Managing the Biosphere

June 1st, 2019

One planet living

Over a century ago, in his 1926 book The Biosphere, Russian biogeologist Vladimir Vernadsky was first to recognize implications of the interdependence between life and Earth’s structure. Underlying this interdependence is humanity’s search for happiness through materialism and economic growth,  However, in present-day society, although we recognize our dependence on the earth’s resources – its water, oxygen and other natural elements, we do not recognize the connection between the monetary economy and Earth’s limited capacity to maintain year on year economic growth.  In the short term, the benefits of economic growth are many: the more that businesses and nations grow and profit, the more individuals have jobs, resources and quality of life. At this point in human history, technology has enabled miraculous products, global travel, rapid communication, astonishing efficiencies and unimagined leisure. Economic growth derived from all these technological marvels does indeed feed on itself, as consumers demand more and more.

Natural resources, including materials, water, energy and fertile land, are the basis for our life on Earth. In this context the biosphere, (from Greek bios = life, sphaira, sphere) is the layer of the planet where life exists.  The biosphere is one of the four layers that surround the Earth along with the lithosphere (rock), hydrosphere (water) and atmosphere (air) the biosphere is the sum of all the ecosystems. However, our rapidly growing consumption of these resources is causing severe damage to environment and society.  Fresh water reserves, fish stocks and forests are shrinking; fertile land is being destroyed and species are becoming extinct alongside the spread of social disorder. To thrive, our lifestyles will need to become more sustainable, so that we are able to protect our natural resource base, and the fragile eco-systems that maintain: ecosystems

. We have become the dominant species regarding the demands we make on the biosphere and are now taking more than it can regenerate, so much so that we have started tracking when this “annual overshoot” between supply and demand takes place. For example, in 2017, by August 2nd, the global demand for natural resources exceeded what Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate.  All resources and ecosystem services we used in the remaining four months of 2017 collectively added to our natural resource debt. Each year the date of annual overshoot is getting earlier. But where does this claim originate, and how is it calculated?

Actually the Global Footprint Network (GFN) has been attempting the tricky business of measuring the impact of humans on the planet since 2003. “Ecological footprinting” is where researchers look at how much land, sea and other natural resources are used to produce what people consume – how many potatoes they eat, how much milk they drink, the cotton that goes into the shirts they wear and so on.  The GFN does this by using published statistics on consumption and the amount of land or sea used to produce the quantity of goods consumed. The world’s seven billion people consume varying amounts of Earth’s resources. For instance, compare the lifestyle of a subsistence farmer in the developing world with that of a wealthy city-dweller in a developed country. Each year more land is required to grow the city dweller’s food, more materials are used to build the city dweller’s home and workplace, more energy is required for transport, heating and cooling.

The GFN’s data illustrates how much land would be required if seven billion people lived like the populations of nine selected countries from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates. For example, if everyone on the planet consumed as much as the average US citizen, four Earths would be needed to sustain them.   “It’s a book-keeping approach for resources,” says GFN director and co-founder Mathis Wackernagel.

However, the US does not consume the most on this measure. It is in fact ranked fifth among countries with a population of one million or more. Kuwait comes top with 8.9 global hectares (5.1 Earths), followed by Australia (4.8 Earths), the United Arab Emirates (4.7 Earths) and Qatar (4.0 Earths). The others in the top 10 are Canada, Sweden, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago, and Singapore. The UK is 32nd on the list (2.4 Earths).  Humanity’s addiction to more and more stuff has to be curbed to initiate an era of post consumerism where Earth’s productivity matches demand.

The impact of climate change on the biosphere is additional to our excessive use of natural resources and is already being felt. Average global temperatures have risen every decade since the 1970s, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997.  Glaciers, permafrost and sea ice are disappearing. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, seasons changing and extreme weather events becoming more common. The impacts of climate change are already responsible for killing an estimated 315,000 people every year and permanently damaging ecosystems. Science predicts that anything more than 2°C rise in global temperatures puts us on the road to catastrophe. There will be more flooding, more drought, more disease, more famine and more war, creating hundreds of millions of refugees and causing the destruction of entire ecosystems and their species..

Defining prosperity

Even without taking climate change into account, our continued emphasis on economic growth is diametrically opposed to sustainability of the planet. Although there has been progress in developing alternative energy sources to wean us from carbon-based energy we are still consuming more than Earth can regenerate.  It is time to adopt one planet living and bring an end to unsustainable growth, to rethink our priorities, to conserve, to reinvent. We cannot grow our economy and sustain our planet; these two processes are mutually exclusive; we can’t have both.

We must substitute something else in place of unbounded economic growth, which involves redefining prosperity, and translate the consumerism that stimulates economic growth into another way to achieve a significant selfhood. This solution could work by nudging human nature away from materialistic solutions to human longings. But given human nature, how can we convince people to sacrifice for what some of us may never see.  Karen Higgins puts the search for a new prosperity that sustains planet Earth as follows:

“Suppose we had a meaningful purpose to which we could commit heart and soul. Such a purpose would not only allow us to gracefully reduce our dependence on economic growth but would fill a void in our lives and make us truly “stand out,” leaving our footprints in the sand of time. What if this purpose were to ensure the survival — and flourishing — of future generations?”

Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018 defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

…morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainable virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, adnabod in Welsh (recognise or know someone).  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as neighbour in a true humanism”.

Fig 1 Trends in world growth

(Sources: GDP data: International Monetary Fund, The World Economic Outlook Database. Population data: US Census Bureau, Total Midyear Population for the World,1950-2050. Oil consumption, production and CO2 emissions: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, 2012. Data normalized to fit the same scale.)

The above chart (Fig 1) shows a snapshot of world growth trends for representative parameters: economy, CO2 emissions, oil consumption, a surrogate for natural resource use, oil production and population.  While population is doubling about every 43 years, the trend for CO2 (one of the primary greenhouse gases in global warming) is on a steeper path. From 2000 to 2010 its rate of increase was over 2½ times what it was between 1990 and 2000. The chart also indicates an acceleration of world GDP, reflective of escalating consumption and growing dependence on economic growth. Oil consumption and production are stand-ins for all carbon-based energy consumption and production. Although they do not give a complete picture (which would include other carbon-based sources such as coal and natural gas, as well as alternative energy and energy reserves), this representation intends to depict the trend for continuing growth of consumption and the similar or slowing rate of production for carbon-based sources.  However, not one of the G20 countries achieved the 6.4% rate of decarbonisation required to limit warming to two degrees in 2018. That goal is slipping further out of reach – at current levels of decarbonisation, the global carbon budget for a two degree rise in temperature will run out in 2036.

Pillars of sustainability

The term sustainability refers to four distinct areas: known as the four pillars of sustainability; human, social, economic and environmental.

Human sustainability

Human sustainability aims to maintain and improve the human capital in society. This involves investments in the health and education systems, access to services, nutrition, knowledge and skills. The challenge is to maintain these features of human wellbeing on a planet with finite space and limited natural resources to achieve wellbeing for everyone.

Social sustainability

Social sustainability aims to preserve social capital by investing and creating services that constitute the framework of society. The concept accommodates a larger view of the world in relation to communities, cultures and globalisation. It means to preserve future generations and to acknowledge that what we do can have an impact on others and on the world. Social sustainability focuses on maintaining and improving social quality with concepts such as fair shares, cohesion, reciprocity and honesty and the importance of relationships amongst people. It can be encouraged and supported by laws, information and shared ideas of equality and rights. Social sustainability incorporates the idea of sustainable development as defined by the United Nations sustainable development goals.

Economic sustainability

Economic sustainability as stated by the UK Government in its (Annual Report 2000, January 2001) is;

“Maintaining high and stable levels of economic growth is one of the key objectives of sustainable development. Abandoning economic growth is not an option. But sustainable development is more than just economic growth. The quality of growth matters as well as the quantity.”

Critics of this model acknowledge that a great gap in modern accounting practices is not to include the cost of damage to Earth in market prices. A more recent approach to economics acknowledges the limited incorporation of the ecological and social components in this model. New economics is inclusive of natural capital (ecological systems) and social capital (relationships amongst people) and challenges the capitalist mantra that continual growth is good and bigger is better.  Thus we place continued emphasis on the economic growth we know today is diametrically opposed to sustainability of our planet. Although there has been progress in developing alternative energy sources to wean us from carbon-based energy, it is time, many say, to bring an end to growth, to rethink our priorities, to conserve, to reinvent. Companies, individuals and nations are beginning to recognize the urgency; however, the real issue is whether we can grow our economy and sustain our planet,  these two are mutually exclusive

Environmental sustainability

Environmental sustainability aims to improve human welfare through the protection of natural capital (e.g. land, air, water, minerals etc.). Initiatives and programs are defined as as being environmentally sustainable when they ensure that the needs of the population are met without the risk of compromising the needs of future generations. Environmental sustainability places emphasis on how business can achieve positive economic outcomes without doing any harm, in the short- or long-term, to the environment.

Biosphere reserves

At the moment the four aspects of sustainability above are played out in the global UN system of biosphere reserves.  Through the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, UNESCO has developed a dynamic and interactive network of sites, composed of 631 biosphere reserves in 119 countries, including 14 transboundary sites.  MAB situates people and nature in a living laboratory (the Biosphere Reserve) for managing natural resources while fostering economic and sustainable development. Each Biosphere Reserve promotes the harmonious integration of people and nature for sustainable development through participatory dialogue; knowledge sharing; poverty reduction and human well-being improvements; respect for cultural values and society’s ability to cope with change.

Fig 2 interrelated zones of a biosphere reserve, North Vidzeme Biosphere Reserve, Latvia

  • Biosphere reserves are organised into three interrelated zones (Fig 2) in order to enable them to carry out the different functions:
  • Core area of habitats and species, which is legally established to ensure long term protection and that should be large enough to meet defined conservation objectives for habitats and species.
  • Buffer zone-  around or next to the core zone. This can be an area for experimental research to use natural resources sustainably and in economically viable way. It is the area for ecosystem restoration. It can accommodate education, training as well as carefully designated tourism and recreation facilities.
  • Transition area- or area of cooperation for testing out approaches to sustainable development.

In terms of their use as exemplars for sustainability the aim is to draw out principles and practice to manage day-to-day living in the transition zone, where most of the population live and work.

Biosphere reserves are conceptualized as model regions (territories) set up to demonstrate the management of sustainable development.   The paradigm combines nature conservation with the current MAB strategy, 2015–2025. The strategy envisages a stronger role for the biosphere reserves in local economic development and maintaining cultural values.  The model is tested, refined and implemented to reconcile conservation with human needs. It positions the biospheres as the “principal internationally designated areas dedicated to sustainable development in the twenty-first century” and explicitly refers to their contribution to the global Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The tasks of a biosphere reserve are:

  • to ensure the protection of landscapes, species and the biological diversity of the territory;
  • to promote sustainable economic and social development of the territory;
  • to restore damaged ecosystems in the territory;
  • to ensure information exchange on environmental and nature protection and sustainable development of the territories.

Biosphere reserves are therefore innovative model territories, managed to achieve a balance between humans and nature by integrating all four aspects of sustainable development.  In this respect, the very name of “reserve” sometimes might be misleading. While the conservation of biodiversity in these sites is usually a priority being centred on a statuary core nature reserve, Biosphere Reserves are typically not designed to function as pristine wilderness areas or nature reserves. Millions of people live in Biosphere Reserves and many host a wide range of tourism, development and extraction industries. Biosphere Reserves are unique because they are meant to be “sites of excellence” where scientists and local leaders can explore and demonstrate a balance between economic development and biodiversity conservation. As such, if managed properly by a wide range of stakeholders, Biosphere Reserves have the potential to serve as models for sustainable development of the global biosphere of which they are the lowest common denominator.

Involvement of the local population is a key element of the biosphere reserve concept, and thus is also highlighted in the objectives outlined in the 1995 Seville Strategy.  Literature on the subject advocates for all-encompassing participation in all management aspects In defining objectives, choosing between alternative courses of action, implementation, and, finally, evaluation. The current MAB strategy calls for even stronger participation and integration of the local population and their economic activities in biosphere reserve policy and management (“selecting, designating, planning, and implementing”), thus “enabling people to become pioneers and ambassadors for realizing effective sustainability in all Biosphere Reserves”.

Participation in a biosphere programme is defined as “a process where individuals, groups and organizations choose to take an active role in making decisions that affect them”. Involvement of diverse population groups in local planning and development processes, including conservation activities, is a critical issue of both equity and environmental justice and a democratic necessity. It can facilitate a local sense of place and sustainable community development and ensure long-term success and quality.  This is particularly true of those management processes, which require integration of different forms of knowledge and co-management. In the case of protected areas, understanding the objectives of a management plan that begins with the rationale for their designation, is a major factor in developing a positive attitude towards these areas among the local population. It can create local support for protected area-related decisions and management practices after designation. Furthermore,  participatory management approaches may facilitate a higher degree of legitimacy and acceptance of the management planning to control processes and solutions in the territory as a whole.

Many studies have determined various motivations for community members to participate in local events and processes. These include:

  • acceptance of the purpose;
  • feelings of ownership and making a contribution;
  • possibilities of empowerment;
  • equity, trust and learning;
  • social links and networks;
  • trust in public authorities;
  • a personal invitation to an event or material compensation.  

At the same time, a number of obstacles to participation have been identified in the MAB literature:

  • perception of power inequality;
  • inability to influence decision-making;
  • unequal representation of stakeholders with respect to age, gender, and social background;
  • lack of trust and agreement;
  • lack of interest and incentives;
  • lack of confidence, time and financial resources;
  • low mobility;
  • consultation fatigue, as well as lack of information.

Due to these, and other obstacles, certain groups remain under represented in sustainable development processes. With respect to gender, women have been historically underrepresented in decision-making. However, the importance of their involvement in all environmental issues, including nature protection, has been addressed by a number of studies, as well as strategies and policy documents.

The 1996 paradigm of combining nature conservation with economic development and maintaining cultural values is tested, refined and implemented, remains the prime value of biosphere reserves.  However, a management model for implementing a zero growth economy within a reserve that can be applied to the global biosphere has not so far emerged. This, and the fact that the limitation of designations to territories with a nature reserve core devalues most of Earth’s global biosphere that would not qualify.

Managing the global biosphere

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive international  plan of action to manage sustainable development. It applies to every every part of the world where humanity impacts on the environment.  It originated as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests agreed by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992.

The Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was created in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of UNCED and to monitor and report on implementation of the agreements at the local, national, regional and international levels.  The full implementation of Agenda 21, the Programme for Further Implementation of Agenda 21 and the Commitments to the Rio principles, were strongly reaffirmed at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) held in Johannesburg, South Africa from 26 August to 4 September 2002.

The Agenda is a non-binding programme of action.  Although it lacks the force of international law, the adoption of the texts carries with it a strong moral obligation to ensure implementation of the strategies. The implementation of the Agenda by turning strategies into actions, with appropriate performance indicators, is primarily the responsibility of governments, but as been adopted globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups. They do this via national strategies, plans, policies and procedures. International and regional organizations are also called upon to contribute to this effort. The broadest public participation and the active involvement of non-governmental organizations and other groups are encouraged to plan at a community level to produce a Local Agenda 21.  Critical to the effective implementation of the objectives, policies and mechanisms agreed by the governments in all programme areas of Agenda 21 will be the commitment and genuine involvement of all institutions and grass roots social groups.

The Rio Agenda comprises 40 chapters (arranged in 4 Sections), which address all levels of social organisation, from national and local governments through to development agencies, non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations in every area in which human activity impacts upon the environment. Its 40 chapters cover existential issues such as poverty, consumption patterns, demography, human health and settlement, and more conventional environmental issues such as protecting the atmosphere, forests and fragile ecosystems, seas, freshwaters and biodiversity. The management of wastes, biotechnology and land resources are included, as are the roles of groups such as women, NGOs, indigenous peoples, farmers, businesses and scientists.

A final set of chapters concern the instruments and institutions needed for change.  Each chapter describes a programme area for planning operations on the ground and comprises four parts: the basis for action, objectives, activities and means of implementation.  Therefore, Agenda 21 provides a format for a global action plan, uniting people with operational objectives for managing sustainable development into the 21st century delineating the basis for a “global partnership”.  The partnership idea encourages cooperation among nations as they support a transition from wilful overconsumption of Earth’s resources to constraints on consumption to sustain life on the planet. The central belief behind the Agenda is that all countries can protect the environment while simultaneously experiencing growth.  However, this belief is now being challenged because the global economy cannot grow indefinitely on a finite planet.

Almost as soon as it was adopted, Agenda 21 became the focus of conspiracy thinking, particularly in the United States, which still propagates the view that it allows the UN to dictate what governments do. However,  Agenda 21 is not a treaty, does not override national sovereignty, has no legal force and is not intended to be implemented in a top-down way.

The Green Economy

Twenty years after Rio, the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), “Rio+20”, focused on a “green economy” agenda to help local governments around the world more effectively implement Local Agenda 21s (LA21s ), or other community sustainability plans required to transition toward a global green economy.  The green economy project focuses on innovative collaborative governance structures, thus contributing to the implementation of global environmental governance agendas and informing future international policy discussions. The Green Economy could be viewed as an approach that emphasizes these linkages. It could therefore be considered as a tool or vehicle that facilitates the widespread transition to sustainable development.

The United Nations Environment Programme defines the Green Economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities”.

Another more elaborate definition of green economy is:

“… one in which the vital linkages among the economy, society, and environment are taken into account and in which the transformation of production processes, and consumption patterns, while contributing to a reduced waste, pollution, and the efficient use of resources, materials, and energy, will revitalize and diversify economies, create decent employment opportunities, promote sustainable trade, reduce poverty, and improve equity and income distribution.”

Caring for the World

The main elements inherent in a Green Economy support the idea that environment can no longer be treated in isolation from mainstream economic policy. Though integrating environment in macroeconomic policies has been long called for, even as far back as the Brundtland Commission in 1987, efforts have been modest to achieve this goal of caring for the world.  In most instances, the environment continues to be addressed as a separate component without clear linkages to the social and economic aspects of endless growth, an objective that is not attainable.

For most people, the phrase ‘Caring for the World’ means doing their best as a member of a community, a neighbourhood and a family to make Earth a better place to live for everybody, particularly future generations. Nowadays we can no longer avoid the fact that the way we live our lives is affecting the long term future of our planet.  To be effective, even in small ways, means behaving according to a plan. The planning process for an individual could be as simple as pinning ‘to do’ notes on the fridge door. For a neighbourhood group concerned about crime, litter, or trees in the street, it could be organised in a diary or a PC spreadsheet. For those wishing to act on their concerns about climate change, they may want to plan long term to reduce their carbon footprint or encourage their neighbours to do so.

Web pages have been produced to demonstrate how caring for the Earth involves making plans for environmental improvements, which span home-based energy saving to running a local nature reserve.  All follow the same simple standard logic of setting a target and saying how and when it will be reached and monitoring progress to a measurable objective. Most of the examples deal with improving local biodiversity, but the logic could be applied to manage any community issue.

Planning begins with a mind map.  Mind mapping is a diagram technique to generate, visualise, structure and classify ideas, and is used as an aid to organising information and solving problems. By using mind maps ideas can be gathered quickly to understand the structure of a subject and see the way that pieces of information fit together.  More than this, mind maps encourage creative problem solving, as they hold information in a format that is easy to remember and quick to review.

Mapping the biosphere positions it as one of the four layers that surround the Earth.  The layers interact with each other. For example, a biome is a major type of ecological community in the biosphere. There are 12 different major biomes, each consisting of distinct plants and animals in one large geographical area.   A biome is formed as the result of the climate, rocks and soil interacting with the the biosphere.

Regarding planning a sustainability action plan for a biosphere, large or small, a mind map is required that sets out the structure of the planning arena, encompassing the entities of the environment that have to be managed because they are either destroyed or impacted through non-sustainable use in order to support human settlement. The entities are distinct features which are strongly influenced by human infrastructures and wastes.  Settlement is therefore the starting point in the mind map with branches to all features so affected. Each feature relates to the biosphere as a system through which human impacts are propagated (Fig 3).

Fig 3 A mind map for a biosphere

These negative consequences of humanity’s activities all relate to the functioning of ecosystems and the planet’s physical systems that support them. Knowledge and understanding of such processes in wild and human-dominated environments are keys to their solution. It was in response to this challenge that the Ecological Society of America proposed the Sustainable Biosphere Initiative, an ecological research agenda for the 1990s. This proposal was taken further by a workshop held in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in June 1991. The workshop, attended by ecologists from fourteen countries around the globe, recommended the establishment of a cooperative programme, the International Sustainable Biosphere Initiative (ISBI), with the central goal to: ·‘facilitate the acquisition, dissemination, and utilization of ecological knowledge to ensure the sustainability of the biosphere.”  This ecological approach led in 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to forecast differences between climate zones today and in the year 2100. They found that under both high and low emissions scenarios, many regions would experience biome-level changes, suggesting areas that may presently feature rainforest, tundra, or desert may no longer have the same type of vegetation in the year 2100 due to climate shifts.  By the end of the 21st century, large portions of the Earth’s surface may experience climates not found at present, and some 20th-century climates may disappear. This is a reminder that the present generation is the first in the history of humankind with the power to totally destroy life on earth. It is also the last generation with the option to reverse trends in environmental degradation and transform the world to a sustainable state.

To summarise, the Local Agenda 21 is essentially a starter for a global process of democratic action to curb over-consumption and eliminate inequalities in using resources (adopting fair Earthshares).  It has been signed up to by most of the international community. At an operational level it involves sharing political competencies in decision making by local authorities and the mobilisation of all citizens and civil society organisations in the process. This is a course of action in which the willingness and openness of local political leaders is as important as the ability of citizens to take the initiative of learning about and getting involved in the dynamics of local public life. Nevertheless, actions can be thwarted through political resistance to setting up scientifically informed targets for a sustainability policy with performance indicators to measure progress.  These are political decisions based on short term values of government and its networks. But they can be persistent barriers in facing up to the need in the long run for big reductions in urban consumerism, where personal lifestyle choices could account for as much as 60% of a city’s ecological footprint. In this context, the only power governments have to limit the stuff people buy is rationing.

Internet references

The Phytopia Project

May 6th, 2019

Phytotopology delineates a new body of knowledge in visual culture.  It is the transdisciplinary study of the way in which the constituent parts of visual relationships between people, plants and place are interrelated or arranged.  It is applied particularly to the condition of fragmented microcosms. These are relatively small, yet visually accesible botanical expressions of urbanised cultural ecology, such as nature reserves, fields, woods, gardens, roadside verges, urban wastelands and cracks in the pavement.   The knowledge framework is a transdisciplinary tree of life that branches into botany, history, biology, art, sociology, economics and climatology.

1 The Background

We live in a time of unprecedented upheaval, when technology and so-called progress have made us richer but more uncertain than ever before. We have questions about the future, society, work, happiness, family and money, and yet no political party of the right or left is providing us with answers. So, too, does the time seem to be coming to an end when we looked to economists to help us define the qualities necessary to create a successful society. We need a new movement that can tell us the truth about how we got here and how we can move on with a strong sense of well being. Rutger Bregman’s vision is a ‘Utopia for Realists’.  It hinges on one overarching principle, which is that ideas can change the world. ‘Never forget’, Bregman argues, ‘that people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people’. The task for any progressive, then, is to make the un-thinkable thinkable and to bring the horizon of a better future constantly back into view, with a meaning of prosperity more in keeping with well being than money.

Julia Adeney Thomas says that the unprecedented and enormous threat of anthropogenic climate change demands new ideas that will come from the dissolution of artificial barriers between old forms of knowledge to reveal deep complementarity. She points out that attempts at such harmony have been made by both historians and biologists. For instance, ethicist Clive Hamilton argues that “humans have become a ‘natural’ planetary force.”, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty insists that the divide between the humanities and the sciences ‘melts in the heat of global warming’.  Historians such as Ian Morris and biologists such as E.O. Wilson have tried to reconcile disciplinary differences and create consilience across subject boundaries.  These attempts at concilience are described as multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Multidisciplinary activities draw upon insights from two or more disciplines but simply juxtapose these insights and do not attempt to integrate them.  Multidisciplinarians are also less likely to critically evaluate the insights they draw upon. Interdisciplinary activities involve the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project), solving a problem by bringing in new information across professional  boundaries.

2 Phytopia

Transdisciplinary activities occur when two or more discipline perspectives transcend each other to form a new holistic approach. The outcome will be completely different from what one would expect from the addition of the parts. Transdisciplinarity results in an output created as a result of disciplines integrating to become something completely new.  Such was the focus of an exhibition entitled ‘Phytopia’ presented in February and May 2019 at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea.

The exhibition was curated by the artist Edward Chell, who used the visual idea of a Tree of Life to bring together works of 22 other artists to celebrate the influence that plant forms have had on nearly every aspect of visual culture.  The concept of the Tree of Life manifests itself in many cultures and traditions and is understood in a multitude of forms, from the genealogical to evolutionary and from cultural and political hierarchies to plant growth forms. As a public display, Phytopia celebrates the increasingly sophisticated conceptualization of human reality.  For Chell, the exponential growth of branching knowledge structures and the diversity this represents is a metaphor for life itself.

The exhibition is important because it highlights the need for a new subject area to contain and harness the energies embedded in such tree-like pictorial information structures. There are stories to tell; stories about endangered ecosystems and species in the context of the ecological crisis of global warming.  However, the conclusion reached by Julia Adeney Thomas is that it is impossible to treat “endangerment” as a simple scientific fact. Instead, endangerment is a question of value and a question of perspective. She says that what we value, what we are in danger of losing under the pall of global climate change, is most fully articulable not through science but in the humanities.  This endorses efforts by academics to pool their resources in the face of global danger. Therefore, the practical humanistic message of Phytopia is about having the educational freedom to build transdisciplinary personal bodies of knowledge to help those beings in crisis that are undergoing unprecedented change and are dependent on human beings to secure their place in nature.

Phytopia can be seen as a model of thinking about knowledge how to build knowledge with pictures. Chell’s exhibits range “….. from great, bright painted mountains, full of wild faces and gemstones, to tiny ferns etched delicately in copper and protected under glass-topped vitrines. There are enigmatic black-and-white photographs; a swirling, flora-like diagram of global stock exchanges; landscapes made from ceramics; abstract sculptures in primary colours; and floral photographic images printed onto shipping pallets”.

An example of new knowledge creation emerging from Phytopia would be an ecologist’s interpretation of ‘Flowers’ an exhibit contributed Rasheed Araeen (Fig 1) as representing a set of four random quadrats illustrating the variability in the distribution of flowering plants in an ecological microcosm.

Similarly, a page from Derek Jarman’s photograph album shows his garden as an art installation of flotsom and jetsom.  In the background stand the concrete blocks of Dungeness’ nuclear power stations contrasting with the barren botanical wildness of a shingle beach (Fig 2).  This exhibit becomes a metaphor for the crisis of global warming when information is added that constant repositioning of the shingle is necessary to guard against the innundation of the power stations by an exceptional tidal surge in the English Channel.

Fig 1 ‘Flowers’: Rasheed Araeen

Fig 2 Dungeness: garden and nuclear power stations; Derek Jarman’s photo album

In keeping with the invention of the word phytopia to encompass Chell’s distinct, visually creative arena, phytotopology describes the new subject required to contain the data, information and transdicipinary knowledge.   It is the study of the way in which the constituent parts of visual relationships between people, plants and place are interrelated or arranged. Phytotopological stories explore the shadowy world of cultural ecology. Each image encapsulates the hand of man as a placemaker in Earth’s fragile biomes; chopping them into isolated microcosms, a process that cannot fail to have political implications.  Tom Jeffries, who produced an essay for the exhibition, reminds us of how we should think about the relationships between plants, people and place, particularly in an era marked by mass species loss, climate upheaval and economically motivated denialism. Jeffries’ story is not simply one of intellectual interest because it is now accompanied by a growing sense of political urgency. Procrastination is not about preserving Earth’s biodiversity but maintaining Western  lifestyles.

Plants are already responding to the challenges of intense heat, wilder weather, acidic oceans, increasingly virulent diseases, chemical pollution, decreased biodiversity, failed crops, rising political tensions, revolutions and wars, greater inequality and injustice, massive migration, and strains on practices dedicated to knowledge and beauty.   In their adaptations to climate change plants are telllng us that a conjoint understanding of science and the humanites to manage ‘the planet-at-risk’ is inevitable and desirable. Under the threat of climate change, culture and nature seem to converge; anthropogenic climate change “spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.”

The sheer breadth of Phytopia’s art work should alert us to the complexity of any attempt to untangle the relationships between plants, people and place, which is evident at all levels of understanding from biomes to backgardens.  Phytopia offers an important key to the planetary tree of life that is a mind map of the relationships between plants and people, which will play out in places that we love. To re-enforce this idea Tom Jeffries introduced his essay with the following quotes:

“Different meanings tend to cluster around the same sites … As one gets to know a place well, it gathers additional meanings.” — Oliver Rackham, Landscape and the Conservation of Meaning, 1991

“Place isn’t a stage, a backdrop against which we act out our lives: it is part of what we are.” — Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map, 2014

2 Transdisciplinism

An important lesson from Phytopia is that curating and art production increasingly operate directly as expanded educational praxes by being involved with the transdiciplinary interpretation of visual material. Indeed, there has been an educational turn in professional curatorial and art practice.  This emerged by consideration of humanistic, pedagogical models within various curatorial strategies and critical art projects. In particuar art teachers have reoriented to the role of ‘facilitator-curator’ in order to address the non-traditional pedagogic thinking required to facilitate individualised classroom leaning. There is no longer one knowledge that we must all sign up to. Within this context, intended, planned and enacted curricula go hand in hand. Indeed, it is only through a facilitator’s interpretation that a humanistic curriculum can be meaningfully implemented. Teacher-facilitators operating humanistic pedagogys are provided with the curriculum (intended curriculum) and expected to enact it for each student to assemble their own personal body of knowledge (enacted curriculum). A personal body of knowledge is the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a distinct domain of interlinked information, which is assembled as a knowledge representation, where words and things are linked idiosynchratically in a media-coded culture.  

All the artists contribibuting to Phytopia have the science of plant forms as their starting point and are curated as commentators on man made fragmented ecosystems.  Their art works on walls and in encasements are new ‘hybrid’ assemblies of selected pictorial biodiversity to enrich the visual experience. On the other hand, natural resource scientists bring a well-honed, subject expertise to their endeavours to address climate change, but lack knowledge and any understanding of the arts, or other modes of viewing the world, that many feel could make them significantly more effective communicators.

A recent review of the teaching of enviromental art in biological field laboratories suggested that if scientists wish to span the domains of traditional scientific disciplines this must include the arts and humanities to gain more benefits by encouraging new ways of exploring and understanding the environment.  The scientists have to modify their dependence on knowledge acquisition through lectures and demonstrations, whereas the artists have to modify their desire to simply “turn the students loose” for personal exploration. But is this gulf unbridgable? The biologist Lewis Woolpert thinks so. He summed up this conclusion in the final paragraph of  his article for the Observer in 2002 as follows:

“Art does not explain, but it broadens our experience in ways that are not clearly understood. I value it in its own terms but it has nothing to do with understanding how the world works. To pretend that it does is to trivialise science and do nothing for art. We should stop pretending that the two disciplines are similar, and instead rejoice in the very different ways that they enrich our culture”.

Consumerism often fails to fulfil its promise of cultural enrichment because the consumer class has been sold a lie.  Many affluent consumers are now developing what social scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist” goals and values. This emerging way of life involves different ways of cultural enrichment, seeking purpose and satisfaction in life through things other than material riches, including deeper community engagement, more time to pursue private passions, or even increased political action.  In this connetion, Samuel Alexander believes the tipping point will come via grassroots political organisation, rather than waiting for growth-fixated governments to give up the mantra of endless economic growth. This is not to deny the need for “top-down” structural change. Alexander’s argument is simply that the necessary action from governments will not arrive until there is an active culture of sufficiency, the tipping point, that demands a post materialist future.

4 Information into knowledge

Humanistic facilitators in the environmental humanities, whether artists or scientists, undergo a process of planning what is to be taught and translate it into individual learning experiences that are appropriate for each of their students. The necessary skills are for storytelling, drawing on their capacity to be a facilitator of individualised learning, and the exchange of knowledge with others.  To maximise interaction with visual elements of information, Ii is also necessary for both facilitators and their students to engage with digital technology and new international communication platforms to harness graphics, text, video and hypermedia in order to create knowledge from information and share it. An art gallery is the educational model. The exhibits and their makers are the raw data; the descriptions of the exhibits and their makers are the information.  Stories created and illustrated with the information, contained in a picture-text database, designed for information sharing, are personal bodies of knowledge assembled from fragments of information by learners with the help of a facilitator.

To find a suitable database we need go no further than Twitter, the free microblogging, social networking website, which allows users to publish short fragmens of information that are visible to to the public.  These messages, known as tweets, have space for up to 280 characters, a hyperlink to deeper levels, a hash tag for searching, space for up to four pictures and a curation and listing facility. The ability to communicate pictorially is importants.  Twitter says that adding a picture results in a 150% chance of increasing the number of impressions and pictured tweets are 34% more likely to be retweeted. An example of a tweet is presented in Fig 3.

Fig 3 Vulnerabililty of UK coastal nuclear power station to climate change

This tweet contains information from a report to the UK government presenting evidence that coastal nuclear power stations are vulnerable to climate change.  It is illustrated with four images featuring Dungeness power station, showing its position on an exposed shingle beach that is a National Nature Reserve, the sea defence wall and a view of the power station from the famous shingle garden of the artist/film director Derek Jarman.  There is a hyperlink to the government report.

It can be seen that the Twitter platform comprises an information database suitable for archiving and classifying information for turning tweets into knowledge and sharing it widely. Microblogging is deemed effective in educational settings as it enables information to flow between fellow students and teachers beyond the physical boundaries of the classroom.  The role of microblogging in the context of Twitter as an educational tool is to support individuals to participate in process-oriented informal learning. A vast abundance of searchable information passes through Twitter. In this context, Twitter supports the instant, online dissemination and reception of short fragments of information from sources outside the formal structures of education.  Each tweet creates a social awareness stream that provide a constantly updated, live representation of the experiences, interests, and opinions of the tweeter. The receiver can perform Twitter searches at their Twitter search page or in the box of their home page.

Twitter can be used for self-education and to stay up-to-date on topics of interest. To do this, users can follow experts in various fields on Twitter who can be found, for example, through thematically relevant hashtags. Users can also use research hashtags for researching  a topic or use apps like Tweetdeck to subscribe to them. They can create private or public lists to categorise experts from various fields. Users can also subscribe to expert lists created by others.  Tweets can also be embedded in macroblogs. This is a way of making past tweets come alive.

Twitter can be used as a newspaper on any given specialist subject. The specialists are like editors who use their tweets to select what they consider to be essential items of information. Other users who follow a sufficient number of experts (editors) from a field, can be reasonably sure that they are getting all the important information from that particular field. Accordingly, Twitter can also be seen as an academic journal to the extent that some users no longer feel the need to read specialist publications.  However, the majority of viewers, less than about 3%, seldom use the hyperlink facility to delve beyond the ‘headline’ text. This is why Twitter is a good tool for mass education from small fragments of information, but is not good for attracting those who require chunky information in web sites and macroblogs. The following paragraphs highlight the writings of a twitter user who is bemused as to how it all works.

In terms of its mechanism, an ‘impression’ of a tweet is the viewer’s iresponse to the delivery of a post (tweet) to an account’s Twitter stream. The stream is composed of tweets from various sources. Twitter says Impressions are “times a user is served a Tweet in his/her timeline or search results.”  There are a few things worth noting about this. Remember, whenever you post a tweet, that tweet will show up in the feeds of the people who follow you. However, it will also become available in Twitter search, particularly if you’ve used any keywords of a type people search for. It will also show up in feeds for hashtags, but it depends if the people browsing the hashtag view it by “top” or by “latest,” or one of the other filtering options. A tweet is shown in the feeds of the followers of anyone who retweets your tweet. This is why influencer-marketing is so important; a retweet from someone with 50 followers isn’t going to be worth much, while a retweet from someone with 50,000 followers is going to be worth a lot more.

Finally, an impression might not actually mean a person saw the tweet. If I load my Twitter feed and then get distracted by something and close it, I probably gave +1 impression to a 20+ tweets account without actually reading any of them. There is no bonus engagement, no interaction of any kind, but an added impression across the board.

Impressions also don’t care who the viewer is.

Fortunately, Twitter doesn’t count your own impressions on your own tweets. You can’t hammer the F5 key to refresh your browser on your own profile to boost your stats.

Also, you should not conflate impressions and reach. Impressions are the number of views a tweet receives; reach is the number of people who see it. Reach will always be a lower number than impressions for this reasons. Anyone who sees the tweet twice will be worth two impressions, but only one reach.  

In relation to the ups and downs of impressions, The following account, in Fig 4, has only 28 followers but it is public and recieves about 2000 impressions a week.  

Fig 4 Tweet activity asociated with A Personal Twitter  Climate Change Database

In this Twitter experimental account for exploring the topic of climate change the total number of impressions at the end of a tweet’s first day of exposure to the public is around 3-10 times the new tweet was viewed (Table 1).  This suggests that a popular tweet will generate a search of that account holder’s past tweets on that particular topic. However, there is no way to discover how many people were responsible the additional impressions or which of your previous tweets they selected.

Table 1 Relationship berween the impressions (impressions) to two consequtive daily tweets and the total impressions on those days

DateResponse to tweetTotal responsesTime after tweeting
May 47462814hr
May 57565124hr
May 65529814hr
May 75731324ht

The following Twitter accounts are information databases for gathering information about the connections between people, plants and places.

Global Plant Council

People Plants Planet

Kew Gardens

Plants Leeds

5 internet References

Civic Character and Civic Service as Components of a Democratic Pedagogy

March 31st, 2019

1 ‘Bottom up’ purposes of education

Democracy must be experienced to be learned and in this connection there is a democratic deficit in contemporary classrooms world wide.  

The need for a children’s democracy to underpin civic actions is not new. As English aristocracy was giving way to democracy in the 19th century, Matthew Arnold investigated popular education in France and other countries to determine what form of education suited a democratic age.  Arnold wrote that “the spirit of democracy” is part of “human nature itself”, which engages in “the effort to affirm one’s own essence…to develop one’s own existence fully and freely.  What he didn’t say is that a democratic education means cultivating the experience of engaging in political processes.

During the industrial age, John Dewey argued that children should not all be given the same pre-determined curriculum. In ‘Democracy and Education’ he develops a philosophy of education based on democracy. He argues that while children should be active participants in the creation of their education, and while children must experience democracy to learn democracy, they need adult guidance to develop into responsible adults.  In his view, the purpose of education is to uplift humanity Through self knowledge each person must decide what use he or she will make of their knowledge but the young should remember that their great aim should be the uplift of humanity. He said this should apply particularly to the use of evironmental resources. In his view the value of the resources of nature lies in the extent to which they are used for the welfare of humanity. By welfare he means health, happiness and prosperity.  Prosperity need not be measured in terms of financial gain. He said,

“The time will come when men will look back on the present and wonder how or why the knowledge of science was not used for the welfare of mankind. What can the colleges do to train the young best to serve their fellow men? Education should not be so practical; so devoted to gains that the great object in life is obscured. Do lawyers strive to serve their fellow men as they should? Are the efforts of all in authority; of all enjoying the best in life used for the betterment of the race? If education tends to improve the mind and lead the ones enjoying it to altruistic effort then it will not be in vain. This will be grand and an era of good will for mankind will be ushered in”.  

Amy Gutmann argues in ‘Democratic Education’ that in a democratic society, there is a role for everyone in the education of children. One of her central tenets is that education should maximize students’ future life choices without prejudicing them for or against any controversial conceptions of what the good life should be. The roles and goals of participators in mining Earth’s bounty are best agreed upon through deliberative democracy.  Deliberative democracy has its roots in Athenian-style democracy that originated in ancient Greece where decision-making was carried out by large gatherings of citizens, largely without the aid of ‘representatives’. It is based on the idea that authentic discussion between free and equal citizens, including young people, can enable local consensual decision -making. This has legitimacy and is much less vulnerable to the distortions that come with party politics, because modern democracies need a rich ecology of democratic practices supported by strong legal systems, different forms of citizenship education and a free press.

Gutmann summarizes the similarities and differences between her democratic educational theory and its progenitors as follows:

“Like the family state, a democratic state of education tries to teach virtue – not the virtue of the family state (power based upon knowledge), but what might best be called democratic virtue: the ability to deliberate, and hence to participate in conscious social reproduction. Like the state of families, a democratic state upholds a degree of parental authority over education, resisting the strong communitarian view that children are creatures of the state. But in recognizing that children are future citizens, the democratic state resists the view, implicit in the state of families, that children are creatures of their parents. Like the state of individuals, a democratic state defends a degree of professional authority over education – not on grounds of liberal neutrality, but to the extent necessary to provide children with the capacity to evaluate those ways of life most favoured by parental and political authorities”.

This theme was taken up by the journal “Democracy and Education’, which was established to investigate “the conceptual foundations, social policies, institutional structures, and teaching/learning practices associated with democratic education.” By “democratic education” is meant “educating youth…for active participation in a democratic society.

Yaacov Hecht claims that Democratic Education, being an education that prepares for life in a democratic culture, is the missing piece in the intricate puzzle which is the democratic state.

There are many reasons why education is important, but the above contributors to the debate about the purpose of education play down its contribution to economic growth and outcomes. Nevertheless, from an economic point of view, education continues to be defined as the stock of skills, competencies, and other productivity-enhancing characteristics.  This was the view of the World Economic Forum in 2016. Furthermore, politicians continue to see education as a critical component of a country’s human capital, which increases the efficiency of each individual worker and helps economies to move up the value chain beyond manual tasks or simple production processes. This value chain driven by education was described by the sociologist Ulrich Beck in the 1980s, when he called Germany an elevator society in which millions of skilled workers upgraded from Volkswagons to Audis and expected their children to rise further.  Now, the economic elevator culture is faltering abd young Germans are joining the precariat. In sociology and economics this is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. The term is a portmanteau obtained by merging precarious with proletariat.

Germany’s economic power is largely the result of its education and training system and its applied research in the eyes of interviewees.  But it’s impossible to quantify the relationship precisely because there are many other limiting factors.

The economic purpose of education in the UK was exemplified by Nick Gibb, Government Minister for English Schools, speaking at the 2015  Education Reform Summit. His standpoint was that the purpose of education is to underpin civic actions as follows;

  • it is the engine of our economy;
  • it is the foundation of our culture;
  • and it’s an essential preparation for adult life.

The minister put serving economic growth as the top priority of the English education system.  

Making this point he positioned education in relation to the state of the economy, “….which in 2014 grew by 3% – the strongest growth since 2006, and the fastest in the G7”.  Employment in 2014 was at its highest-ever level, with 1.85 million more people in work since the last government entered office. Business investment had increased by 25.6% since the first quarter of 2010.

Regarding the role of education in achieving this success the minister said

“….most important of all, we must ensure that more people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a demanding economy. For example, the UK’s … “long-term performance has lagged behind those of our international competitors. Our 15-year-olds are on average 3 years behind their peers in Shanghai in mathematics and we are the only OECD country whose young people do not have better levels of literacy or numeracy than their grandparents’ generation”.

The implication is that Government  beĺieved that a better performing education system would boost year on year economic growth, which is the foundation of the UK consumer culture and a driver of climate  change.

2  A bottom-up global democracy of children

The first Earth Summit, held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, was the largest meeting of world leaders ever. Together these leaders created a document called AGENDA 21, a blueprint for saving Planet Earth.  After the conference ended, thousands of young people from nearly 100 countries, funded by the UN and other international agencies,worked together in an extraordinary effort to find out exactly what was agreed in this important document. Their efforts produced a unique book, designed, written and illustrated by children, for children, to inspire young people all over the world to join the rescue mission ‘to save planet Earth from environmental degradation’.

The UN Secretary General of the UN at that time was Boutros Boutros-Ghali.  He wrote:

“I sincerely hope that this book will help children from all countries better to understand and appreciate the fragile world in which we live and to dedicate themselves to do everything possible to protect and enhance this Earth. ” .

As they edited the book the production team thought about how to organise the thousands of young people who had had an input to the project.  They put it this way.

“How on earth could 2.5 billion human beings under the age of 18 be connected in a way that would be democratic without being bureaucratic?  How could we enter into the adult’s decision-making process without starting to be as boring as them? The first thing to do is select issues, not representatives. That way we can all choose what we want to talk about, after which the question of who does the talking is less important.  The first place is to organise is in our schools. Each Rescue Mission will start with a conference where we would decide the isssues and select a small action council to see things get done. Like the School’s Councils in Frace, we will have regular access to local government and work with them, perhaps to organise the Local Agenda 21”.

Their solution was to promote a network from schools that would carry a Global Democracy of Children through the various levels of government in partnerships with NGOs.

Their aim was for the schools to help the communities they served make local action plans for improving local well-being (Fig 1).   

The book ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’ failed to galvanise the adults as teachers and politicians to change an education system that had been designed by the western powers long ago  to serve colonialism. Also, in 1994 the Internet and social media were in an embryonic stage and not available to provide a platform for young people to gather globally and voice a new educational framework to promote prosperity for all without denuding humanity’s ecosystem services.

Fig 1  Networking a global democracy of children

The new framework has to be the Millenniium Ecosystem Assessment and the 2030 goals for a sustainable global economy  The Assessment marks the advent of the ideational educational knowledge framework of cultural ecology, where humankind works with nature instead of battling against against it.

No one has defined the philosophy of cultural ecology better than David Orr who  in 1994 set out its new educational imperatives.

“Those now being educated will have to do what we, the present generation, have been unable or unwilling to do: stabilise world population; stabilise and then reduce the emission of greenhouse gases; protect biological diversity; reverse the destruction of forests everywhere; and conserve soils. They must learn how to use energy and materials with great efficiency. They must learn how to utilise solar energy in all its forms. They must rebuild the economy in order to eliminate waste and pollution. They must learn how to manage renewable resources for the long run. They must begin the great work of repairing as much as possible, the damage done to Earth in the past 200 years of industrialisation. And they must do all this while they reduce worsening social and racial inequities. No generation has ever faced a more daunting agenda”.

Fig 2 Common ground of a school/community democracy

A  school/community democratic pedagogy incorporates two essential components, civic character and civic service .

Civic character includes social and emotional skills, the principles and practices of democratic participation and the values and dispositions of an effective responsible citizen.

These skills and values are vital for successful relationships and participation in school, organizations, community and career, as well as political engagement.

  • Value and demonstrate honesty, personal integrity  and respect for others;
  • Understand and effectively manage their emotions and behaviour;
  • Act toward others with empathy and caring;
  • Resolve differences in constructive ways;
  • Understand how to participate in the political process and democratic institutions that shape public policy;
  • Exercise leadership for social justice;
  • Work to counter prejudice and discrimination;
  • Think critically and creatively about local, state and national issues, and world events;
  • Contribute time and resources to building community and solving problems.

Civic service includes the understanding of a community/national/world problem and planning and implementing a project to help solve that problem, in the context of learning and practicing the knowledge, values and skills of citizenship.

Civic service involves student groups devising and operating an action plan for tackling a local issue by :

  • Identifying a current issue that they believe needs to be addressed.
  • Researching the issue from multiple perspectives, with help from community
  • mentors.
  • Choosing a potential solution and presenting a rationale for their choice.
  • Planning and implement a project to promote their solution.
  • Reflecting on learning  about themselves, their team, their  issue and civic responsibility.
  • Giving a formal presentation of the project, what was learned, and conclusions.

Through this process students will experience working together to achieve a common purpose. They will demonstrate an understanding of their civic responsibility and contribute  meaningful solutions to their community. The vision of Rescue Mission is that students will become civic service leaders, caring for their school, community, nation and world.  This means looking from the inside out and see the embeddedness of education into the surrounding cultural environment and its rich variety of services and actors.  The aim is to develop the outward looking school, a school that opens up towards both its internal and external actors – physically and mentally that manage their community’s environmental services.

3 Ecosystem services in education

The concept of ecosystem service was first coined in early 1980s. By drawing attention to the many services ecosystems provide for human beings, the aim was to raise public interest and concern for ecosystem protection

While originating in the ecological sciences, the ecosystem service concept puts human needs and preferences in the centre of cultural ecology and measures the health of ecosystems based on their ability to provide humans with benefits.  The United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2003 and 2005 stimulated interest in the cultural aspects of ecosystem services, which are defined as the ‘nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences’. In this classification system, ecosystem services include ten subcategories of which cultural heritage is one.  Each of these services is given a short explanation. Cultural heritage is defined more broadly by Tengberg et al as follows:

‘Many societies place high value on the maintenance of either historically important landscapes (cultural landscapes) or culturally significant species’. These valued elements of human experience can be understood as heritage when the focus is on physical objects or places, that have been passed on from generation to generation. But heritage also incorporates various practices and tangible aspects such as language or cultural behaviour in a broader sense. This also incorporates ways to go about conserving things and choices we make about what to remember and what to forget, often in the light of a potential threat and in relation to future generations. Cultural heritage is thus not only what former generations built up but also the way it is interpreted, valued and managed by contemporary society in our everyday life. Historical artefacts and the way practices are reconnected to historic features within landscapes are reconsidered as heritage because we attribute values to them. Cultural heritage is therefore not static but is constantly changing by being re-evaluated and interpreted in various ways by different actors”.

As the ecosystem services approach is becoming a key tool in environmental decision-making, there is a need for the practical discipline of conservation management of cultural heritage to engage and influence the ecosystem services societal discourse so that cultural heritage is seen as a useful and valuable environmental resource for living sustainably.  Education has a key role, which is evalutated in the European Commision’s thematic paper ;The Outward Looking School and its Ecosystem’ (2015) a rethinking of education as learning entrepreneurship through introducing opportunities to open up the community served by the school as a learning resource.

Europe is facing major changes in education, one of the domains, which has evolved less than others since the 19th century. Rethinking the educational system tends to break down barriers and adapt to a changing world. However, the school curricula still remain too centred on key subjects with little connection between one and another, not sufficiently related to present-day realities and not sufficiently encompassing skills in digital technology. This leads to poor PISA results, early school dropouts and increased unemployment. Where schools and teaching institutions see in culture and cultural heritage an important mind-opener they remain too imprisoned in a day-to-day organisation lacking flexibility, personnel and appropriate financing. Field trips require time, money, efficient, properly trained teachers, and shared responsibilities. In this context the local heritage sector is a relatively untapped dynamic outdoor laboratory.

The heritage sector is in constant evolution, rethinking its goals, encompassing new fields and being at the core of new declarations and conventions. It enhances participation, engaging not only specialists but also the layman. In developing public-oriented activities, from schools to adult lifelong learning, the awareness and need to protect our common heritage has grown, as has the idea of considering it a responsibility shared withhin the community. However, heritage education as such is too often related to one-time events and not centred enough on the long-term cultural trajectory.

Integration of heritage matters in a variety of sectors, among which heritage education is an important if not essential answer to:

  • Democratic citizenship;
  • Environmental protection;
  • Job growth;
  • Social inclusion;
  • Sustainable development;
  • Well-being;
  • Political engagement

In ecology, ecosystems consist of a systemic community of living organisms which interact with the non-living elements in their environment. These biotic and abiotic components are regarded as linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Ecosystems are defined by the network of interactions among organisms, and between organisms and their environment. They can be of any size but usually encompass specific, limited spaces.

In the world of education, ecosystems may be defined as the full variety of actors (i.e., living species) and all nonliving elements in use for education through teaching and learning. The full variety of actors involves the population inside school (mainly teachers, principals, students, other staff) as well as the population outside school (entrepreneurs, associations, institutions, parents, families, friends and private persons etc.). The non-living (abiotic) elements inside this milieu are defined by all available material means (buildings, classrooms, external locations, tools, IT resources, etc.) and they influence the nature of interaction of populations.

All these populations are connected through networks. They form together a meta-population and inhabit the same milieu. In the entrepreneurial school, the nature of this milieu is characterised by a shared entrepreneurial context.  To understand the constituents of the entrepreneurship education ecosystem of a school requires an investigation of the motivations of the actors in the ecosystem. Primarily, this motivation is held by the educators who may spread it to learners. Since motivation is based on perceived benefits, a school needs to investigate primarily the benefits desired and perceived by teachers. In this context teachers and learners become entrepreneurs, and their entrepreneurial activities may be of monetary nature, but they can also be related to the ‘marketing ‘ of societal, philosophical and personal values. Hopefully some of these products would be elements of a democratic pedagogy necessary for future generations to to implement a global circular economy.

Using Twitter to Promote a Democratic Humanistic Education Network

March 8th, 2019

1 Towards new pedagogies

Educational theorists have long been calling for new pedagogies that afford authentic learning opportunities, are responsive to ever changing digital information landscapes, and that will position learners in active and participatory roles. The need is particularly acute for critical learning about the educational relationship between culture and environment.  Here there is the requirement for alternative educational solutions stimulated by the nature of developing IT information landscapes and conceptual bridges between culture and ecology. These new learning landscape have been described as:

the ‘intersubjectively created spaces that have resulted from human interaction, in which information is created and shared and eventually sediments as knowledge’   

In other words, the new ‘word and picture’ technologies for organising and presenting information make it relatively easy for a researcher to connect one subject to another and share the new ideas that thereby arise to create new interdisciplinary knowledge.  It is in this vein that Alison Hicks and Caroline Sinkinson connect and contrast personal learning environments (PLEs) and critical information literacies (CILs) in order to explore the design of pedagogical responses to the information environment. Their view is that PLEs are commonly created using specific technologies and tools, such as online  personal and group organizers like EverNote.  However, the model is not wedded to a specific technology but rather to a process that aims to visualize and organize the influx of information and resources that students are confronted with daily. They believe that PLEs are essentially a positive educational response to the overload of information in the digital age.

Critical, or democratic, pedagogy is an educational movement which gives people the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and sense of responsibility necessary to engage in a culture of questioning information and interrogating ruling hierarchies. These abilities are of benefit to young people when they increase their political agency through heightened awareness of social injustice and the means by which to communicate and challenge this. A central feature of the critical pedagogical approach is critical literacy, which teaches and provides opportunities for analysis and critiquing skills. Critical literacy has been recommended by a number of authors as a valuable aspect to include together with personal learning in information literacy (IL) courses. Critical IL could contribute to enabling the development of political agency and increasing users meaningful and active involvement in democratic processes.  The ability to do this is heightened because of the free availability of social media. This opens up a new approach to humanistic education.

2 Internet learning

There is no doubt that advances in IT technology have greatly increased the amount of information available on the Internet.  Significantly, they include lower barriers to participation. This explosion in accessible and inexhaustible content is an opportunity for educators to reshape their understanding of information, particularly in terms of traditional conceptions of division of knowledge, authority and validity. These changes can be seen in shifting practices of scholarship from imparting knowledge and facilitating its use.  ‘Internet scholars’ use participatory humanistic technologies and online social media to share, reflect upon, critique, improve, validate, and so further the development of their personal body of knowledge within their own online knowledge networks and mind maps. On this learning journey IT takes them through academic silos, leaving trails for others to follow, consolidate and expand.

While PLEs and CIL both support learners’ critical engagement with new information environments, each was developed within a different field.   Hicks and Sinkinson demonstrate that education for information literacy intersects with the concepts and goals of PLEs. They suggest that PLE scholarship informed by CIL scholarship, and vice versa, will yield a deeper understanding of modern learning contexts as well as providing a more holistic and responsive learner framework.for leadership.  With these propositions, the authors invite educators, librarians and information technologists to engage in a dialogue about these concepts and the potential for fundamental pedagogical change.

3 Hyperbox club

I 1912, Everett  L. Getchell wrote a paper, ‘THE PICTURE IN EDUCATION’, in which he pointed out the power of the magic lantern as an educational tool for picture-education;

“The time saved and the accuracy of impression gained through stereographs and lantern slides leads one to wonder why they are not freely used. It seems to us that the geography and history of the grades in the future will be developed largely with the picture as a nucleus, and the story woven around it”.

Although Getchell probably did not know it, two hundred and thirty years previously the German theologian Johann Siegmund Stoy had created a boxed ‘Picture Academy for the Young’ (Bilder-Akademie fur die Jugend).

Pictures became an international force for social education between 1925 and 1934 when Hans Neurath and his wife invented  Isotype (International System of TYpographic Picture Education). Isotype is a method of showing social, technological, biological and historical connections in pictorial form. It was first known as the Vienna Method of Pictorial Statistics, in the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna.

PLEs and CILs are approaches to learning and inquiry that are particularly responsive to pictures. is a new and easily accessible landscape for picture education. The central feature that draws attention to an educational Tweet, is a picture around which an educational Tweet can be constructed as a dense and deep hyperlinked information package, summarised with a condensed piece of text (Fig 1),  

With more than 241 million active users, 500 million Tweets, and 2.1 billion searches every day, online teachers have a multifarious, active and informed audience to engage with.

Fig 1  Educational ‘anatomy’ of a Tweet


Twitter is a really a microblogging platform that allows individuals to communicate by sending short messages of up to 280 characters. Although it enables people to be in constant contact, its value in an educational context is less clear.  International Classrooms Online (ICOL) is researching the use of social media to create and freely share authoritative personal bodies of knowledge produced by teachers and students to promote democratic humanistic education. Research has shown that students feel more engaged in political issues when they can speak with authority on issues that are going to affect their lives and those of future generations.  That is why they are more motivated to learn new things. Twitter as an educational tool is able to open up totally new worlds for students and allows Tweeters to collaborate and participate in meaningful hashtag chats..

The advice given today by Twitter to increase your reach as a twitterer is to ‘add a picture; people like pictures!’.  Additional information is accessed through an URL link.  An entire suite of Tweets is extractable using #-tagged filters. Feedback is available using ‘Twitter Analytics’, which displays day by day  ‘impressions’ and ‘engagements’ for each Tweet. An ‘impression’ is a Tweet that has been delivered to the Twitter stream of a particular account.  An ‘engagement’ could be a click to a landing page, a reply to a Tweet, or a comment on a Facebook post. Either way, the record of an engagement means that someone has the Tweeter’s attention and they have become engaged in a positive way. In Twitter-speak, a ‘Moment’ is a set of Tweets curated in a sequence that tells a  story. It is a personal linear narrative; a mind map incorporating the personal Tweets of its maker. It can also include other people’s Tweets. ‘Moments’ have their own URLs and can be shared and developed with others.

To summarise, Tweets are pieces of information that are turned into a body of knowledge when they are packaged as a Moment.

4 Trees in mind

This section is the account of an experiment in using Twitter for creating PLEs and CILs.  It is based on picturing concepts of the material and symbolic interaction of trees with culture.  

No matter where or how we live, there can be no doubt that most of us cannot help noticing trees. Their obvious cycles of greening and shedding of leaves, give tree-watchers a sense of trees as powerful symbols of life, death and renewal. Trees project a raw intensity that refuses to flinch in  the face of the powerful meaning we read into trees which is that they represent both death and new life. In this context, most people cannot escape a sense that trees are sentient beings just like us, They bleed when they are hurt. Do they feel pain? We revere trees as keepers of past secrets and sentinels of the future. We innately feel a deep connection to them.  In this strong cultural perspective, trees illustrate the theme of the memento mori, the medieval Latin theory and practice of reflection on mortality, which is as old as Western art.  

An important insight from the complex role that trees have played in the construction of the human ecological niche is that acquired characters have taken on a social development role in transforming selective environments. This is particularly relevant to human genetic evolution, where, from early times, our species appears to have engaged in extensive environmental modification through cultural practices involving trees. Such practices are typically not themselves biological adaptations.  Rather, they are the adaptive behavioural product of those much more general social adaptations, such as the ability to learn, particularly from others, to teach, to use language, and so forth. These, underlie human culture, and hence, cannot accurately be described as the work of extended phenotypes. A universal behaviour to form communities seems to be a sequence of;

  • fell trees;
  • build settlements;
  • and grow crops.

This is a linear material process in which managing trees for sustainable community services has played a vital role in the development of a local tree management system called coppicing.  Trees become cultural symbols along the way. Because of such imaginative thoughts, trees are a bridge between people and nature and through these thoughts trees have taken on great cultural significance. In particular, they tell us that the mind is what the brain does to form cultures which are the behavioural outcomes of mental programmes shaped by environmental problems, mysteries and opportunities.  These mental programmes work as well as they do because they were shaped by social selection to assemble a mental scaffold for human niche construction. They incorporate trees as symbols sanctified by our primeval ancestors’ will to master trees, along with other life forms, rocks, and each other. So ultimately trees become embedded into local ecosystem services for human survival and reproduction. Hence comes forth the significance of the cultural role of trees.  They are vehicles to encourage people to develop their own cross-curricular, critical learning network about topics such as climate change and social justice associated with ancient and modern land use practices.

A collection of pictures illustrating pictorial concepts of the cultural ecology of trees was assembled on Twitter under the name zygeena (Fig 2).  The first one in this series was posted on the 14th October, 2015. They followed on from a series of mainly textual Tweets containing information about the general educational philosophy of cultural ecology and climate change, which had been uploaded intermittently from 9th February 2012.

Fig 2 Tree Tweet (3 Jan 2016)

Impressions = 801. Total engagements = 9

The tree Tweets have been divided between two Moments

Messages of the Trees 1

Messages of the Trees 2

5  Climate in mind

Climate change is by far the biggest political issue facing humanity with profound consequences for all our future cultural relationships with ecology. ‘Climate in mind’ is a Twitter educational  initiative to stimulate the self assembly of an international group of students and teacher facilitators with personal Twitter accounts, using the Twitter tag #democraticpedagogy to co-produce an educational philosophy (pedagogy) and create an online curriculum for learning about climate change; what it is; how it is happening; what the consequences are; and how people can have an input to national and international policies to control it.  The role of a facilitator is to raise the confidence of individuals through helping them build a thoughtful personal body of knowledge. This is the process behind humanistic learning, also known as “person- centered learning” or ‘self-appropriated learning, which is also a key factor in education/training for leadership.

The Twitter project ‘Climate in Mind’  was initiated on the day when pupils of UK schools ‘went on strike’ to draw attention to their fears about the effect of climate change. Their Twitter tag is #schoolstrike4climate.The following sequence of Tweets was published by Denis Bellamy between 15 Feb to 3 Mar 2019 on the topic of democratic pedagogy,

Tweet 1

The target of a democratic pedagogy to meet the aims of the students who went on strike to pressure the politicians to tackle climate change is to challenge the beliefs and practices that dominate the current fictional world view of boundless economic growth because the only future for humanity is one planet living …

Tweet 2

I am using this tag  #democraticpedagogy to discuss humanistic teacher/learner interactions required to develop and implement a critical global curriculum for shaping new citizens for one planet living …

Tweet 3

1A democratic pedagogy for today is an educational framework which guides learners to gather question challenge and develop information to create a personal body of knowledge and apply it for one planet living …

Tweet  4

Central to the school strike for climate is a plea from young people to become involved in establishing a democratic pedagogy to coproduce a curriculum centred on the management of climate change to ensure the wellbeing of future generations …

Tweet 5

Teachers of a democratic pedagogy are facilitators.  They lead individual learners to question ideologies and practices considered oppressive,encouraging liberatory responses of their own intellectual development for one planet living

Tweet 6

A democratic pedagogy is a theory and practice to produce a democratic classroom which is under the shared authority of teacher and learners. This is a primary educational goal of democratic pedagogy. …

Tweet 7

At the core of undemocratic education policies is a model of indefinite economic growth with yearly increases in wealth that caused our present ecological crisis  A democratic pedagogy is necessary to evaluate a future with no growth. …

Tweet 8

The aim of a democratic pedagogy is that individuals create a personal body of knowledge and share it to change the oppressive nature of society knowing that this will require radical re-ordering of priorities in institutions and ideologies.

Tweet 9

Democratic pedagogy in the classroom …

Tweet 10

Democratic pedagogy in the global context of a democratic network of young people self educated to adopt a conservation world view. Based on a children’s Agenda 21 (Rescue Mission 1994) …

Tweet 11

Democratic pedagogy in the national context of one planet living in Wales  #schoolstrike4climate

Tweet 12

Democratic pedagogy in the global context of a democratic network of young people self educated to adopt a conservation world view. Based on a children’s Agenda 21 (Rescue Mission 1994) …

Tweet 13

At the core of undemocratic education policies is a model of indefinite economic growth with yearly increases in wealth that caused our present ecological crisis  A democratic pedagogy is necessary to evaluate a future with no growth.

Tweet 14

Democratic pedagogy in the global context of a democratic network of young people self educated to adopt a conservation world view. Based on a children’s Agenda 21 (Rescue Mission 1994) …

Tweet 15

Click on following URL to see a mindmap of a climate change curriculum … This is a work in progress.

Tweet 16

Click on following URL to see a mindmap of a democraticpedagogy.  This is a work in progress …

Tweet 17

To see a democratic pedagogy in the national context of education for one planet living in Wales UK click the following URL  

A Moment was created for these Tweets (15 Feb 2019 onwards).

It is so simple to participate. Open a Twitter account and Tweet your microblog with the hashtag #democraticpedagogy.

Some examples of substantial personal bodies of knowledge produced by students and their facilitators beyond twittering can be accessed in the LIBRARY OF ONLINE EXEMPLARS at:

Twitter has a powerful analytics system for tracing the dynamics of individual Tweets. For example, the number and type of interactions a Tweet receives is automatically recorded day by day.  Also. the total number of interactions received by all Tweets can be plotted as a histogram over any time period (Fig 3). The rate of impressions per day varied and was always boosted on the days when Tweets were published. During a period of seven days without tweeting (Feb 28 to Mar 5) the number of daily impressions increased two-fold.

Fig 3 Numbers of impressions and Tweets on the topic of climate change per day (Feb 27 to Feb to 7 March).

Each new Tweet boosted the number of impressions for that day.  This was followed by a slower rate of interaction. Over the first 20 days of the project the Tweets had earned 1,8 k impressions at a rate of around 100 per day. Engagements accumulated at a slower rate; an average of 3 interactions per 100 impressions.

This raises the question of the factors that limit the impact of a Tweet in gaining an audience and getting the recipient to delve deeper into the subject matter.  To a large extent this is an issue of the way in which people interact with information that is delivered to their computer screens. The following five facts illustrate the psychological limitations of this basic interaction.

  • The average person gets distracted in eight seconds, though a mere 2.8 seconds is enough to distract some people.
  • 81 percent of people only skim the content they read online. (Jakob Nielsen has written that the average user reads at most 20 to 28 percent of words during an average visit.)
  • People form a first impression in a mere 50 milliseconds.
  • Posts that include images produce a 6-fold higher engagement than text-only posts.
  • People are 85 percent more likely to buy a product after viewing a product video.
  • Posts with videos attract 3X more links than text-only posts.

Then there is the tone of the actual Tweet, which has to be enthusiastic.  If you want to earn reTweets and engagement, you have to be at least as enthusiastic about your Tweet as you want your followers to be. A sincerely excited and positive tone in your Tweets will make it more likely that your followers will get in on the conversation and help you spread the word. For example, would you be more likely to reTweet this “Starting Saturday we are expanding hours at all of our restaurants.”, or “Great news night owls! Starting Saturday you can get great burgers, shakes, and fries until midnight!”?

Also  certain words and phrases are more likely to create engagement. For example, the word “you” is extremely powerful in all forms of social media content, but on Twitter, its power is even more exceptional. It reminds followers that your focus is on their needs and interests, and when used in a question encourages responses. In addition to the word you, superlatives (awesome, mind blowing), verbs (share, reTweet, click, look, see), and urgent phrasing (check it out today!, Learn more at our website! Limited time to respond!) urge people respond.

Content that contains images is more likely to be shared and to get responses. However, if you limit the type of visual content you are Tweeting, you could be missing out on attention and engagement. In fact, the most shareable form of content is the infographic.  An infographic is, “a visual presentation of information in the form of a chart, graph, or other image accompanied by minimal text, intended to give an easily understood overview, often of a complex subject.”

The importance of the format of the Tweet is brought out by a comparison of the following two Tweets.  Each carried the same basic message (Figs 4 & 5) but in terms of impressions, total engagement and link clicks the second Tweet was far more successful.  

Fig 4  Tweet published on Mar 3 (2019); viewed Mar 5 ( 2019)

Time elapsed from publication of Tweet = 48hr

Impressions = 39

Total engagement = 1

Link clicks = 1

Fig 5  Tweet published on Mar 5 (2019); viewed 5hr after publication

Time elapsed from publication = 5hr

Impressions = 97

Total engagements = 2

Link clicks = 2

Profile = 1

In summary, Twitter says that an influencer with a good engagement rate on Twitter could expect between 2 – 9 reactions for every 1000 followers. An engagement rate between 0.09% and 0.33% is considered to be high, where an influencer would expect 9 – 33 reactions for every 1000 followers on Twitter. So far, the actual engagement rate for the climate change project from Feb 15 to Mar 7 was 2.8% and the total reactions, link clicks, reTweets and Likes was 57.  With only 29 followers this amounts to 2000 reactions per 1000 followers. These engagements were not coming from followers.

However, from an educational viewpoint the most significant statistic is that 17 people delved deeper into the information, an indication that they were building a personal body of knowledge.  This augers well for the use of Twitter as a personal learning environment for supporting and promoting self-motivated critical learning.

6 Internet references

Skomer: An Island For Playful Learning

February 9th, 2019

Each week I was required to complete one or two several thousand word essays, ticking off sources from the reading list as I went by. I was encouraged to read beyond the facts, to make my own assumptions and to prove and disprove theories. Another shock was for me that now – for the first time – my opinion actually mattered. Rather than simply regurgitating the textbook, tutors were asking me what I thought.

Adam, an undergraduate at Oxford.

Educational Humanism

A book ‘Freedom to Learn’ was published in 1969 that contains the basic ideas about learning as researched by the creative psychologist Carl Rogers.  Rogers was thinking within the framework of existentialism, a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life bottom up, through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.  Existentialists believe that everyone is searching to find out who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook. And personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth. Existentialism holds that a person should be forced to choose their own pathway through life and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions. Existentialism goes alongside enculturation.

Enculturation is the process by which people learn the dynamics of their surrounding culture and acquire values and norms appropriate or necessary to thrive in that culture and its worldviews.  As part of this process, the influences that limit, direct, or shape the individual, whether deliberately or not, include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values and rituals of the culture.

A place-based analysis of enculturation addresses the following propositions of cultural ecology.

  1. How we use the environment is a central determinant of human culture and through human discourse our relationship to places defines human identity and social progress;
  2. Cultural experiences influence social, emotional and cognitive development throughout the human life course to consolidate a personal sense of ‘home’.
  3. Objects of heritage (artefacts, buildings, sites, landscapes) and practices of heritage (languages, music, community celebrations) are used to shape personal ideas about who we are as nations, communities, and individuals. What we define as ‘heritage’ is constantly changing in the light of the present as we look to the past to imagine our future.  Myths, as organised collections of stories by which we explain our beliefs and our history, form scaffolds of culture Beneath the story-lines, myths usually confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level. Art objects often carry and display these story lines.

The above propositons delineate a process of self-understanding by which we define ‘home’ as a landscape of the mind with definate boundaries.  In this respect these landscapes are islands of the mind and the central features of our cultural self-identity, using heritage to connect with the places where we like to be. In that context, this blog may be regarded a virtual museum of social progress.  It deals with the question: Do we create a place in culture through discovering culture in place?

Knowledge sharing between islands of the mind is an important source of new knowledge and innovation. Different studies point out the difficulties and specific requirements to be considered in cross-disciplinary contexts.  The problem is how do we obtain a multi-perspective access to information spaces for facilitating knowledge exchange between mapped knowledge islands. This blog discusses the main challenges of creating knowledge frameworks to support existential exchange between knowledge islands.

To take on existentialism is be confronted with humanism.  Humanistic education in particular, is an approach to learning based on the work of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.  In the 1970s the term “humanistic education” became less popular after conservative groups equated it with “Secular Humanism” and anti religion.  It was therefore re-labelled as “person-centered learning”, also named self-appropriated learning. Carl Rogers devoted much of his efforts toward applying the results of his psychological research to person-centered learning where empathy, caring about students, and genuineness on the part of the learning facilitator were found to be the three key traits of the most effective practitioner. Fascilitated person-centred learning is the essence of a humanistic education and the closest most learners can come this is to engage in an Oxford/Cambridge type of tutorial.

We are in the era of learning through the organization of digital information, a cultural position where gathering, storing and sharing information is integral with producing new knowledge.  This defines today’s learning culture. Nevertheless we are surrounded by horizons of incompleteness. We respond by sailing ever more mental ships of discovery to chart reality. But this only produces an ever shifting map of islands and archipelagos of partial knowledge in a vast sea of ignorance.  As more shores are discovered our ignorance grows. In 1990, Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline that “through learning we recreate ourselves …. This is the goal of humanistic education, which centres on the learner as an individual and considers that learning is not just about the intellect, but also about educating the whole thinking person, taking a person’s interests, goals, and enthusiasm into account, so that full potential can be achieved. This approach to learning is thinker-centred, with learners encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and being intrinsically, rather than extrinsically motivated.

The humanistic approach emphasizes the personal worth of the individual, the centrality of human values, and the creative, active nature of human beings.  Humanists regard personal growth and fulfillment in life as basic human motives. Sometimes the humanistic approach is called phenomenological. This means that personality is defined from the point of view of the individual’s subjective experience, namely how individuals uniquely perceive and interpret events.  This means humanists, in different ways, seeks to grow psychologically and continuously enhance themselves. This is the hall mark Leonardo da Vinci’s humanistic outburst of creativity and the explosion of the art of Paul Klee’s humanism four centuries later. Both artist believed that objective reality is less important than a person’s subjective perception and understanding of the world. It is well-known that Klee, more than any other artist of our century, was consciously detached from the main stream of modern art and its theoretical assumptions. In the same way, Leonardo, more than any other artist of the Renaissance, consciously detached himself from the central features of the historical tradition. In this connection, the writings which compose Paul Klee’s theory of the production of pictorial form have the same importance and the same meaning for modern art as had Leonardo’s  writings, which composed his theory of painting for Renaissance art. They are both the result of a humanistic introspective analysis of reality, which the artists engaged in during their work. In their creative thought both Leonardo and Klee are not so much concerned with the art object, as with the manner in which it is produced. They are concerned not with form as an immutable value, but with formation as a process, which takes in the entire universe.

This then, places humanistic education at the heart of the digital learning culture, where it has never been easier to map a personal body of knowledge as interconnected islands of the mind.   Education from a humanist perspective focuses on developing rationality, autonomy, empowerment, creativity, affections and a concern for a free humanity. This concern for humanity expresses a person’s relation to other people; a social component that can range from empathy to solidarity, and from the person’s own community to the social diversity of the global world. Appreciating diversity and democracy are humanist ways of living together as human beings.

The essence of humanism is that learners are no longer regarded as passive receivers of knowledge, but as active constructors of personal meaning.  

Some basic principles of the humanistic approach used to develop educational objectives are:

  1. Students will learn best what they want and need to know. That is, when they have developed the skills of analyzing what is important to them and why as well as the skills of directing their behavior towards those wants and needs, they will learn more easily and quickly. Most educators and learning theorists would agree with this statement, although they might disagree on exactly what contributes to student motivation.
  2. Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge. In our present society where knowledge is changing rapidly, this view is shared by many educators, especially those taking a cognitive perspective.
  3. Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student’s work. The emphasis here is on internal development and self-regulation. While most educators would likely agree that this is important, they would also advocate a need to develop a student’s ability to meet external expectations. However, meeting external expectations runs counter to most humanistic theories.
  4. Feelings, such as spirituality are as important as facts. Much work from the humanistic view seems to validate this point and is one area where humanistically-oriented educators are making significant contributions the  knowledge base of selfhood.
  5. Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. This is one area where humanistic educators have had an impact on current educational practice. The orientation espoused today is that the environment should be psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, non-threatening. However, there is some research that suggests that a neutral environment is best for older, highly motivated students.

Currently, in a European context, Finland comes closest to operating a national humanistic education system and is positioned high in the league tables of academic attainment. In contrast, as Finland devolves more power to teachers and pupils to design and direct learning the UK educational policy becomes more narrow and centrally prescribed,

It is in relation to this existentialist/humanistic background that Denis Bellamy, Professor of Zoology in the University of Wales at Cardiff, organised annual small group field courses on Skomer, a small volcanic offshore island in South West Wales, in the 1970s and 80’s.   For two weeks at a time, up to six undergraduates and an academic tutor/facilitator lived on the creative edge of the western seaboard that has been occupied by pioneering island cultures dating from prehistoric times, a history now embedded in the settler’s stone-walled field systems.  The practical curriculum was conservation management, taking a holistic view of the management systems of biological resources ancient and modern. The physical evidence of the coming and going of past settlers quickly raised issues of the relationships between cultural and economic values of human resources and their sustaiable use.  

It is within this interdisciplinary panorama that gathering information and assembling it as knowledge can be seen as a form of play. There are now numerous case studies from higher education that demonstrate how researchers, students and managers can benefit from play as a means of liberating thought, overturning obstacles and discovering fresh approaches to persistent challenges. While play is often misunderstood as something ‘trivial’ and associated with early years education, it can be argued that play contributes to social and human development and person to person relations at a fundamental level when play is incorporated into a self-learning curriculum.  In this respect, this blog celebrates Skomer as a place where learning can become playfully creative.

Skomer as a learning island had five important mainland outcomes that Bellamy advocated based on the student islanders experience of self-discovery learning.  These were:

  • the formation of a cross departmental General Honours degree called ‘environmental studies’ in Cardiff;
  • a lecture-free, self instruction tutorial-based course to deliver a first year zoology course for over a hundred Cardiff students;
  • the creation of a new GCSE subject called natural economy, created by the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate;
  • a schools in communities network for addressing the local Agenda 21, assembled by teachers in Pembrokeshire, based in the National Museum of Wales;
  • and International Classrooms OnLine (ICOL), a global IT network promoting the use of cultural ecology as an ideational knowledge framework for learning to live sustainably.  ICOL currentlt has over a million unique visitors a year and around fifty people a day register for its blog.

The student islanders also had an input to the creation of a conservation management system that was invented on the island by the warden Mike Alexander and is now used worldwide.

The success of the Skomer excursion into humanistic education encouraged the incorporation of two ‘mainland islands’ into the project, Whitford Burrows NNR, a sand dune peninsula and Parsonage Down NNR, a traditional downland working farm, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, an island of ancient grassland grazed by cattle and sheep in a sea of intensive arable cultivation.

Creating a Skomerite

The significance of using Skomer as an educational resource to link culture with ecology means fascilitators and learners have to adopt a crosscuricular approach to understand the island as a special place.  It has a very rich archaeological history. A single standing stone, isolated round barrows and cairnfields have long been recorded, but previously unrecognised megalithic sites, have now been discovered. The human settlement of Skomer can now be argued to span millennia rather than decades or centuries.  During this time there has been a succession of people, the Skomerites, who have laid claim to the island’s natural resources, the latest being the Welsh government body responsible for nature conservation. Then we have the Skomer vole, a subspecies of the mainland vole, that illustrates Darwin’s principle of islands as places of rapid evolution.  The term Skomerite also references the island’s rock strata, found nowhere else in the world and unique in terms of their volcanic origins. More importantly for the budding humanist Skomer lies on an arc of prehistoric island settlement along the western seaways of the British Isles, stretching from the Channel Islands in the south, up through the Isles of Scilly, Anglesea, the Isle of Man, and the Outer Hebrides to Orkney in the north.  These sea routes have long been seen as crucial to our understanding of the processes which led to the arrival of the Neolithic Age in Britain and Ireland in the centuries around 4000 bc and the creative use of ‘community stone’ for monuments, field boundaries and houses. Therefore, each academic discipline brought to bear on the island is only a relatively small piece of Skomer’s humanistic jigsaw, which is the island in all its socioscientific dimensions.  

If “scientific” stands for measurement, quantification, and prediction, student islanders had to let the term “humanistic” do the same for aesthetic concern, qualitative interest, and uniqueness of the island in human events.   Is there a categorical opposition between these two sets of polarities? Must one be pursued to the exclusion of the other? After two weeks incubating their projects the student islanders came to realise that a true understanding of the past in the present demands the definition of both.  This understanding was reinforced when they left the island and re entered, shock/horror, the supermarket economy. Furthermore, with this new realisation of the partiality of academic divisions of knowledge came with an understanding that the single honours degree has to be ditched because at the heart of cultural ecology and the future of humanity is an interdisciplinary perspective of economic development.

Learning on the Creative Edge

People on small islands live on the creative edge of culture.  Islanders are island-bound but can easily come to be progressive, to look forward embracing what can be, while remaining fully aware of what is and what has been.  Being on the creative edge also means embracing change, personal, social, and cultural, which for the most part comes from mainland influences. It could mean living for something tangible that can have a cultural impact. It could mean envisioning a new culture centred on community and connections with others and with nature, learning to integrate ecology with economy.  

Within Skomer’s historical backdrop, there is a growing opinion that henge builders migrated south from Orkney and a crucial turning point was from the coastlands of Pembrokeshire towards Salisbury Plain.  It has long been known that the bluestones forming Stonehenge’s inner horseshoe came from the Preseli hills in Pembrokeshire, around 140 miles from Salisbury Plain. Putative evidence of quarrying for the bluestones of Stonehenge is among the most recent dramatic claims of leading archaeologists that a prototype of England’s greatest prehistoric monument may have first been erected in Wales.  Now archaeologists have discovered a series of recesses in the rocky outcrops of Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin, to the north of those hills, that match Stonehenge’s bluestones in size and shape. They have also found similar stones that the prehistoric builders extracted but left behind, and “a loading bay” from where the huge stones could be dragged away. Carbonised hazelnut shells and charcoal from the quarry workers’ campfires have been radiocarbon-dated to reveal when the stones would have been extracted.  Mike Parker Pearson, director of the project said the finds were “amazing”. “We have dates of around 3400 BC for Craig Rhos-y-felin and 3200 BC for Carn Goedog, which is intriguing because the bluestones didn’t get put up at Stonehenge until around 2900 BC,” he said. “It could have taken those Neolithic stone-draggers nearly 500 years to get them to Stonehenge, but that’s pretty improbable in my view. It’s more likely that the stones were first used in a local monument, somewhere near the quarries, that was then dismantled and dragged off to Wiltshire.”  Also, it has been discovered that cremated humans at Stonehenge were from the same region of Wales as the smaller standing stones, bluestones, used in construction.

Although we will never know for certain how the bluestones arrived on Salisbury Plain, Parker Pearson has produced an archaeological surmise that will not go away.  Edmund Burke, 18th century British statesman and philosopher, could have been talking about the value of having an archaeological focus for place when he wrote about the importance of the partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.  It is this sociohistorical backdrop that makes Skomer a good place for playful conceptual thinking about futures. It was Burke’s kind of partnership that was repeatedly highlighted in the undergraduate field courses held on Skomer in the 1970s.

An Impenetrable Curriculum

The Skomer student islanders, each assembling their personal island curriculum from a cross curricular perspective, were also contemplating the historical origins of today’s traditional science curriculum and recognizing it as essentially a 19th century invention in its educational intent.  Accordingly, attempts at reforming the traditional curriculum into one with a humanistic intent have been unsuccessful. This indicates that political and social power is involved in reaching curriculum decisions Just as science had to compete in the 1860s with the classics and religion to get a foothold in the school curriculum, today a humanistic perspective must compete with the pre-professional training of elite students to earn a place in the single subject science curriculum that supports a global capitalist economy. This reflects a competition between two ideologies.  On the one hand there is the intention to, promote practical utility, human values, and a connectedness with societal issues to achieve inclusiveness and a community-centered orientation to the future. On the other hand there is a desire to promote professional science associations, the rigors of a narrow mental training, with academic screening to achieve exclusiveness, and a narrow subject-centered orientation towards maintaining a free market economy growing year on year. This is not a sustainable option.

A group of environmentalists met in Cambridge in 2018 under the auspices of the Learned Society of Wales to discuss routes to a sustainable future. One of their conclusions is that educational humanism resides in the forward reach at a growing tip of the ethics of cultural ecology.  From this academic stance the legacy for future generations is for the present generation to aim for abandoning economic growth as a criterion of human progress and bring the use of natural resources in line with Earth’s limited productivity.

The call from Skomer for a new humanism in the 21st century is based on the conviction that the moral, intellectual and political foundations of globalization and international cooperation have to be rethought.  Humanism was first set out by the ancient Greeks to resolve tensions between tradition and modernity and to reconcile individual rights with newly emerging duties of democratic citizenship. The new humanism goes beyond the level of the nation state in seeking to unite the process of globalization with its complex and sometimes contradictory manifestations.   A new humanism for lifelong learning therefore advocates the social inclusion of every human being at all levels of society and underlines the transformative power of an education that links sciences, culture and communications to live sustainably. Therefore, humanism today needs to be perceived as a global collective effort. Its aim is to hold governments, civil society, the private sector and human individuals equally responsible to realize its values.  The aim is to sustain a human population on our planet based on the holistic management of social and environmental development to maintain a steady state global economy where everyone has a fair share. New humanism describes the only way forward to a world that accounts for the diversity of identities and the heterogeneity of interests and which is based on inclusive, democratic, and, indeed, humanist values.

Conceptual Learning

Humanism promotes conceptual thinking that goes with an ability to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and addressing key underlying issues. It is central to a humanistic education which rests on the integration of issues and factors into a conceptual framework which postulates that the production of, and interaction of, people with, ‘things’ in the world have had transformative effects on those ‘things’ as well as on humans themselves.  Here are two well-known examples requiring this ability of cross curricular conceptual modeling for a full understanding.

‘People started to cook, and the cooked proteins had profound effects on the evolution of teeth and jaw muscles, which in turn affected the development of the human brain. And the domestication of plants, wolves, sheep and cows had profound transformative effects on plants, wolves, sheep and cows, as well as on landscapes, human subsistence and material as well as immaterial culture, and finally ‘fed back’ to create changes in human bodies, brains and minds.  This interrelationship between mind and matter in the form of intricate codevelopment of brains, cognition and material culture has in recent years been solidly recognized in cognitive archaeology’.

A humanistic education should promote this kind of learning, which traces links between concepts, not factual learning.  Factual information is seen as a necessary means to a higher end, and not as an end in itself. Students’ success, their “competence” in the teacher’s eyes, is determined by how well they are able to take in facts and retrieve them when called upon in examinations to do so. Little concern is given to what students are able to do by playing  with their factual knowledge. How effective are they, for example, at solving problems or asking suggestive and original questions; at formulating new conceptual models, reasoning a complex matter through to a logical conclusion, hypothesizing, or making intelligent inductive leaps?

Education which stresses conceptual learning would encourage students in developing these abilities to tackle difficult distinctions and deep entanglements.  These exist between dead matter and living organisms, processes and products, complex interactive mutual involvements, networks, and feedback loops between people, their surroundings and whatever people make or manipulate.  A total understanding requires the application of systems thinking using conceptual mind maps to unravel the interdisciplinary complexity.

For example, considering the 1996 Sea Empress oil spill, which occurred only a few miles from Skomer, in a factual learning model, a teacher might concentrate on the data surrounding this oil spill; when it happened, what caused it, what its effects were. In the traditional learning model, students would leave the classroom knowing specific pieces of information, like; it involved an oil tanker that spilled millions of gallons of crude oil; and it is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters that has ocurred in the UK.

But in a conceptual learning model, the starting point of a fascillitator would be the broader concept of world wide environmental sustainability.  Then the Sea Empress oil spill would be considered as one specific example of consumerism that had a negative impact. In a conceptual learning model, students would work within their own world model, first to learn about the concept of environmental sustainability.  In particular, how it involves decisions and actions that help or harm the natural world and its ability to support human life, then touch on a few significant examples that fall under this concept, such as Exxon’s Alaskan oil spill and how the biological impact was responded to by the local and international communities

Throughout history, the real fundamental changes in societies have come about not from the dictates of governments or the results of battles but through vast numbers of people changing their world view, sometimes only a little bit!”  In this connection, successive populations of Skomerites from prehistoric times to the present have had to take a world view of their small space on Earth and comply to a management plan which balances the numbers partaking of the island’s bounty in relation to the resilience of its ecosystems to supply their needs and wants indefinitely.  The many commings and goings of people through the centuries indicate how difficult it is to be sustainable!

Knowledge Islands in Humanistic Learning

What is the relation between thinking on the one hand, and knowledge on the other?  Psychologists have defined thinking as a purposeful mental acivity aimed at finding an answer to a question.  Examples of thinking are, to solve a practical problem, to establish the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject or to make choices or decisions by discovering facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education.

There are at least three broad categories of thinking, namely, inferential thinking, reflective thinking and creative thinking.  All of these were demonstrated in the reports of the student islanders.

Inferential thinking allowed them reach a conclusion on the basis of evidence and reasoning from a given body of information. The information was seen as a set of previous statements from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.  Inferential thinking can be viewed as the process of reasoning, specific forms of which include proving and calculating.

Reflective thinking included perceiving patterns, relations, similarities, and differences; identifying relevant factors, spotting inconsistencies, and synthesizing.

Creative thinking involved inventing ideas, solutions and entities, as well as the conceptualizing, and imagining.

An important part of finding reliable answers to questions by thinking is quality control: ensuring that our answers are as close to “truth” as possible. This calls for critical thinking which involves the use of inferential and reflective modes of thinking to make an evaluation. Critical thinking can be thought of as the mental process of evaluating the merit of a statement, object, policy, or action, on the basis of a careful consideration of the relevant factors.  Here, “merit” is defined as being credibility/truth, significance, usefulness, desirability, moral goodness, beauty, and so on. Reading research reports, critiquing a movie, considering a proposal for a reform, and trying to choose between products, all involve critical thinking.

In this respect, critical thinking is a very important self learning element of humanistic education.  Critical thinking in the context of inquiry involves evaluating the truth of knowledge statements. As producers and consumers of knowledge, thinkers engage in three important activities involving critical thinking.

  1. They assess the credibility of the research findings of the other members of the community, to decide whether or not to accept their claims.
  2. They provide justification for their own claims in response to questioning by others.
  3. They persuade the community to accept their claims as being true by providing arguments in favour of the claims, or against competing claims.

Critical thinking goes along with personal kmowledge management to marshal the evidence.  With the increased awareness of digital knowledge management, many educationalists have been paying special attention to knowledge mapping.

Lorraine Code, in 1995, conceptualised “rhetorical spaces” as places for the classification of personal topics, where they can be taken seriously as legitimate subjects for open discussion. In existing library classifications, there is rhetorical space for most mainstream social and scholarly knowledge domains but not for domains of interdisciplinary knowledge. Mindmapping offers neutral nodes as rhetorical spaces for framing concepts to build a theoretical mapping framework for ameliorating the biases and omissions of library classifications.  

Classifications are bounded ystems that  marginalize some groups and topics by locating them in ghettoes. Other marginalized groups and topics are totally excluded from these systems, being outside of their territorial limits. Because classifications are locational systems, spatial analyses borrowed from various disciplines have potential to identify and address their problems.  A mind map is a means to visually represent ideas and their relationship to one another.

According to different purposes, mind maps can be classified into 3 types:

  1. Library mind maps for information organizing
  2. Presentation mind maps for presenting ideas and projects
  3. Tunnel timeline mind maps for organizing or making a project plan

Educational practitioners, researchers and theorists all agree that the concept of knowledge mapping has yet to be studied, described and fully understood. First and foremost learners need to understand where their knowledge assets might be located before they can plan a map to unlock the value.  Knowledge mapping is considered as a means of visually representing knowledge assets as well as their relationships and dependencies with one another. It can be defined as creating a knowledge repository consisting of a visual two-dimensional, spatial, one-to-many nodal network showing relevant relationships among pieces of knowledge.    A map is a representation, usually on a flat surface, of the whole or a part of an area of containing the pieces of knowledge. A mind map is also called a knowledge map, a conceptual map, or a knowledge tree and in itself it creates new knowledge for the user.

The procedural approach to the conceptual mapping of a body of nodal knowledge is aimed at visualising the functioning of the core processes that the user is required to understand as functional hierarchies. A procedural knowledge map will define processes or thinking- narratives  and offer the user some instructions or guidance as to how they operate. It usually shows the source of that knowledge and indicates at what point it intervenes in a process. Process-based maps represent knowledge and its sources mapped within the framework of a process. Any type of knowledge that drives the process or results from its execution can be mapped. Any process of an organisation can be mapped (e.g. research and development, marketing, selling, supply process, etc.) and show where tacit or explicit knowledge intervenes.

A functional knowledge tree is a growing branch structure, which associates, organizes, and places informational nodes in hierarchical order.  A hierarchical barrier is any factor which prevents the mapping of the hierarchical order. A functional barrier is any factor which prevents mapping the relationships between processes.  Knowledge islands are formed when functional and hierarchical barriers cross each other, thus isolating the thinking of individuals or groups (Fig 1).

Fig 1 Formation of knowledge islands

The Hyperbox Club

The Hyperbox Club was invented on Skomer and is now an online international gathering of educators defining and designing complex mental structures.  This is a common activity performed by members of almost every discipline, profession, and artisanship throughout the centuries. All the disciplines of old discovered that skills and knowledge required for the composition of large complex systems for the containment, conservation and transmission of culture  do not match the skills that are required for assembling small, bottom-up knowledge structures. Yet the bottom up assembly of knowledge is where we all start at primary school.

Hyperbox recommends Mindmeister and cmap software for assembling knowlege and Google Sites for presenting it.

The group of knowledge islands in Fig 2 is a branch of a Mindmeister map entitled ‘Knowledge Islands in Humanistic Education’; a work in progress.

Fig 2 Knowledge islands

This fgure is taken from a mind map exemplifying the way a digital model of knowledge management can be expressed graphically as five islands and their extensive archipelagos.

Knowledge islands as patchy ecosystems

Patch dynamics is an ecological perspective that the structure, function, and dynamics of ecological systems can be understood through studying their interactive patches. Patch dynamics, as a term, may also refer to the spatiotemporal changes within and among patches that make up a landscape. Patch dynamics is ubiquitous in terrestrial and aquatic systems across organizational levels and spatial scales. From a patch dynamics perspective, populations, communities, ecosystems, and landscapes may all be studied effectively as mosaics of patches that differ in size, shape, composition, history, and boundary characteristics.

The idea of patch dynamics dates back to the 1940s when plant ecologists studied the structure and dynamics of vegetation in terms of the interactive patches that it comprises. A mathematical theory of patch dynamics was developed by Simon Levin and Robert Paine in the 1970s, originally to describe the pattern and dynamics of an intertidal community as a patch mosaic created and maintained by tidal disturbances. Patch dynamics became a dominant theme in ecology between the late 1970s and the 1990s.

Patch dynamics is a conceptual approach to ecosystem and habitat analysis that emphasizes dynamics of heterogeneity within a system (i.e. that each area of an ecosystem is made up of a mosaic of small ‘sub-ecosystems’).

Diverse patches of habitat created by natural disturbance regimes are seen as critical to the maintenance of this diversity (ecology). A habitat patch is any discrete area with a definite shape, spatial and configuration used by a species for breeding or obtaining other resources. Mosaics are the patterns within landscapes that are composed of smaller elements, such as individual forest stands, shrubland patches, highways, farms, or towns.

Knowledge islands as managed green spaces

Green space is a vital part of the public realm. Attractive, safe and accessible parks and green spaces contribute positive social, economic and environmental benefits, improving public health, well-being and quality of life.

Public spaces are a barometer of a community. As human beings we respond positively and instinctively to places that are welcoming. We want to spend time – and money – in such a community. But all too often, we experience places that are unwelcoming, unkempt and difficult – or even dangerous – to use.

The standard of a local authority’s management and upkeep of the green spaces in its care is a very public indicator of its broader performance. A piecemeal, reactive approach to providing and maintaining green space will deliver few, if any, benefits. High quality, well-used spaces are possible only if those responsible for their planning, management and improvement think strategically. Councils are responsible for producing green space strategies that set out the vision and the detail of the design, provision and enhancement of the parks and public spaces in their care.

Knowledge islands as literary metaphors

There is a strong island tradition in European literature that links it specifically to the notion of cultural translatability and the idea of the floating island as a mobile signifier with a focus on writers from Greco-Roman antiquity to the contemporary period.  Island spaces are used to explore and create bridges between the real and the imaginary as a response to cultural and social realities, frequently taking the form of utopias/dystopias, Edens, Arcadias, nations and cultural crossroads. The virtual spaces of islands are susceptible to translatability and articulate perspectives on the shifting relationship between self and other, centre and periphery, serving as sites of mediation between cultures. Within an increasingly global culture marked by inequalities and differences, islands may induce a contrapuntal approach to literary and cultural criticism

Knowledge islands as tribal places

The word “tribe” can be defined to mean an extended kin group or clan with a common ancestor, or can also be described as a group with shared interests, lifestyles and habits. The proverb “birds of a feather flock together” describes homophily, the human tendency to form friendship networks with people of similar occupations, interests, and habits. Some tribes can be located in geographically proximate areas, like villages or bands, though telecommunications enables groups of people to form digital tribes using tools like social networking websites.

In terms of conformity tribalism has been defined as a “subjectivity” or “way of being” social frame in which communities are bound socially beyond immediate birth ties by the dominance of various modalities of face-to-face and object integration. Ontologically, tribalism is oriented around the valences of analogy, genealogy and mythology. That means that customary tribes have their social foundations in some variation of these tribal orientations, while often taking on traditional practices (e.g. Abrahamic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), and modern practices, including monetary exchange, mobile communications, and modern education.

The social structure of a tribe can vary greatly from case to case, but the relatively small size of customary tribes makes social life in such of tribes usually involve a relatively undifferentiated role structure, with few significant political or economic distinctions between individuals.  A tribe often refers to itself using its own language’s word for “people”, and refers to other, neighboring tribes with various epithets. For example, the term “Inuit” translates to “people”.

Tribalism implies the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group. Based on strong relations of proximity and kinship, members of a tribe tend to possess a strong feeling of identity.

Objectively, for a customary tribal society to form there needs to be ongoing customary organization, enquiry and exchange. However, intense feelings of common identity can lead people to feel tribally connected.

The distinction between these two definitions for tribalism, objective and subjective, is an important one because while tribal societies have been pushed to the edges of the Western world, tribalism, by the second definition, is arguably undiminished. A few writers have postulated that the human brain is hard-wired towards tribalism by its evolutionary advantages, but that claim is usually linked to equating original questions of sociality with tribalism.

Knowledge  islands as public spaces

Public spaces and marketplaces are essential ingredients in every community. Public space provides opportunities for people to meet and be exposed to a variety of neighbours. These meetings often take place by chance, but they also can come through active organizing. The art of promoting constructive interaction among people in public spaces has been nearly forgotten in many communities. Planners, architects, and public administrators have focused more on creating aesthetic places and on providing for the unimpeded movement and storage of automobiles than on creating places that encourage social interaction. More recently, public officials have been even more concerned with security and maximizing their ability to observe and control people in public spaces.

William H. Whyte asserted that crowded, pedestrian-friendly, active spaces are safer, more economically productive, and more conducive to healthy civic communities. “What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people,” he wrote. Since the 1950s, city planners, developers, policy makers, and transportation engineers have built and modified communities in just the opposite vein.

Importance of Self-Appropriated Learning.

Rogers’ thoughts about teaching and learning first appeared in the 1950s.  

“My experience is that I cannot teach another person how to teach. To attempt it is for me, in the long run, futile.  It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior. I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behaviour.  I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influence behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another. As a consequence of the above, I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.  When I try to teach, as I do sometimes, I am appalled by the results, which seems a little more than inconsequential, because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience, and to stifle significant learning. Hence, I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.  When I look back at the results of my past teaching, the real results seem the same – either damage was done – or nothing significant occurred. This is frankly troubling”.

Many students have chaffed under what Rogers calls traditional “jug and mug” teaching styles that stress transfer of information through top down, one-way communication. He saw his role as a facilitator supporting the growth of personal bodies of knowledge.  Years later, one of Rogers’ followers, Em Grim, organised an experimental learning situation for budding psychotherapists on a small island in Lake Michigan. The aim of the island course was to learn about human relationships by studying what happens among group members over a two-week period. Every year Grim selected eight students who wanted to change the way they interact with others. They understand that the remote setting would tend to magnify whatever feelings they have for each other. The enforced togetherness can turn ordinary liking to love or irritation to disgust. It is the type of intensive group experience that Rogers enjoyed leading throughout his professional life.  Although the island course gave students the opportunity to be more than passive learners, Grim says they had qualms about what it might mean to take responsibility for their own learning. Students opted for Grim’s island course with many misgivings.

Unlike the Skomer students, who were dedicated to carrying out a small piece of ecological research for real, Grim’s students were looking for ways to improve their self-concept, draw closer to others, and express themselves more freely. Since students who signed up for the island course qualify on both counts, Grim would predict growth over a two-week period as long as the leader, conveyed Rogers’ three caring responses; empathy, caring about students, and genuineness on the part of the learning facilitator. The Skomer students also adapted to each other socially, but also developed their own selfood by obtaining research data and making sense of it. They rapidly became self confident experts!

In a more general sense, the term self-appropriated learning includes the work of other humanistic pedagogues, such as Alexander Neill, Rudolf Steiner, and Maria Montessori. All of them aimed to create a self-learning environment, seeking to engage the “whole person”.  This

includes the intellect, life affirming behaviours, social capacities, and artistic/practical skills as important foci for an individual’s growth and development.  Important objectives include developing learners’ self-esteem, their ability to set and achieve appropriate goals, and their development toward full autonomy with the self assembly of a personal body of knowledge.  It is in this sense that we surely create a place in culture through discovering culture in place.  

Internet  References


History of Humanism

Carl rogers

Ecological Humanism

January 9th, 2019

We Earth-bound humans are encountering a severe ecological crisis exemplified by climate change and have three choices for the future. The first option is to continue with industrial capitalism in pursuit of the dream of mastering nature. This global social force is underpinned by a radical separation between humans and other life forms.  It is associated with anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are superior to the rest of nature and thereby hold the right to pillage the planet. In 1961 humanity used 70 percent of Earth’s sustainable productivity; since the 1980s it has consistently exceeded it. The world’s ecological deficit is referred to as the global ecological overshoot. Since the 1970s, humans have been in ecological overshoot, with the annual demand on resources exceeding what Earth can regenerate each year. Today, the human population uses the equivalent of 1.7 Earths to provide its resources and to absorb its wastes. This means it now takes the Earth one year and six months to regenerate what is used in a year through overfishing the seas, overharvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than forests can sequester through plant photosynthesis.  

Estimates put Earth’s carrying capacity at anywhere between 2 billion and 40 billion people. It varies with a wide range of factors, most of them fitting under the umbrella of ‘lifestyle’. For instance, if humans remained in the prehistoric hunter-gatherer mode, Earth would reach its capacity at about 100 million people. With humans producing food by intensive agriculture and living an urban life in high-rise buildings, that number increases significantly.  

To understand the flexibility of Earth’s carrying capacity is to look at the difference between the projected capacities of 2 billion and 40 billion people. Essentially, we’re working with the same level of planetary resources to produce both of those numbers. But people in different parts of the world are consuming different amounts. Basically, if everyone on Earth lived like a middle-class American, consuming roughly 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and about 250 times the subsistence level of clean water, Earth could only support about 2 billion people. On the other hand, if everyone on the planet consumed only what is needed, for a long-term state of contentedness, 40 billion people would be a feasible number.  In 2019 the human population on Earth living with global overshoot was 7.7 billion and increasing. As it is, the 25 percent of Earth’s population living in developed countries are consuming so much that the other 75 percent of humanity is left with barely what it needs to get by. Thus, the first choice, to maintain the ever-expanding capitalist order, is unsustainable. It is the very path which led to the current ecological crisis measureable by biodiversity in sharp decline.

Biodiversity is the basis of human existence; our life support system. Ecosystems regulate climatic processes, breakdown wastes and recycle nutrients, filter and purify water, buffer against flooding, maintain soil fertility, purify air, and provide natural resources such as wood, textiles, and of course food.  In the face of a decline in biodiversity an alternative future is the neo-Romantic idea of Earth as a managed wilderness, whose conservation on a planetary scale would be humanity’s primary ecological aim. That is to say, we have to reject anthropocentrism in favour of biocentrism, a principle inhibiting humans from interfering with the vital needs of other organisms. But this alternative  is untenable as well, since pursuing it would require a massive reduction in the human population, the subordination of human aims to perceived natural ones, and a regression to a low-tech agrarian existence.

Ecological humanism offers a third future, which takes the view that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to promote the flourishing of both humanity and nature.  Ecological humanism is, in essence, a communitarian view of human culture. Human beings, it argues, have always pursued the developmental ideal of becoming fully integrated persons within community contexts by answering the questions; Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others); What am I going to do (defining career paths); WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes). This is a tradition that is particularly associated with three pioneer social ecologists – Lewis Mumford, René Dubos and Murray Bookchin.   Their work provides a vital interdisciplinary resource for those concerned with developing a coherent philosophy of how humanity and nature, from which we evolved, can and should work together to deal with the current ecological crisis. The crisis in cultural ecology is evident in the degradation of the natural environment under industrial capitalism; the pollution of the atmosphere, rivers and lakes; deforestation; the limitations of industrial agriculture and the adverse effects of toxic pesticides and soil erosion; the problems of chemical additives in food; the dangers of nuclear power; and the serious decline in the quality of urban life through overcrowding, pollution, poverty and traffic congestion.  Ecological humanism focuses on culture and affirms that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to enhance the flourishing of both humanity and nature.This perspective highlights an educational objective to promote a sophisticated, planned, co‐ordinated global economy that is ecologically benign, socially peaceable and equitable. A pedagogy is needed whose basic characteristic is to promote planetary well being, not humankind’s destructive animality. Learning to care comes through the application of reason, decency, tolerance, empathy and hope.

These are important human traits that we should aspire to, not because we seek a reward of eternal life or because we fear the punishment of a supernatural being, but because they define our humanity on Earth.  In 1997, Babu Goginieni, director of the Humanist and Ethical Union, referring to the need for humanism in education remarked that: “… Atheism is not important. I happen to be an atheist, but that’s not the point – what is important is freedom and human values, and a way of living with others and with nature.”  ‘Prosperity’ is ‘belonging with love’, not year on year financial gain.

Humanism is a worldview, not about one aspect of religion, knowledge, or politics.  Many humanists are also secularists, but religious believers may also take a secularist position on humanism which calls for freedom of belief, including the right to change belief and not to believe. Education founded on free humanistic intellectual enquiry envisages that all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about what they believe.  Ecological humanism in the classroom is about where our convictions of human dignity, equality or liberty come from and how these principles are to be defended. It is about finding one’s identity to promote the management of the local and global consumption of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods. As a communitarian project the questions to be answered are: Who are we? What are we going to do? Will we make it?  

Fig 1 Comparison of two pedagogies for promoting learning and good behaviour

Humanism is the outcome of a long tradition of free thought that has inspired many of the world’s great thinkers and creative artists since Greek and Roman times and gave rise to science itself.  In 1952, at the first World Humanist Congress, set out the fundamental principles of modern Humanism. The 50th anniversary World Humanist Congress in 2002, unanimously passed a resolution known as “The Amsterdam Declaration 2002”. Following the Congress, this updated declaration became the official defining statement of World Humanism.  The declaration promotes the application of human thought and action to solve the world’s problems of human welfare. Therefore humanism imposes no creed upon those committed to its principles and who share humanism’s quest for a more humane, just, and compassionate society. Humanism now takes on sustainable development initiatives looking far into the future as well as other pressing policy pursuits, with more immediate relevance. The latter are often also associated with sustainable development, such as the drive to promote health, secure basic education, reduce poverty, and create productive employment and livelihoods.

The fundamentals of modern Humanism are as follows:

1. Humanism is ethical. It affirms the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others. Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity including future generations. Humanists believe that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others, needing no external sanction.

2. Humanism is rational. It seeks to use science creatively, not destructively. Humanists believe that the solutions to the world’s problems lie in human thought and action rather than divine intervention. Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare. But Humanists also believe that the application of science and technology must be tempered by human values. Science gives us the means but human values must propose the ends.

3. Humanism supports democracy and human rights. Humanism aims at the fullest possible development of every human being. It holds that democracy and human development are matters of right. The principles of democracy and human rights can be applied to many human relationships and are not restricted to methods of government.

4. Humanism insists that personal liberty must be combined with social responsibility. Humanism ventures to build a world on the idea of the free person responsible to society, and recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world. Humanism is undogmatic, imposing no creed upon its adherents. It is thus committed to education free from indoctrination.

5. Humanism is a response to the widespread demand for an alternative to dogmatic religion. The world’s major religions claim to be based on revelations fixed for all time, and many seek to impose their world-views on all of humanity. Humanism recognises that reliable knowledge of the world and ourselves arises through a continuing process of observation, evaluation and revision.

6. Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination and recognises the transforming power of art. Humanism affirms the importance of literature, music, and the visual and performing arts for personal development and fulfilment.

7. Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere.

A primary task of humanism in education is to make students aware in the simplest terms of what Humanism can mean to them and what it commits them to. By utilising free inquiry, the power of science and creative imagination for the furtherance of peace and in the service of compassion, we have confidence that we have the means to solve the problems that confront us all. We call upon all who share this conviction to associate themselves with us in this endeavour.

IHEU Congress 2002

Internet references

Rethinking education as a cultural ecology

December 20th, 2018

A learning country

With education being “ […] a primary institution towards affecting social and ecological change for the better” (Kahn, 2003), educating for sustainability requires vast personal and collective paradigm shifts – completely new individual and global ways of being and doing.

In 2015 UNESCO published ‘‘Rethinking Education:Towards a Global Common Good’, which presented an educational landscape reflecting a world undergoing radical transformation with regard to methods, content and spaces of learning. UNESCO saw the increased availability of, and access to, diverse sources of knowledge as expanding new opportunities for learning.  These opprtunities were less structured and more innovative, affecting the classroom, pedagogy, teacher authority and learning processes. In scale, the transformation of the learning landscape underway in the first decade of the new millennium was likened to the historical transition from the traditional pre-industrial ‘learning on the job’ educational model to the ‘school as a mass production educational factory focused on passing written examinations’. Regarding the traditional pre-industrial learning model, most of what people learned came through the activities of their daily lives and work, with the apprentice system having pride of place. In contrast, the model of mass education born of the industrial revolution factory output model equated learning – almost exclusively – with schooling.

In September 2018 the Learned Society of Wales held its third international meeting in Cambridge entitled ‘The Ethics of Sustainable Prosperity for All’.  With respect to the role of education in attaining sustainable prosperity, an historical timeline for Wales was set out by Jane Davidson, a former Member of the Welsh Assembly Government, who had held the ministerial posts in education and environment.  As education minister she took the first steps towards education for living sustainably in a government paper. ‘The Learning Country; A Paving Document’. This was published in 2001, two years after the inception of the devolved National Assembly for Wales.  At that time Wales’ economic profile was summarised as:

  • GDP per head in Wales was some 20 per cent below the UK average;
  • the proportion of working age people whose highest qualification is NVQ level 4 or equivalent, or above, was some 23 per cent compared to 25 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • in 1999 Welsh hourly earnings were 12 per cent below the UK figure;
  • 19 per cent of the population had no qualifications, compared to 16 per cent in the rest of the UK;
  • rates of economic inactivity were at 25 per cent in Wales compared to 21 per cent across the UK.

Davidson was cocerned with the political question,  Would such a culture of low skills, low qualifications, low creativity, low expectation, and low enterprise survive in the face of European and international competition?  The 2001 paving paper pointed to the plain fact that training and education are equally and intimately related to successful community development, social inclusion, wealth creation and personal fulfilment. The belief was that “… there is a close synergy between the measures necessary to sustain learning and creativity, and achieving the benefits of economic growth, community enrichment and a wonderful quality of life for individuals”. Thus, the Davidson paper presented a vision for the future where innovation in the arts, sciences and technology would stimulate and promote Wales as a vigorous learning country.  

Therefore, at the turn of the last century the Assembly Government was proposing a cultural prescription to implant a genuine momentum to lifelong learning for all.   The aim was to unlock everyone’s capacity to acquire the confidence to be adaptable and enterprising; and to make the most of the dynamic cultural and linguistic inheritance in Wales; all with due regard to the Assembly’s consistent commitment for the betterment of its population by:

  • realising sustainability;
  • tackling social disadvantage – especially in the most deprived communities;
  • promoting equality of opportunity; and
  • sustaining an environment that celebrates diversity and makes genuine progress towards realising the benefits of bilingualism.

In this respect the government was committed, more generally, to boosting the participation of children and young people across a range of dimensions in community life. The outcome was seen as the promotion of individuals’ attainment and development whilst also giving them the legal entitlement to design the services that affect them directly. This new ‘community for participation’ was to be supplemented with a new information resource’ branded Canllaw On-Line, to meet government aspirations for a confident, characterful, and holistic schooling system in Wales. This was seen as a system of cultural ecology in which schools could develop, and make the most of their varied strengths and origins in partnership with the community they served.   The focus of cultural ecology is the interchange between human and natural systems. It provides provocative insights into the nature of human relatedness with and impact on the natural world and a window through which the concept of sustainability may be configured. The educational dimension was seen to be a much closer relationship between schools and the communities, where schools would act as a community resource – not just in school hours but out of hours and in vacations as well. Schools were seen as being integral to community capacity building – providing a base for delivering, not just education and training (with links to FE and HE institutions), but also a range of other services like family support, health and enterprise promotion. The aim was to root schools in a wide community/environment context; where they were capable of taking genuine pride in their achievements, and able to ensure they were  publicly recognised. Schools were seen- quite as much as other providers – as being more and more concerned with enabling people to learn how to learn, as well as being dedicated to transmitting knowledge, skills and understanding. Information technology was seen as a vital resource for achieving this. Here, the Assembly Government was breaking with the past by regarding the disposition to learn, and the .confidence to do so, as being vitally important local social currencies for the future. Secondary schools, in particular, were going to be encouraged to progressively move away from rigid timetables, and even classroom based teaching, to very much more flexible modes of provision tailored to the needs of the individual learner and supported by ever strengthening distance learning and computer networking to spread ideas and achievements.

Schooling for a global economic downturn

The core of all political sustainability programmes rely on the old model of indefinite economic growth that caused our ecological crisis in the first place: ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015 calls for  “at least 7% GDP growth per annum in the least developed countries” and “higher levels of economic productivity” across the board. In other words, there is a profound contradiction at the heart of these supposedly sustainable goals. They call for both less and more at the same time. A new education system is needed to resolve the contradiction, which demonstrates how it is entirely possible to shrink our resource consumption while increasing things that really matter such as human happiness, well-being, education, health and longevity. Consider the fact that Europe has higher human development indicators than the US in most categories, despite 40% less GDP per capita and 60% less emissions per capita.

Despite the fine words about living sustainably, now, in Wales and elsewhere, the old schooling model focused on endless economic growth continues to associate learning essentially with classroom teaching to pass time-limited examinations.  In fact much learning, even in traditional educational settings, takes place at home and elsewhere. The physical space defined by the classroom is still the main locus of learning and is a central feature of formal education systems at all levels of learning.  In this respect, UNESCO has questioned the future of this 19th century schooling model in the digital age, bearing in mind the opportunities offered by e-learning, mobile-phone learning and other digital technologies. Also the current industrial model of schooling was designed to meet the production needs of unending year on year economic growth. This began to increase personal wellbeing over a century ago but since then, modes of learning and knowledge about Earth’s limits to support year on year increases in incomes have changed dramatically.  Sources of information have changed, as have the ways in which we exchange and interact with them. Furthermore, curricula have been slow to change and remain remarkably similar to what they have been for the past two centuries. In fact a high degree of prescription and detail in the national curriculum, allied to increasingly powerful accountability mechanisms, has tended to create a culture within which the creative role of the school has become diminished and the professional contribution of the workforce underdeveloped. In particular, the essential features of a national curriculum for the UK, devised in 1988, reflect a world that was yet to see the World Wide Web and the advances in technology and globalisation that have transformed the way we live and work.   

And yet, schooling remains as important as ever. It is the first step in institutionalized learning and socialization beyond the family, and it is an essential component of social learning: learning to be and learning to live together. Learning should not be merely an individual process. As a social experience, it requires learning with and through others – through discussion and debate with peers teachers, business leaders and politicians. In this connection, the transformation of the educational landscape in the contemporary world has seen growing recognition of the importance and relevance of learning outside formal institutions. There is a move from traditional educational institutions towards mixed, diverse and complex learning landscapes in which formal, non-formal and informal learning occur through a variety of educational institutions and third-party providers. Therefore, what is need is a more fluid approach to learning as a continuum, in which schooling and formal education institutions interact more closely with other less formalized educational experiences from early childhood throughout life. The changes in the spaces, times and relations in which learning takes place favour a network of learning spaces where non-formal and informal spaces of learning will interact with and complement formal educational institutions.  Above all we should no longer school young people for the review, but to battle for a sustainable future. This was the message of Davidson in 2018 when she said we must move away from the stressful process of ‘learning to test’.

It wasn’t until 2014 that serious effort was made to apply the 2001 pavement prescription to establish a new Wales curriculum.  Professor Graham Donaldson, was commissioned by the Welsh Government to consider new assessment and curriculum arrangements. His report champions six “areas of learning and experience” as the basis for a  curriculum, which would transcend all learning from the age of 3 through to 16. It is scheduled to come into operation in 2021.

The main points from the Donaldson Report are it:

  • incorporates all learners aged three to 16, from Foundation Phase to Key Stage 4 (GCSE)  
  • bids to develop: ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives; enterprising creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work; ethical informed citizens of Wales and the world; and healthy, confident individuals ready to live fulfilling lives as valued members of society
  • replaces existing key stages with “progression steps”, relating broadly to expectations at ages five, eight, 11, 14 and 16
  • follows progression steps to provide reference points for teachers and parents, while providing a “road map” for pupils according to their individual needs
  • is organised into six “areas of learning and experience”: expressive arts; health and wellbeing; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; maths and numeracy; and science and technology
  • introduces three “cross-curriculum responsibilities” – literacy, numeracy and digital competence – that would be expected of all teachers
  • maintains teacher assessment, which remains the “main vehicle for assessment before qualifications”
  • recommends that teaching of the Welsh language remains compulsory up to the age of 16, but there should be a new expectation that learners gain “transactional competence” by the end of their studies
  • recommends Welsh-medium schools should act as hubs for the Welsh language, supporting teachers and practitioners in English-medium schools
  • recommends all teaching and learning should be directed to achieving the four curriculum purposes
  • recommends external, standardised testing to provide important benchmarking information – but its frequency should be “kept to a minimum” in view of its impact on the curriculum and teaching and learning
  • recommends a programme of professional learning to be developed to ensure that the implications of the review for the skills and knowledge of teachers are fully met
  • Recommends a Wales’ national school categorisation system to be .adjusted to reflect the recommendations of the review

The Humanities working group has already developed a statement outlining how this Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE) promotes the four purposes:

‘Through exploring big ideas about the Humanities, pupils will study the past and present, and by imagining possible futures, will learn about people, place, time and beliefs. In detail pupils will:

•understand historical, geographical, political, economic and societal concepts.

•explore their environment to further develop their sense of place and wellbeing.

•engage in learning experiences about rights, values, ethics, beliefs, religion, philosophy and spirituality.

•consider, explore and make informed choices regarding sustainability and the impact of their actions.

•positively contribute to their community and critically engage with local, national and global issues to become a responsible citizen of Wales and the wider world.

This is the area of the new curriculum where the 2001 paving document can become a route to education for sustainability, stressing systems thinking across traditional subject areas and using the community served by the school as an outdoor laboratory.  It has potential to provide rich opportunities for learning beyond the school walls, for example through exploring the local environment and learning from the experience of people, organisations and businesses and political governance in the community. Children and young people will also gain the knowledge and skills to understand and contribute to the communities in which they live and engage with societal issues.  However, the invisible elephant in the classroom is the unaddressed question. How can Jane Davidson’s vision of a wonderful life for all be realised through education that engages students with a future economy committed to zero economic growth?

Humanity’s average ecological footprint is 2.7 global hectares (gha) per person in an economy targetted to grow unendingly year on year.  To sustain the current population on Earth of 7 billion people requires 18.9 billion gha (2.7 gha x 7 billion people), which is higher than the 13.4 billion global hectares of biologically productive land and water on Earth.  This is a fact demonstrating that humanity’s demands have already exceeded the regenerative capacity of the planet. If the escalation of this demand continues at this rate, by 2030, with an estimated global population of 10 billion people, two Earths will be needed to satisfy humanity’s yearly demands.

Currently, over 80% of the world population lives in countries that use more resources than their own ecosystems can renew. The core capitalist countries (EU, USA and Japan), are ecological big debtors.  In the survey of the Global Footprint Network, the Japanese consume seven times more than their country can provide; four Italys are needed to supply Italian demands for a good life. Education for a bright future should begin with the indisputable fact that humanity pursuing endless growth consumes more natural resources than the planet can ever replenish.

Education for One-planet Wales

Debate about zero economic growth in Wales was started in 2008 with the publication of ‘One Wales: One Planet The Sustainable Development Scheme of the Welsh Assembly Government’.  In his introduction the government’s First Minister said:

“I want a Wales fit for generations to come … What motivates me is doing my very best to ensure a brighter, sustainable future for [my grandchildren and their grandchildren] and every other child growing up in Wales today … [Therefore], top of the list … of our priorities which will continue to improve the quality of life for people today and in the future … is sustainability”’

Sustainable scale is the key characteristic of a steady state economy. Scale is simply a measure of the size of one object relative to another. In this case, concern is with the size of the human economy relative to the ecosystems that serve it. Sustainability is achieved when the human economy fits within the capacity provided by Earth’s ecosystems. Economic activity degrades ecosystems, interfering with natural processes that are critical to various life support services. In the past, the amount of economic activity was small enough that the degree of interference with ecosystems was negligible. The unprecedented growth of economic activity, however, has significantly shifted the balance with potentially disastrous consequences. This is why getting the scale of the economy right (technically the point at which the marginal costs of growth equal the marginal benefits) is the highest priority for a steady state economy.

Finding the Goldilocks scale of the economy, the size that’s not too small and not too large, but just right, is no easy feat. In cases where the benefits of growth outweigh the costs (for example, where people are not consuming enough to meet their needs), growth or redistribution of resources may be required. In cases where the size of the economy has surpassed the carrying capacity of the ecosystems that contain it (a condition known as overshoot), degrowth may be required before establishing a steady state economy that can be maintained over the long term. Adjusting the scale of the economy through accurate measurement of benefits and costs, through trial and error, through regulation of markets, and through political will to achieve sustainability is the great political challenge of our times.

Since continuous growth and sustainable scale are incompatible, growth cannot be relied upon to alleviate poverty, as has been done (ineffectively) in the past. If the pie isn’t getting any bigger, we need to cut and distribute the pieces in a fair way. In addition, poor people who have trouble meeting basic needs tend not to care about sustainability, and excessively rich people tend to consume unsustainable quantities of resources without constrainf. Fair distribution of wealth, therefore, locally. nationally and globally, is a critical element of sustainability and the steady state economy

The route delineated in One Wales One Planet to a brighter future is embedded in a vision where Wales:

  • lives within its environmental limits, using only its fair share of the earth’s resources so that its ecological footprint is reduced to the global average availability of resources, and the population is resilient to the impacts of climate change;
  • has healthy, biologically diverse and productive ecosystems that are managed sustainably;
  • has a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing, its use of natural resources and reducing its contribution to climate change;
  • has communities which are safe, sustainable, and attractive places for people to live and work, where people have access to services, and enjoy good health;
  • is a fair, just and bilingual nation, in which citizens of all ages and backgrounds are empowered to determine their own lives, shape their communities and achieve their full potential.

Clearly the Welsh government is imagining a country that met the basic needs of its citizens – one where everyone could expect to live a long, healthy, happy and prosperous life. Now imagine that same country was able to do this while using natural resources at a level that would be sustainable even if every other country in the world did the same.

Such a country does not exist. Nowhere in the world even comes close. In fact, to live within Earth’s sustainability limits, resources how used to meet basic needs would have to be reduced by a factor of two to six times.  Currently, wealthy nations like the US and UK satisfy the basic needs of their citizens at a level of resource use that is far beyond what is globally sustainable. In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, such as Sri Lanka, fail to meet the basic needs of their people. In general, the more social progress that a country achieves through economic growth, the more Earth’s biophysical limits are transgressed.

On February 21, 1994 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco, Dr. David Pimentel presented some statistics indicating the insufficiency of world resources to sustain a rapidly-expanding human population in relative prosperity.  His report indicated that even if humans succeed in using rapidly diminishing resources more efficiently, the planet can sustain a “quality” standard of living for only two billion people while still maintaining environmental integrity. The report concluded;

“For Americans to continue to enjoy a high standard of living and for Society to be self-sustaining in renewable energy and food and forestry products, given U.S. land, water, and biological resources, the optimum U.S. population is about 200 million.”  

In 2018 the U.S. population was 327 million, about 4% of the world’s population.

It is well known that Americans consume far more natural resources and live much less sustainably than people from any other large country of the world.   For example, it has been calculated that a child born in the United States will create thirteen times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil and the average American will drain as many resources as 35 villagers of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.  Wales is not far behind the U.S in its global demands.

If everyone in the world were to consume the same as the average Welsh citizen, just over 2.5 planets would be required. The most recent figure available for Wales’ ecological footprint is 4.4 global hectares per person,  more than double the average earthshare. The earthshare is the average amount of global resources available per person. To calculate earthshare, the total available bioproductive land and sea area of the planet is divided equally among the current global population. It is estimated that the present average earthshare is 1.88 global hectares per person. If everyone lived within their earthshare, we would be ecologically sustainable at a global level.  

The government’s aspiration is to to reduce Wales’ ecological footprint to the global average availability of resources within the lifetime of a generation. To achieve this goal our use of carbon-based energy, has to be radically reduced by 80-90% resulting in a similar reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions. It would support the government’s aspiration to make annual 3% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and its ambitions to make all new buildings zero carbon buildings; and move to producing as much electricity needed from renewable sources by 2025. There would have to be a radically different approach to waste management, moving towards becoming a zero waste nation. By this, is meant a society where focused on eliminating waste.  Waste that can’t be eliminated would be recycled in “closed loop” systems that achieve the best reduction in ecological and carbon footprints. The stated goal is to achieve 70% recycling across all sectors, and diverting waste from landfill by 2025.

Other changes envisaged for the future in Wales are:

  • to organise the way people live and work so they can travel less by car wherever possible, and can live and work in ways which have a much stronger connection with our local economies and communities.
  • have a resilient and sustainable economy that is able to develop whilst stabilising, then reducing its use of natural resources, reusing sites and buildings and reducing its contribution to climate change.
  • source more of our food locally and in season, within a natural environment where ecosystems are managed sustainably.
  • do all of the above in ways which make Wales a fairer society, reducing the gap between rich and poor, building on our commitments to tackling child and fuel poverty.

This One Wales One Planet vision led to the passing of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015.  The Act makes the public bodies listed in the Act think more about the long term, work better with people and communities and each other, look to prevent problems and take a more joined-up approach.  This new law will mean that, for the first time, public bodies listed in the Act must do what they do in a sustainable way. Public bodies need to make sure that when making their decisions they take into account the impact they could have on people living their lives in Wales in the future.

It will expect them to:

  • work together better
  • involve people reflecting the diversity of our communities
  • look to the long term as well as focusing on now
  • take action to try and stop problems getting worse – or even stop them happening in the first place.

The Act establishes a statutory Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, whose role is to act as a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales, and to support the public bodies listed in the Act to work towards achieving the well-being goals.

The Act also establishes Public Services Boards (PSBs) for each local authority area in

Wales. Each PSB must improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of its area by working to achieve the well-being goals.

Yet, all future economic policies are still geared towards growth. Few of us believe we will ever “run out of stuff”. If we do run out of things, a more efficient alternative will be invented to take its place (such as the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy). The march has to be ever upwards. Negative growth and recessions are bad.  What is not followed through is the inevitability that we will have less to spend.

The Welsh Youth Parliament

When the National Assembly was established in 1999, one of its first acts was to set up a dedicated Education and Youth Engagement Service.  The Assembly wanted to give children and young people in Wales a fun and engaging way to learn about the National Assembly.

Since 2000, the Assembly’s Education and Youth Engagement team has worked with tens of thousands of children and young people across Wales.

A range of educational programmes take place in the National Assembly’s education centre, Siambr Hywel.  They help learners understand the National Assembly’s work and how they can get involved to influence what happens in their local area.  The Education and Youth Engagement team offer activities and opportunities to discuss political issues in schools and colleges across Wales. The National Assembly also focuses attention on young people outside of the school environment, to make sure everyone is included.

To make sure young people in Wales can express their opinions and are listened to, the National Assembly signed up to a Youth Engagement Charter in 2014.

The Charter sets out the National Assembly’s commitment to make sure it listens to, respects and acts on what young people from across Wales say.  It included a commitment to make it easier for young people to find out about the National Assembly and what it does, to take part in debates and to find out how their contributions make a difference.

Since the National Assembly made its commitment, many young people and professionals (backed by the Campaign for a Children and Young People’s Assembly for Wales) told the National Assembly they would like to establish a Welsh Youth Parliament.  Assembly Members agreed.

In October 2016, during a meeting of the whole Assembly, it was decided that a youth parliament should be set up.  The National Assembly consulted over 5,000 young people in Wales to help decide what the Welsh Youth Parliament’s aim, membership, and work should be.

A world for future generations

“The fellowship between man and man which has been the principle of development, social and moral […], is the ideal of goodness entirely human”.

This citation of the Victorian novelist Mary Ann Evans, known under the male pseudonym George Eliot, reflects an early definition of a humanism.   

The concept of humanism marks one of mankind’s most influential philosophical strands of thought and a crucial turning point within the history and the development of human civilization following a theme of human goodness.  The Italian philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) defined humanism in his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man, written in Florence in 1486:

“God the Father, (…) taking man (…), set him in the middle of the world and thus spoke to him: ‘we have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer’.”

The genius of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is an illustration of humanity’s endless ability to understand the environment. Inventor, architect, painter and civil engineer, Leonardo took an interest in all things, from medicine to biology. His note-books show an insatiable curiosity, an interest in the different movements of water, reflections on the atmosphere, observations of nature and the gestures or changes in humour of his contemporaries. He refreshed the Lombard portrait tradition, revolutionized painting and never ceased throughout his life to build bridges between disciplines, as equal and as diverse products of the never-ending creativity of human spirit. Through his travels in Italy and France, through his works – the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper – he is a model of what human beings can accomplish, by dint of work and imagination.

As an intellectual and ethical stance, humanism stresses the significance and the normative value of human goodness both with respect to individuality, community and overall society. As such, the concept of humanism involves a critical reflection of the constitution of society and of the manner in which social interactions between human beings proceed. Regarding its origins within the framework of the era of European Enlightenment, humanism was cast as a moral rationale.  The aim was to address fundamental questions relating to humanity and human nature. These relationships facilitated humankind’s ordered progress in science and technology. Rooted in the notion of a free and resourceful human existence, humanism evolved into the grand movement of human spiritual and creative liberation, which enabled an unparalleled acceleration of European economic growth and social change. In line with humanist ethics, material growth was understood as a collective good, which was to serve all participants of a community and meant to enable the socio-economic progress of society. Thus, although the exact definition of humanism has historically fluctuated in accordance with successive and diverse strands of intellectual thought, the underlying concept rests on the universal ideas of human emancipation, independence, social justice and the promotion of  general well being.

Economic growth has been defended for its contributions to human well being and increasing standards of living. Yet, it is evident that the current level of  economic growth requires to be supported by an increasing use of Earth’s natural resources that exceeds the capacity of the planet to yield them. It has been clear for a long time that we cannot continue to consume water, burn fuel and emit carbon dioxide at ever increasing rates. We are at a point in history where economic growth and monetary prosperity have to be replaced with a global cultural, spiritual, and political value shift to adopt a steady state economy.   The objective is to move towards simplicity,and sufficiency in a sharing, community, with a deep respect for the natural world, driven by a non-monetary definition of prosperity. Humanism is the obvious educational framework to carry us along this path.

Rowen Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,  speaking at the Cambridge ‘Ethics of Sustainabile Prosperity for All’ conference in 2018 defined prosperity as ‘that which is hoped for’.  He maintained that ;

…morally, such prosperity should be rooted to provide for the common good for all and shared social goals.  Yet we are currently looking forward in panic in our current politics of populist protectionism which puts national security  over global wellbeing and pitches North against South, East against West and rich against poor. Our well being is interdependent and interlocking, so prosperity for the few is prosperity for none.  International crises be they environmental or social do not respect boundaries. The secure border is a toxic fiction”.

His prescription for a prosperous sustainable future is;

.”.. to build sustainble virtuous civil societies which transcend narrow factionalism and look wider and beyond national electoral politics. This also means reinforcing international organisations and finding narratives of international cooperation being empowering of our humanity rather than a loss of national freedom”.

With respect to human relations, he said;

“…we need a positive sense of justice in what is owed to all humanity, adnabod in Welsh (recognise or know someone).  Our localism and universalism needs to be connected, seeing the stranger as neighbour in a true humanism”.

There are various types of humanism.  Classical humanism, which is associated with the European Renaissance, emphasized aesthetics, liberty, and the study of the “humanities” (literature, art, philosophy, and classical languages of Greek and Latin). Secular humanism emphasizes human potential and self-fulfillment to the point of excluding a need for God; it is a naturalistic philosophy based on reason, science, and end-justifies-the-means thinking. Christian humanism teaches that liberty, individual conscience, and intellectual freedom are compatible with Christian principles and that the Bible itself promotes human fulfillment—based on God’s salvation in Christ and subject to God’s sovereign control of the universe.

The natural economy of gender is an outstanding barrier to human fulfillment that can only be resolved globally  through the application of secular humanism to ellicit changes in the complex social system of household partneships.  For example, a heterosexual community can be analyzed biologically as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. Societies will therefore define gender roles as if women are sellers and men buyers of sex. Societies will endow female sexuality, but not male sexuality, with value (as in virginity, fidelity, chastity). The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple’s decisions may be influenced by market conditions. Economic principles suggest that the price of sex will depend on supply and demand, competition among sellers, variations in product, collusion among sellers, and other factors. Research findings show gender asymmetries (reflecting the complementary economic roles) in prostitution, courtship, infidelity and divorce, female competition, the sexual revolution and changing norms, unequal status between partners, cultural suppression of female sexuality, abusive relationships, rape, and sexual attitudes.

A few weeks after Willliams made the above contribution to the Cambridge conference he co-signed with 93 academics the following open letter to the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Facts about our ecological crisis are incontrovertible. We must take action’.  It is against this warning of environmental disaster that Williams’ prescription for a prosperous future should be set.

The letter reads:

We the undersigned represent diverse academic disciplines, and the views expressed here are those of the signatories and not their organisations. While our academic perspectives and expertise may differ, we are united on one point: we will not tolerate the failure of this or any other government to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis. The science is clear, the facts are incontrovertible, and it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.

We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with about 200 species becoming extinct each day. Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak.

Our government is complicit in ignoring the precautionary principle, and in failing to acknowledge that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is non-viable. Instead, the government irresponsibly promotes rampant consumerism and free-market fundamentalism, and allows greenhouse gas emissions to rise. Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humans have used up more resources from nature than the planet can renew in the entire year) falls ever earlier each year (1 August in 2018).

When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The “social contract” has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.

We therefore declare our support for Extinction Rebellion, launching on 31 October 2018. We fully stand behind the demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens. We call for a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.

There are two sides of the debate about the future of economic growth.  A conventional neoclassical economist would probably tell you that there have always been measurable increases in the efficiency of using resources, income, and quality of life improvements under past conditions of year on year economic growth. If the economy continues to grow, so their theory goes, ecological limits will be overcome thanks to technological solutions and a structural shift towards a post-industrial knowledge economy.  This ideal trajectory is called ‘decoupling growth from material input’ or ‘dematerialization,’ because each unit of GDP requires fewer and fewer material inputs. Some theorists, call this view ‘techno-optimism,’ which is the crux of the growth debate.

Many other economists – and an increasing number of thinkers across the arts and sciences – would suggest that the impossibility of endless economic growth is the proverbial invisible elephant in political debating chambers’.  According to H L Evans (2009:),

“…education, if it is to play a role in developing sustainable ways of being human in the world, cannot continue its traditional functions in a society headed for global catastrophe. It cannot simply aim to help individuals achieve lucrative careers in a world where continued enslavement of nature and economic and cultural colonisation of peoples serve as the inputs for economic growth”.

The cultural change needs to be substantial and faster than anything we have witnessed in the past through historic educational discourses and world development  trajectories. The humanistic sustainability education approach has delivered positive creative milestones on the revolutionary road of transforming homo economicus into homo sustineo. In so doing it is creating a new world of common sense, liberation and democracy in which nature is treasured and the well being of present and future generations is safeguarded.

Nevertheless, the economy’s aggregate material footprint, especially in high income regions, continues to climb despite technological innovation and efficiency gains.  Deleterious environmental changes march in lock-step with growth in GDP. Moreover, growth doesn’t necessarily improve well being, and the gains aren’t shared equitably with those who could benefit from them the most, especially in the world’s poorest regions. This in turn means that we should do what many economists would consider the unthinkable: actually produce and consume less, strive for a more fulfilling and less materialistic life, and tailor policies to address specific ecological, social, and financial challenges. This multilateral scenario would require that world leadership is needed to foster social and technological innovation without growth and guide transition to a steady state economy (SSE).  

Political decision making tends to be based on crises; decisions are not made until catastrophe strikes. Thus, decisions are ad hoc, designed to protect or promote a particular aspect of human well-being instead of examining the problem in a holistic manner. Based on past experience, we expect that leaders will continue to postpone decisions concerning human carrying capacity of the world, maintenance of a standard of living, conservation of resources, and the preservation of the environment, until the situation becomes intolerable, or worse still, irreversible.  Transition aimed at this end point requires a radical change in a global education system that was designed to create Western industrial empires.

Essentially, multisubject teaching was established in the 1904 UK Regulations of the Board of Education that knowledge can, and should, be divided into narrow subjects, and thereby more effectively organised for the benefit of the learner.  This assumption was reinforced in the UK National Curriculum.

The difficulties of escaping from this single subjects constraitlnt are exemplified by the Wales model.   Since 1999, the Welsh educational system developed within the bounds of a separate ministry and the opportunity was missed to integrate One-planet Wales, the Future Generations Act and  the Welsh Youth Parliament seamlessly within a new steady state economy format situated in the humanities. This could have been an integrated lifelong learning pedagogy with a curriculum, framed within cultural ecology, for living sustainably to promote a true multifaith humanism.

In the new Welsh curriculum the Humanities Area seeks to give pupils an understanding of historical, geographical, political, economic and societal factors.  This will provide opportunities to engage in informed discussions about ethics, beliefs, religion and spirituality. It draws on existing subjects, history, geography, business and social studies, as well as religious education.  This is the place to embed secular humanism as a philosophy of life which affirms the universal and unique significance of humanity, universal human rights, objective moral values, optimism concerning the future of the human condition, and meaning and purpose in human life. Davidson’s  2002 paving document, with its emphasis on pupils serving the needs of their community neighbourhood was signposting to a comprehensive humanistic curriculum with a commitment to “self-fashioning”. But it was not followed up.

All the basic elements were there for fostering a humanistic approach to Welsh education based on an engaging environment for the students to ask inquiry-based questions that promote meaningful learning.  The humanistic approach places a great deal of emphasis on students’ choice and control over the course of their education. Students are encouraged to make choices that range from day-to-day activities to periodically setting future life goals. This allows for students to focus on a specific subject of interest for any amount of time they choose, within reason. Humanistic teachers believe it is important for students to be motivated and engaged in the material they are learning, and this happens when the topic is something the students need and want to know.

Being a true (or new) humanist, secular or religious, today means  accepting a collective requirement of the humanities message, which emphasizes the necessarily collective dimension for Individuals to become whole in society, as members of a community. Humanists exist as a community of humanity that binds every individual to all others. Beyond our diversity, we all share one common human culture. Through communication, through language learning and dialogue, through scientific cooperation, we can extend beyond the limits of ourselves, we can broaden our knowledge, discover other customs, with an awareness of the humanity that binds all people of the planet together. New humanism means adapting the strength of an age-old message to the requirements of a global population commited to a steady state economy. This humanist message is that it will no longer will be it possible for governments, of any political persuasion, to take the natural environment for granted. After at least two centuries of unregulated exploitation of nature, this is surely, to all but a few self-interested corporations and their employees, a positive development.  Also, as concern about the environment has grown, new philosophies reevaluating the economic relationship between the social and natural worlds have also emerged. The purpose of a humanistic education today is to question the underlying vision of a prosperity built on continual growth. And to search for alternative visions – in which humans can still flourish and yet reduce their material impact on the environment.

A prosperous society without growth  is concerned not with income growtk and financial wealth, but with the health and wellbeing of its citizens, with access to good quality education, and with prospects for decent and rewarding work. Prosperity without growth enables basic individual rights, freedoms and equalities. But it must also deliver the ability for people to participate meaningfully in common projects. Ultimately, prosperity must offer society a credible and inclusive vision of social progress.   IIn summary, there is the education of commodity, the old kind of education that seeks to produce persons who will maintain and increase the economy of profit. And, on the other hand, there is the new, humanistic education of community, the kind that seeks to foster persons who will maintain and preserve the essential characteristics of community. Above all, a humanistic education would be the life long pursute of an ecological balance between society and nature. It would engage students with systems of environmental ethics that call for human beings to understand that we are all part of nature and its limited production in everything we do.


Five Classes for Humanistic Education to Live Sustainably

The context of this appendix is about developing a humanistic education system for growing selfhood in a rapidly changing world. It presents the view that teaching in a humanistic education system is about enabling learners to gather information and transform it creatively into a personal body of knowledge to answer the following three questions about growing as an individual.  

Who am I? (searching for values, beliefs and empathy for others).

What am I going to do (defining career paths to transient jobs that may not even exist yet).

WilI I make it? (coping with the cultural impact of rapid social, technical and economic changes).

There are also three ‘sister’ questions about developing a global community that has to cope with environmental issues surrounding the management of finite planetary resources and the associated divisive issues of gender and livelihoods.

Who are we?

What are we going to do?

Will we make it?

Young people have never had to ask these questions in past ages.  Sadly, the current education system is not engaging students with these big questions that are ‘burning in their souls’. Answering them requires teaching with a grander purpose of learning in mind i.e. growing each student as a whole individual, in body, mind and spirit.

Answers to these deep questions lies within the following ‘classroom’ framework for a system of humanistic education.

1  In the Steady State Prosperity class students learn that a failed growth economy and a steady-state economy are not the same thing; they are the very different alternative futures humanity faces today. The Earth as a whole is approximately a steady state. Neither the surface nor the mass of the earth is growing or shrinking; the inflow of radiant energy to the Earth is equal to the outflow; and material imports from space are roughly equal to exports (both negligible). The closer the human economy approaches the scale of the whole Earth the more it will have to conform to the physical behavioural mode of the Earth. That behaviour mode is a system that permits qualitative development but not aggregate quantitative growth.   None of this means that the earth is static—a great deal of qualitative change can happen inside a steady state, and certainly has happened on Earth. The most important change in recent times has been the enormous growth of one subsystem of the Earth, namely the human economy relative to the total system, the ecosphere. The ecosphere is no longer able to provide the sources and sinks for the metabolic throughput necessary to sustain the existing oversized human economy—much less a growing one. A growing economy produces more of the same stuff; development of a zero growth economy produces a constant amount of different and hopefully better stuff to support a more planet-friendly kind of prosperity.

2 In the Turning Facts and Beliefs into Knowledge class the students begin to learn how selfood is constructed from facts and beliefs and how to critically evaluate claims to knowledge. Students learn to analyse the arguments of others and to construct their own thoughtful arguments in response.

3 In the Creating a World View class students learn what defines a world view. Tradition, education, religion, political structure, economics, gender and historical context all contribute to the construction of an outlook on the world. Moreover, students learn that a world view is a human creation and therefore we are not hapless victims of the world we find ourselves in, but rather everyone is capable of ideation to give shape to it.

4 In the Defining Cultural Ecologies class students will learn that cultural ecology provides an ideational scaffold for a humanistic education system.   The term oekologie was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The word is derived from the Greek οικος (oikos, “household”) and λόγος (logos, “study”); therefore the original definition of “ecology” means the “study of the household [of nature]”  Ecology originally referred to the interrelationships between living creatures and their habitats, but over the years the term has been generalised to mean the set of relationships existing between the features of any complex system and the influence of its surroundings (Table 1).

Table 1 Ecologies of species, art and gender

SpeciesHabitatsBiophysical factors
Works of artSocietiesBeliefs and ideas
Men and womenHome and communityMale dominance

The natural economy of gender is an example of a complex system that stands to benefit greatly from applied humanism.  The classroom objectives are:

  • to gain a basic understanding of the concepts gender, economy and economic agency and how to consider them in their interrelationship;
  • to be aware of power differences characterizing gender relations;
  • to learn how gender identities and relations influence economic outcomes;
  • to be able to argue how gender relations may structure economic institutions;
  • to know how to specify gender-aware economic functions and models.

5 In the Planning for Change class, students consolidate their critical power of argument and realization of their ability to effect change in an exploration of their responsibilities to do so. Humanistic planning is an approach to management theory based on the ideas of human needs and human values.  Students will study ethical theories, identify conflicts in values, analyse ethical issues pertinent to a programme of change and formulate planned solutions to ethical problems. Here the humanistic values of thoughtful reasoning, tolerance and open mindedness are applied to manage practical issues and problems.

6  Educators and facilitators.

Students follow a humanistic curriculum with the guidance of teachers and facilitators.

Teachers are the ones with knowledge and expertise in a particular field. They impart that knowledge through a variety of means to groups of students.

Facilitators build on the knowledge base of individuals to find the answers to questions bothering them.

Both methods of instruction serve a purpose and help individual students build their own personal body of knowledge and articulate it to others in the group.  They communicate through writing, pictures, audio, video, artworks and good deeds.

When a teacher enters a classroom, she/he is a subject expert and takes charge of a group learning environment. The teacher is responsible for creating lesson plans that direct the course of study that a group of students follows. Clear and concise objectives delineate what the group studies on any given day. The teacher is responsible for measuring how much information each student has gathered.  Evaluation is often in the form of tests, but the teacher may use other measurement tools to determine if all the students met the teacher’s objectives for the class as a whole.

Facilitators might not be subject experts like a teacher  They have special training in group dynamics, using processes such as conflict resolution, strategic planning and team building. In any group setting, a facilitator can quickly determine what each member of the group knows so that every person is self directed and has an opportunity to build on that personal knowledge. By asking guiding questions and keeping the group focused, a facilitator helps the group establish a set of ground rules about how the group should function, as well as allowing individuals meet their own learning objectives. A facilitator also helps individuals evaluate what they have learned. Facilitation works best in small groups.  Because humanism is a highly individualised body of knowledge the emphasis is on facilitation.

Cultural ecology of art and science

November 19th, 2018

“I believe when people call themselves spiritual they are basically signaling three things: first, that they believe there is more to the world than meets the eye, that is to say, more than the mere material. Second, that they try to attend to their inner life — to their mental and emotional states — in the hopes of gaining a certain kind of self-knowledge. Third, that they value the following virtues: being compassionate, empathetic and open-hearted.”

1 Cultural ecologies

The term oekologie was coined in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel.  The word is derived from the Greek οικος (oikos, “household”) and λόγος (logos, “study”); therefore the original definition of “ecology” means the “study of the household [of nature]”

Ecology originally referred to the interrelationships between living creatures and their habitats, but over the years the term has been generalised to mean the set of relationships existing between any complex system and its surroundings (Table 1).

Table 1 Ecologies of species and works of  art

Features   Environment           Influences
Species     Habitats    Biophysical factors
Works of art       Societies    Beliefs and ideas

Space-time is a mathematical model of the universe that joins space and time into a single idea called a continuum. This four-dimensional continuum is known as Minkowski space. Combining these two ideas helped cosmologists to understand how the universe works as an ecology on the big level (e.g. galaxies) and small level (e.g. atoms).  For the convenience of education the dynamic continuum of the universe, when focused on Homo sapiens and planet Earth, has been divided into five ecologies of habitats, species, culture, politics, and economics. These are broad, well defined bodies of knowledge which are connected through interdisciplinary issues. They are best studied by applying ecological systems thinking to life on Earth, where the old subdivisions of knowledge give too narrow a perspective for tackling the problems of human life on an overcrowded planet.

Cultural ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of people and the interactions between them and their biophysical environment. A cultural ecosystem defines a particular biophysical environment and its human inhabitants functioning together as a society.  This occurs with respect to the expression of its ideas, customs, and social behaviour in a habitat associated with a particular community of plants and animals.

In every culture in the world, artistic expression has emerged to provide an outlet for thoughts, feelings, traditions, and beliefs. Art can be both rooted in history and a catalyst for change in a culture. Many works of art are rooted in religion.  From these points of view cultural ecosystems may be defined by the dynamics of the interactions between particular styles of art and the society in which they were created. The outcome is to picture the essence of the universe and our place in it.

Albert Einstein remarked that the eternal mystery of the world is its intelligibility.  Religion fastens on to this element to create a system of thought and action.  The connections between religion, which answers the question, who we are, and science which answers the question, how we are, come together in art.

These ecologies and their ecosystems all promote the use of concept maps and mind maps as aids to comprehension of the whole. This type of mapping system begins with a main idea or subject that then branches out to show how it can be broken down into specific topics with connections between them (Fig 1).

Fig 1.1 Concept map of three ‘art in science ecosystems’ that depict a spiritual essence of the universe and our place in it.

Cultural ecology includes the study of cultural ecosystems that define the flow of ideas and  and their expression. In this connection, a growing number of contemporary scientists use the arts in a practical way to assist in their research, to gain insights that feed into their research, or to communicate their research to the general public. This notion of research as art differs from traditional scholarship in that it is not characteristically beholden to disciplinary conventions and parameters, and may present “findings” in visually aesthetic formats or those otherwise atypical of academic or journalistic publications.

Within cultural ecology, ecosystems of art and ideas are based on the model of consciousness, or “mind ”, as being like an ecosystem, and ideas as being like the flora and fauna of this system. Like the plants and animals in a tangible ecosystem, ideas are then subject to evolution, extinction, or successful flourishing. In biological ecology, scientists strive to understand biological processes so that we promote those we deem beneficial and avoid introducing destructive elements into the system.  Taking this point of view we define conservation management systems that match our use of ecosystem services to the rate of production of the natural resources they are capable of delivering.In the world of nature conservation the connection between art and nature is central to the understanding of each. Before the widespread use of photography, much of what we refer to as the visual arts involved an attempt to picture the the natural world in all its biodiversity of species. Thus, throughout history, visual artists have been inspired to capture the complex as well as the sublime qualities of nature and its life-forms. Scientists have done the same via observational recording, classification, counting, and analysis.

2 Spiritual expressionism

Fig 2.1 Concept map of spiritual expressionism

At its most basic, spiritual expressionism states that the fundamental, definitive quality of art is the ability to capture some aspect of spiritual thinking. The goal of spiritual expressionism is to find ways of representing divinity.  It is an ideology, such as the expressive theory, which sees the fundamental role of art as the expression of emotion.  

The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated through the relationship between art and religion. As we have seen, this is particularly evident in the art of India.   In Western art history prior to the 20th century, spirituality was often subsumed by religion. While the origins of stained glass are unknown, the Gothic period of architecture saw a blossoming in the use of stained glass in its great cathedrals. In addition to artistic practicality, glass craftsmen found the mysterious qualities of glass exemplary to represent the religious and spiritual ideologies of the period, which they steadily honed to a fine art.

The relationship between art and religion was fractious; at times they were mutually reinforcing, while at others there was dissension because of the lack of unanimity about the image. The crux of the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, and later the Protestant Reformation, was not so much a denial of the importance of imagery but, on the contrary, was about just how much power images held. The iconoclasts believed that the use of images distracted from the main goals of religious practice, and could lead to moral and religious corruption.  But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity. Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal sights that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making.  This transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary. Given these affinities between the roles of art and spirituality, it is unsurprising that spirituality is an enduring feature of contemporary art. Key written works, particularly Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Der Blaue Reiter Almanac(1912), defended abstract art and revealed how non-objective forms could evoke the inexpressible through engagement with its formal qualities. In his 1911 work, Kandinsky emphasized his staunch belief in the redemptive qualities of the spiritual. He envisioned the Kingdom of God as an artistic domain that could be accessed by the artist-as-prophet, who was able to traverse “[t]he nightmare of materialism”to attain spiritual utopia through art. Abstract art provided the necessary means to do this, and the belief presented was that “[t]he more abstract [its] form, the more clear and direct is its appeal.  Since Kandinski experiences of the spiritual have often been sought outside of the traditional themes of religious narratives and imagery, which have often been presented in veiled or coded language. In this respect, it could be said that religious expressionism is an offshoot of abstract expressionism exemplified by the works of William de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Ruth Abrams,  Agnes Martin and Joan Mitchell.

De Stijl was a circle of Dutch abstract artists who promoted a style of art based on a strict geometry of horizontals and verticals. Originally a publication, De Stijl was founded in 1917 by two pioneers of abstract art, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. De Stijl means style in Dutch. The magazine De Stijl became a vehicle for Mondrian’s ideas on art, and in a series of articles in the first year’s issues he defined his aims and used, perhaps for the first time, the term neo-plasticism. This became the name for the type of abstract art he and the De Stijl circle practised.  As a manifesto it took…..

  • from cubism: the reduction of form to geometric elements (note that this was not the goal of cubism but it was how Mondrian and the de Stijl artists chose to understand and use it)
  • from art nouveau and symbolism: the flat, mural quality of paintings and design with emphasis on the surface;
  • from Van der Leck: a desire for an objective language of art
  • from Kandinsky and theosophy: a relationship of spirituality to abstract form
  • from philosophy: the belief that forms and colour can express “liberation” of the spirit; art should move and would move away from sensuality and materiality towards spirituality (this is also the influence of Kandinsky)
  • from mysticism: the belief that numbers can express purity; the belief that the outcome precedes actuality in a conceptual manner; the conceptualization leads to style and style becomes reality; in addition to this belief, revelation is central to mystical philosophy: this mean that the spiritual and philosophical act of contemplation allows the subsequent recognition of reality in a form which is consistent with the goals of mysticism.

The grid is a visual structure that Mondrian conjured as his interpretation of  De Stijl and placed at the roots of contemporary art. As a graphic component in painting, it came to prominence in the early 20th century when Mondrian was widely considered the “most modern” artist of his time. In 1912,  he began to create his “compositions,” paintings based on grids of horizontal and vertical black lines in three primary colours. “These basic forms of beauty,” he wrote, “supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”   In fact curves are totally absent from his works.

The art historian Rosalind Krauss has pointed to the emergence of the grid as a critical step in the evolution of modern art. In her 1979 essay “Grids,” she wrote:

“In the early part of this century, there began to appear, first in France and then in Russia and in Holland, a structure that has remained emblematic of the modernist ambition within the visual arts ever since. Surfacing in pre-War cubist painting and subsequently becoming ever more stringent and manifest, the grid announces, among other things, modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.”

The painting named ‘Abstraction’ (Fig 2.2) is one of the culminating paintings that Mondrian had developed by 1921 consisting of straight horizontal and vertical lines, rectangular shapes resulting from their crossing; and a palette of black, white, and the primary colours.  He wrote: “Observing sea, sky, and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals. . . .

Fig 2.2  Abstraction: Piet Mondrian, 1921

8-1-12_Mondrian_AP1994_05, 8/1/12, 11:38 AM, 16C, 6726×8169 (732+1572), 100%, Custom, 1/8 s, R42.7, G17.1, B30.4

Like Mondrian, but twenty years after his death, the abstract expressionist, Agnes Martin, used the grid to organize a personal perception of nature into her canvases that were awash with colour, thus seamlessly blending what on the surface are two very different art styles: ‘minimalism’ and ‘colour Field’ (Fig 2.3).

Martin’s works are non-representational, yet the titles of her paintings and her own words about her art and life indicate that she was strongly influenced by nature – a focus that brought together different areas of her life. Her adherence to Buddhism encouraged her to rely on her everyday surroundings for subject matter; and her schizophrenia meant that she did not relate well or easily to humans, so that nature represented a calm, ordered refuge.

Martin’s use of the grid along with her focus on non-representation released the artist from the burden of traditional subject matter while allowing her to explore infinite variations of subtle colour. The resulting freedom of her artwork was at odds with the monastic restraint of her daily life.

About her work she says:  “When I think of art I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.”

Fig 2.3 “Summer” (1964): Synthesizing both Abstract Expressionism and minimalism. Agnes Martin

Martin’s work is has been likened to an archetype of aspects of pioneering America: the quietism of the Quakers, the spare and well-made furniture of the Shakers, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the nature worship of Henry Thoreau, to which, in the 1930s, she added a deep interest in Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies long before these became almost mandatory among artists.

Writing about her works she said:

“My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor  anything — no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging,  about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the  necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.”

Martin praised the colourfield painter Mark Rothko for having “reached zero so that nothing could stand in the way of truth”. Following his example Martin also pared her works down to the most reductive elements to encourage a perception of perfection and to emphasize transcendent reality.  Her signature style was defined by an emphasis upon line, grids, and fields of extremely subtle colour. Particularly in her breakthrough years of the early 1960s, she created 6 × 6 foot square canvases that were covered in dense, minute and softly delineated graphite grids  In the 1966 exhibition Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Martin’s grids were therefore celebrated as examples of Minimalist art and were hung among works by artists including Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, and Donald Judd. While minimalist in form, however, these paintings were quite different in spirit from those of her other minimalist counterparts, retaining small flaws and unmistakable traces of the artist’s hand; she shied away from intellectualism, favouring the personal and spiritual. Her paintings, statements, and influential writings often reflected an interest in Eastern philosophy, especially Taoist. Because of her work’s added spiritual dimension, which became more and more dominant after 1967, she preferred to be classified as an abstract expressionist.  A better description would be to describe her as a spiritual expressionist. This concept is developed further in the linked Tumblr blog.

One of the central conventions of Western art is the idea that the painted canvas can be viewed as a window onto the world; that the existence of a flat surface is concealed and the painting presents the illusion of real life.  On the other hand, the philosophy of Mondrian places the grid grid as an emblem of modernism and modern artists have created works that reassert the presence of the flat canvas or play with the idea of the penetrable or illusory nature of that surface.  In some works there is a deliberate formal oscillation between flatness and three-dimensional space. Therefore the grid has become a key device in the understanding of the canvas as both a window and a flat surface. To some, the grid suggests the division of a window into panes of glass through which the world beyond can be seen, whilst simultaneously reminding the viewer of the presence of the two-dimensional surface they are viewing (Figs 2.4-5).

Fig 2.4 Bent grid 1,Corixus, 2018

Fig 2.5 Bent grid 2, Corixus, 2018

Spiritual expressionism is summed up by the work of Joan Mitchell, who, defining abstract art, said:

“Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it’s an ambivalence of forms and space.”  

“My paintings are titled after they are finished. I paint from remembered landscapes that I carry with me – and remembered feelings of them, which of course become transformed. I could certainly never mirror nature. I would more like to paint what it leaves with me.”

Joan Mitchell is known for the compositional rhythms, bold coloration, and sweeping gestural brushstrokes of her large and often multi-panelled paintings. Inspired by landscape, nature, and poetry, her intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. Mitchell’s early success in the 1950s was striking at a time when few women artists were recognized. She referred to herself as the “last Abstract Expressionist,” and she continued to create abstract paintings until her death in 1992.  Inspired by the gestural painting of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell’s mature work comprised a highly abstract, richly coloured, calligraphic manner, which balanced elements of structured composition with a mood of wild improvisation.

Mitchell rejected the emphasis on flatness and the “all-over” approach to composition that were prevalent among many of the leading Abstract Expressionists. Instead, she preferred to retain a more traditional sense of figure and ground in her pictures, and she often composed them in ways that evoked impressions of landscape (Fig 2.6).

Fig 2.6 Little weeds, Joan Mitchell

This correspondence between the arts issued largely from Symbolism and had been inspired by scientific studies of colours and tones as sensations. The ‘pure’ abstract painters – Vasily Kandinsky, Frank Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich – who followed after 1910, however, always declared that their paintings were not music, nor that they were painting music. Rather, they claimed that painting’s tonal colours have an effect on the human being just as music’s tones do: the relationship between music and painting is a parallel one, colour and tone affecting and enlivening human feelings

Tone in painting and drawing refers to the light and dark values used to render a realistic object, or to create an abstract composition. When using pastel, an artist may often use a colored paper support, using areas of pigment to define lights and darks, while leaving the bare support to show through as the mid-tone.  Tone can also mean the colour itself. One colour can have an almost infinite number of different tones. In this connection, tonal painting involves harmonizing or unifying a limited range of colour calling upon a whole range of tones within the limited colours to produce what is termed the atmosphere of the work. For example,in Wistler’s painting (Fig 2.7) of August 1871.  This is the first of Whistler’s Nocturnes. In this work Whistler concentrated on the tonal qualities of blue and grey, aimed to convey a sense of the beauty and tranquillity of the Thames by night. It was Frederick Leyland who first used the name ‘nocturne’ to describe Whistler’s moonlit scenes. It aptly suggests the notion of a night scene, but with abstract musical associations. The name nocturne was first applied to musical compositions  in the 18th century, when it indicated an ensemble piece in several movements, normally played for an evening party and then laid aside. The expression was quickly adopted by Whistler, who later explained,

By using the word ‘nocturne ‘ I wished to indicate an artistic interest alone, divesting the picture of any outside anecdotal interest which might have been otherwise attached to it. A nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and colour first’.

In other words, his tonal pictures were to be perceived as abstract creations akin to musical compositions.

Fig 2.7  Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander 1972

Instrumental music is fundamentally abstract because it represents emotional states, symmetry and repetition, and other intangibles.  A common purpose of both abstract art and instrumental music as communication systems is to allow maker, and receiver indirect access to their inner feelings. Abstract art and music afford a way to get in touch with the unconscious part of our existence, even if we don’t realize what is really happening. In this sense, the role of  the maker of non representational art is to create a vehicle for communication that, when viewed or heard by another, evokes subconscious feelings and emotions.

In a musical art form tone colour is the characteristic that allows us to distinguish the sound of one instrument from another. Every instrument produces its own tone colour. For example, when you hear a clarinet and a guitar play the exact same pitch, the tone colour of each instrument allows you to tell the difference between the sounds that you hear. Furthermore, two violins are likely to emit different tone colours.  Another name for tone colour is timbre. We often use terms like warm, dark, bright, or buzzy to describe musical tone colour.

The reason music and abstract painting have the potential to be so powerful in arousing an emotional response is that they keep the conscious meaningful distractions to a minimum, so virtually all brain power is devoted to feelings.  As a partaker, you can open yourself, let in the energy and spirit that the maker put into the work, and allow it to interact with an open-minded brain.

The difference between the two art forms comes with their ‘reading’.  A musical message is presented n a fixed, linear fashion, progressively following the composer’s score from beginning to end.  In abstract painting there is no fixed route for all to follow; the eye searches for meaning in an idiosyncratic way.

3 Narrative representationalism

Fig 3.1 Concept map of narrative representationalism

In philosophy representationalism is the doctrine that in perceptions of objects what is before the mind is not the object but a representation of it.  In art representationalism is the practice or principle of representing or depicting an object in a recognizable manner,especially the portrayal of the surface characteristics of an object as they appear to the eye.

Narrative representationalism tells a story. It uses the power of the visual image to ignite imaginations, evoke emotions and capture universal cultural truths and aspirations. What distinguishes narrative representationalism from other genres is its ability to narrate a story across diverse cultures, preserving it for future generations.  

As far as we can tell painting was integral with the first appearances of storytellers, bards, prophets and poets, who were called upon to tell their visions.  Ťhrough a live encounter, they provided verbal images that could direct, entertain, provoke, heal and reconcile the communities in which they worked. Storytellers say that any story that they craft will in turn craft them to be a fit instrument for its telling. We are, in fact, made of stories, some of which serve our individual and collective endeavours, others binding us to outmoded images. Imagination, therefore, is the key to the invisible realm from which all stories and everything new and possible can be born. Coupled with clear intention, this essential human faculty will help connect people to those creative forces which are ever available to them. The future is shaped, for good or ill, by the stories we believe and follow

While telling almost any story involves words, characters and structure, making a picture of a story involves another aspect of storytelling the use of visual language. Visual language refers to how imagery is used to convey story ideas or meanings. Perspective, colour, and shape can all be used to support a story by guiding the audience to see,feel and dream certain things.

What we have in our minds in a waking state and what we imagine in dreams is very much of the same nature. Dream images might be with or without spoken words, other sounds or colours. In the waking state there is usually, in the foreground, the buzz of immediate perception, feeling, mood, as well as fleeting memory images.  In a mental state between dreaming and being fully awake is a state known as ‘day dreaming’. This is a meditative state, during which the things we see in the sky when the clouds are drifting, the centaurs and stags, antelopes and wolves, are projected from the imagination.

Abstract art has shown that the qualities of line and shape, proportion and colour convey meaning directly without the use of words or pictorial representation. Wassily Kandinsky] showed how drawn lines and marks can be expressive without any association with a representational image. From the most ancient cultures and throughout history visual language has been used to encode meaning:

“The Bronze Age Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor stands over a metre high and around 3 metres in length.  This bolder has a southwest facing flattest surface that is marked with a profusion of cups, rings, interlinking grooves and gutters. Depending on the weather and sunlight the rock can change from grey and featureless to a rich golden brown, resembling a miniature Uluru/Ayers Rock, with the carvings thrown into sharp relief. It may be necessary for several visits to the rock in differing condition to get a full appreciation of the complex designs. It’s a story-telling rock, a message from a world before written words.

Richard Gregory suggests that,

“Perhaps the ability to respond to absent imaginary situations,” as our early ancestors did with paintings on rock, “represents an essential step towards the development of abstract thought.”


3.1  Stained glass

Imagine a world in which everything was bright and shining and new, a world in which one thing reflected off another in such a way as to enhance the attractiveness and beauty of both—and further, that the visual quality of reflection and transparency was an indication of a higher, moral order, an order which was the beginning of the ultimate reality, which, in a word, reflected heaven. This is the concept of ‘claritas’ as it was understood in scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century and probably earlier. It was the most highly prized of medieval visual qualities.

Fig 3.2  Window, St Denis, Paris

Most of the aesthetic issues that were discussed by Christians in the Middle Ages were inherited from Classical Antiquity. The Classical world had turned its gaze on nature but the Christians turned their gaze on the Classical world.  They tended to look upon nature as a reflection of the transcendent world. Along with this they possessed a sensibility capable of fresh and vivid responses to the natural world, including its aesthetic qualities. Beauty for the Medievals did not refer first to something abstract and conceptual. It referred also to everyday feelings, to lived experience..

For the medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a beautiful thing had three primary characteristics

  1. Integritas (wholeness)

It must not be deficient in what it needs to be most itself.

  1. Consonantia (proportionality

Its dimensions should suitably correspond to other physical objects as well as to a metaphysical ideal, an end.

  1. Claritas (radiance)

It should clearly radiate intelligibility, the logic of its inner being and impress this knowledge of itself on the mind of the perceiver.

These rules of medieval aesthetics were embedded in the archectural proportions and the luminosity of stained glass windows (Fig 3.2). They crystallized because all the philosophers in Middle Ages considered them as allegories, symbols and mysticism which came from the allegorical and mystic interpretations of the Bible.  Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), a bishop philosopher, tried to unify the two aesthetical rules. In Grosseteste’s philosophy the concept of light played a role as important as the geometrical concepts. He was one of the philosophers who developed a so-called “metaphysics of light.” He affirmed the material world had appeared for the first time as light. The form which the world had taken resulted from the radiation of the light. Because light radiates in right lines, it conferred to the world a geometrical form. This way it has the beauty of the form. So, the metaphysics of light ties with it`s geometrical cosmology and both tie with aesthetics of cathedrals and churches..

The twelfth century provides a prototype of the medieval man of taste and the art lover, in the person of Suger, Abbot of St. Denis. A statesman and a humanist, Suger was responsible for the principal artistic and architectural enterprises on the Ile de France. He was a complete contrast, both psychologically and morally, to an ascetic like St. Bernard. For the Abbot of St. Denis, the House of God should be a repository of everything beautiful. King Solomon was his model, and his guiding rule.  The Treasury at St. Denis was crammed with jewellery and objets d’art which Suger described with loving exactitude. Thus, he writes of;

a big golden chalice of 140 ounces of gold adorned with precious gems, viz., hyacinths and topazes, as a substitute for another one which had been lost as a pawn in the time of our predecessor . . . [and]… a porphyry vase, made admirable by the hand of the sculptor and polisher, after it had lain idly in a chest for many years, converting it from a flagon into the shape of an eagle.

And in the course of enumerating these riches he expresses his pleasure and enthusiasm at ornamenting the church in such a wondrous manner (Fig 3.3).

Fig 3.3 Window, St Denis, Paris

Suger is thus like the other collectors of the Middle Ages, who filled their storehouses not just with artworks, but also with absurd oddities. The duc de Berry’s collection included the horn of a unicorn, St. Joseph’s engagement ring, coconuts, whales’ teeth, and shells from the Seven Seas. It comprised around three thousand items. Seven hundred were paintings, but it also contained an embalmed elephant, a hydra, a basilisk, an egg which an Abbot had found inside another egg, and manna which had fallen during a famine. So we are justified in doubting the purity of medieval taste, their ability to distinguish between art and teratology, the beautiful and the curious.

Suger himself adopted the positions sanctioned at the Synod of Arras in 1025, that whatever the common people could not grasp from the Scriptures should be taught to them through the medium of pictures. Honorius of Autun wrote that the end of painting was threefold: one was ‘that the House of God should be thus beautified’; a second was that it should recall to mind the lives of the Saints; and third. ‘Painting . . . is the literature of the laity’ [pictura est laicorum litteratura]. The accepted opinion as far as literature was that it should ‘instruct and delight’, that it should exhibit both the nobility of intellect and the beauty of eloquence.

In the construction of the Abbey of St. Denis, Abbot Suger was the first to employ flat-bed building techniques, a method invented in the 5th and 6th century buildings of the Near East and Greece. This move away from methods influenced by those used in the Roman Empire, allowed the construction of the characteristic Gothic cathedrals, with their immensely high vaulted ceilings. The walls were constructed completely of dressed stone with little reliance on mortar, thus the result enabled great reduction in the interval between windows. Unlike the preceeding Romanesque architecture, with it’s singular windows cut into thick walls, the Gothic design enabled much larger areas of glazing and greater relationship between each window. This resulted in a unification of the windows and the architecture which was different to that that had gone before. The stained glass was incorporated into this structure with the intention of manipulating light entering the building and creating an atmospheric storytelling effect.  Hitherto, with the close construction of Romanesque architecture, the individual widely spaced, deep-set windows piercing the thick walls afforded a series of separate experiences rather than a generally dispersed atmospheric experience. It was as though the viewer went from transparent icon to transparent icon as he progressed up the aisle. Suger, by employing the new flat-bed technique of construction, reduced the interval between the windows and cut down the bulk of the stone-work. Consequently the eye was enabled for the first time to take in a broad sweep of window expanse rather than individual points of interest. This unifying gesture towards not only the windows but also the interaction of the windows with the architecture was the great breakthrough, and on this new formal reality the rest of the achievement of stained glass in the Middle Ages depended.

The purpose of stained glass windows in a church was both to enhance the beauty of their setting and to inform the viewer through narrative or symbolism.  The stained glass window of the Middle Ages represents a profound intersection of material reality and spiritual vernacular. Though not an invention of the time, the medium fully matured and was articulated as never before in the walls of twelfth and thirteenth century European cathedrals. Many of these networks of glass and lead no longer survive. Those that do still speak today of their attempt to instil a sense of divine presence, manifest in light and colour.

The commonest method of making stained glass is to carefully cut pieces of glass, fire them and set them in lead calms (sometimes called cames). The calms are small bars of lead so grooved on either side that the glass can be slotted in and held. Where the calms abut or join up they are neatly soldered together. The whole mass of interlocking lead and glass is gradually built up into a panel which, when it has been soldered on both sides, is a manageable unit. After making the panel watertight by means of a loose boiled-oil putty rubbed into the cracks and carefully cleaned off, it is ready to be assembled into a scheme of many panels, building up into a total window.

Metallic oxides (usually from the ashes of beech trees) fired in proportion with silica harvested from sand produced a usable range of colour. This connection to a point of origin, coupled with the theology seems to have shaped the stained glass artist’s relationship with the medium. An understanding cultivated by knowledge of local processes allowed glass painters to work skillfully with glass’ inherent properties. It’s important to recognize that, while artists also painted detail to enhance a window’s narrative, stained glass is essentially an art of light modulation.

The power of the experience of Medieval stained glass lies in its integration with a theology of light and colour.  As a transparent as well as a coloured material, glass resonated profoundly with the concepts of clarity and opacity that functioned as primary dichotomies for both moral and ontological systems. Light was transparent as it left the Creator, acquiring colour, and thus its ability to be visible, as it penetrated the material world. Colours can therefore be seen as representing the diversity and imperfection of creatures, although they still betray the radiance of their origins.

Theology speaks to an individual’s present state as well as the one to come and the notion of stained glass windows as the poor man’s Bible is not without cause. The parish community of the middle ages was often illiterate and even picture Bibles were expensive. But a fuller reading of their theological purpose points to the storytelling function of most medieval art where the human figure is concerned. The windows are not so much the Bible of the poor as the proof that there was a vigorous tradition of preaching the Bible to the poor which cried out for illustration as a mnemonic after the sermon.  Isolated panels of glass which have survived indicate that the lives of the Old Testament patriarchs were recorded by the medieval glass painters. The choice of some Old Testament subjects and the neglect of others is puzzling until it is realized that the selection was based on the belief that Old Testament events prefigured those of the New Testament. In terms of form, stained glass of the middle ages favoured representation over abstraction. Reyntiens aligns this tradition with the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints” which was as old as Christianity itself.

The doctrine was, briefly, that there is an unbroken web of contact and mutual help between those who have died in the favour of God and those, in the Church, who are yet on this earth. This difficult doctrine was of such importance because the intercession of the saints on behalf of those still living meant that a cultus of the saints was a pressing necessity. This fact, together with the Doctrine of the Incarnation, which stated that the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, was at one and the same time truly man and truly God, fixed the consciousness of western, Christian, art towards the human figure rather than abstraction or geometric non-figuration. And it is on the basis of figuration that all the glass in the Middle Ages, with very few exceptions, was founded.

The medieval lay masters wanted to control their materials, and to bend and fashion them in such a way that anything was possible. They vaulted huge spaces on slender points of support. They introduced light into their enormous covered spaces in such a way that this light itself constituted a kind of decoration, indeed painting. There were no longer walls but rather translucent tapestries.  One has the impression that the source of the light is in the coloured glass itself and one has the feeling of being taken into distant space.

As Peter Hitchens has written, “What Chartres represents is a map and model of the cosmos enabling anyone with eyes to see to find an explanation of the spirit which motivates the universe, which arranges the stars and the comets in their orbits and courses, and which also causes our consciences to burn within us, and our eyes and ears to recognise truth and beauty when we see them. It is not literal, and not for the literal-minded. But then again, nor are poetry or music. And it is almost a cliché to say that Chartres is poetry and music, frozen into stone and glass.

Most of the glazing of the 176 windows was accomplished between around 1200 and 1235 Chartres Cathedral provides a hierarchy of time and space, putting everything into an eternal perspective.Writing about the windows at Chartres, Louis Gillet says, “No prince has owned a book of comparable illuminations.” Windows narrating a progression of events, such as the life of Christ (or of the Blessed Mother, or of a saint), displayed a series of vignettes based on Scriptural sources, apocryphal texts with anecdotal details (mostly about the life of Mary), and a medieval compendium of the saints’ lives. The stories are told by gestures and poses. Everything is abbreviated in a highly expressive form of narrative shorthand (Fig 3.4).

Fig 3.4 The Virgin and Saint John, from a Crucifixion, German, c. 1420, J. Paul Getty Museum.


In the thirteenth century, stained glass had been part of a living cosmology of materials.   By the sixteenth century it was not unusual for the glass painter to be given the task of imitating fresco wall paintings n stained glass . Engraved reproductions of such works were being circulated throughout Europe, and these were being accepted by the newly ascending mercantile patron as the final word in taste. Fine Art had been born and was beginning to be ‘applied’ to certain of the traditional arts. In this new hierarchy easel painting had become supreme and all of the other arts were practically shamed into imitating its effects. With his own standards of excellence thus revoked, the stained-glass artist, like the tapestry maker, illuminator, and mosaicist, was reduced to a common labourer.  

3.2 Indian painting

Painting has a very long tradition and history in Indian art. The earliest Indian paintings were the rock paintings of pre-historic times, the petroglyphs as found in places like Bhimbetka rock shelters, some of the Stone Age rock paintings found among the Bhimbetka rock shelters are approximately 30,000 years old.  India’s Buddhist literature is replete with examples of texts which describe palaces of the army and the aristocratic class embellished with paintings, but the paintings of the Ajanta Caves are the most significant of the few survivals. Smaller scale painting in manuscripts was probably also practised in this period, though the earliest survivals are from the medieval period. Mughal painting represented a fusion of the Persian miniature with older Indian traditions, and from the 17th century its style was diffused across Indian princely courts of all religions, each developing a local style. Company paintings were made for British clients under the British raj, which from the 19th century also introduced art schools along Western lines, leading to modern Indian painting, which is increasingly returning to its Indian roots.

Indian paintings provide an aesthetic continuum that extends from the early civilisation to the present day. From being essentially religious in purpose in the beginning, Indian painting has evolved over the years to become a fusion of various cultures and traditions.

Paintings are more than just pictures in a frame—they are unfolding stories with multiple perspectives.  For example, Indian paintings have been described by B.N. Goswamy as layered objects in which one thing, or thought, is gently laid upon another presenting a layered world of meaning. Therefore, he says, to extract a painting’s riches and experience the  joy of discovery, the viewer must summon energy, enthusiasm and the excitement of anticipation to become visually immersed in the layers. This process of understanding begins by interrogating a work to reveal the main message of its maker. He suggests that it will then fall into one of the following four categories of meaning.  It will present an observation, a passion (expressed as longing and love), a contemplation or a vision. This classification system cuts across historical and cultural divisions.

Because they are based on the layering of meaning Goswamy’s categories are not rigid, Visions can be informed by passion; observation can lead to contemplation, or it can, equally, be the other way—or any other way—around: contemplation can spring from visions, and observation can be expressed in terms of passion.  Each person, however, has to approach all these works, and these sections, in his/her own way.

i Observation

Fig 3.5 Untitled (Manoj Dutta, 2018)

The paintings in this category of meaning are mostly based on real sights, people and scenes, seen or imagined by the painter; and some of them especially commissioned by a patron. Naturally, portraits figure large in this group, as do scenes of palace life and princely pursuits, even though these are sometimes modified, reconstructed and given an unusual twist: e.g. the emperor Jahangir looking at a portrait of his father in one, shooting arrows at ‘Poverty’ in another; a rendering of the emperor Akbar, breaking the conventions of royal portraiture, with his eyes lowered in repose; a towering Raja Sidh Sen of Mandi..  Some of these `observations’ capture an inner reality: a dying Inayat Khan gazing into nothingness; a hunter becoming the hunted as a lion pounces on him; a pool with herons (Fig 3.5 )a chameleon sitting utterly still yet casting a sly eye at everything around him (Fig 3.6).

Fig 3.6  A Chameleon

Leaf, now in an unbound album Opaque watercolour on paper Mughal, Jahangir period; by Mansur; c. 1600 11 cm x 13.7 cm Royal Library, Windsor Castle.

As the painter Mansur renders it, this chameleon perched on the branch of a sparsely leaved tree, is evidently eyeing some insect. It has already changed its colour to the green that matches the leaves around him, but it is the coiled-spring-like tension in the body, claws firmly latched on to the branch, the tail curling up and, above all, the look in its sly eye—alert and all-knowing—which compels attention.

The skin of the lizard is brilliantly rendered—’exactingly, tactilely dotted all over with shaded green spots, and its spine . . . saw-toothed from neck to tail with perfect points of colour’, as the art historian Cary Welch has noted.  Mansur’s observation is remarkable and Welch, in his colourful description, envisions the painter `on all fours, inching his way through a thicket towards its prey, cunning and silent as a cat’. If a twig had snapped, he adds, ‘the chameleon would have fled, and this miraculous picture would not exist!’

It is difficult to date this painting and judgements range from 1595 to 1615. The likelihood of its having been made in the later Jahangir period is greater.  

The painter, Mansur, about whose antecedents one knows virtually nothing, was truly a man of extraordinary talents. The painter’s range of work is extraordinary—from historical scenes recorded in chronicles to illuminations, from individual portraits to renderings of groups. But it is as a painter of flora and fauna that Mansur was without a rival. A wonderful range of flowering plants apart, paintings of falcons and hawks, partridges and cranes and barbets, hornbills and pheasants and peafowls bear his name. Each is a masterly study. If a zebra was brought in from Abyssinia, it was Mansur who was called upon to draw a ‘portrait’ of the uncommon beast; if a turkey cock was brought in by a noble from Goa, and the emperor went into a paroxysm of delight at the sight of this ‘strange and wonderful’ bird, ‘such as I had never seen’, it was Mansur once again who was asked to paint it `so that the amazement that arose from hearing about them might be increased’. Clearly, it was this master painter’s uncanny powers of observation and his mastery of brush and palette (Fig 3) that made him the emperor’s first choice

Fig 3.7 Enlarged portion of Fig 3.6

ii Longing and love

The paintings under this division are largely those inspired by poetic texts. Iin them, lovers cling to each other against a landscape glowing with the exuberance of spring; languid heroines lie lost in thoughts of absent lovers; Radha and Krishna gaze silently into each other’s eyes on the banks of the river Yamuna; Princess Champavati with her exquisite ‘lotus face’ confuses the bumble bees who, instead of heading to the lotus pond, swarm around her.

Fig 3.8  An elopement

Folio from a Laur Chanda manuscript Pre-Mughaljainesque; middle of the fifteenth century 18.2 cm x 10.5 cm Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi.

As night descends, a drama begins to unfold 3.8. The lover, Lorik—hero of Mulla Daud’s celebrated Avadhi romance in verse, Chandayana, more popularly known as Laur Chanda—arrives at the palace of his beloved, Chanda, in the middle of the night. His entry is unnoticed, for the sleepy guard at the gate of the palace has almost dozed off. Lorik throws a rope for his lover waiting in the upper storey so she can slide down. Chanda advances eagerly to catch the end of the rope while a palace lady attempts in vain to stop her. Lorik stands below, looking above, his body tense.

There is lyricism in Mulla Daud’s words, but even more so perhaps in the manner in which the unnamed painter renders them here. With a sense of remarkable freedom, he creates a world of his own in which there are no correspondences to reality. The royal palace is stripped down to a bare skeleton, with no walls, doors or windows. Only a flattened angular dome and slender pillars provide a hint of opulence.

The inky-blue night sky seems to have descended to the earth, consuming the background with countless stars. All the figures remain clearly etched in perfect light, although the lone hanging lamp tells the viewer that the day is long gone and night has fallen. With great forethought, some areas are left uncoloured, exposing the white sheet on which it is painted. There is a space enclosed within the billowing veils of the two young women, or the outline of Chanda’s long, trailing braid. The snaky rope that Lorik has thrown up remains suspended in the air on its own, defiantly, and decoratively, without having reached Chanda’s hands.

The forms of the figures are all remarkably stylized. While the athletic-looking Lorik has the torso of a lion—broad chest, narrow waist—and holds his hands in studied gestures, Chanda and her companion are slim of build. Chanda’s waist is so slender that it is almost at the point of disappearance. The eye travels to Chanda’s uncommonly small breasts too, for the painter wishes us to notice that she is barely a woman.

The faces, seen in true profile, are sharply chiselled. But it is the eyes of all the four figures that compel attention. They are heavily elongated under those fine wavy lines that mark the eyebrows. While one eye seen in profile extends virtually to the ear, the other eye is suspended in the air, just outside the contours of the face. This points clearly to the work’s ‘Jain’ ancestry where one sees a similar treatment. Though there is not much attention to the articulation of the hands and feet which remain awkwardly inelegant, one can see the remarkable sophistication of other aspects of this folio. Stylistically, it bears the clear impress of the Jain or western Indian group of works, but one knows that those works did not all come from Gujarat or Rajasthan and were not all Jain in content.

iii Contemplation

An old pilgrim in tattered clothes moves haltingly forward, his expression suggesting he is reflecting over his life and the one hereafter (Fig 3.9).

Fig 3.9 Intimations of mortality

Leaf, possibly from an album Opaque watercolour on paper Mughaljahangir period, by Abu’! Hasan; c. 1618-20 11.1 cm x 6.5 cm. The Aga Klan Collection, Toronto

Abu’l Hasan, a great painter at the Mughal court—Nadir-al Zaman is the title that the emperor Jahangir conferred upon him, meaning ‘Wonder of the   Age’—moved away in one of his works from the glitter of power and opulence to paint an old, fragile man. The tone of the painting is hushed and one falls silent looking at the lone, hesitantly moving figure. The man—an old pilgrim perhaps or, possibly, a mendicant who has seen better days—stands barefoot, leaning on a thin, long staff as he struggles to move forward.  The body bears witness to the ravages of time: the bent back, the stooped shoulder, the snow-white beard, the lean, desiccated frame. But one can see, from the look in the eyes, that the mind is still keen and the bent of mind religious—he holds prominently a rosary of beads in his bony right hand and wears one round his neck. There are signs of indigence everywhere: the lower part of the body is bare, the feet are unshod, and the coarse apparel he wears consists mostly of a rough cloak used as a wrap, a folded shawl-like sheet thrown over the left shoulder, and an unadorned tightly bound turban.

Technically, the work is brilliant, one notices the roughness of the skin at the knees, the thinness of the fingers of the hands, the rendering of the beads in the rosary, each shrivelled and varying in size; above all, the virtuoso treatment of the face with its sage lines of age and experience.

Fig 3.10 Enlarged portion of Fig 3.9.

Technically, the work is brilliant in all its detail (Fig 3.10). One notices the roughness of the skin at the knees; the thinness of the fingers; the rendering of the beads in the rosary, each shrivelled and varying in size; above all, the face with its lines of age and experience.

At the same time, as far as we are concerned, does the work resonate within us? Does it give rise to thoughts in our own minds, perhaps even remind us of parallels, of something we had once read and were moved by?

iv Visions

Fig 3.11   Prakriti (Raza;1990)

This is how a contemporary Indian painter explains his picture (Fig 3.11) representing the development of Bindu.  Bindu is a Sanskrit term meaning “point” or “dot.” … Sometimes this bindi dot is considered to represent the point of Consciousness from which the universe originates.  

“Forms emerge from darkness. Their presence is perceptible in obscurity. They become relevant if their energy is oriented through vision into an alive form-orchestration for which certain prerequisites are indispensable.The process is akin to germination. The obscure black space is charged with latent forces asking for fulfillment. Like the universal natural order of the ‘earth-seed’ relationship, the original unit, ‘Bindu’, emerges and unfolds itself in the black space. All inherent forces unite. A vertical line intersects a horizontal line, engendering energy and light. Space is charged. Contours appear: white, yellow, red and blue, and along with the original black, they compose the colour spectrum of the visible world”.

The paintings that come under Goswamy’s category of ‘Visions’ are chiefly those that depict sights and events unseen, but that have for long been part of our ‘awareness’ and imagination.  Visions includes images of abstraction like Hiranyagarbha, the Cosmic Egg, (Fig 3.12) floating on the waters of eternity, or the golden mount, Meru. Here, too, are iconic images of goddesses bestowing grace or striking fear; and of divine couples looking down from snowy peaks. Then there are works relating to mythologies or heroic tales: the Ramayana, the Bhagavata Purana, the Speaking Tree. Krishna holds a mountain aloft on the palm of his hand; seven-storeyed vehicles rise in the air; trees speak; cows levitate in the air; the great hero Hamza battles dragons breathing fire; and Neptune roars through the oceans.

Fig 3.12  Hiranyagarbha; the Cosmic Egg   Folio from a Bhagavata Puma series Opaque watercolour and gold on paper Pahari, by Manaku of Guler; c. 1740 21.8 cm x 32.2 cm (outer) 17.6 cm x 28 cm (inner) Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

Among the many speculations about the Origins of Creation, the Beginnings of it All—something that Indian thought is rich in—there are references to the wondrous, mysterious ‘golden womb’ or `golden egg’.  One of the oldest Puranas, the Matsya Purana, has this account of the beginnings of creation: after Mahapralaya, the great dissolution of the Universe, there was darkness everywhere and everything was in a state of sleep. Then Svayambhu, the Self-Manifested Being, arose—a form beyond senses. It created the primordial waters first and placed the seed of creation into it. The seed turned into a golden womb, the Hiranyagarbha. Then Svayambhu entered the egg.

In the course of painting his great Bhagavata Purana series, the painter Manaku spread the ‘primordial waters’ that the texts speak of over the entire surface of the page. There are no waves here, no great commotion, only concentric whirlpools and eddies, like giant rings of time on timeless waters. And in their midst, unmoving, completely still, floats the great golden egg, a perfect oval, seed of all that there is going to be.

A fascinating detail about this painting: when one sees the painting laid fiat, the egg appears a bit dark, almost dominated by browns. It is when you hold the painting in your hand, as it was meant to be, and move it ever so lightly that it reveals itself: the great egg begins to glisten, an ovoid form of the purest gold. true hiranya, to use the Sanskrit term for the precious metal.

(B.N. Goswamy ((2916) ‘The Spirit of Indian Painting’)

4  Anatomical representationalism

Fig 4.1 Concept map off anatomical representationalism

Art and science first came together in the late 15th century and Albrecht Durer was one of the main drivers.  Dürer was a German painter, engraver and mathematician.  He was born on May 21, 1471 and died on April 6, 1528 in Nuremberg.  Dürer established his reputation and influence across Europe when he was still in his twenties due to his high-quality woodcut prints. He was in communication with the major Italian artists of his time, including Raphael, Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci, His vast body of work includes engravings, his preferred technique in his later prints, altarpieces, portraits and self-portraits, watercolours and books. His watercolours mark him as one of the first European landscape artists, while his ambitious woodcuts revolutionized the potential of that medium.  His introduction of classical motifs into Northern art, through his knowledge of Italian art, has secured his reputation as one of the most important figures of the Northern Renaissance. This is reinforced by his theoretical treatises, which involve principles of mathematics, perspective, and ideal proportions. In this connection, he realised the importance of using grids when investigating form. He found they were essential when trying to draw human figure objectively and when developing perspectives he realised that similar mathematical principles were required to unify all the elements in his works.

The creation of images of spatially separated objects led to the invention of perspective machines, which bring optics and the geometry of perspective close together. The devices have the aim of helping artists to draw what they see, In his “Underweysung” Dürer described four devices to draw perspectives, which have some similarities but also differences. In the most well-known of these devices a grid is placed in front of the object and the squared drawing surface corresponds with this grid.  By looking through the grid, objects become divided up into squares.   The eye position is fixed with the help of a stick or hole. It is a drawing tool with the advantage that an image can be drawn of  the seen object in a bigger or smaller scale. This process makes it easier to work out where each object is in relation to everything else around it.  

The artist using the drawing machine would have a piece of paper in front of them with the same number of squares as in the wooden frame. Everything the artist wanted to draw would be transferred from the square where they saw it in the grid, onto its twin square on the piece of paper. In creating a human portrait, if the artist saw a person’s nose halfway down the fifth square up and the second square across, then that is where they would draw it on the matching paper square.  By using the drawing machine, artists found out just how distorted the world appears when you look at it from odd angles (Fig 4.2 )

Fig 4.2 A 16th century drawing machine

Panofsky gives three reasons why the technique of perspective was received with such a universal enthusiasm in the 16th century. First, the placing of an object anywhere in a picture and the production of a certain distance and point of location symbolised a time in which man was positioned in the centre of the universe. Second, perspective satisfied the new craving for exactness and predictability. And third, the application of mathematical formulae to  make art agreed with Renaissance aesthetics.

Latour goes further and states that perspective is a form of fiction;

“… even the wildest or the most sacred […] things of nature – even the lowliest – have a meeting ground, a common place, because they all benefit from the same ‘optical consistency’. Not only can you displace cities, landscapes, or natives and go back and forth to and from them along avenues through space, but you can also reach saints, gods, heavens, palaces, or dreams”

Geometrical longitude and latitude in a picture create the perception in the viewer of standing right in the middle of a picture The observer was no longer detached from the painting, but a full part of it – the artist became a manipulator of visual images, able to “play perceptual games” with the viewer. Dürer’s work on geometry, ‘Instruction on Measurement’, is the first document to treat a representational problem with a scientific answer. He points out that perspective is not a technical discipline limited to architecture and painting, but rather an essential part of mathematics.

Like perspective, proportion also has an underlying mathematical expression.. What perspective is for the ‘room’ in a painting, so proportion is for the human or animal body as a whole.   Dürer sought to set up geometrical explanations for proportions, merging each body part with a geometrical form:

“The total length and general axis of the body is determined by a basic vertical […] The Pelvis is described as trapezoid, and the thorax in a square […] The head, if turned in profile, is inscribed in a square, and the contours of the shoulders, hips and loins are determined by circular arcs”.

Durer soon realised that he could not apply this model to every human being and abandoned the geometrical curves in his drawings, stating that “the boundary lines of a human figure cannot be drawn with a compass or ruler”. Instead he decided to consider a series of female and male body-types, which he assembled in his Four Books on Human Proportion (published posthumously in 1528).  One of his aims was to use transformations of human heads drawn against a coordinate grid to understand facial variation . This was a very powerful way to demonstrate how otherwise disparate shapes can be meaningfully compared.

Species ecology

The most useful ecological category to link art with science is species ecology.  Within this ecology art is expressed practically as the scientific subject of comparative anatomy, which explores and establishes the correspondences between body parts of organisms within and between species. It systemises and communicates similarities and differences pictorially.  These illustrations in terms of the design creativity of the illustrator are art works (Fig 4.3 ).

Fig 4.3  Comparison of hind leg bones of  human, short-faced bear, horse and extinct camel

Four centuries after Durer, the zoologist D’arcy Thompson took up the grid method as a way of defining the process by which evolution has produced different shapes and forms .  Durer had used it to study perspective and human proportions. Thompson used it to relate biological shapes to each other via geometric transformations of the grid. Thompson’s most famous set of observations in his book ‘On Growth and Form’ were the outcome of his search for a mathematical logic to compare bodily forms.  What makes Durer’s grid method particularly useful is that it allows for continuity, for gradual growth and development or transformation, whereby certain regions or features, such as the head of a primate, are stimulated to grow faster than other parts (Fig 4.4).

Thompson’s book is almost an encyclopedia of all the relations that have ever been discussed between mathematics and organic form. Among the subjects treated are: the form of the cell, tissues, concretions produced by living things, shells, horns, and teeth; from the dynamic point of view, growth and the relation between form and mechanical efficiency; and such perennial favourites of the geometrician as the form of the bee’s cell and the arrangement of leaves.

‘On Growth and Form’ has inspired thinkers including the biologists Julian Huxley, Conrad Hal Waddington and Stephen Jay Gould, the mathematician Alan Turing, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and artists including Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Ben Nicholson.  Jackson Pollock owned a copy. Waddington and other developmental biologists were struck particularly by the chapter on Thompson’s “Theory of Transformations”, where he showed that the various shapes of related species (such as fish) could be presented as geometric transformations, anticipating developmental biology of a century later. The book led Turing to write a famous paper “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis” on how patterns such as those seen on the skins of animals can emerge from a simple chemical system. Lévi-Strauss cites Thomson in his 1963 book Structural Anthropology.  ‘On. Growth and Form’ is seen as a classic text in architecture and is admired by architects “for its exploration of natural geometries in the dynamics of growth and physical processes.” The architects and designers Le Corbusier, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe were inspired by the book. Peter Medawar, the 1960 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, called it “the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue”.

Fig 4.4 Convertion of a the skull of a lower primate into a human skull by differential growth of its parts.

Comparative anatomy is the channel by which artists depict the human figure seen as a pure animal form.  This is the basis of Lucian Freud’s ‘naked portraits, which created an entirely new genre in the depiction of the human figure. His pictures present subjects as forms not dissimilar from inanimate still life objects, while at the same time rendering painted flesh with an extraordinary, penetrating humanity.  These qualities are evident in Figs 4.5-6. By turns clinical and intimate, stark and tender, the art works resulted from weeks of intense sitting by and scrutiny of the artist’s subjects. While the woman in the first portrait goes unnamed, the second picture identifies Freud’s two most constant companions: his long-time studio assistant and friend David Dawson, and his whippet Eli. Both paintings evidence Freud’s almost ruthless process of observation and forensic reckoning of the human body.

Fig 4.5 Naked portrait in a red chair (Lucien Freud,1999)

Fig 4.6 David and Eli (Lucien Freud 2003–4)

“Living people interest me far more than anything else,” Freud stated. “I’m really interested in them as animals. The one thing about human animals is their individuality: liking to work from them naked is part of that reason, because I can see more.”

Freud’s work, and the exaggerated anatomical features arising from foreshortening of the human body has been taken as a model for teaching how to paint the body’s intriguing features ( Fig 4.7 ), particularly those expressed in the seated nude with crossed legs, a classic pose which has long been used as the starting point for abstraction (Figs 4.8).

Fig 3.7 Example of how to paint the female nude

Fig 3.8 Crossed legs

For Freud, seeing more meant defining a human being’s amimalness in the subtle shadows of the skin to reveal every hump and bump of his sitter’s musculature ad adipose tissue.  In this respect Freud was known for his uncompromising and forensic style that exposed every inch of imperfection in his sitters. Slabs of fat, birthmarks, disfigurement and dangling genitalia were all brought to life and magnified with an unerring eye.

As an earlier worker obsessed with female anatomy, Willem De Kooning, in his works on paper from 1938 to 1955, represents the female form in varying states of abstraction (Fig 3.9).  This group of works provides an invaluable glimpse at the deeply personal process of thinking, creating, and discovery that lies at the core of abstraction. With each drawing and oil sketch, a new artistic progression in the continuous struggle to realize and convey the essence of human  anatomy is revealed to the viewer. The pictures express his refined artistic successes and examples of a working out of visual problems on paper and canvas. The works are best characterized by an inherent tension. They vibrate with energy and visual force as they reveal the artist’s struggles to eliminate boundaries between drawing and painting, while probing figurative elements for their fundamental abstract anatomical forms. They read as transparent entries in the diary of a mind.

Fig 3.9  Figarative abstraction, Willem de Kooning

Austrian painter Egon Schiele was a major artistic figure of the early 20th century. Famous for his nude drawings and self portraits, the artist is perhaps known best for his depiction bodies as if flayed to expose the underlying muscles and connective tissue (Fig 3.10).

Fig 3.10  Nude self portrait grimacing Egon Schiele 1910.

In an interview for Studio magazine in 1946 the sculptor Barbara Hepworth was asked to describe her main sources of inspiration. Anticipating her response, the interviewer volunteered that these included ‘negro sculpture, the human figure, aerodynamics, or dreams’.  She replied simply: ‘The main sources of my inspiration are the human figure and landscape; also the one in relation to the other’. In her work she was developing the idea that the artist exists within the visible scene and not apart from it. The sculptures were not an expression of the observed landscape but of the act of observing it Fig 3.11).

Fig 3.11  Figure for Landscape 1959–60, Barbara Hepworth

Figure for Landscape 1959-60 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist’s estate 1980

The metaphorical use of body imagery in relation to landscape is fundamental in the Western world. The Renaissance metaphor that understood the earth to be modelled on the anatomy of  the human body has generally been regarded as a one‐way relation, ‘landscape as body. It finds its expression in generic landscape naming. In imaginative literature at least, the reverse relation, ‘body as landscape,’ is of frequent occurrence and continues well into the machine age. The body in question is generally female, and the culmination of the ‘body as landscape’ metaphor is pornotopia.

Jane Samuels’  ‘Terrain: Anatomical Landscapes’, is a series of drawings derived from walks around the UK. Walks are documented in photography, drawing and writing. This research informs detailed pencil drawings that each represents a single location. This process creates narrative images that explore the relationship between humans and our rural environment. In combining human anatomy and land, Samuels aims to underline the complicated connection between the science of conservation and politics the: the extent to which we change the land, the conflicts that arise in land management and the political battles that take place in our woods and fields

Carl Warner turns the ridges, hills and valleys of one or more human bodies into strange and surreal landscape photos (3.12).

Fig 3.12 Landscape formed from human bodies. Carl Warner

“[The project] plays on the sense of space in which we dwell,” writes Warner. “The external view of ourselves therefore becomes a more abstract and perhaps more intimate reflection of our inner being when viewed as a landscape or given a sense of place.”  This idea is represented in Figs 3.13- 3.16.

Fig 3.13 Landscape  #60, Eunice Golden 1972

© Eunice Golden 1972
“Landscape #160”
Mixed media on papeer
26″ x 51″

Fig 3.14   Anatomical landscape II; Desert Moon (Ivana Viani)

Fig 3.15 Elbowscape James Martin

Fig 3.16  Legscape

Human animalness dominates the art of Elizabeth Frink.  Her take on comparative anatomy is to make anatomical comparisons between humans and other animals. In this she is preoccupied with behavioral contrasts and similarities such as violence, aggression, brutalism, sensitivity, empathy, and nurture. She positions the horrors that men are culpable of committing alongside the day to day internecine violence of lower primates (Fig 3.17 ).  Frink’s works question how it is that urban bipeds, responsible for inventing sophisticated creative societies, can behave so violently towards each other. She leaves us to contemplate this inbuilt destructive legacy of 5 million years of evolution of the human form.

.Fig 3.17 Man and baboon Elizabeth Frink

Cellular ecology

Cellular ecology is a scientific concept that encompasses the interactions between the various fluid compartments of the body to regulate the body’s internal activities and its interactions with the external environment.  The outcome is to preserve the internal environment for survival of the whole. The control system involves regulated biochemical flows between blood compartments, organs, and their cells. The ultimate fluid compartment is that of cellular organelles, which are parts of cells, as organs are to the body.  Together, cells and their organelles form an ecology that permits the prime functions of living organisms—growth, development, and reproduction—to proceed in an orderly, stable fashion. As a system, the body’s cells are exquisitely self-regulating, so that any disruption of the normal internal environment by internal or external events is resisted by powerful counter measures. When this resistance is overcome by environmental factors, illness ensues.

Cellular ecology can be visualised as a curriculum to bring the anatomical organisation of cells into a more dynamic biochemical framework for studying  how the components of a cell interact within the cell and how cells interact with their surroundings. In other words cellular ecology is based on an understanding that the whole body is a dynamic entity greater than the sum of the parts.  A unifying theme is homeostasis, that living things are constructed, physiologically, biochemically and behaviourally, to maintain a constant internal environment. The concept was first proposed in the 19th century by French physiologist Claude Bernard, who stated that “all the vital mechanisms, varied as they are, have only one object: that of preserving constant the conditions of life’.

Picture making is an important research/recording activity within cellular ecology. Microscopes are used to study the different cellular forms pictorially to reveal their development in growth, ageing and evolution.

The science of comparative anatomy defines how body parts such as organs, bones, nerves and muscles are maintained as living cellular structures in a dynamic biochemical equilibrium with resources and conditions in the external environment (Fig 3.18  ). The human body maintains various physiological conditions within itself, such as temperature, at a constant level. This is not to say that these levels are not subject to change. In room where the temperature is below body temperature, we would be constantly losing heat to the environment. Our bodily functions work against the environment to keep our temperature up. This constant giving and taking away keeps us at a fixed range. This is referred to as a dynamic equilibrium. The body is like a candle flame.  Wax is burnt to be continuously replaced by wax drawn up by the wick, whilst the flame maintains its form.

Although we maintain biochemical constancy for certain favourable environmental conditions, there are many factors that keep changing those conditions, and the body works to maintain them at favourable levels.

Fig 3.18  ‘ Moving to stay put’: (pictorial model of homeostasis).

Because scientists are taught not to bring emotions into their research, it is important to see that an increasing number of contemporary artists (and scientists!) are taking on the challenge of using their art to present complex scientific issues in humanistic ways that question our ingrained separative thinking. Only in this manner will we search for humanistic, cradle- to-grave practicai solutions to today’s most critical environmental problems.  In this connection, the artists and scientists in 2015-16 Art & Science Collaborations’ SCIENCE INSPIRES ART: Biodiversity/Extinction exhibition at the New York Hall of Science, were selected by because they allowed their feelings of deep concern to guide their ultimate mission – for their art to stimulate public reflection, critical thinking, dialogue, and hopefully individual actions on the issues we face surrounding loss of biodiversity and species extinction.  Nature art is a bridge from the viewpoint that the depiction of plants and animals have played an important role in the belief systems of many different societies

Cellular ecology relies on microscopes to generate primary data. Generally the necessity to implement artistic views of scientific data is becoming increasingly important as we become ever better at probing the abstract world of the unknown. An annual symposium (Visualizing biological data – VIZBI) devoted to the topic is held in Europe’s leading molecular biology institute, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. Over four days, scientists and designers link together to present and exchange ideas visually. The results are usually stunning, combining wonderful aesthetics with prescient design simplifying complex data for easy interpretation.  Biology data visualization is a branch of bioinformatics concerned with the application of computer graphics, scientific visualization, and information visualization to different areas of the life sciences. This includes visualization of DNA sequences, genomes, alignments, phylogenies, macromolecular structures, systems biology, microscopy, and magnetic resonance imaging data (3.19).. Software tools used for visualizing biological data range from simple, standalone programmes to complex, integrated systems. In this context science and art are the same thing. Both science and art are human attempts to understand and describe the world around us. The subjects and methods have different traditions, and the intended audiences are different, but the motivations and goals are fundamentally the same.

“These “heady” times for neuroscience are also having a domino effect in the arts. Artists have long reflected upon the nature of perception, memory, and emotion to create their work. But recent breakthroughs in understanding the brain, accompanied by its visualizations, are sparking the imaginations of artists around the world.” – Cynthia Pannucci, founder/director of ASCI and organizer of The Brain exhibition

The 16th international art-science juried exhibition, organized by Art & Science Collaborations, Inc., in promotional partnership with Meghan Rhodes and MEDinArt, was open for public viewing at the New York Hall of Science (located in Queens, NYC). The exhibition is the culmination of an international open call for “visually stunning” works of art inspired by brain science (and however one wished to interpret the knowledge products of this science).

Fig 3.19 Cortical columns (Gregory Dunn, 2014)

The 2017 Art of Science exhibition held at Princeton  University in 2017 explores the interplay between science and art and consists of images produced during the course of scientific inquiry that have aesthetic merit.  The First Prize winner Jennifer Rea superimposed images of mitosis and cell division on mass-produced floral fabric (Fig 3.20).. The work speaks generally of growth. It also extends the notion to encapsulate unregulated growth, and as the fabric pattern reveals, it could extend infinitely. Thus this could be conceived of as a sort of tumor. The floral pattern and the coloration of this piece are also reminiscent of feminine qualities, which opens up the door for dialogue about conceptions of growth. Utilizing elements of abstract art, such as a grid, emboldened to an organic state, this piece is very much within a contemporary time frame while being simultaneously timeless.

Fig 3.20 Cell division (Jennifer Rea, 2017)

Driven by an interest in the biological process of cell division, artist Jiyong Lee fabricates translucent sculptural works of segmented glass components fused through coldworking techniques. Some pieces purposefully take the form of organic life with titles such as “White-orange Chromosome Segmentation” or “Geometric cell membrane segmentation (3.21)” while others are decidedly more geometric in nature . Born and raised in South Korea, Lee has led the glass programme at Southern Illinois University since 2005..

Fig 3.21  Geometric Cell Membrane Segmentation, (Jiyong Lee 2016)

Nature art.

If any career bridges science and art, it is biological illustration. Despite advances in photography, we still rely on vivid pictures to help us learn about nature in a visual way. A biological illustrator produces detailed illustrations of everything from the smallest molecules to the largest dinosaurs. Above all. this requires artistic skill and creativity.

Botanical and scientific illustration share many common themes, meticulous observation, crucial composition, precision of rendering and the accuracy of colour are all intrinsic to this niche genre of art.  During the first decade of the sixteenth century Albrecht Durer was depicting plants in all his art works with a new approach of botanical accuracy. This was at a time when gardeners were introduced to exotic oriental bulbs and the science of botany broke away from medicine, to which it had long been subordinate. His work entitled ‘The Great Piece of Turf (3.22)’ depicts the plants exactly as he saw them growing in the field, and his observations would have a lasting influence on the rendering of flowers in art well into the seventeenth century.

Fig 3.22  Turf, Durer

Only ten of Durer’s studies of plants survive.

Durer gained the reputation of being the artist of ‘everyman’ illustrating books for numerous printing presses and selling individual prints on sheets of paper, which even the average person could purchase.

Forms from plants and flowers are an important component of Islamic art. Known as arabesque, floral and plant designs are configured into geometric forms that are painted on tiles to decorate buildings, mosques in particular, and on ceramic containers. That these patterns can continue infinitely supports the Islamic belief in existence extending beyond the visible material world. In Ottoman Turkey, the style known as Iznik developed which incorporated specific colours from natural pigments – in particular blue, green and red on a white background (3.23)..

Fig 3.23 Iznik ceramic

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) was a scientist, philosopher, a true Darwinist, and a controversial personality because of his views and theories.  Despite the long list of his achievements and arguable statements, one can surely call him an artist who, through the use of his colourful and impeccably detailed illustrations, helped to popularize the theory of evolution.

Using illustrations of creatures the rest of the world had never seen Haeckel strived to inform the public about the immense biological variety of the world. He blended science and art in his drawings by staying true to the facts yet keeping the artistic aesthetics in mind. Hence, it’s no surprise that, to this day, Haeckel’s work serves as an inspiration for many artists (Fig 3.24 ).

Fig 3.24  Sea Anemones, Ernst Haeckel

Animals’ traits were observed by humans which led to images of animals entering into the symbolic language of early cultures.  In the Teotihuacan culture (Mesoamerica, 150 BC to AD 750), the jaguar was a central symbol within the belief system. As the quickest, most agile and dangerous predator in the jungle, the jaguar came to symbolise strength, power and domination. Rulers in Mesoamerican cultures associated themselves with the authority and hunting prowess of the jaguar (3.25).  Reverence for jaguars can be observed in many murals in temples in the region. Maya rulers incorporated jaguars into their names – such as Bird Jaguar and Shield Jaguar from the late Mayan period (AD 600 – 900). The representation of the jaguar as a symbol of power can be compared with that in Benin in West Africa, another region of equatorial rainforest, where the ruler, The Oba, associated himself with the leopard, the king of the jungle.  

Fig 3.25 Jaguar In A Tree, David Stribbling.

Fable is a literary genre: a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, legendary creatures, that are anthropomorphized (given human qualities, such as the ability to speak human language) and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly as a pithy maxim or saying. Written fables bear traces of an oral ecological tradition that stretches back to the very dawn of history and animals in human thought.

Before the occurrence of the earliest Greek animal fables in the poems of Hesiod and Archilochus, and long before the earliest reference to the legendary fabulist Aesop in the fifth century BC, the genre had already enjoyed a long history in the Near East, from where, most scholars agree, the fable migrated to Greece during the ‘orientalizing revolution’ of the archaic period.  The Greeks themselves considered the fable to be of great antiquity, and in a number of instances Greek authors associate the fable with various exotic figures (e.g., Conis the Cilician, Thouros the Sybarite, and Cybissus the Libyan) and locales (e.g., Libya, Phrygia, Cilicia, Caria, Egypt) that had reputations as sources of ancient wisdom for the Greek imagination. The fables of Aesop are the only text that has been illustrated so often, so diversely, and so continuously that the history of the printed illustrated book can be shown by them alone.  The fable’s combination of freedom of approach and constant appeal has kept them steadily popular as a subject for book illustration from the fifteenth century to the present.

Why are we are so particular about the kinds of art with which we surround ourselves privately and publicly.  It is a sort of self-packaging we all practice as much on the walls of our homes as we do on our social media screen walls, Pinterest ‘boards’ and Tumblr art blogs. While the cynic might interpret this as mere showing off,  the philosopher Alain de Botton and the art historian John Armstrong peeled away this superficial interpretation to reveal the deeper psychological motive. We have a powerful desire to communicate to others the subtleties of who we are and what we believe in a way that our words might never fully capture (Figs 26-28 ).

Fig 3.26  At home with Diana Monkeys

Fig 3.27  Art works from the exhibition ‘Science Inspires Art

Fig 3.28 Sandpipers

5 Cosmic order

The artist tends to struggle more about gaining new insights into who and where we are as earthlings, while the scientist tends to struggle more with communicating how we are able to exist and thrive as a species.   Both contribute to defining our place in the cosmos. Artists have not only taken up art criticism and negotiations, they now also integrate research methods and scientific knowledge into their artistic process to such a degree that it even seems to be developing into an independent form of knowledge on its own

Also, the scientist grapples with the decision to write and the artist grapples with the decision to frame.  Writing and framing go together. That’s why its important, when situating oneself between art and science, to match words with pictures and pictures with words.  

Practically speaking, art is a product of expression. In the abstract, art is often practised either to make sense of our material reality or to create a manifestation of the consciousness of the artmaker.  Science, on the other hand, is an exploration of the world around us in an effort to find universal, indisputable cosmic truths. In short, art is often introspective while science is extrospective; art is used to understand consciousness while science is used to understand external realities.  At any one time, these inner and outer worlds place the individual in cosmic dimensions.

This cosmic perspective was set out by Ralph Waldo Emerson In his 1836 essay “Nature”. Emerson wrote, “All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapour to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine (transcendental) charity nourish man.”

Art is at the centre of this great scheme of things where an experience, event, object, or idea is extremely special and unusual and cannot be understood in ordinary ways.   This pictorial self-knowledge art bequeaths provides a language for communicating it to others. In this connection, spiritual sparks that helped inspire the pioneering abstract art of Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich and Frantisek Kupka grew out of spiritualism and the occult. They were generated by such ventures into mysticism as Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Rosicrucianism, Eastern philosophy, and various Eastern and Western religions. Spiritual ideas were not peripheral to these artists’ lives, not something that happened to pop into their minds as they stood by their canvas. Kupka participated in seances and was a practicing medium. Kandinsky attended private fetes involved with magic, black masses and pagan rituals.

Surrealism certainly had more than a streak of spiritualism running through it. This is exemplified by the works of the Catalan artist, Salvador Dali.  Between the wars the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid was a centre advocating an ongoing dialogue between science and art and acted as a place open to receiving the international vanguards. The Residencia was also a forum for debating and disseminating the intellectual life presented directly by its main figures. Through its salons there passed Albert Einstein, Paul Valéry, Marie Curie, Igor Stravinsky, John M. Keynes, Alexander Calder, Walter Gropius, Henri Bergson and Le Corbusier, among many others.   The young Salvador Dali was a student there and was interested in the interface between art and science. This is evident in a photograph of Federico García Lorca with the painter, who is holding a copy of the journal ‘Science and Invention’ from 1927. In the 1930s, Dali’s scientific interest focused on dual images and illusions. As hinted at by the word “dual” within it, duality refers to having two parts, often with opposite meanings, like the duality of good and evil. Duality has technical meanings in geometry and physics. In geometry, duality refers to how points and planes have interchangeable roles in projective geometry. By 1940 Dali had turned to Planck’s quantum theory; and in 1945 the nuclear, or atomic, period of his work began. In the 1950s, ‘corpuscular’ painting led Dalí to nuclear mysticism. During the latter period of his life, between 1955 and 1978, his work was deeply influenced by genetics in particular, and especially, by DNA and its structure.

When asked by a journalist from Le Figaro, “Why so much interest in science?” Dalí replied:

“Because artists scarcely interest me. I believe that artists should have scientific notions, so as to walk on different terrain, which is that of unity”.

The use of research in the visual arts or using scientificl knowledge to develop artistic work is by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Scientific knowledge, such as optics, colour theory, anatomy, natural science, physics, geometry, and physiology are absorbed by artists as a matter of course and are reflected in their artwork. Relevant contemporary theories and discourses re-emerge in artistic production and influence its forms of presentation, as well as its content. Referencing science was also common in the twentieth century, in, for example, the reference to psychoanalysis in surrealist painting, to phenomenology in minimal art, or to linguistics in conceptual art. In the sense of a recursion to scientific results, the term artistic research simply refers to the scientific references finding their way more or less explicitly into works of art. The artworks do not need to be a kind of research themselves, nor do they have to adhere to certain scientific standards. The concept of scientific art describes art with research – not in the sense of art understood as research, but rather by recourse to depicting scientific research.

Dalí’s artistic trajectory cannot be understood in isolation from his endemic interest in science. But in the period between 1962 and 1978 his work was most influenced by the staggering impact made on him by the discovery of the DNA code.   For Dalí the function of DNA was very clear: it is what lends us immortality. In his essay The Tragic Myth of the Millet’s “Angelus”, published in 1963, the painter explains:

“Moral law must be of divine order, for even before it was set down on Moses’ tablets it was contained in the codes of the genetic spirals“.  

This direct reference to DNA carrying humanity’s biochemical  blueprint, related that molecule with immortal life. Later, in his article “The immortality of genetic imperialism” Dalí referred to science in order to explain immortal life, saying:  

“it (immortal life) is contained in deoxyribonucleic acid – nothing is more monarchical that a molecule of DNA”.

According to Dalí, God’s laws were those of inheritance contained in deoxyribonucleic acid, and ribonucleic acid, RNA, was simply the messenger entrusted with transmitting the genetic code:

“On Jacob’s ladder, each step is a DNA landing, and the angels going up and down are the RNA”.

When Dalí read Watson and Crick’s 1953 article announcing their discovery of the genetic code, he said:

“It is the real proof of the existence of God.”

After that, DNA influenced his paintings and many other activities. An iconography of DNA was present in at least nine paintings from 1956 to 1976. His painting, (Fig 4.1) ‘Still Life, Fast Moving: 1956, “the decomposition of a fruit dish”, metaphorically summarized man’s post-atomic understanding of nature. Dalí suggested that there is a cosmic order in the Universe and by incorporating spirals into the composition; he was pointing the spiral molecular architecture of DNA, the alpha helix, as the the ultimate expression of life.

Fig 4.1 Still Life, Fast Moving (Salvador Dali, 1956)

Post WWII, Dali became fascinated by atoms which are the basic particles out of which the universe is created. He said after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb in Japan that it “shook me seismically” and that the atom was his “favourite food for thought.  He saw the beauty of the atom and was interested in how atoms make up everything in the cosmos Living Still Life (Fig 4.1) was painted during a period that he called “Nuclear Mysticism. It is composed of different theories that try to picture the relationships between quantum physics and the conscious mind. The different theories are composed of elements that range from Catalan philosophers to classicism, pop art, and nuclear physics.

The name Nature Morte Vivante translates in English to “living still life.” It comes from the French translation “nature morte” which directly translates to “dead nature.” by adding “vivante,” which implies fast moving action and a certain lively quality, Dali was essentially naming this piece “dead nature in movement’.  This plays into his theme of Nuclear Mysticism which combined elements of art, physics, and science. The theory, as well as the term, “Nuclear Mysticism” was coined by Dali himself. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Dali had started to “return to his Catholic roots following World War II. Nuclear mysticism is composed of different theories proposed  by Dali that combine science, physics, mathematics, and art against a unifying backdrop of his own system of philosophy that emphasizes intuition as a means to knowledge and its importance in his search for a route to the divine.

In Nature Morte Vivante Dali wanted to show the motion that all objects have, that although an object is still, it is always full of millions of atoms that are constantly in motion. He portrays this thought throughout the painting. Every object is moving in some direction. Dali was also obsessed with the spiral, which he thought to be “the most important feature in nature”, and used it, as in the railings as “a symbol of cosmic order.  Not only does Dali portray his objects flying around the scene, he shows them twisted in usual ways. For example, the silver bowl is not only shown mid-air, but also twisted in an unnatural way for silver to bend. Dali also infused religious elements of Nuclear Mysticism into this painting. On the table with the white tablecloth, the objects placed closest to the table and that appear to be the least in motion are a glass of wine, two grapes, a pear, a glass bottle with water pouring out, and what appears to be a fig leaf. The fig leaf has long been a religious symbol associated with Christianity. In the Bible, Adam and Eve use fig leaves to cover themselves after their deception in the Garden of Eden. The placement of the fig leaf in Dali’s painting could allude to his reemergence back into Catholicism.

Dali wanted to give his own take on classical still life painting.  He believed that all matter was not at all like it seemed, but instead had attributes that even the best cosmologists were only able to guess at in a field of semi mathematical mysticism  He wanted to enforce “that all objects are made of atomic particles in constant motion,” which he portrays through the scattered items. The still life objects in motion embraced his own thoughts about the cosmic significance of atoms in motion.

Fig 4.2 Tuna fishing, Salvador Dali (1965)

Among the masterpieces Dali painted in the 1960s, ‘Tuna Fishing’ (Fig 4.2) is the most important in expressing the wholeness of humanity and cosmos. The painting was dedicated to Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier who was a French painter of the 19th century known for his depictions of battle scenes. Tuna Fishing is a metaphorical statement of humanity’s place in the universe. This artwork depicts men acting violently toward large fish. As long golden daggers stab the aquatic creatures, the once pristine blue waters turn to a blood red. To Dali, the men and the fish they are killing personify the universe. It represents a specific and frantic, compressed space that the world can sometimes be with respect to predator/prey interactions that maintain the human food chain. This immense picture (304 X 404 cm) painted at Port Lligat, combines all the styles Dali had worked in: Surrealism, “refined Pompierism,” pointillism, action painting, tachism, geometrical abstraction, Pop art, Op art and psychedelic art. Dali left an explanation of his aims in this painting, which ranks in importance with the 1931 Persistence of Memory, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  The latter surrealist piece introduced the image of the soft melting pocket watch which epitomizes Dalí’s theory of “softness” and “hardness” that was central to his thinking from that time. Regarding this icon, Dawn Adès wrote, “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. This interpretation suggests that Dalí was incorporating an understanding of the world introduced by Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity. However, when asked whether this was in fact the case, Dalí replied that the soft watches were not inspired by the theory of relativity, but by the surrealist perception of a Camembert cheese melting in the sun. This metaphor encapsulates the

From the beginning of his career Dali has always evaded questions as to the meaning of his paintings by stating that he does not know what their meaning is. No one, he adds, is more astonished by the images which appear on his canvases than he; and having created them, he feels that his responsibility toward them is ended. Nevertheless his writings at times furnish partial data on the iconography of certain paintings.

With respect to the extreme human  predatoriness of Tuna Fishing he said:

“It is the most ambitious picture I have ever painted, because its subtitle is Hommage a Meissonier. It is a revival of representational art, which was underestimated by everyone except the Surrealists throughout the period of so-called ‘avant-garde art.’ It was my father who told me of the epic subject. Though he was a notary in Figueras, Catalonia, he had a talent for story-telling that would have been worthy of a Homer. He also showed me a print he had in his office by a Swiss artist – one of the Pompiers – showing a tuna catch; that picture also helped me create this painting. What finally made me decide to take the subject, which had been tempting me my whole life long, was my reading of Teilhard de Chardin, who believed that the universe and cosmos are finite – which the latest scientific discoveries have confirmed. It then became clear to me that it was that finite quality, the contraction and frontiers of the cosmos and universe, that made energy possible in the first place. The protons, antiprotons, photons, pi-mesons, neutrons, all the elementary particles have their miraculous, hyper-aesthetic energy solely because of the frontiers and contraction of the universe. In a way, this liberates us from the terrible Pascalian fear that living beings are of no importance compared with the cosmos; and it leads us to the idea that the entire cosmos and universe meet at a certain point – which, in this case, is the tuna catch. Hence the alarming energy in the painting! Because all those fish, all those tuna, and all the people busy killing them, are personifications of the finite universe – that is to say, all the components of the picture (since the Dali cosmos is restricted to the circumscribed area of the tuna catch) achieve a cosmos is restricted to the circumscribed area of the tuna catch) achieve a maximum of hyper-aesthetic energy in it. Thus Tuna Fishing is a biological spectacle par excellence, since (following my father’s description) the sea, which is initially cobalt blue and by the end is totally red with blood, represents the super-aesthetic power of modern biology. Every birth is preceded by the miraculous spurting of blood, ‘honey is sweeter than blood,’ blood is sweeter than blood. Currently America has the privilege 187 of blood, because America has the honour of having the Nobel Prize winner Watson who was the first to discover the molecular structure of desoxyribo-nucleic acid which, together with the atom bomb, constitutes the essential guarantee of future survival and hibernation for Dali.”

 When we ask now again: What is the invisible in perception? We take a stance of Nanette Rißler-Pipka and try to answer it by saying that the invisible is the part added by memory, invented or not, but we are not able to perceive something without seeing not only the one object present but also everything linked to this object by memory. In all his works, Dalí made it difficult or even impossible for us to decide, if he is discussing some serious theory of perception or just again leading the spectator on a false track. For Dalí, this is a starting point for the creative act as he not only adds unconsciously something out of his memory to his perception, which would be a pure psychoanalytic effect, but willingly mixes false and true memories and calls them “real” or better “surreal”.   This link between art and the pictorial presentation of science is particularly evident in the 12 lithographs that Dali produced in entitled ‘Conquest of the Cosmos’.

Fig 4.4  The Visceral Circle of the Cosmos, a lithograph in the suite Conquest of the Cosmos, Salvador Dali (1973)!enviragallery12182-12200

With the launch of the Soviet artificial satellite into orbit in 1957, the great task for humankind of conquering outer space was set out  This revolutionary step in the history of science led Dali to dream of cosmic landscapes and in 1973 he began engraving a suite of chromolithographs entitled “The conquest of the Cosmos’. By looking through the series  the viewer can spot the iconic surrealist symbols of Dalinean art, such as the melted watch, crutches, the burning giraffe, butterflies, snails and many more.  One of Dali’s favorite symbols the snail expresses his own duality, it hides what is vulnerable behind its tough exterior.  We often camouflage our troubling emotions and desires, our softness, with our own hard shells for fear of judgment

The engravings are among the largest size ever produced by Dali and took 18 months to complete.  They are outcomes of Dali’s Surrealist approach of portraying an idea or thought about our place in the universe.  Within their iconic simplicity they hold the key to an understanding of how science could be transcribed as pure art.  For example, the dominant logarithmic spiral in the The Visceral Circle of the Cosmos points to the importance of the rules of differential growth which have evolved to maintain life on planet Earth through generation to generation.   In this connection Dali developed an obsession with rhinoceros horns, because they are created, like shells, by differential growth in a perfect logarithmic spiral.

The fact that Dali’s watches are soft, that they appear to be melting like cheese, wax, or gelatin, seemingly contradicts the significance of time itself, rendering both time and the machine that measures it ineffective and irrelevant. As a result, Dawn Ades says that “The soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time, a Surrealist meditation on the collapse of our notions of a fixed cosmic order”. Her words are echoed by Wilson who says, “The evocation of softness is one of Dalí’s most brilliant and compelling inventions: his soft objects are powerful and disturbing images of entropy, that fundamental physical process by which all things decay in time. “Ferdinand Aliquié agrees. “The soft object,” he says, “is the negation of any machine and, by that, of any process in physics.” The cosmic sense of this is further heightened, as William Jeffett points out, by the fact that “[t]he philosophers of the enlightenment had conceived of the workings of the universe as akin to that of the mechanism of a watch”.  Furthermore, when our sun is in the final stages of burning its hydrogen it will go through a period of expansion. Many astronomers expect that expansion to spread as far as the Earth in its orbit bringing about its ultimate demise.

Dali’s later years are summed up by Maša Hubijer ‘in his thesis ,’The Last Phase of Salvador Dalí – From the 1940s Until the End’.

“From the art history point, Dalí was a fair genius in both techniques and presentation, and he certainly changed the view of art from one point to another. His interpretation leaves us wondering about the hidden subjects and meanings that Dalí wanted us to explore. Perhaps he wanted to leave us wondering and exploring in order to trigger the mind of the next generations to come, trying to solve the Dalí world of dreams, science, mysticism and duality”.

5 Internet references*&page=5&sort=-partner_updated_at

Artful microcosms of cultural ecology

September 30th, 2018


Fig 1 Logo of the Club of Rome: a microcosm of humanity on Earth.

In April 1968, a group of thirty individuals from ten countries,scientists, educators, economists, humanists, industrialists, and national and international civil servants, gathered in the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. They met at the instigation of Dr. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrial manager, economist, and man of vision, to discuss a subject of staggering scope; the present and future predicament of humanity. Out of this meeting grew The Club of Rome, an informal organization that was aptly described as an “invisible college.” Its purposes were to foster understanding of the varied but interdependent components, economic, political, natural, and social-that make up the global system in which we all live; to bring that new understanding to the attention of policy-makers and the public worldwide; and in this way to promote new policy initiatives and action.  The predicament now is how to address climate change in order to live sustainably. With respect to new actions, this blog addresses the question, what is the role and the potential of the arts in bringing about the cultural change required to live within Earth’s ecological limits? That was the question pursued by Melita Rogelj as her Master’s thesis for the School for International Training in Vermont (graduated in 2000).

Rogelj set out to answer the following questions in her research:

  • What is the connection between the arts and sustainability?
  • What is a new way to think about the arts that would inspire and facilitate a transition to increased levels of sustainability?
  • What is the importance of art for sustainability?

Her approach was:

“…… to associate sustainability with cultural evolution.  In order to achieve sustainability, I believe we must become a society of artists, willing to take creative risks, attempting to make connections and leap across disciplines and cultures in ways previously not attempted, or even imagined.”

There is an urgent need to develop the underlying theory and principles of “sustainability science,” based on an understanding of the fundamental interactions between nature and humans. This requires a new research and education paradigm that embraces biocomplexity, integrates the physical, biological, and social sciences, and uses a coupled, human–natural systems approach.  For this purpose, a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary mindset is needed to enlarge the discursive space of museums, schools, universities, disciplines and collections of objects by pushing at their conceptual boundaries. The knowledge produced from objects such as works of art is quite distinct from textual knowledge. But while we would like to believe that sharp boundaries define the functions of knowledge objects each is really the tip of an interdisciplinary iceberg.  Objects are the basis for thinking about microcosms, where the object stands for much deeper thought. ‘Microcosmic’ refers to the idea that parts or relations that define an entity are discovered, summarised, or miniaturised, in some smaller unit, which thereby becomes a cultural object (Fig 1).

According to Rudolf Allers microcosmism may be defined in the following way:

“One vague and broad conception is shared by all authors who ever speculated on the microcosmus and its relation to the macrocosmus. The former, which the Latin authors usually call minor mundus, has certain features or principles in common with the macrocosmus or the universe.”  

Hence, the basic idea of microcosmism is that it is a movement to promote the study of  correspondence or similarity between two entities on the assumption that the smaller entity is easier to investigate that the larger.

Works of art are microcosms.  To meet Melita Rogelj’s objective, the universal language of art has to be harnessed to inspire individual action.  This means drawing attention to the current environmental crisis and to moving people to change the behaviours and habits that contribute to it.  This blog is a first attempt to explore the the role of microcosmic art to communicate an emotional experience.

Expressing artful spirituality

In previous blogs, Corixus addressed transformation, or metamorphosis, as the concept central to making and adding meaning in abstract art.

This blog is about art as a carrier of two kinds of intelligence required to live sustainably. These were defined seven centuries ago by the Sufi poet Rumi. The first he defined acquired knowledge or book learning. It is the kind of intelligence that helps us to manage our environment and is tested to see how well we retain information. Rumi describes it as “getting always more marks on your preserving tablets.” This is the intelligence of our schooling and striving to succeed. It is imparted by narrative art which is a microcosms of the outer world expressing situations and objects.

Rumi also describes another kind of intelligence: “one already completed and preserved inside you./ A spring overflowing its springbox.” This intelligence is not the kind that moves from the outside in, as in traditional learning. “This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out.” This intelligence originates from within us rather than from outside sources.  It is imparted by abstract art which is a microcosm of the inner world of thoughts and ideas expressing creativity and transformation. In this respect, creativity and culture are virtually interchangeable.

In earlier times spiritual messages were transmitted figuratively directly through stained glass. But abstraction has entered the interface between spirituality and people (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A microcosm in stained glass inspired by the cellular basis of anatomy

From the maker’s and viewer’s perspective transformation provides access to deeper aspects of ourselves, including the pre-verbal feelings and symbols that reside in our subconscious.  So, we make and pursue transformations in search of the one realm within which all things are connected. For painting, this realm is the canvas before us. In other words, producing and viewing an abstract work can be a meditative, almost mystical affair.   The work has aesthetic qualities expressing ideas and emotions in a two-dimensional visual language. The elements of this language—its shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures—are used in various ways to produce sensations of volume, space, movement, and light on a flat surface. These elements are combined into expressive patterns in order to represent real or supernatural phenomena to interpret a narrative theme, or to create wholly abstract visual relationships.  

Despite being without a material reference point, abstract art nevertheless often carries deep messages from the artist and are also injected by the viewer.  In fact the beginnings of modern art, especially abstract art, have strong spiritual roots. This fact is not always obvious from textbook presentations, which are more likely to focus on the timeline of innovations of the twentieth century.  While these historical narratives are valid they omit what may have been the most central motivation of the pioneers of abstract art who shared common spiritual roots. For many of these artists art was primarily about spirituality, and was perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for expressing and developing that spirituality.  Kandinsky expressed this conviction in his 1912 publication “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”; Mondrian mentions it in many of his writings; and so do other painters, poets, musicians and dancers. Here is Kandinsky, in a selection from his influential 1912 booklet Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

“When religion, science and morality are shaken and when outer supports threaten to fall, man withdraws his gaze from externals and turns it inwards”.

“Literature, music and art are the most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what was at first only a little point of light noticed by the few. Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but they turn away from the soulless life of the present toward those substances and ideas that give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul”. (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 33)

This was also admitted by the painter Mark Rothko when he said in 1957:

“I am not interested in any relationships of colour or form or anything else, I am interested in the basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate with those basic emotions. The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.”

The more one looks at Rothko’s great monochrome canvases, such as the Rothko Chapel pictures (Fig 3), the more you see subtle shifts and nuances of brush marks and hue.  But what is the connection between seeing more evidence of the painter’s mystical handicraft and the emotional response? Emotional responses are generally regarded as the keystone to experiencing art, and the creation of an emotional experience has been argued as the purpose of artistic expression.  Research has shown that the neurological workings of perceiving art differ from those used in standard object recognition.  Instead, brain regions involved in the experience of emotion and goal setting are activated when viewing art.

Fig 3 A viewer in the ‘Rothko Chapel’.

The Rothko Chapel is a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas, founded by John and Dominique de Menil. The interior serves not only as a chapel, but also as a major work of modern art. On its walls are fourteen black but colour-hued paintings by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko is classified as one of the early New York abstract expressionists, a group of New York painters of the late 1940s and ’50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. Abstract expression blended elements of Surrealism and the first abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the colour field painting of Mark Rothko and others. Gestural abstraction, sometimes called action painting, is a style of painting in which paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being carefully applied.  The term colour field painting is characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour. Both techniques introduce random elements of form, tone and colour placement.

Small is large

Ruth Abrams (1912-1986) is a key artist of the time.  She also belonged to the New York group of abstract expressionists although her work remains on the fringes of the movement.  She may be described as a metamorphic artist in that throughout her career she moved confidently between figuration and abstraction. The more traditional scenes of painting offered a continual starting point for transformation. The most striking and successful example of this kind of metamorphosis is “Memory of My Mother,” a 1947 painting featuring an outline resembling a woman dissolving into a striking network of interlocking and interwoven colours  (Fig 4).

Fig 4 ‘Memory of my Mother’,  Ruth Davidson Abrams ca. 1959 Collection of Yeshiva University Museum Gift of the Estate of Ruth Abrams (2006.079)

However, it is believed by many that Abrams’s crowning achievement in abstract art is a series she produced in the 50s and 70s entitled “Microcosms.” The paintings describe the progression of an aesthetic journey —a discovery of a personal vocabulary based upon our unearthly perception of a universe distinctly different from familiar earthbound views and horizons.  These are works on tiny canvases, some as small as postage stamps, in which, through microscopic swathes and strokes of colour, she transcribed her thoughts about space exploration to produce imaginary interstellar meditative landscapes. Abrams chose the word microcosm to describe her artistic creations because they represented in miniature the characteristics of something much larger, namely, the cosmos as a place, or situation to which we turn when meditating on origins and futures.  In a strange way the very small pictures draw the viewer into interstellar space.

Fig 5 Andromeda nebula (1900)

With respect to the timing of these works, Abrams was responding to black and white photographic images of outer space that had begun enter the public domain through books on astronomy and space science at the beginning of the 20th century.  The Andromeda “nebula,” had been photographed at the Yerkes Observatory around 1900 (Fig 5). To modern eyes, this object is clearly a galaxy. At the time, though, it was described as “a mass of glowing gas,” its true identity unknown. Seventy-five years after this first image of Andromeda, NASA launched one of the most ambitious experiments in the history of astronomy: the Hubble Space Telescope, which has so radically changed and enlarged our pictorial understanding of the cosmos.  On April 1, 1995 Hubble captured a small region of the Eagle Nebula, a vast star-forming region 6,500 light-years from Earth. A colour version, called Pillars of Creation, was released from NASA in 2015 (Fig 6). Ruth Abrams died in 1986 and we are left to speculate about what her artistic response would have been to later space probes.

Fig 6 Part of the Eagle Nebula; NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Abrams explaining how she came to paint this vast entity in miniature said;

“I realized I could never do anything as big as the bigness I was now aware of, and that paradoxically, in order to convey that bigness, I had to move away from it and paint small.”  

Her work is evidence of the paradox that a tiny canvas can convey the giant wonder of the cosmos (Figs 7-9).

Fig 7 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 8 Ruth Abrams microcosm; a cropped enlargement

Fig 9 Ruth Abrams handling one of her Microcosms

Transforming Mondrian

Like Abrams’ microcosms, Piet Mondrian’s paintings had no narrative content and represented a metamorphosis over a period of years  from his paintings of windmills and trees. His lines and colours gradually became the subjects and he argued that they were were the purest forms of expression.  He elaborated this belief in his long essay ‘Neo-Plasticism in Pictorial Art’ published in the first eleven issues of the journal De Stijl. He wrote:

“As a pure representation of the human mind, art will express itself in an aesthetically purified, that is to say, abstract form. The new plastic idea cannot therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation – this new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour, that is to say, in the straight line and the clearly defined primary colour”.

Mondrian’s art was not based on reasoning or calculation.  Intuition was central to his concept of the artistic process – but he always had a strong urge to position his art in a wider cultural and philosophical context. Crucial to Mondrian’s thought was the Theosophical notion of evolution, which required the transformation of old ideas to make room for the new, in life, in society and in art.

Using software tools comprising algorithms and digital filters, Corixus is exploring futures of the Mondrian abstract style, introducing anatomical curves, tones and textures at random to produce microcosms (Figs 10-12)  ).

Fig 10 Random composition in black blue and yellow (Corixus. 2018)

Fig 11 Transformation of Fig  (Corixus. 2018)

PaintShop Pro

Fig 12 Transformation of Fig (Corixus. 2018)

Topaz Simplify.

The responses of viewers to these three images are overwhelmingly to place the last transformation first.

Anatomical microcosms

The starting point for this research into the transformation of Mondrian’s style is the concept of cultural ecology in which artistically created microcosms are positioned to link environment with society,  In this context, Leonardo da Vinci was the first to apply the term microcosm to promote the idea that people are part of nature. He envisaged the great picture chart of the human body he had produced through his anatomical drawings as a cosmografia del minor mondo (“cosmography of the microcosm”). He believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy, in microcosm, for the workings of the universe. Leonardo wrote:

“Man has been called by the ancients a lesser world, and indeed the name is well applied; because, as man is composed of earth, water, air, and fire…this body of the earth is similar.”

He compared the human skeleton to rocks (“supports of the earth”) and the expansion of the lungs in breathing to the ebb and flow of the oceans.

Leonardo’s few full-body figures deserve attention because they reflect so well his remarkable progression as thinker and artist from medieval, through early humanist, to modern humanist ways of understanding and representing the human body as an integral part of nature. A careful look at these figures provides a visual framework for discussing the concept of a microcosm in the continuing emergence and development of Renaissance humanist ideas.

“In [the] figures there shall be revealed to you the microcosm on the same plan as before me was adopted by Ptolemy in his cosmography”.

In so designating these regions of the body, Leonardo incorporates a third medieval tradition: the principle of the microcosm and the macrocosm, which held that the structure of the human body, a small world in itself, reflects the divine order of the universe  (Fig 13).

Fig 13  A near-term human fetus. Leonardo da Vinci

This was no doubt in his mind when he urged us to contemplate ageing wall plaster as a stimulus to thinking about the bigger picture of patterns in and from nature.  Ever since Leonardo da Vinci urged artists to search for inspiration in the dirt on walls or the streaked patterns in stones, they have found that the accidental blot, the chance mark, or the naturally occurring stain can be a starting point for some extraordinary art (Fig 14)

Fig 14 Splash on the wall ?

Abstract drawing

In its blog for 15  Nov 2016 the online gallery ‘Ideelart’  showcased ten ‘unforgettable examples of  abstract drawing’

Drawing was introduced as is one of the simplest and most accessible ways to make in art.

“Almost anyone can do it. All it takes is a writing implement and a flat surface. Yet as simple as the medium can be, some of the most unforgettable abstract artworks are abstract drawings packed with ambiguity and storytelling that trigger questions about their meaning

Abstract drawings are immediately approachable and direct. They are inherently ambiguous and invite a certain amount of conjecture. Ambiguity is an attraction, because it allows for the unfettered participation of anyone willing to open up to a work of art.  Because they are produced in their least guarded moments they casually drew something that expressed the truest nature of their ideas from deep within. Many artists turn to drawing in order to express some essential concept they are struggling with, and suddenly a form, a gesture or a composition emerges that perfectly expresses the essence of their search (Fig 15).

Fig 15 Elaine de Kooning – Unused preparatory drawing from In Memory of My Feelings, Ink on acetate, 13 7/8 x 11 in, 1967

Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features, distorting the form to better communicate the essence (Fig 16)

Fig 16 Less is more. Detail from page of a Picasso sketch book

Internet references

Artisan ecologies

September 20th, 2018

Consumer culture

Consumer culture has been defined as an economic arrangement in which the lived cultural experience of everyday life depends on social resources, plus the symbolic and material resources on which they depend, entering households (Fig 1).  The environment is thereby brought into the home as part of a process of cultural ecology mediated through markets. Consumption, a set of behaviours found in all times and places, is dominated by the purchase of commercial products. The socio economic system is largely understood to be carried out through the exercise of free personal choice in the private sphere of everyday life. Social democratic actors are deemed to be individually free and rational.  Furthermore, consumer culture is also bound up with the idea of modernity, that is, it develops in a world no longer governed by the traditions of generation-on-generation stasis, but rather by year-on-year flux in fashion. Consumer culture denotes a dynamic ever changing global economy in which value has been divorced from the material satisfaction of wants and the sign value of goods takes precedence. The term sign value denotes and describes the value accorded to an object because of the prestige (social status) that it imparts upon the possessor, rather than the material value and utility derived from the function and the primary use of the object.  In this process of the global marketing mass produced goods the local artisan producer has become an ‘endangered species’.

Globalization is a process driven by multinational companies embedded in capitalism, which extinguishes old production systems to make way for the new.  It entails the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour around the world. Currently both capital and goods move freely, and services such as banking, telecommunications, media and advertising will do so increasingly. Labour mostly moves freely but the vast majority of working people in the world congregate in towns and cities where they are static.

Stasis used to be a feature of rurality which transmitted existing cultural values, norms and customary ways of doing things unchanged from generation to generation.   Its mainstay was access to the local countryside. Country folk were sustained by its biophysical resources within an artisan ecosystem defined as the creative interactions beteen a wide range of practices, organizations, resources, activities and connections.  The interlocking elements of this rural ecosystem enabled culturally significant designs, products and practices to flourish in small communities.

Artisan ecologies are focused on communities that are bottom-up and human centred aggregations of families embodying the craft atmosphere of a territory due to proximity of resources and a shared material cultural background. Such communities based on artisanship are engaged in giving form and meaning to local natural resources and managing the process of making culturally and socially significant products.

Clay is one such natural resource.  An abundant and accessible material, clay is sustainable. Humans have used it for centuries to produce ceramics. Easy to excavate from the ground, clay requires very little processing  .

Fig 1 Mind map of global consumerism

Ceramics is one of the most ancient industries on the planet. Once humans discovered that clay could be dug up and formed into objects by first mixing it with water and then firing, the industry was born. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials, then fired in kilns partially dug into the ground.

In the present day, artisan ceramics is in decline in a world of global consumers fed by mass production.  From a 21st century perspective, where the cultural focus is now on the sustainable use of natural resources, there can be no doubt that an understanding of the cultural ecology of ceramics should hinge on the relationships of ceramics and their production to the rest of the sociocultural system and the broader ecosystem.  Frederick R. Matson first suggested the term ceramic ecology in the published papers of the “Ceramics and Man” symposium held in 1961 under the auspices of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He expressed a desire to move ceramic studies toward a more human focus—ceramics and man—reflecting the symposium’s title. Matson thus coined the term ceramic ecology to represent   “… one facet of cultural ecology, that which attempts to relate the raw materials and technologies that the local potter has available to the functions in his culture of the products he fashions” (Fig 2).

Fig 2 A mind map of ceramic ecology

Invention of Eduardo Williams

Since his formulation of ceramic ecology more than half a century ago, Matson’s ideas have inspired a number of studies and the publication of several volumes. In particular, In 1985, Dean E. Arnold broadened the ceramic ecological perspective to include a systems paradigm and identified a number of systemic relationships between ceramic production and the physical environment, on the one hand, and the sociocultural system of which it was social focus on the other.  These relationships consist of basic feedback mechanisms that stimulate and/or limit ceramic production in a cultural-environmental system. Based on certain chemical, ecological, and social phenomena that underlie the nature of pottery itself, these relationships occur in many of the societies of the world and are isomorphous cross-culturally. Thus, it should be possible to explain the development of an ancient craft and the maintenance of a modern craft in a broad intercultural conceptal framework, which is applicable to all crafts.

In 1989  Lorette Mouat and Deane E Arnold, reporting on their research into the potters of El Porvenir, Honduras, revisited Matson’s ideas. They took a viewpoint that the concern with raw materials, technologies, and products in Matson’s definition implies a focus on ceramics as objects.  There is no explicit recognition of the relationships that exist between ceramic production and society on the one hand and the environment on the other. In their view, if ceramic ecology is truly one facet of cultural ecology, as Matson states, then one would expect a wide range of relationships among the production of ceramics, society, and the environment (like weather and climate), distance to resources, and sedentariness as well as the functions of the ceramic product in society.

Thus, the term ceramic ecology implies a broader relational paradigm beyond Matson’s narrow definition and represents an important conceptual change in the way that ceramics traditionally have been viewed.

With respect to choosing a suitable operational model to construct a cultural ecology of ceramics, pottery in the Indian subcontinent has an ancient history and is one of the most tangible and iconic elements of Indian art. Artisan family potters are one of the largest castes, spread across 212 districts of India, predominantly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. They are known by different names in each state.  All are facing decline.

What’s in a name?

The castes and sub-castes of India are mainly based on occupations and the associated skill levels. The potter caste is very ancient and widespread throughout India and is concerned with the production of earthenware utensils and images of deities which are essential for domestic wellbeing and efficiency.. These terracotta handicrafts have been recovered in archeological excavations, particularly at the ancient sites of the prehistoric  Indus Valley Civilization.  This was an early example of urbanisation located in what is Pakistan and northwest India today, on the fertile flood plain of the Indus River and its vicinity. Evidence of religious practices in this area date back approximately to 5500 BCE. Farming settlements began around 4000 BCE and around 3000 BCE there appeared the first signs of urbanization. By 2600 BCE, dozens of towns and cities had been established, and between 2500 and 2000 BCE the Indus Valley civilization was at its peak.  Harrapa was one of these flourishing cities with a thriving population of terracotta potters. The glazed Harappan pottery is the earliest example of its kind in the ancient world showing a great inventive genious. Terracotta, taken from Latin terra cotta or baked earth, is the art of creating glazed or unglazed porous earthenware, figurines, and other decorative materials from clay which is dried and fired in temperatures of around 1000°C giving it a distinctly orange, red, brown, yellow, or grey colour. It is then covered in sand to allow it to cool down. This colour depends not only on the type of clay found in the beds of the water bodies in the area where the artist is based but also on the firing process. For example, if the smoke from firing is allowed to get out through the vents in the kiln, a red or orange colour is obtained. On the other hand, if the vents are sealed, it gives the items a black colour. Decorative pieces are either left with their original colour or painted in multiple hues to make them more attractive.

Polychrome pottery is rare and mainly comprised small vases decorated with geometric patterns mostly in red, black and green and less frequently in white and yellow. Incised ware is rare and the incised decoration was confined to the bases of pans. Perforated pottery has a large hole at the bottom and small holes all over the wall and was probably used for straining liquids.  Some pottery was ornamented on the outside with knobs. The Harappan pottery includes pans, goblets, dishes, basins, flasks, narrow necked vases, cylindrical bottles, tumblers, corn measures, spouted vases and a special type of dish on a stand which was an offering stand or incense burner.

The people of India who worked as family potters, making utensils, tiles or any related products from earth were called, “Kumbhkar.” Kumbh means clay utensils and kar means maker. Therefore, Kumbhkar later became,”Kumbhar.” Many of them belonged to the ancient “Jati” people of the mythical Prajapati community, named after Prajapati the Hindu god of creativity which positions potters at the heart of Hindism.  

Some Prajapatis/Kumhars trace the origin of their community to the beginning of civilization when humankind started using utensils to prepare and eat food. As potters they proudly consider themselves to be the initiators of the world’s first industry.  They also situate themselves in one of the most famous stories of Hinduism which is known as the great churning of the primeval ocean by the gods and demons in the quest for the nectar of immortality. This tale has deep dimensions, capturing insights into the nature of existence.  

According to a Hindu myth, the first Kumbh (earthen pot) was a gift from the Gods to collect the Nectar. Another mythological story says that when Lord Shiva was about to marry Parvati he realised he had forgotten the water carrier integral for the ceremony. Therefore, he gave a part of his skin for clay to Prajapati to make a pot and Parvati gave her blood to decorate the pot. That is when the first kumbh (earthen pot) was created and Prajapati became the first potter.

The classification of Kumhars in the Hindu social caste system differs from region to region. For example, because the making of a pot was the first creative act of HIndu mythology, in some temples in Rajasthan, only a Kumhar can lead the worship, not the traditionally priestly Brahmins.

The geographical location of pot-making is revealed by mapping the distribution of family names, such as Sorathia, Ladwa, and Varia. The potters who lived in Sorath were known as “Sorathia Prajapati.   Today, the Kumhar caste is mainly found in Pakistan and Punjab, Bijnor(U.P.).

The following surnames of Prajapati. potters have persisted  through the centuries;

Bhalsod, Bharadwa, Bharadwaj, Buhecha, Chandegra, Chavda, Chhaya, Chitroda, Chohan, Dabhi, Devalia, Dhokia, Dodia, Fatania, Gadher, Gadhia, Ghadhvana, Ghedia, Girnara, Gohil, Gola, Jagatia, Jethwa, Jogia, Kamalia, Kansara, Kataria, Kholia, Koria, Kukadia, Ladva, Majevadia, Mandora, Mavadia, Maru, Nena, Oza, Pankhania, Parmar, Pithia, Poria, Rathod, Ravat, Sarvaiya, Savania, Shingadia, Solanki, Taank, Vadher, Vadukul, Vara, Vegad, Visavadia, and Yadav.  Some of these family names are often spelt in a variation for example, Gohil is spelt Gohel and Ladwa is spelt Ladva, etc.

Decline and revival in artisan potters

Down to the late 20th century the Indian potters worked as families with division of labour between men, women and children, each contributing a particular skill.  At the beginning of the 21st century it became apparent that throughout India the art of family potting was dying in the face of mass production of factory glazed wares.   In recent years, the decline in artisan potters has followed the decrease in the number of artisans engaged in the handicraft industry using clay, metal or stone. These artisans are now employed in manual labour or are unemployed, giving up their high skills. One of the major reasons for this change is the commercially and machine-made cheaper alternatives available in the market. The limited exposure of artisans to the market, loss of urban consumer interest, and factory competition has also added to the decline of the handicraft industry. Today India adds only 2% to the global handicrafts market. Thus, many of these artisans are living in abject poverty and economic conditions.

The government, the private, and the non-profit organizations have played a major role in trying to revive the handicraft industry. However, the impact has been isolated and limited. Much effort is required to completely revamp the rural handicraft industry using local resources. Various organizations are helping by setting up exhibitions both domestically and globally to showcase the crafts produced by these artisans. These organizations are creating marketing opportunities for craftsmen and craftswomen, to sell their products at a better price to a wider consumer base. They are using unique business models to create these market linkages from artisan to consumer, thus being profitable to all involved, especially the artisan.

With the advancement of communication networks across the country, networking can be used positively to the artisan’s advantage. New designs, ideas, orders, and markets can be within the reach of the artisan with the right training. Educating customers too is an important part of revitalizing the handicraft industry. Today online marketing is a buzzword to buy and sell artisan products. Some organizations are already connecting buyers and sellers directly online.

The handicraft industry is very important for India as it is the second largest employment generator in the rural sector. Efforts are being made to revitalize and develop it to its full potential. It is also an industry that helps to showcase the rich cultural heritage of the country. New initiatives have the potential to boost the lives of millions of Indian artisans, not just the potters.  An estimated 7 million artisans according to official figures (and up to 200 million artisans according to unofficial sources) are engaged in craft production to earn a livelihood. It further states that the global market for handicrafts is $ 400 billion with India’s share below 2 percent, representing a tremendous growth opportunity. The report further adds that 39 percent of artisans incur production expenditures of less than Rs 12,000/ $ 215 a year and only 19 percent spend above Rs. 50,000/ $ 900 a year.


Because of their proximity to the prehistoric Indus valley, Gujarat potters have always been regarded as as continuity-inheritors of ancient terracotta working skills.  It was significant in this respect that in 2010 the Gujarat government funded a scheme to train artisans to fine tune their art to meet modern needs. The state government acted through the Matikam Kalakari Rural Technology Institute (MKRTI), with the help of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute (CGCRI) and designers from National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), to impart training to potters in reinventing their products and designs so that they can be sold in the domestic as well as international markets


A large number of the potters in Delhi have migrated from the neighboring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They are located in Govindpuri and Hauz Rani: Kumbhar Basti.  A number have settled in the Prajapati Colony in A Uttam Nagar that was set up in the 1970 to house the potters coming from the countryside. As most of the potters had names connected with their caste occupation the colony was called Prajapati. Currently over 400 families practicing this craft in the colony and provide their products across Delhi and NCR. The methods adopted by the potters are similar to those employed in the pottery tradition(s) of their ancestral homelands. Black, red, and yellow clay in the form of small pieces is obtained from Rajasthan and Delhi. This is mixed and dried, after which water is added to it. The resulting mixture of wet clay is filtered through a fine sieve to remove pebbles. After the clay has been kneaded into homogenous flexible dough, the prepared clay is made into a variety of artifacts using either the throwing technique. Coiling techniques are used in making large products that are too big to be thrown on the wheel and to make those with shapes that cannot be turned on the wheel. After giving shape to the item and drying it in the shade, it is baked in the kiln.

Aruvakode in Nilambur, Kerala

Pottery making in Aruvacode is the story of Jinan, a rebel, activist, designer. Moreover this is the story of lives that he touched and changed positively for ever.

A news report on how the destiny of Aruvacode, from being a simple potter village had changed to becoming a hub of sex-workers, impelled Jinan to proceed to Aruvacode, a sleepy village by the river in Nilambur in Kerala.

According to Jinan,“the reason for such a drastic transformation in the village was the rush of cheap substitutes of steel, aluminum, and plastic products to pottery in the market. The rush had pushed the demand for earthenware off the edge and the artisans were left a troubled and distressed lot. Seized of their traditional labour, women of the village were forced into sex-work.”

Several years with the potters of Aruvacode had revealed to him that the issue of development lies deep in preserving the self-respect and creativity of the concerned community.  

In his presentation in “De-colonising the Aesthetic Sense: The story of craft revival in Aruvacode potters’ village”, Jinan argues that “any community, armed with an absolute sense of self-respect and untarnished creativity, is well able to sail through all their problems. It is a dilemma of the ‘educated’ and the culturally uprooted sections of our society that development is perceived more on an economic plane. It is these sections that genuinely consider the distressed community as incapable of confronting and solving their own problems”.

“The advent of consumerism had held out its stakes and the artisans failed to keep pace with the fancy needs of the new consumer. In earlier times the artisans had always responded excellently to the local needs of the people, as a strong cultural bond held the user and the producer in unison. But every nuance of modernity brought with it newer difficulties for the potters”.

Treading therefore very carefully, not to step on to the much-travelled path of the interventionist agencies, he took up work with the potters.  Honouring his own integrity, he ensured that the aesthetic quality of whatever they made was to be rooted in their own culture. He therefore limited his role to encourage the incorporation of novel utilitarian aspects into their creations. It was a slow process and the products that emerged were evolved at a natural pace  (Fig 3).

Fig 3 ‘Kathakali depicted in terracotta tiles

Designed by artisans and potters trained by social entreprenuer K.P. Jinan Posted by GP (The Blue Wonder blog:March 2011)

Jinan concludes ; “My journey into the world of the rural artisan communities was not with the intention of ‘developing’ them or educating them. I went to them to regain that which I had lost in the process of getting educated; to learn from them. Having escaped ‘education’ and ‘development’ they were still original and authentic and were holding on to the culture and world-view, which sustained them for centuries. I perceived the rural / tribal communities as being wise and evolved; and recognised that only by learning from them could we lead sustainable lives.

The basic ideas behind their training programmes were to help the individuals regain their wisdom and confidence which lies embedded within their own communities and culture, believing that creativity can and does solve many a problem related to self-esteem.  Jinans work has created a demand for the unique products developed at Aruvakode and products from this small ‘colony’ are being displayed in public places and privately in several cities in India”.

An ecological model of artisanship

In a recent debate at London’s Tate Gallery about when craft becomes an art, it was suggested that perhaps intention makes the distinction. If a maker intends to express something perhaps that makes it art.  However, makers often felt that it was the material they worked with that made it craft – textiles, ceramics, glass seem to fall into the craft category, never mind if their intention as maker might be an artistic one.  

On the other hand, ….”perhaps it’s how a maker learnt their skill. As an apprentice coming through a process of learning a skill, hand to hand, as it were? That’s craft. As a fully formed genius honing an expressive talent? That’s art.  Perhaps it’s use. Something wearable or useable – jewellery or furniture for example – seems to fit neatly under the craft label, while something that has no clear practical purpose might be called art. However, this doesn’t take into account the decorative crafts, nor the artists who produce practical items”.

Trying to answer such apparently simple questions misses the point that creativity arises in the maker’s environment.  Ceramics, for example, has a cultural ecology that presents an holistic, conceptual understanding of how people, craft and art connect in the environment through the creativity in families. The diversity of the artisan’s immediate landscape is an essential resource.  Instead of endlessly debating the question, what defines an artist or a craft maker, or even divides an artist from a craft maker, an environmental approach leads to a total understanding of artisanship as an expression of communities’ creative ways of organizing and triggering social interactions.  The broad aim of ‘making’ is to master local ecosystem services to improve livelihoods.

Increasing, global competition from mass production is leading many artisans to live in a precarious, fractured and marginalised condition.  Artisans are even more endangered in the developing world, where they often face subjection to large monopoly businesses, market corruption and unreliability, as well as lack of perception of international consumers’ trends. To face the complex challenges of the current and future world, the activities of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of production, described as service design, have to change.  They have to move towards strategies and systems that address social and environmental problems, particularly those associated with living sustainably.

Within this dynamic arena, there is a general upsurge of interest in artisanship. Artisanship is defined as the human-centred economic activity of giving form and meaning to local natural resources.  Hand work or the control of mechanised and digital tools, are applied to the process of making small, unique and flexible batches of culturally and socially significant goods. The new aim of service design is to improve quality of the products and the interaction between the service provider and its customers.  This is considered as a necessary resilient response to the increasing demand for flexible, customised and redistributed manufacturing that reconnects communities to their local material culture and reaches out to global markets. These ideas may be summarised in a concept map of ceramic ecology Fig 4).

Fig 4 Concept map of ceramic ecology

The map may be generalised for other expressions of artisanship.  For example, the textile sector has its own artisan ecology. It encompasses a high level of employment of skilled workers, has a wide range of applications and ever-increasing consumption trends.  These all cause urgent environmental and social challenges. Also, it is one of the most complicated productive artisan ecologies, involving many different actors (i.e. farmers, manufacturers of fibres, yarns, fabrics and apparel/carpet retailers), service sectors and waste management issues.

Several service design approaches could be adopted by textile artisanship to produce textiles which are environmentally responsible, socially just and economically fair, as well as culturally meaningful and enriching at a personal level. The weaver’s imagination could be summoned to encourage sustainable development, building resilient interconnections between environmental, technological and economic resources, social and cultural values. This could be achieved through the shared efforts of policy makers, NGOs, artisans’ communities and individuals, as summarised in Table 1.

Jaipur artisan weavers

Jaipur Rugs Foundation (JRF) is a non-profit organization that catalyzes sustainable livelihoods for people engaged in an entire carpet making chain by empowering them to establish collective enterprises through enhancing their artisanal and business skills. The overall work mandate of JRF is to reach out to remote rural areas of India and establish bonds with destitute communities, especially the women, enabling them to start weaving not just rugs but also their own lives.  NK Chaudhary established JRF to promote economic prosperity among marginal communities. Starting with two looms and an extraordinary vision, he has been able to connect people around the world with craftsmanship of Indian village weavers.

Most of the artisans are women and the JRF enables them to gain economic independence working at home. The goal is to bring positive sustainable change in the lives of artisanal communities ‘providing a life of happiness and dignity’.  To achieve this, the JRF concentrates on providing work for unemployed and unskilled women living in rural villages and seeks to give training in the craft of rug-weaving. Once a woman becomes a working artisan, she also gets an opportunity to integrate with the Jaipur Rugs inclusive development business model.  The subsequent phase is to deliver technical training and augment their skills and knowledge and release their artistic creativity (Fig 5). For the first time ever, weavers get to be the designers of their own rugs. Each rug is a masterpiece for the design inspiration it weaves. It is imbued with the individuality of the artisan who made it and evidence of the release of her unique artistry.

Fig 5 Developing creativity

To release this creativity every weaver is part of a grassroots network that requires specialised logistical support.  Raw material is dropped off at an artisan’s home where they work on the product. To ensure customers receive high quality products, quality supervisors inspect looms to help ensure a consistent output while tracking progress. These supervisors also ensure the artisans are serviced so they are not interrupted by the shortage of yarn or any other such factor limiting their earning capacity. When completed, the rug is picked up at the weavers doorstep and sent on to the next stage of the rug making progress. These visits also ensure that weavers are paid every month at their looms. At present, these networks stretch across 600 villages in five Indian states connecting 40,000 artisans.

Jaipur’s weavers thus have the ability to work creatively from their rural home in a more comfortable working environment than most entrepreneurs and corporate employees across the world!  However, one of the biggest challenges faced by artisans is the lack of awareness and knowledge regarding opportunities intended for them under various social welfare schemes. JRF has been playing an instrumental role in facilitating access to artisan cards. These are issued to the artisans by Development Commissioner, Handicrafts (Government of India) with support from District Industries Centers (DICs).  The cards recognise the recipient is a skilled worker and eables them to receive various benefits provided by the government. JRF also seeks to equip artisans with basic knowledge and skills that help them save money to shape a brighter future for their families. The focus is on improving well-being of artisans and their communities by providing access to various socio-economic educational and medical benefits. This entails assistance in formalities like filling forms, providing supporting documents and linking them with banks. In addition, a system of payment, ‘M-Pesa’ by Vodafone, has been promoted for weavers to facilitate their financial transactions.  M-Pesa means “m-money” in Swahili and is the global brand for Vodafone’s Mobile Money service. The service is now present in 10 countries. Mobile money is a digital representation of cash which Vodafone stores safely in a ring-fenced bank account (a “trust” account). The mobile money account of each customer is linked to their mobile phone account. M-Pesa is specifically designed to benefit customers who have no access to banks.

To summarise, the Jaipur Rugs project is a very successful process of engaging village artisans with the vision of a commercial organization with a charitable arm that promotes empowerment through instilling an entrepreneurial mindset. The purpose is to enable artisan weavers acquire higher responsibilities and take control of their lives with an owners’ mindset. The is realised in the last facet of entrepreneurship development that creates leaders at the grassroots who create more leaders as they spearhead the mission of enabling sustainable livelihoods to all those in need.  

Jaipor rugs are marketed globally with the motto ‘purchase with purpose’. In effect JRF is helping to shift urban wealth from the rich to the rural poor!

Internet references