Posts Tagged ‘agenda 21’

Escaping from Silo Thinking

Monday, September 6th, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fig 1 Ideas about cultural ecology

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

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

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

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

Denis Bellamy

August, 2021

Appendix 1  

Homo sapiens as the the deadly pyrophile

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

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

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

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

Appendix 2

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

Objectives (discussion threads)

1 Become A Citizen Managing Change

2 Redefine Economic Growth

3 Learn To Be Inclusive

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

5 Create New Knowledge Frameworks

6 Learn About Empathy

7 Promote Education For Change

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

9 Oats, Peas, Beans And Barley Grow

10 Awaken the Ecologist Within


International Classrooms On Line

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

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