is the carbon credit (often called a carbon offset).   It is a financial currency that represents a tonne of CO2 (carbon dioxide) or CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent gases) removed or prevented from entering  the atmosphere in a carefully designed and managed emission reduction project.  Carbon credits can be used, by governments, industry or private individuals to offset carbon emissions that they are generating.  Offset schemes vary widely in terms of the cost, though a fairly typical fee would be around £8/$12 for each tonne of CO2 offset. At this price, a typical British family would pay around £45 to neutralise a year’s worth of gas and electricity use, while a return flight from London to San Francisco would clock in at around £20 per ticket.

Carbon credits add value to forests and tree planting when they are associated with removing existing CO2 or CO2e emissions from the atmosphere.  Afforestation and reforestation activities are now universally accepted as a means by which existing emissions can be removed from the atmosphere and carbon credits can be cashed in by owners of the land on which the project is carried out (Fig 2).

Fig 2 The carbon offset system


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified five stores of carbon biomass, namely the above ground biomass, below-ground biomass, litter, woody debris and soil organic matter. Among all the carbon pools, the above-ground biomass of trees constitutes the major portion of the carbon pool. Estimating the amount of forest biomass is very crucial for monitoring and estimating the amount of carbon that is lost or emitted during deforestation, and it will also give an idea of the potential of trees to sequester and store carbon in the forest ecosystem. In 2000, the IPCC gathered the available evidence for a special report which concluded that tree-planting could sequester (remove from the atmosphere) around 1.1–1.6 GT of CO2 per year. That compares to total global greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 50 GT of CO2 in 2004.  Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist and landscape historian, describes the problem of carbon credits succinctly: ‘Telling people to plant trees [to solve climate change] is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’ .  On the other hand, giving carbon credits to people living in forested areas is a means of transferring wealth from rich to poor countries.

The mechanism is seen by many as a trailblazer. It is the first global, environmental investment and credit scheme of its kind, providing a standardized emissions offset instrument, the certified emission reduction credit (CER).

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, allows a country with an emission-reduction or emission-limitation commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (Annex B Party) to implement an emission-reduction project in developing countries. Such projects can earn saleable CER credits,which can be counted towards meeting Kyoto targets.

A CDM project activity might involve, for example, a rural electrification project using solar panels or the installation of more energy-efficient boilers. The mechanism stimulates sustainable development and emission reductions, while giving industrialized countries some flexibility in how they meet their emission reduction or limitation targets.  A CDM project must provide emission reductions that are additional to what would otherwise have occurred. The projects must qualify through a rigorous and public registration and issuance process. Approval is given by the Designated National Authorities. Public funding for CDM project activities must not result in the diversion of official development assistance.

The mechanism is overseen by the CDM Executive Board, answerable ultimately to the countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol.  Operational since the beginning of 2006, the mechanism has already registered more than 1,650 projects and is anticipated to produce CERs amounting to more than 2.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, 2008-2012.

As a part of the global carbon market, the voluntary CO2 market is different from the compliance schemes under the Kyoto Protocol and EU-ETS. Instead of undergoing the national approval from the project participants and the registration and verification process from the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), the calculation and the certification of the emission reduction are implemented in accordance with a number of industry-created standards.

The advantage of lower development/transaction cost makes the voluntary market especially attractive to those small and sustainable projects to which the UN certification process is too expensive.

Approximately one third of all greenhouse gases are estimated to be caused from Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) activities. These notably include methane emissions from agriculture, but also deforestation and ecosystem degradation.

Deforestation represents the largest source of LULUCF emissions (approximately 18% of total greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to 13% for agriculture). Yet, the only types of projects that are delivering carbon credits in regulated markets are afforestation and reforestation (A/R) projects in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Afforestation refers to tree planting projects in areas where there has not been forest cover in the past 50 years, and reforestation to those projects occurring in areas that were more recently deforested.

Projects that mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding deforestation and/or ecosystem degradation are currently not eligible for generating carbon credits through the CDM. There are currently 4 afforestation and 14 reforestation projects in the CDM project pipeline and one registered CDM forestry project.

In the voluntary markets for carbon offsets, forestry mitigation projects are more popular investments. Avoided deforestation projects are also allowed as a project option and they account for about 5% [of overall value] and could be significant contributors to the growth of the market (Fig 3).

Fig 3  The voluntary carbon market share by project type (%), as of  2008


However, in terms of overall size the voluntary markets are dwarfed by the CDM. CDM projects hold the lion’s share (approximately 95%) of the global market value of mitigation projects – which is estimated at over $13 billion.. The voluntary market, by comparison is worth approximately $265 million. Forestry investments are estimated to represent about 15% of the voluntary carbon market.

3   REDD

REDD stands for reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and is one of the most controversial issues in the climate change debate. The basic concept is simple: governments, companies or forest owners in the South should be rewarded for keeping their forests instead of cutting them down and so neutralising their carbon footprint.

The idea of making payments to discourage deforestation and forest degradation was discussed in the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol, but it was ultimately rejected as the major economic instrument because of four fundamental issues: ‘leakage’, ‘additionality’, ‘permanence’ and ‘measurement’.

  • Leakage refers to the fact that while deforestation might be avoided in one place, the forest destroyers might move to another area of forest or to a different country.
  • Additionality refers to the near-impossibility of predicting what might have happened in the absence of the REDD project.
  • Permanence refers to the fact that carbon stored in trees is only temporarily stored. All trees eventually die and release the carbon back to the atmosphere.
  • Measurement refers to the fact that accurately measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests and forest soils is extremely complex – and prone to large errors.

A general problem is that payments are not for keeping forests, but for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This opens up the possibility, for example, of logging an area of forest but compensating for the rise in CO2  by planting industrial tree plantations somewhere else.

REDD developed from a proposal in 2005 by a group of countries led by Papua New Guinea calling themselves the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. Two years later, the proposal was taken up at the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC in Bali (COP-13).   In December 2010, at COP-16, REDD formed part of the Cancun Agreements in the Outcome of the Ad Hoc Working Group on long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention.

REDD is described in paragraph 70 of the AWG/LCA outcome:

“Encourages developing country Parties to contribute to mitigation actions in the forest sector by undertaking the following activities, as deemed appropriate by each Party and in accordance with their respective capabilities and national circumstances:

(a) Reducing emissions from deforestation;

(b) Reducing emissions from forest degradation;

(c) Conservation of forest carbon stocks;

(d) Sustainable management of forest;

(e) Enhancement of forest carbon stocks;”

This is REDD-plus (although it is not referred to as such in the AWG/LCA text). Points (a) and (b) refers to REDD. Points (c), (d) and (e) are the “plus” part. But each of these “plus points” has potential drawbacks:

  • Conservation in the history of the establishment of third world national parks includes large scale evictions and loss of rights for indigenous peoples and local communities. Almost nowhere in the tropics has strict ‘conservation’ proven to be sustainable. The words “of forest carbon stocks” were added in Cancun. The concern is that forests are viewed simply as stores of carbon rather than ecosystems.
  • Sustainable management of forests could include subsidies to industrial-scale commercial logging operations in old-growth forests, indigenous peoples’ territory or in villagers’ community forests.
  • Enhancement of forest carbon stocks could result in conversion of land (including forests) to industrial tree plantations, with serious implications for biodiversity, forests and local communities.

There are some safeguards annexed to the AWG/LCA text that may help avoid some of the worst abuses. But the safeguards are weak and are only to be “promoted and supported.” The text only notes that the United Nations “has adopted” the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The text refers to indigenous peoples’ rights, but it does not protect them.

Although much has been written about addressing these issues, they remain serious problems in implementing REDD, both nationally and at a community project level.

There are two basic mechanisms for funding REDD: either from government funds (such as the Norwegian government’s International Forests and Climate Initiative)  or from private sources, which would involve treating REDD as a carbon mitigation ‘offset’, and getting polluters to pay to have their continued emissions offset elsewhere through a REDD project. There are many variants and hybrids of these two basic mechanisms, such as generating government-government funds through a “tax” on the sale of carbon credits or other financial transactions.

Trading the carbon stored in forests is particularly controversial for several reasons:

  • Carbon trading does not reduce emissions because for every carbon credit sold, there is a buyer. Trading the carbon stored in tropical forests would allow pollution in rich countries to continue, meaning that global warming would continue.
  • Carbon trading is likely to create a new bubble of carbon derivatives. There are already extremely complicated carbon derivatives on the market. Adding forest carbon credits to this mix could be disastrous, particularly given the difficulties in measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests.
  • Creating a market in REDD carbon credits opens the door to carbon cowboys, or would be carbon traders with little or no experience in forest conservation, who are exploiting local communities and indigenous peoples by persuading them to sign away the rights to the carbon stored in their forests.

4  Community REDD

Because of the serious issues surrounding the value of REDD to community wellbeing, real and imagined, the REDD scheme has been described by its  opponents as an example of neocolonialism. Yet many REDD proponents continue to argue that carbon markets are needed to make REDD work. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, on its website states that,

“Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), which EDF helped pioneer, is based on establishing economic incentives for people who care for the forest so forests are worth money standing, not just cleared and burned for timber and charcoal. The best way to do this is to allow forest communities and tropical forest nations to sell carbon credits when they can prove they have lowered deforestation below a baseline.”

This is to prioritise ‘pro-poor’ REDD policies and measures. Numerous policies and measures exist to reduce deforestation and degradation (e.g. fire prevention programmes; expanding protected areas; improved law enforcement etc.). Whilst different options may have similar impacts in terms of emissions reductions in any particular area, there could be significant variation in terms of their implications for the poor. The options chosen must first and foremost be based on accurate identification of the drivers of deforestation/degradation, but there must also be a strong political commitment within a framework of cultural ecology to maximise the possible benefits for the poor. In other words, to increase the chances of REDD working for the poor, this must be explicitly recognised in the choice of policies and measures.  This was the starting point of the document ‘ Making REDD work for the poor, prepared on behalf of the Poverty Environment Partnership (PEP) in 2008.

The main thrust of the argument was to apply measures to improve the equity of benefit distribution  The distribution of benefits from REDD both internationally and within countries is likely to be highly variable due to the design of international systems and the variety of interests of investors (market actors or funders) which will drive investment decisions. For example, finance is likely to go towards ‘low risk’ countries, areas or activities where implementation is most cost effective or that fit internationally established rules, such as those related to the developing baselines.  Benefit redistribution mechanisms may be required at international levels and within developing countries. These may include options such as stabilisation funds or preventative credits, provided by international donors to countries with low historical deforestation rates; or levies or taxes placed on market mechanisms within countries that are reinvested into pro-poor policies and measures.

Within the national context, strengthening the role of local governments in benefit distribution and regulation of REDD could also help deliver benefits to the poor. Forest authorities are often one of few government departments with a physical presence in rural areas which can get information to, and receive information from, communities. The private sector could also play a part, for example through providing roles for local government staff in project monitoring and training in technical skills.  At local scales and in REDD projects, partnerships between investors and funders could be  used to strengthen equitable benefit sharing in REDD schemes, bearing in mind risks related to top down initiatives and asymmetries in information available in their negotiation.

A good example of the application of REDD aimed directly at community benefits is provided by ‘Plan VIVO’s REDD project’ in the Yaeda Valley of Tanzania, where a major aim is to protect the hunter-gatherer cultural heritage of the Hadza people..

An environmental heritage is “all the material and immaterial elements which combine to maintain and develop the identity and autonomy of its ‘proprietor’ in both time and space through a gradually evolving environment”.  Henry Ollagnon.

In other words, the heritage does not exist as such in the absence of a property relationship with a “proprietor” who invests in it and manages it.  A heritage in which there is no investment, and which is abandoned by its “proprietor”, is a heritage that is falling into ruin and disappearing. This notion is readily understandable in the context of, for example, architectural heritage, when there is someone – owner or just tenant, private or public, individual or collective – who has certain options for managing it,  But it is also the case with an ecological heritage, which is the basis of a people’s distinctive culture. Their ecological niche defines their homeland to which they have property rights resulting from a thousand or more years of occupation.  Spiritual beliefs of these ‘first peoples’ steer the powers of nature which surround them.  Their life is intimately linked to local resources that provide a substantial proportion of energy and protein requirements, as well as most vitamins,essential elements, and minerals.  Thus, traditional food is still given a significant place in determining who they are.

In the global REDD debate, many concerns have been expressed by developing countries, in particular, concerns about the rights of indigenous people and communities dependent on forests and the impact of REDD programmes on such groups. The overwhelming need of communities and people living with trees is to ensure that they are involved in a positive and mutually beneficial way in the management of these resources, since this is one of the very few effective means of controlling deforestation and forest degradation over very large areas. A principle has emerged here.  To reduce deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, it is essential to promote solutions involving local people in the sustainable management of forests; and at the same time to link incentive mechanisms with options to improve livelihoods (Fig 4).

Fig 4  Potential community level benefits from the carbon market


The establishment of a community REDD in the Yaeda Valley is one of Plan Vivo’s newest and largest projects, covering over 20,000 hectares of Hazda community land.  Plan Vivo is a registered Scottish charity, which has created a set of requirements for smallholders and communities wishing to manage their land more sustainably. Plan Vivo has developed the Plan Vivo Standard, which is a framework for Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) schemes for rural smallholders and communities dependent on natural resources for livelihoods.

The Hadza are an egalitarian society and value their land highly, however getting others to understand this value is not always easy. Creating a ‘real’ economic argument through carbon payments for the ecosystem service that includes biodiversity helps communicate this value as well as supporting the communities who depend on the land.  This project will augment the capacities of local forest users for guarding their resources, carrying out forest inventories; monitoring carbon flux; establishing equitable and transparent REDD mechanisms for sharing revenue; and understanding and actively participating in the overall REDD carbon credit process.  Already, remarkably, the project has introduced computer skills needed to manage the Hazda heritage to stand alongside the age-old hunter gatherer survival skills.

The essence of the community-led scheme is clear from the following interview with a  female coordinator of the Plan Vivo scheme..  Pili Goodo is one of the Carbon Zambia’s coordinators, or animateurs, in Yaeda and as such is responsible for project operations within each village. She compiles the data on land use and poaching brought in by the scouts,represents the project at village meetings and generally acts as the first point of call for any project activities.

She talked to Marc from Carbon Tanzania about how the project has affected her community.

Marc: How has the community been involved in setting up the project?

Pili: Marc came [to a community meeting] to introduce us to this idea of valuing trees because of the carbon inside. We had a lot of questions about how you know that the carbon is in our trees and how people in another country can pay us to help protect our trees and land, why would they do this?

We began to understand how people know about carbon in trees during the tree [above ground biomass] survey where we measured many trees and put the results into a computer. Many of the community were trained during the survey and Carbon Tanzania explained to us using maps and pictures taken from high up that our land is being changed by farmers.

Marc: What have you learned about your natural resources through this project?

Pili: We know that our resources are valuable but how can we make others see that? They want to farm because they don’t know how to live without farming. Now people are seeing us getting money and jobs and want to know how they can get money.

Marc:  Why and how did you become involved in the efforts to protect Hadza lands?

Pili: We are all involved! I have secondary education and therefore a better ability to communicate with others like UCRT and Carbon Tanzania… many women will not travel far from their homes but the men can move over a greater distance… [to] do the work of community guards and anti-poaching.  We all need to guard our land, without our land we are lost, we can’t be hadza without land, the hadza are part of environment.

Marc:  How do these carbon conservation efforts help you and your community?

Pili:  Myself and the community guards are all paid directly from the carbon project… I have started a small shop with my money and others buy things from me. The money [paid to the community] is usually spent on school fees, hospital and food. The community sits down and has a meeting to decide what the money should be spent on, we have to document this meeting and send it to Carbon Tanzania, they then put the money into the designated account. In November more of the money is spent on food reserve as it is the end of the dry season and there is very little natural food.

Marc:  Why do you feel it’s important for women to work on conservation?

Pili:  [Laughs] Why not? … this job is perfect because I am always near my home and everyone can find me to report information.

Pili is one of the local social pillars of the Carbon Zambia action plan, which is an illustration of the way in which environmental improvements, no matter their specific objectives or where they are initiated, are operated as a managed social action cycle (Fig 5).

Fig 5  Managing community betterment

social action cycle

Pili is clearly important as a communicator in the Hazda social betterment cycle.  Communication  is the key to the robustness and resilience of community projects.  To meet this need, PCs, and Internet connections, are becoming more prevalent and more widely adopted in rural communities worldwide.  Mobiles have been the dominant technology to date in rural areas, characterised by relatively low adoption costs and flexibility of application. Given the scarcity of alternative communication technologies in Africa (i.e. fixed telephony), and the general lack of infrastructure, ICTs, such as mobiles, have rapidly come to play an important role in rural livelihoods. Increasingly, ICTs have improved rural resilience to external stressors such as climate change: strengthening some aspects of resilience but potentially weakening others.   It’s much easier for people to get on with their work when they have a clear idea of what’s expected of them.  The role of ICTs in project management is to discipline planning, organizing, and the securing and managing of resources to bring about the successful completion of specific tasks to meet specific goals and objectives. In these respects it can be anticipated that there are going to be developments in ICTs specifically designed for communities aimed at ensuring that there is a clear plan of action, detailing who’s responsible for the work  required, when work needs to be delivered, plus any other useful information the project team may need.  Above all, ICTs designed for planning and recording have an important role in monitoring outcomes of REDD community projects.

Would REDD have made Bruno Manser’s struggle against top-down commercial deforestation any easier?.   Without monitoring enforceable safeguards, and strict controls and regulation through measurable performance indicators, REDD may deepen the woes of developing countries: providing a vast pool of unaccountable money which corrupt interests will prey upon and political elites will use to extend and deepen their power, becoming progressively less accountable to their people. In the same way that revenues from oil, gold, diamond and other mineral reserves have fuelled pervasive corruption and bad governance in many tropical countries, without public transparency REDD could prove to be another ‘resources curse’. Ultimately, this will make protection of forests and their communities less likely to be achieved and will do nothing to ameliorate carbon emissions.

5  Internet references

Trees: between nature and culture


REDD Schemes








Plan VIVO Tanzania


Making REDD work for the poor


A complete guide to carbon offsetting


Benchmarking rural resilience


Dance: a learning ecology

August 30th, 2015

An initial approach to this subject may be found in: Bellamy, Denis. (1980).  ‘A biological approach to the teaching of dance aimed at broadening the area of dance education within movement studies’.  Physical Education Review. Volume 3 Number 1 pp-34-40.

“It is not long since three words were repeated as a magical spell that was to change our lives drastically – ‘scientific-technical progress’. The whole idea and final goal of the progress became an end in itself and the progressive social movement for the realisation of the principle ‘Everything to the benefit of man!’ receded into the background. The intensification of the self-destructive processes was accompanied by local ecological shocks such as the pollution of the water of Lake Baikal, Caspian and Ladoga, soil amelioration at Polesye, construction of the St. Petersburg dam, etc., the logical succession of which was the global disaster of Chernobyl. Cataclysms in the nature and economy shifted humanitarian values to the background. Time will show whether it will be uncontrollable nuclear energy or a spiritual Chernobyl paralysing the aesthetic and historical processes of culture that will prove to be a more destructive force in laying waste civilisations. No doubt the triad, ecology of mankind – ecology of culture – ecology of environment, is very topical”.

Ivan Kruk. http://www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/usund/fbt/kruk.pdf

1  Learning ecologies

UNESCO defines Kruk’s three social ecologies, of ‘mankind’, ‘culture’ and ‘environment’, within its long standing programme linking humanity and the biosphere.  They comprise, all forms of traditional and popular folklore where they are the social systems of intangible heritage.  They are communicated through oral traditions, customs, languages, music, dance, rituals, festivities, traditional medicine and pharmacopoeia, the culinary arts and all kinds of special skills connected with the material aspects of culture, such as tools and the workplace habitat.   Also included are peoples’ learned processes along with the knowledge, skills and creativity that inform and are developed by them, the products they create and the resources, spaces and other aspects of social and natural context necessary to their sustainability.  These are all processes of survival which provide living communities with a sense of continuity with previous generations and are important to cultural identity, as well as to the safeguarding of the cultural diversity and creativity of humankind. In other words they are learning ecologies (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Model of a learning ecology


Barbara Kirchenblatt-Gimblett classifies these processes as metacultural heritage.  She points out that unlike other living entities, whether animals or plants, people are not only objects of cultural preservation but also the subjects. They are not only cultural carriers and transmitters, but also agents in the heritage enterprise itself. They speak of collective creation within a particular local learning ecology.

As learning ecologies they carry the whole package of collective educative humanitarian works originating in a given community in a given time period and are based on tradition. Their creations are transmitted orally or by the gestures of dance and are modified over time through a process of collective recreation.    It is intangible heritage that is dynamic.  The task of educators is not only to define it for its preservation, but  also to act as culture-makers, creating survival stories needed to embed all peoples safely in an expanding, unstable, global human ecological niche. In Kruk’s words this kind of story-telling signifies: “a progressive social movement for the realisation of the principle, Everything to the benefit of man!”

2 Behavioural coalitions

The term ‘ecology’, in our daily lives, places us in the perspective of human evolution and relates to how we have evolved humanitarianism to take care of ourselves,  to conserve and relate to what we value in our landscape and each other, and ponder on whether or not we feel ‘at home’ in relation to the daily physical and social pressures that surround us. Education through gesture defines dance in this anthropological dimension.  Dance as a learning ecology is a discipline for studying the purposefully selected sequences of human movement which have aesthetic and symbolic value, and are acknowledged as dance by performers and observers within a particular culture.  Dance can be categorized and described by its choreography, by its repertoire of movements, or by its historical period or place of origin.  In these ecological terms dance is a behaviour by which people have an evolutionary predisposition to form coalitions; to make a pact or treaty among individuals or groups, during which they cooperate in joint action, each in their own self-interest, joining forces together for a common cause.  R.D. Alexander believes that the ability to form coalitions arose because the  real challenge in the human environment throughout history that affected evolution of the intellect was not climate, weather, food shortages, or parasites—not even predators. Rather, it was the necessity of dealing continually with our fellow humans in social circumstances that became ever more complex and unpredictable as the human line evolved. Social cleverness, especially through success in competition achieved by cooperation, becomes paramount. .Nothing would select more potential for increased social intelligence than a within-species co-evolutionary ‘arms race’ in which success depended on effectiveness in social competition.

Dance is a powerful evolved coalition-maker because it connects people to belief systems that determine our ecological niche.  It is a folkloric route to discover and transmit  the underlying cultural values of Kruk’s three ecologies, their uncertainties, fears, ambitions, motivations and morals.  Examining these archetypes of the human subconscious is important when thinking about ecological and cultural conservation: They represent the successful societal collective and inherited patterns of thought.  As one of the most powerful communication systems dance should be at the heart of a global education system to present the multiple belief systems, across cultures, which are occurring simultaneously in any given place at any given time.  These systems encompass modern folklore, which was succinctly defined by William A. Wilson.  He wrote, in his paper, ‘The Deeper Necessity: Folklore and the Humanities’ (in the 1988 Journal of American Folklore), as follows:.

“Surely no other discipline is more concerned with linking us to the cultural heritage from the past than is folklore; no other discipline is more concerned with revealing the interrelationships of different cultural expressions than is folklore; and no other discipline is so concerned …with discovering what it is to be human. It is this attempt to discover the basis of our common humanity, the imperatives of our human existence, that puts folklore study at the very center of humanistic study”.

While the world’s major religions are highly influential in building behavioural coalitions and include archetypes of ‘humankind’, ‘culture’ and ‘environment’, looking only at the way these ecologies are represented in organized religion leaves out a much wider breadth of collective knowledge about human survival. This is where, the examination of modern folklore, defined by stories, poetry, music and dance is valuable because of their deep spiritual, political and historical reaches. Folklore today is an important knowledge collective which speaks to common global spiritual concepts, transcending religious divisions and values.  It encompasses ideas on contemporary history and localized environments, something that religious texts alone do not; folklore should be brought to the fore as a category of knowledge that best embodies the collective unconscious of all kinds of cultures at different stages of development..

There are many subdivisions of folklore, but it is dance that, since time immemorial, societies have used for their spiritual, physical, socio-political and economic advancement. For this reason, dance means different things to different societies with underlying different preoccupations. While to some it is a channel of expression of feelings of joy, hope, aspiration, anger, hatred, sadness, happiness, etc, others see it as the transformation of ordinary functional and expressive movement into extraordinary movement for extraordinary purposes. These varied meanings explain why the physical and psychological effects of dance enable it to serve many functions.  In this context, it is commonly accepted that dance is a treasure-trove of social values.  For instance, it is against a background of multiple values claimed for ‘community dance’, that Gordon Curl highlights the relevance of its aesthetic values and their noticeable absence in current community dance dialogue. Yet, the gap between dance and understanding its community applications has been known for almost a century. This is what Rudolf Laban said in his address to a 1936 Pre-Olympic Games gathering in Germany,

‘… Interest in the idea of modern community dancing seems to be widespread, for today I am able to look on your assembly of nearly a thousand people who have come here as representatives from our movement-choirs in more than sixty cities…’

His use of the term ‘movement-choirs’ is significant because singing, like dance, is a profound coalition maker.  From Laban’s remark by we might well question the nature of the ‘interest’ of those ‘thousand people’ engaged in community dance!.   Was it social, health, sport, therapy, aesthetic, artistic, political – or a combination of these?

Rudolf Laban created a system of analysing movement characteristics, as pathways through space, and the ‘effort’, ‘shape’ and ‘drive’ of a human movement. Known today as Laban Movement Analysis, Laban also developed a system of movement notation, known as Kinetography  for documenting professional dance practice. His work, based in England after the second World War, established dance as a special form of social communication and inspired educational dance as a cross curricular subject, incorporating, acting, therapy, and workplace assessment.  An important message from Laban’s work is that if, through dance, we change our ways of seeing and believing, then our ways of doing will follow suit.  However, ‘movement analysis has failed to penetrate and diffuse naturally into the general education system at any level.

3 Coalition dancing in Tonga

Any dance gathering can be taken as an example of the multipurpose communicative value of dance. For example,  dancing in Tonga can be used as a demonstration that it is imperative that we must go back to the more basic art of poetry to understand dance.  This is because understanding poetry is essential if one is to understand the meaning of dance. On the other hand, if one is to study poetry or any other verbal art, it is essential to study dance, for today’s folklore, as ever, is expressed mainly through the medium of dance. Folklore and dance, then, are interrelated expressive human behaviours saying something uniquely important about the relationships between culture and environment.

Tonga, officially the Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian sovereign state and an archipelago comprising 177 islands.   There are two basic kinds of dance in Tonga—one which has movement as its main element, and one which accompanies poetry. The latter type can further be divided into two types. One type sings the praise of the royal family, the high chiefs, and an ethnocentric love of Tonga.  It is essentially an expression of allegiance of the many islanders to a central established political and social order.  The second kind comprises legends and folklore from Tonga’s hallowed past, and also from more recent times. Indirectly, however, this second type of poetry functions in the same way as the first.  They can be unified in terms of their function of signalling that Tongans belong together; they are a cultural coalition.

Fig 2 Tongan lakalaka


The usual kind of Tongan dance that accompanies poetry is called lakalaka, which literal­ly means “to walk” and, indeed, the leg movements are basically a walk that moves one step to the left, then one step to the right, and occasionally forward and back. The arm movements (Fig 2)  are graceful and intricate, deriving their distinctive character from the rotation of the lower arm. The dance is performed by all the men and women of a village ranged in two or more rows facing the audience. The men stand on the right side (from the observer’s point of view) and women stand on the left; the order in which they stand is determined by social status. The men do one set of virile movements while the women do another set of very graceful move­ments so that there are two dances going on simultaneously. Each group interprets the poem in a manner consistent with the Tongan view of movements suitable and appropriate for each sex. The movements dramatize the poetry. They do not pantomime the words, nor do they symbolize in the sense that one movement symbolizes one phrase, or idea. Rather they are figurative: the movements create an abstract picture to which a number of meanings can be assigned, and conversely, one idea can be alluded to by several different sets of movements. As with modern contemporary dance the meaning is in the mind of the beholder

4  Community dance

One of the problems facing any commentator on ‘community dance’ is the sheer breadth and scope of the concept itself – a breadth and scope illustrated in the Report submitted by the Foundation for Community Dance to the UK  Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2004), which affirms that:

‘Community Dance practice and provision recognises an astonishingly broad diversity of dance styles and traditions: we identify 42 different forms in our Mapping research, including Ballet and contemporary dance, folk dance, African People’s Dance, South Asian classical dance, popular social dance, as well as a range of ‘national’ dances – 4.78 million people participated in community dance activity…’

Ken Bartlett, in his article in the Laban Guild Magazine, questions the concept of ‘community dance’ by asking: ‘Is every kind of dancing community dance?’ To which he replies: ‘a qualified yes’!  If this is the case, community dance (with some qualifications) must hold hegemony over the whole domain of dance – it spreads its tentacles over a vast territory of terpsichorean space – an all-embracing ‘community of dance’!

Ken Bartlett and his colleagues have examined community dance over the years and have discovered a treasure-trove of putative ‘values’.  There are claims of: ’emotional and mental health’, ‘mood enhancement’, ‘stress reduction’, ‘anger management’, ‘energising and revitalising experience’. At a more general level there are designated values of: ‘celebration the human body’, ‘equality of opportunity’, ’empowerment and human rights’ – as well as ‘the amelioration of social exclusion’, the ‘reinvigorating pride in where people live’, ‘relieving suffering or violence’ and ‘making the world a better place’.

This remarkable list of accreditations for community dance would seem to provide a panacea for all educational ills!  But Bartlett cautiously believes that we should do a little ‘prodding and poking’ at these widespread claims, by asking: ‘Why are people so keen to involve members in community dance? Surely’, he says, ‘they can be empowered in other ways and could be members of all kinds of groups concerned with wholeness of their being’. Perhaps, some carefully controlled research would determine whether or not such groups, including community dance, were consistently – rather than anecdotally – capable of achieving such claims. Could it be that in attempting to focus on ‘stress reduction’, ‘anger management’ or the ‘alleviation of ‘social exclusion’ etc., that community dance would itself become emasculated – transformed into such specialised domains as ‘psychotherapy’, ’emotional rehabilitation’ or ‘social engineering’ – thus diverting attention away from community dance as an end in itself and thereby losing its integrity as an autonomous aesthetic/artistic pursuit?  Such a perspective points to the need for research into ways in which community dance can become the hub of lifelong learning for individuals and communities.

As an example of what community dance can achieve, In the spring of 2004, Jennifer Monson led a team of experimental dancers from Texas to Minnesota, following the northern migration pathway of ducks and geese. This was known as BIRD BRAIN, one of several ‘Navigational Dance tours’ that Monson has organized. The dancers stopped in ten communities along the Mississippi migratory flyway. Each stop was comprised of a public outdoor performance, a panel focusing on local migration issues, and a dance workshop linking migration with how the body navigates. The tour lasted eight weeks, beginning as the first waterfowl began to migrate and ending as the last birds arrived at the northern tip of the country. For this tour, Monson developed a classroom resource guide as a legacy to engage elementary schools in each community along the way

5  Evolution of dance

Behaviour is what all living things do.  It can be defined more precisely as an internally directed environmental system of adaptive activities that facilitate survival and reproduction.  Ethology is the scientific study of animal behaviour — particularly when that behaviour occurs in the context of an animal’s natural environment.  Ethologists observe, record, and analyse each species’ behavioural repertoire in order to understand the roles of development, environment, physiology, and evolution in shaping that behaviour for individual and group survival.  Dance is an example of human ethology.

Both information and social cohesion determine collective decisions in animal groups.  Before    there were people, swarm behaviour, or swarming, had evolved as a collective behaviour exhibited by animals which aggregate together, perhaps milling about the same spot or maybe moving en masse or migrating in some direction. As a term, swarming is applied particularly to insects, but can also be applied to any other animal that exhibits a gathering-together behaviour. The term flocking is usually used to refer specifically to swarm behaviour in birds, herding to refer to swarm behaviour in quadrupeds, shoaling or schooling to refer to swarm behaviour in fish.  The following paragraph summarises the swarming behaviour in a group of insects, the family “Empididae”, known as ‘dance flies’.

Fig 3 Exchange of a nuptial gift between a pair of dance flies


The “Empididae” is a diverse group of flies consisting of over 4,000 described species worldwide and about 800 described species in America north of Mexico. Numerous species remain to be described and it is estimated that the total diversity of the group will exceed 7,500 species worldwide.  Many species of “Empididae” mate on the ground or on vegetation while others gather in mating swarms. The synchronized movement of adult flies within these mating swarms is the basis for the common name “dance flies”. Members of one large subfamily, the Empidinae, transfer nuptial gifts from male to female during courtship and mating. Depending on the species, these gifts include prey, various types of inedible objects, or secreted ‘balloons’ (Fig 3).  Within the Empidinae mate, choice is generally by females that visit male-dominated swarms. However, many species exhibit sex-role reversed courtship behaviour where females gather in swarms to await males that choose mates. These species exhibit many female secondary sexual characters used in courting males, such as enlarged wings, pinnate leg scales, and eversible abdominal pleural sacs. It is not easy to avoid concluding that these gatherings are analogous to human behaviour in dance halls.

Then there are the pre-human bizarre dances of birds-of-paradise.  Young males inherit those dance steps from their fathers, then refine them through practice and watching adults. Less obvious but equally important are the watchful females.  It’s ultimately their choices that decide which dances reach the next generation.

Fig 4  A song and dance performance in lyre birds.


Coordinating movements to music is often considered a uniquely human skill. A study of Australian lyrebirds dispels this notion by showing that male lyrebirds also perform ‘dance’ moves which are predictably matched with specific songs in an individual’s display routines.   This involves the creation of the complex matching of subsets of songs from a individual bird’s extensive vocal repertoire with different but precise combinations of tail, wing and leg movements.  The outcome is to form predictable ‘gestures’, and so appear to engage in intentional choreography (Fig 4). These dances also suggest that accurate synchronisation of the acoustic and locomotory elements of a display should be cognitively and physically challenging to achieve, and thus difficult to fake. If so, females might exercise mate choice by discriminating among males on the basis of integrated performance coordination.  In terms of the coalition hypothesis a dancing lyre bird has been likened to a pop singer who combines song and dance to attract an audience of males and females.  Male Birds of Paradise give similar displays which are viewed by potential mates but also by an audience of young male ‘learners’.

Physiological research suggests that humans have innate neurological specializations to combine music processing with patterns of muscular activity, and that special muscle-building genes determine the kinds of movements that different ethnic groups can achieve.  The outcomes of these biological resources are to demonstrate to others who are interested how you get done what you do.  Richard Schechner defines such activity as ‘performance’ (Fig 5).  Performers of an assembly of humanitarian values are carriers, transmitters, and bearers of traditions, terms which connote a passive medium, conduit, or vessel, without volition, intention, or subjectivity.

Fig 5 Schechner’s categorisation of human performance

schechners fan

Performance has no character, plot, or action, and this distinguishes it from drama.  In fact the concept of performance emerged during the last third of the 20th century and was part of a reaction against the predominance of western traditions in drama or theatre studies.   Schechner explains that this approach can be applied to any event or material object. Performance takes everyday life as its stage and every form of human activity can come under its spotlight. From performance art to political rallies, to the law courts, religious ceremonies and sporting events, to simply dressing up for a night out on the town, the reach of performance studies is potentially limitless.  In his 2003 book Performance Theory, Schechner dedicated a whole chapter to what he identified as the continuities between animal and human performance. Starting with a reference to Darwin’s view that there is a continuity of behaviour from animals to people, and driven by a desire to explore the question, “how are human religions, customs, and arts extensions, elaborations, and transformations of animal cultures?”, Schechner goes on to conclude that, “on several levels human and animal performances converge and/or exist along a continuum” manifested at different levels: structural, processual, technical, cultural, mimetic, and theoretical. However, rather than showing a primary interest in animal performance per se, Schechner calls for a study of the latter within performance theory solely as a strategy for better understanding their most evolved offspring, human performance.

However, a compelling account of the evolution of human musical and dancing abilities is lacking. The sexual selection hypothesis cannot easily account for the widespread performance of music and dance in groups, especially synchronized performances, and the social bonding hypothesis has severe theoretical difficulties. There is, however, a third evolutionary approach.  This starts with the proposition that humans are unique among the primates in their ability to form cooperative alliances between groups in the absence of consanguineal ties. Edward Hagen and Gregory Bryan propose that this unique form of social organization is predicated on music and dance. In particular, they suggest that music and dance may have evolved as a coalition signalling-system that could, among other things, credibly communicate visually the intrinsic quality of a coalition, thus permitting meaningful cooperative relationships between groups. This capability may have evolved from coordinated territorial defence signals that are common in many social species, including chimpanzees.

In support of their theory Hagen and Bryan presented a study based on the idea that group performances are credible signals of collective interests. If most group members invested time and energy singing and dancing for visitors, the visitors might rightly conclude that the hosting group as a whole was strongly motivated to secure an alliance with them, whereas if only a small fraction of a large group bothered to do so, the visitors could rightly conclude the opposite. This argument has implications for the emotionality of music played in groups which the audience automatically classes as being good or bad .  To test this, Hagen and Bryan set up an experiment in which manipulation of music synchrony significantly altered subjects’ perceptions of music quality.  They found that  the subjects’ perceptions of music quality were correlated with their perceptions of the coalition quality of the performers, supporting the coalition  hypothesis. The hypothesis also has implications for the evolution of psychological mechanisms underlying cultural production in other domains such as food preparation, clothing and body decoration, storytelling and ritual, and tools and other artefacts.

In her paper ‘Music and Dance: Timeless Mediums in Uganda’, Katelin Gray paints an idealised picture of the role of dance in an emergent human culture where,  “…. ancient agriculturalists and pastoralists linked hands and danced under the night sky, with soft drums beating syncopated rhythms in the background, and a flute made of bear bone emitting delicate melodies. The next day, most began sowing their millet and sorghum, while a few recorded the happenings of the night before on stone walls for us to find millennia later and consequently speculate about the meaning of art forms in prehistoric times”.

“Dancing and music were a means of education in a preliterate society and a method of unifying the different families that comprised the village. Music was more than entertainment; it reinforced and coordinated the community and connected the population through public activity”.

6  Dance in an ecological curriculum

Culture and society are not the same thing.  While cultures are complexes of learned behaviours and perceptions, societies are groups of interacting organisms.  People are not the only animals that have societies.  Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and hives of bees are societies.  In the case of humans, however, societies are groups of people who directly or indirectly interact with each other.  People in human societies also generally perceive that their society is distinct from other societies in terms of shared traditions and expectations among its members..

While human societies and cultures are not the same thing, they are inextricably connected because culture is created and transmitted to others in a society.  Cultures are not the product of lone individuals.  They are the continuously evolving products of people interacting with each other.  Cultural patterns such as language and politics make no sense except in terms of the interaction of people. In this respect, dance is a subset of the subject of culture.

Traditional forms of music and dance are of great historical value to current societies in revealing ethnic relations in a common past. Collectors of English folk songs knew this and composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams have left a legacy of compositions which evoke times when most people laboured in the pre-industrial countryside.

In Africa, modern rulers fear the past;  that an attachment to tribal kings, about whom much of the dance is performed, will weaken the political power of the wider state.  Tribes are not considered a political entity with a legitimate head, but a lesser cultural institution. Yet tribal distinctions have been, and are still a powerful method of forming one’s identity. While political life eradicates this identity, traditional music and dance help to elevate it by communicating and affirming communally held morals and values and keeping active the accounts of a tribe’s history.

Peter Brinson, in his book ‘Dance As Education: Towards A National Dance Culture; sets out to answer the important questions, Why dance in the Curriculum? and In What Particular Way Does Dance Contribute to the Curriculum?  Brinson believes we have a wealth of opportunities for cross curricular collaboration between the professional and educational dance worlds.  In answer to the question ‘So what is next for dance?’ Brinson concludes that dance educators seek assurance that guidance will be given to planners of the school curriculum. Head teachers, however committed to the dance at present in their schools, will neglect it if clear statements are not made as to how and where dance may be included as a broad educational experience, with clear applications to day to day living in a global perspective where consumerism is seen as the antithesis of dance.

To establish a global curriculum, the proposition is that first and foremost, dance is an expression of the concept of ‘cultural ecology’, which has been used in the discipline of anthropology since the 1950s; it means the study of human adaptations to social and physical environments.  In this context, dance makes a distinctive contribution to education at all levels in that it uses the most fundamental mode of human expression- movement to match individuals to their ecological niche.. The body as the instrument of expression is unique in its accessibility. Together with the other arts it provides considerable potential for the expression of personal and universal human qualities. Through its use of non-verbal communication, dance gives students the opportunity to participate in cross-curricular themes in a way which differs from any other area of learning. In a broad and balanced curriculum this important area of human experience should not be neglected.

7  Educational outcomes of dance

Brinson’s list of educational outcomes of dance are comprehensive and impressive.

Through artistic and aesthetic education, dance:

  • provides initiation into a distinct form of knowledge and understanding.
  • gives access to a unique expression of meaning.
  • develops perceptual skills.
  • develops the ability to make informed and critical judgments, develops creative thought and action.
  • provides opportunities for creating and appreciating artistic forms.
  • develops performance skills.
  • introduces pupils to dance as a theatre art.

Through cultural education, dance:

  • gives access to a rich diversity of cultural forms, offers insights into different cultural traditions, develops understanding of the different cultural dances attached to values
  • introduces processes of cultural generation and change.

Through personal and social education, dance

  • gives opportunities to explore the relationship between feelings, dance and expression.
  • promotes sensitivity in working with others.
  • develops self-confidence and pride in individual and group work.
  • encourages independence and initiative.
  • provides opportunity for achievement, success and self-esteem, for pupils with and without learning difficulties.

Through physical education, health and fitness education dance:

  • promotes a responsible attitude to the body and its well-being, develops coordination, strength, stamina and mobility, encourages physical confidence and control, provides a leisure pursuit for fitness in life after school curriculum.

Environmental education is an important addition to to Brinson’s list.

Through environmental education, dance:

  • students learn how to use the elements of dance and composition to convey a message about an environmental issue.
  • students learn about one environmental issue through research and, in small groups, create a dance piece that advocates for community action to gain environmental betterment.
  • students begin to understand and become aware of the various issues that we as a global interacting population are faced with, and through the use of an environmental artefact or source as inspiration, generate movements individually and in small groups with a particular environmental issue in mind.

Fig 6  Black Creek community performance


Regarding conservation as a return to humanitarianism, we already have the tools for dealing with environmental decline—they are innate to humans: awareness, free will, creativity and ingenuity. The issue is whether we are willing to use these abilities to build a better future. To date, we have used our intelligence to try to understand the world and human existence, to prolong our lifespans and improve our lifestyles, to become richer, and to assemble ourselves into groups and societies. We have developed the disciplines of science, philosophy, medicine, economics, politics, engineering and technology, but we have failed utterly to apply these effectively and consistently to deal with environmental issues. As a result, our behaviour as a species is little different from other animals whose destinies are determined by ecological laws.

Nevertheless, the environmental theme of dance was taken up by Laura Reinsborough and Liz Forsberg while studying community arts at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Toronto.  They created the Black Creek Storytelling Parade, a public performance that follows the route of storm water from a permeable surface of the university campus down to the banks of an ancient topographical feature known as Black Creek (Fig 6). They employed costumes, fanfare, amplification, and percussion— performance tactics to relate people to the hidden campus landscape. As organizers of the parade, they sought out a variety of interpretative questions and frameworks.  The following narrative includes Reinsborough’s combination of description and interpretation relating to the performance.  After the initial presentation, they continued as developers and coordinators in response to additional invitations to perform the Parade.

“As we critically reflect upon our practices and build upon past experiences, each performance has taken on new qualities and become increasingly more community-based. Throughout the development of the project, we have also used a number of different methods to attract attention (e.g., sidewalk chalk, costumes, percussion instruments, and audience participation), and we have altered those methods to attract different kinds of attention (e.g., letting go of the costumes after some joking comments from passers-by). Thus, we made decisions about our methods for their potential to both engage and alienate. Critically questioning our methods has been a part of our work each step of the way, out of an interest to hone our practices and as a result of our academic location as graduate students”.

“While York seemingly displays a barren landscape that obscures any history other than the corporate and colonial names of its buildings, we heeded advice from Planet U: Sustaining the World, Reinventing the University: “Dig a little, and any suburban campus has remnant roots with stories to tell”. And so we dug, using archival research and word of mouth to reveal the area’s unofficial stories: unsettled land claims, hidden community gardens, the historical presence of the passenger pigeon (a foreboding icon of species extinction), ecological restoration initiatives, and land use planning”

Their aim was to craft a multi-perspective view of Black Creek that would engage participants beyond a single, seemingly monolithic narrative. They invited storytellers and other keepers of knowledge to share their stories. The intent was to reach beyond the limits of their primary research, beyond the official stories proliferated by York University, and beyond the most common narratives told of nature and ecology. They hoped to inspire a social connection between parade-goers and place, to uncover the existing stories of the area and graft their own cultural meaning onto the campus landscape.  The local coalition they created is a practical contribution to place-making.

8  Propositions for teaching and researching dance

Dance has its biological roots in pre-human evolution. Theatre practitioner Richard Schechner notes a link between the biological and its universal expression in human behaviour patterns:

“I confess that I believe both in universals and singularities. How can that be? In a nutshell, biology provides humans with templates, building blocks, integers (you pick your term, your metaphor), while culture and individuality determine how these are used, subverted, applied, and “made into” who each person and each social unit is. For me, there are realities at all levels of the human endeavour; biological–evolutionary, cultural–social, individual. These overlap and interplay. To assert a connection between the ethological, the anthropological, and the aesthetic is not to deny local and individual variation and uniqueness”.

It should be a matter of some interest and concern to those who teach and research humanistic studies such as the philosophy of dance that their work is founded on a heri­tage of philosophical speculations about the nature of knowledge and the mind.  This was formulated by prehistoric people who had no reason to suspect that human consciousness and men­tal activity have had a long evolutionary history. Today, most branches of philosophy continue their investigations without regard for the impli­cations of two centuries of palaeo-anthropological dis­coveries.  These research findings imply that the human mind is of a remote antiquity and that it has evolved (and is evolving) within certain bio­logical limits.  The varied abilities that have emerged through natural selection have, necessarily and primarily, been of im­portance to humankind’s survival as a species.

Aesthetics is one of the branches of West­ern philosophy that has generally, even reso­lutely, held itself aloof from scientific en­croachment or scrutiny. This process of Western think­ing about art resists methods of science such as categorization, definition, or precise meas­urement. Its complex workings, whether of construction or appreciation, are regarded, non scientifically as being private, unobservable and usually fleeting, and there­fore do not lend themselves to scientific perusal.  However, viewing dance from the perspective of bio­logical evolution is not the same thing as subjecting it to scientific analysis. More accurately, taking an evolutionary stance is part of a way of looking at art as a human be­haviour, based on the assumption that hu­man beings are a species of animal like other living creatures, which further implies that their behaviour like their anatomy and physi­ology has been shaped by natural selection. Such a viewpoint may suggest new avenues for thinking about some of the problems with which aesthetics has traditionally been concerned: the nature, origin, and value of art, not as an abstraction, but as a universal and intrinsic human be­havioural endowment.  Remember, evolution is the root of dance as a coalition-forming behaviour..

Speak­ing in evolutionary terms, it has only been in the blinking of an eye, that art has been detached from its evolved affiliates, ritual and play, and its various components have coa­lesced to become seen an independent activity. Until less than a hundred years ago the primary tasks of dancers, like painters, were not to “create works of art” but to reveal or embody the divine, illustrate holy writ, enrich shrines and private homes and public buildings.  Like the, fashioning of fine utensils and elaborate orna­ments accompany ceremonial observances, recording historic scenes and personages, and so forth, the makers made these things “special,”  Specifically aes­thetic considerations were no more relevant than other functional requirements.

The ways in which meaning was appre­hended by our ancestors were not divided into separate entities called “art,” ‘science/’ “metaphysics.”  Our attribution of the name “art” to tribal singing or dancing or to cave paintings is arbitrary and misleading. More simply, these are ways of ‘the mind in the cave’ of finding meaning in life, ways that were inextricably bound to social in­stitutions and practices whose fundamental assumptions are no longer accepted unquestioningly. Evolution has set limits to human capabilities and in order to understand these it is necessary to collect and compare examples of universal human behaviours from many societies. Accounts from anthropological studies of a wide vari­ety of human groups show that in spite of a wide diversity of detail, human beings uni­versally display certain general features of behaviour which ethologists have identified in most animal societies as well. For example, both human and animal societies tend to form and maintain some kind of social hier­archy. Both humans and animals (including reptiles, birds, and even insects) use ritual­ized non-auditory communicatory signals that formalise emotional responses, channel aggression and reinforce social bonds to behave collectively.  It is within this developing knowledge framework that dance links ethology, anthropology and aesthetics to provide an antidote to Kruk’s magic spell of world development that has ‘shifted humanitarian values to the background’.  It is an evolved propensity to promote the development of behavioural coalitions which includes much more than theatre, but is expressed along an entire spectrum, ranging from everyday life to rituals and art.

It was inevitable that in our current digital age that there would be a move to integrate digital imagery with live performance.  Over recent years that has become increasingly common  with several artists creating work that enmeshes digital and biological performance entities within a performance context. The works draw on a range of technologies, from interactive and motion tracking systems to registered projected video, motion capture, 3D scenographic landscapes and more, all exploiting the possibilities of emergent technologies. The scope of dance is not narrowing towards digital, rather, it is expanding.”

In 2014, artists at the Deakin Motion.Lab premiered ‘The Crack Up’, a new full-length trans-media

dance work Inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1936 short story of the same name.  Trans-media dance is defined here as a live performance in which both the digital and human presenters perform simultaneously as artistic equals.. The notion behind this work  is that two people, or two or more performance entities, are splitting the attention of the audience, operating as equal collaborators in a holistically produced performance context.  A mobile app was created for the performance which splits the direction of audience focus between a 3D video screened on stage, the dancers on stage, and the integrated mobile devices of members of the audience. The app provides poetic images and lines of text. This transmedia performance can be taken as the starting point for research into  the potential for augmenting live performance with 3D projected scenography and mobile devices.  It is also a starting point for discussion on the potential for dramaturgy, choreographic process, and the directing of audience attention within trans-media dance performances.

9  Climate change: a challenge for community performance


The dancer, Liz Lerman, finds science to be a rich source of material for her dance company to perform; she sees her dancers as helping disseminate scientific discoveries to the public, and helping the public visualize the scientific concepts. There is part of a current trend for dance companies to choreograph dances about molecular genetics, with themes such as the Genome Project and DNA replication.  Nobel laureate John Polanyi has referred to molecular movement as “the dance of the molecules.” On the other side, many scientific discoveries are often an inspiration for dancers, actors, playwrights, poets and musicians.  Indeed, physics provides the intellectual framework for one of Lerman’s works, on which the whole piece hangs. For one hour, dancers young and old, spin, leap, fall, balance and re-balance through critical moments of atomic and subatomic history referencing Marie Curie and the discovery of radium, the Manhattan Project, the particle collider at CERN and the Hubble telescope (Fig 7).

Fig 7  A fusion of physics and dance


Today, the greatest need for the general public to engage with science is the global  threat to humanitarian values known as ‘climate change’. Without doubt, scientific evidence is telling us that:

  • the global climate has been changing over the several decades in a manner that is highly unusual compared to a very long history of climatic stability;
  • emissions of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide from humanity’s use of fossil carbon fuels are the dominant cause of these changes;
  • these changes are already having significant adverse impacts on human well being and on ecosystems;
  • this harm will continue to grow unless the offending emissions are greatly reduced.

For future generations to cope with the accompanying environmental instabilities there has to be a big behavioural change in order  to live within a balanced carbon economy, where our emissions match the rate at which they can be taken out of the atmosphere . This is the most relevant, important and continuous message for educators to transmit, using every available means and media, at all levels of education.  The slogan is ‘Our Planet Our Future: Fighting Climate Change Together’.  This is the title of a booklet produced by the European Commission in 2015.  Miguel Canete in his foreword says:

“Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing mankind today.  It is not a problem we can put off and deal with when we have more time or more money.  We all have a duty to act to stop the climate getting worse,  The actions we take now will determine what the world we live in will look like in 10, 20 or 50 years’ time.  And it’s going to to need huge efforts from all of us individuals, governments, businesses, schools and other organisations, working together for a better climate and better future”.

The message is that the objective of climate action is to impart sustainability and resilience to world development.  In other words, dealing with climate change has become the basis of our common humanity and as such climate action should become a major pillar of education.   Working together’ means networking globally; ‘actions’ means making betterment plans, with realistic targets, in homes, neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces,  The outcome is to leave smaller carbon footprints for future generations to follow.

Documentation of the urgent need for action plans to mitigate or adapt to climate change runs from 1988 to 2014. To present its call for action needs more effective communication. The difficulty in teaching climate change using traditional bookish methods is that we can’t think about it in a linear manner.  Our thoughts about it bounce off other thoughts like a ping-pong ball. They go in all possible directions. Therefore, the best way to keep track of thoughts about a subject like climate change that conforms to a cross-curricular framework is by the application of a whole range of the brain’s cortical skills to make and respond to mind maps.

Mind maps are resources for visual learning and dance is a powerful visual medium that links culture with ecology. The thinking skills of choreography include;  logic, rhythm, lines, colour, lists, daydreaming, numbers, imagination, word, and seeing the whole picture. The more these activities are integrated, the more the brain’s performance becomes co-operative, with each intellectual skill enhancing other intellectual areas.

When navigating the mind map of a dance the audience is not only practicing and exercising their fundamental powers of memory and information processing, but are also using their entire range of cortical skills with all the elements that the brain can process.. This is spiced up with personal elements like imagination, association and location which make learning absorbing and effective.

This then is the challenge for those wishing to present climate change as an educational performance.  The aim is to dispel the following five myths about the underlying science

  1. The Earth stopped warming in the last decade.
  2. If it is warming, humans aren’t the main cause.
  3. A little warming isn’t harmful anyway.
  4. If there is any danger, it’s far in the future.
  5. Even if mainstream climate science is right and the need for action therefore is real, doing enough to make a difference is unaffordable.

With or without dance, making a mind map is an educational performance, because teaching climate change is primarily a process of cross-subject storytelling,  For example, the Bella Gaia performance is a fine, albeit expensive, example of life-changing dance and music messaging.   Inspired by astronauts who spoke of the educative power of seeing the Earth from space, filmmaker and composer Kenji Williams created the award winning Bella Gaia as a trans media performance that successfully simulates space flight, taking the audience on a spectacular journey around the planet Earth. It showcases a thought-provoking stream of crucial scientific data regarding our imperilled ecosystems while also celebrating the amazing cultural heritage of humanity.

At the other end of the scale, the European Commission’s booklet also aims to produce behavioural change.  In this respect it provides ideas, facts and imagery for communities to choreograph a variety of performances, with or without transmedia components, presenting important international issues about climate action and relating them to local situations.

Above all, a dance performance thoughtfully combined with social media allows people to share what is learned with the world and tap into the knowledge and experience of others to help make even stronger connections with real-world problems and their solution (Fig 8)

Fig 8  A performance for raising awareness of the need for climate action (New York:2014)

People dance during a rally against climate change in New York September 21, 2014.

People dance during a rally against climate change in New York September 21, 2014.


9  Web references







People dancing


Definition of performance



Academic view


Art as human behaviour


Environmental education through community arts




Cultural values


Social dance



Cross curricular view


Cultural ecology


Folklore Jessica Schmonsky


Beauty and behaviour intertwined


Biocultural musings


Both information and social cohesion determine collective decisions in animal groupshttp://www.pnas.org/content/110/13/5263.full

Music and dance as a coalition signaling system


Ecological dominance; social competition


A doctoral thesis


Climate action

1 Action for trees


2 Economic action


3 Milestones


Transmedia dance performance


Science of chemistry and dance


Intangible heritage


Learning ecologies


Conservation, human values and democracy


Ecosystem services and conservation management

July 23rd, 2015

Ecosystem services and conservation management

“Here and there on the green plush surface of the moss were scattered faint circular marks, each the size of a shilling. So faint were they that it was only from certain angles that they were noticeable at all  I wondered idly what could have made them. They were too irregular, too scattered to be the prints of some beast, and what was it that would walk up an almost vertical bank in such a haphazard manner?  Besides, they were not like imprints. I prodded the edge of one of these circles with a piece of grass. It remained unmoved and  I began to think the mark was caused by some curious way in which the moss grew. I probed again more vigorously, and suddenly my stomach gave a clutch of tremendous excitement. It was as though my grass-stalk had found a hidden spring, for the whole circle lifted up like a trap door. As I stared, I saw to my amazement that it was in fact a trap door, lined with silk, and with a neatly bevelled edge that fitted snugly into the mouth of the silk lined shaft it concealed. The edge of the door was fastened to the lip of the tunnel by a small flap of silk acts as the hinge. I gazed at this magnificent piece of workmanship and wondered what on earth could have made it”.

Gerald Durrell-as a boy partaking of cultural ecosystem services in wonderment..

1 Background

During the past decade there has been a global move towards holistic conservation management, with integrated plans for local ecosystem services (Fig 1)  taken down to the level of the family and its neighbourhood. This is a practical approach to cultural ecology because such plans involve modelling the ecocultural dynamics of the local human ecological niche which encapsulates the dependence of humankind bonding with other creatures.. We now have to legislate to establish and maintain this vital relationship

Fig 1 Classification of ecosystem services


Two significant moves in this direction are the Future Generations (Wales) Act, recently introduced by the Welsh Government, and Section 38 of Kenya’s Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA)  Both initiatives demand that local government, in partnership with its communities, should co-produce plans for the well-being of future generations.  In Wales these plans are called ‘well-being plans’ and in Kenya they are ‘district environment action plans (DEAPs)’. Regarding the format for such plans, a good Kenyan example is the Mount Elgon DEAP.  Wales has yet to specify the required format of its well being plans.

The two systems of legislation have arisen independently as frameworks within which local government is required to make statutory conservation management systems to ensure the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (the sustainable development principle).

The plans will have to operate seamlessly from strategic to operational levels and  manage the linkages between fragmented ecosystems and the interconnections amongst cultural practices, economic development, environmental stressors, ecosystem attributes and restoration activities for impacts on biodiversity, locally and globally into day living. Performance indicators for well being are required so that everyone can check out progress of their local plan to see how far their global footprint is from the ‘one planet limit’ (Fig 2).

Fig 2 The historic milestones in the hope for sustainability


2 Purpose

The starting point for managing ecosystem services is for people to have some sort of awareness of their local ecological assets and the importance of managing biodiversity for human well being..  This blog explores a knowledge system for assembling conceptual management models so that people can make contact with other living things in a managed ecological context, be it a potted plant, a private garden, trees in the street, parks, a pathway through the countryside, a zoo/wildlife park and large scale terrestrial, marine, and freshwater protected areas.

The early conservation movement included the protective management of fisheries, wildlife, water, soil and sustainable forestry. The contemporary movement has broadened from an emphasis on use of sustainable yields of natural resources and preservation of wilderness areas to include preservation of life in all its diversity. Conservation has come to define a management system that aims to preserve natural resources expressly for their continued sustainable use by humans as an intrinsic good and a contributor to human well being and survival.

Over time, large scale protected areas have moved from being places of physical isolation, where management was frequently hands-off or laissez-faire, to places where active restoration is done to restore biodiversity and other valuable features of the protected area.  Although protected area management aims first at protecting existing ecosystems, a combination of previous degradation and continuing external pressures mean that restoration has become the norm for conservation management.  This is because, on an overcrowded planet, ecosystems are no longer a pristine state in which humankind evolved and continuous management is needed to restore them to a past condition of low human impact.  In recognition of this global situation the term ‘restoration for protected areas’ has been introduced by the IUCN for activities within protected sites and for activities in the wider system of connecting or surrounding lands and waters that influence protected area features. Sometimes a conservation plan necessitates restoration beyond protected area borders (e.g. to address ecosystem fragmentation and maintain well-connected protected area systems).

Fig 3 The human niche as the outcome of social design


Humans have a long history of niche construction—of modifying their environments, large and small by designed behaviour patterns that are both deliberate and inadvertent (Fig 3). Although the consequences of human niche construction in this way are not always anticipated, one of the primary goals of environmental engineering by human societies has been to increase their share of the annual productivity of the ecosystems they occupy by increasing both the abundance and reliability of the plant and animal resources they rely on for food and raw materials. Using fire and simple technology in the modification of vegetation communities, our distant ancestors were shaping environments more to their liking in ways that we can see in the archaeological record back perhaps as far as 40 000 years ago. The recent shift towards holistic management involves the integration of ecosystem services and conceptual models of conservation management should work within the socio-cultural characteristics of the local human ecological niche. As syntheses of the state of understanding of the dynamics of the human niche, conceptual models of ecosystem services can provide a basis for examining the potential risks and consequences of various restoration options and related actions.  Modelled attributes of the restored ecosystem can also be used as benchmarks for evaluating the success of various stages of the management project and determining the need to change restoration actions or policies through an adaptive approach.  Descriptions of the abiotic and biotic attributes of one or more sets of reference ecosystems are important contributors to conceptual models for ecological restoration projects.  Mind maps are essential to visualise these complex models at a glance.

3 Definitions

Ecological restoration: ‘the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed’ (SER, 2004)

Protected area: ‘A clearly defined geographical space, recognized dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated human ecosystem services and cultural values’

4 Restoration

■■ Restoration in and around protected areas contributes to many societal goals and objectives associated with biodiversity conservation and human well-being,  Indeed, holistic restoration management can be thought of as a wellbeing plan.

■■ Reasons for implementing restoration projects vary and may include, for example, recovery of individual species, the strengthening of landscape or seascape-scale ecosystem function or connectivity, improvement of visitor experience opportunities, or the re-establishment or enhancement of various ecosystem services

■■ Restoration can contribute to climate change adaptation by strengthening resilience to change and providing ecosystem services. It can contribute to climate change mitigation by capturing carbon in ecosystems

■■ Rapid climate change and other global changes create additional challenges for restoration and underscore the need for adaptive management

■■ Protected area managers need to work with stakeholders and partners inside and outside protected area boundaries to ensure successful restoration within and between protected areas

5 Operating Principles

Re-establish values

Effective ecological restoration for protected areas is restoration that re-establishes and maintains the values of a protected area

  • ‘Do no harm’ when restoration is the best option
  • Re-establish ecosystem structure, function and composition
  • Maximize the contribution of restoration actions to enhancing resilience even when this may need changed objectives (e.g., to climate change)
  • Restore connectivity within and beyond the boundaries of protected areas
  • Encourage and re-establish traditional cultural values and practices that contribute to the ecological, social and cultural sustainability of the protected area and its surroundings
  • Use research and monitoring, including from traditional ecological knowledge, to maximize restoration success

Maximise beneficial outcomes

Efficient ecological restoration for protected areas is restoration that maximizes beneficial outcomes while minimizing costs in time, resources and effort

  • Consider restoration goals and objectives from system-wide to local scales
  • Ensure long-term capacity and support for maintenance and monitoring of restoration
  • Enhance natural capital and ecosystem services from protected areas while contributing to nature conservation goals
  • Contribute to sustainable livelihoods for indigenous peoples and local communities dependent on the protected areas
  • Integrate and coordinate with international development policies and programming.

Engage with others

Engaging ecological restoration for protected areas is restoration that collaborates with partners and stakeholders, promotes participation and enhances visitor experience

  • Collaborate with indigenous and local communities, neighbouring landowners, corporations, scientists and other partners and stakeholders in planning, implementation, and evaluation
  • Learn collaboratively and build capacity in support of continued engagement in ecological restoration initiatives
  • Communicate effectively to support the overall ecological restoration process
  • Provide rich experiential opportunities, through ecological restoration and as a result of restoration, that encourage a sense of connection with and stewardship of protected areas

6  Planning principles

Identify valued features

  • These will usually be habitats and species but can also be ancillary systems, such as the facilities for access and visitor education,

Factor analysis

  • Identify all major factors, sometimes called ‘barriers’, causing degradation—undertaking restoration without tackling underlying causes is likely to be fruitless.
  • Identify and where possible control external factors such as pollution that may compromise restoration efforts
  • Restore, where possible, ecosystem functioning along with physicochemical conditions and hydrology
  • Consider natural capital, ecosystem services, disaster risk reduction and climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Identify potential negative impacts of the restoration programme and take action to limit or mitigate them as much as possible
  • Assess the possible impacts of climate change and other large-scale changes on the feasibility and durability of restoration and try to build resilience through adaptive planning
  • Establish a rationale to manage each factor through researching how it impacts on the feature.


  • Ensure a participatory process involving all relevant stakeholders and partners in planning and implementation, facilitating participation and shared learning, contributing to acquisition of transferable knowledge, improving visitor experiences, and celebrating successes.


  • Set clear restoration objectives for the state of each feature—it may not be appropriate to aim for a ‘pristine’ or ‘pre-disturbance’ state, particularly under conditions of rapid environmental (e.g., climate) change
  • Recognize that some objectives or motivations for restoration may conflict and work collaboratively to prioritize among them


  • Ensure that the time frames for the activities required to meet the objectives are clear


  • Ensure that monitoring addresses the full range of restoration objectives and the intermediate stages needed to reach them
  • Use monitoring results and other feedback to adapt the plan according to the outcomes

7  A Welsh model

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act


Fig 4  A well being hierarchy of human needs


The Act provides for a set of long-term well-being goals for Wales within the context of a hierarchy of human needs. (Fig 4). These goals set for a prosperous; resilient; healthier; more equal Wales; with cohesive communities; and a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language. Placing them in legislation will provide a clear definition of a sustainable Wales, and help deliver the long term consistency and certainty that is needed to tackle future challenges, for example climate change, tackling poverty, and health inequalities.

The Act will require Welsh Ministers to establish national indicators to measure progress towards the achievement of the well-being goals and report on them annually.

About the Act

The key purposes of the Act are to:

  • set a framework within which specified Welsh public authorities will seek to ensure the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (the sustainable development principle),
  • put into place well-being goals which those authorities are to seek to achieve in order to improve wellbeing both now and in the future,
  • set out how those authorities are to show they are working towards the well-being goals,
  • put Public Services Boards and local well-being plans on a statutory basis and, in doing so, simplify current requirements as regards integrated community planning, and
  • establish a Future Generations Commissioner for Wales to be an advocate for future generations who will advise and support Welsh public authorities in carrying out their duties under the Bill.

The Act sets out six well-being goals against which every public body must set and publish well-being objectives that are designed to maximise its contribution to the achievement of the well-being goals. The Well-being goals are:

  • A prosperous Wales
  • A resilient Wales
  • A healthier Wales
  • A more equal Wales
  • A Wales of cohesive communities
  • A Wales of vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language

Sustainability is at the forefront of the Bill and it seeks to ensure that the long term effects of current decision making are considered at all times. It will, if passed (it has the backing of all political parties), formalise partnerships across the public sector to ensure a joined up approach to delivery and planning. In applying the sustainable development principle the Bill requires that public bodies take into account:

  • The importance of balancing short term needs with the need to safeguard the ability to meet long term needs
  • The benefits of taking an integrated approach by considering how: an objective may impact upon each of the well-being goals and the social, economic and environmental aspects and; the impact of the body’s objectives on each other and upon other public bodies’ objectives.
  • The importance of involving those with an interest in the objectives, seeking views and taking them into account
  • How collaborating with any other person could assist the body to meet its objectives, or assist another body to meet its objectives.
  • How deploying resources to prevent problems occurring or getting worse may contribute to meeting the body’s objective, or another body’s objectives

There must be a Public Services Board for each local authority area in Wales. The board will include the Local Authority, Local Health Board, the Welsh Fire and Rescue Authority and Natural Resources Wales as statutory members. In addition the board must invite (‘invited participants’) the Welsh Ministers, the Chief Constable of the police force in that area, the Police and Crime Commissioner, a person required to provide probation services in relation to the Local Authority area and a body representing voluntary organisations in the area.  Other relevant organisations can also be invited to join the board.

The aim of the Public Services Board will be to improve the economic, social and environmental well-being of its area in accordance with the sustainable development principle. Each board is required to publish an assessment of the state of the economic, social and environmental well-being in its area prior to the production of a local well-being plan.  This is similar to current arrangements for Local Service Boards and the existing practice of undertaking needs assessments and producing a Single Integrated Plan but will be a statutory requirement.

The Public Services Board must also review and amend its local wellbeing plan and produce annual progress reports.

8 A Kenyan model

District, Provincial and National Environment Action Plans (NEAPs)

Section 38 of Kenyan Environmental Management and Coordination Act (EMCA) provides for the preparation of District, Provincial and National Environment Action plans every five years. The preparation of the District and Provincial Environment Action Plans commenced with initial training of six technical members from the District  Provincial environment committees. This was through four regional training workshops based on the NEAP Manual. The District Environment Officers and Provincial Directors of Environment who are secretaries to their respective committees informed the District and Provincial Commissioners who chair the Environmental committees. Members of the District and provincial committees were informed and participated in preparation and validation of their respective environment action plans. Other committees including the District and Provincial Development and Executive committees were informed. During barazas or public meetings, members of the public were informed of the ongoing process. The District environment Action Plans are forwarded to the Provincial Directors of Environment to enable input of issues identified into the Provincial Environment Action Plans. The Provincial Environment Action Plans are passed to the National Environment Management Authority to incorporate issues identified at the Provincial level.

9  Managing giraffids: interactions between cultures and ecology

The giraffe  has suddenly come to the fore as an endangered species in a rapidly deteriorating indigenous habitat.According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, at the beginning of this century there were about 140,000 giraffes roaming  the plains and open forests of Africa. Today that number has plummeted by more than 40 percent.   As with so many other species, the causes of this decline is rapid change which activates unmanaged conflicts between the human demand on its habitat  for different ecosystem services.

Modern culture thrives on change. It creates new goods and services, and teaches us to want them. It adds new technologies, things and ideas at an increasingly rapid rate.  Change in modern culture is propelled by all the same forces that cause change in traditional culture, only in modern culture the changes happen more quickly. Modern culture is a more mutable system that tends to change often.  Another way in which traditional culture and modern culture differ is in their relationship to environment. Traditional cultures lived in close contact with their local environment. This taught that nature must be respected, cooperated with, in certain ritualized ways. One did not make huge changes in the environment, beyond clearing fields for agriculture and villages. Society saw itself as part of nature; its spiritual beliefs and values held humans as the kinsmen of plants and animals.

In contrast, modern culture creates its own environment, exports that cultural environment to colonies in far away places. It builds cities and massive structures. It teaches that nature is meant to be manipulated, to be the source of jobs and wealth for its human masters. It sees itself as being above nature. Its religions commonly cast humans as the pinnacle of nature: at best its paternalistic supervisors, at worst its righteous conquerors.  This results in habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation, through food production,  hunting and poaching, collecting wood for domestic fuel, using rivers and streams as waste sinks, artisan mining for minerals and the growth of urban settlements.  The latter is linked with high population growth.  For example, in 2015, Eye on Earth reported a study carried out in Uganda by the Population Reference Bureau.  The message is that the country’s current population of 27.7 million will expand to 130 million by 2050, a nearly fivefold increase. Uganda’s current growth rate is 3.1 percent, while the world average is 1.2 percent.  The PRB believes a low level of family planning is the main reason for the country’s extraordinary population growth. Only 20 percent of married Ugandan women between the ages of 15 and 49 have access to contraception. Women in Uganda have an average of 6.9 children, compared with a global average of 2.7 and an African average of 5.1.

Unfortunately, the decline in giraffes has occurred with little public attention.  To place this in a larger conservation perspective there are an estimated 450,000 African elephants compared to 80,000 giraffe.  Indeed, the giraffe is more endangered that the panda in terms of the numbers in its indigenous habitat.

There are several large national nature reserves in Kenya with online public conservation plans which include the giraffe. There are also several privately owned conservancies, such as the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy, occupying 3,000 fenced off acres of a former colonial cattle ranch.  These sites, protect smaller pockets of planned biodiversity that allow some species to utilize multiple cross boundary areas. Resilience-UK is using these operational plans as an information source to exemplify an online educational wiki, which compares the logic of different conservation systems being developed for controlling ecosystem services.   In this context, there is scope in Kenya for developing a common conceptual format for conservation plans in order to share ideas, experience and achievements about managing habitats and species, between sites.  Since wildlife and habitats transcend national boundaries there is also scope to promote ideas of transnational planning to a common conceptual format.  The central philosophy is adaptive management (Fig 5) where monitoring of outcomes provides feedback to the objectives, hypotheses and management activities of the plan.

Fig 5 The logic of adaptive management


It was in the 1980s that the idea of developing a common conservation planning/recording system brought together UK government and non-governmental nature protection organisations to create a software database known as the CMS.  This computer package was based on the needs of site managers to schedule and report on the outcomes of their day to day activities  and share best operational practice..  The CMS is now developed and promoted by the Conservation Management System Consortium, a not-for-profit organisation. The system is the gold standard for conservation management in the UK and The Netherlands.  As such, it provides a well-worked and tested planning, recording and reporting logic for making  international comparisons, particular in the context of developing education/training packages to link communities and their local ecosystem services to support the topic of cultural ecology.  A network of Wikis is the focus for this cross-curricular educational initiative.

Fig 6 Excerpt from a conceptual ecosystem services mind map https://atlas.mindmup.com/resilienceuk/kigio_wildlife_conservancy_a_concept_m/index.html


An ecosystem services mind map (Fig 6)  is being developed to illustrate a conceptual management system based on the conservation plan produced by Projects Abroad in partnership with the Giraffe Research and Conservation Trust and the Kigio Wildlife Conservancy.  As a concept management plan the mind map conceptualises a one-to-many database, which is the most appropriate software solution to make, record and report on operational management. The plan is taken down to the level of actions for one of its intrinsic features, the Rothschild’s giraffe, which is an iconic indicator of the the state of the ecosystem services of the African plains.

The family Giraffidae has two extant members: the savannah-dwelling giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and the forest-living okapi (Okapia johnstoni). Native to Africa, this family is highly adapted for browsing, although the two species inhabit very different habitats, both feed at a level higher than any other sympatric terrestrial herbivore. The giraffe is the tallest living mammal, towering up to 5.9 meters above the ground.  The forequarters of both species are overdeveloped, and the back slopes downward to the rump.

The fossil record of the Giraffidae begins in Africa during the Miocene, extending to the present on this continent. Giraffes also ranged widely in Eurasia from the middle Miocene to the Pleistocene. Some of these giraffes bore highly developed, branching horn-like projections. The modern-day okapi, on the other hand, closely resembles the ancestral form of the early Pliocene giraffids.

Competition for local ecosystem services also affects okapi conservation, which  is very evident in the conflicts surrounding the declaration and management of the Congolese forest Okapi Wildlife Reserve, which is home to a substantial proportion of the remaining world population of okapi.   One year after giving it World Heritage status the okapi was placed  on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 1998, because armed conflict in early 1997, had led to the looting of facilities and of equipment donated by international conservation organisations, the incursions by thousands of miners seeking gold and rare metals and by bushmeat hunters and cultivators. Most of the staff were evacuated. By 2001, exploitation of the Reserve by armed militias, miners and hunters had decimated the animal population around all camps and the park was too dangerous to visit. That year UN agencies  responded to pleas from staff and NGOs for international pressure to stop the destruction and help to restore funds, morale and order. The political situation is still fragile

10 Postscript

“This animal has a body as big as a horse but with an extremely long neck. Its forelegs are very much longer than the hind legs, and its hoofs are divided like those of cattle.

The length of the foreleg from the shoulder down to the hoof measured, in this present beast, 16 palms, and from the breast thence up to the top of the head measured likewise 16 palms: and when the beast raised its head it was a wonder to see the length of the neck, which was very thin and the head somewhat like that of a deer. The hind legs in comparison with the forelegs were short, so that anyone seeing the animal casually and for the first time would imagine it to be seated and not standing, and its haunches slope down like those of a buffalo.

The belly is white but the rest of the body is of yellow golden hue cross marked with broad white bands. The face, with the nose, resembles that of a deer, and in the upper part it projects somewhat acutely. The eyes are very large, being round, and the ears like those of a horse, while near its ears are seen two small round horns, the bases of which are covered with hair: these horns being like those of the deer when they first begin to grow. The animal reaches so high when it extends its neck that it can overtop any wall, even one with six or seven coping stones in the height, and when it wishes to eat it can stretch up to the branches of any high tree, and only of green leaves is its food. To one who never saw the jornufa before this beast is indeed a very wondrous sight to behold”

From Gonzalez de Clavijo’s account of his journey to Samarkand (1402-6).  It reveals the considerable awe felt by a man who has just gazed at a giraffe for the first time.


This blog builds on the document ‘Ecological Restoration for Protected Areas’, produced by the IUCN.  https://portals.iucn.org/library/efiles/documents/PAG-018.pdf


Conceptual model of the Mount Elgon DEAP.