Members of any society must know a great many things in common…. Whether they know them can make a fatal difference. The future of the world may depend on how many do. — Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education (1)
The evidence that our dysfunctional relationship with the earth is surpassing tolerable limits is increasingly becoming manifest through such things as climate change, pollution, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, desertification, water scarcity, and so on — the list is as inexhaustible as it is alarming. What is perhaps even more unnerving is the eeriness with which humanity is going about business as usual, the lack of honest dialogue about our ecological crises, and the utter disregard for the future health and welfare of the planet and her inhabitants. Our current educational system is doing little to prepare us for the world of tomorrow, and in fact, is greatly responsible for creating and compounding this sorry state of affairs. That said, it is my belief that it is only through education that humanity can make her last stand. My argument is two-fold: firstly, that our current educational model is playing a critical role in damaging the biosphere, and secondly, given the ecological Armageddon that we are faced with, it has become imperative to integrate environmental education into our educational institutes.
Our educational system exists within the larger framework of our society which, unlike any other societies before it, has managed to sever nearly all meaningful connections with nature, which has always been our primary teacher. The discovery of fossil fuel, industrialization, and technological advancements allowed us to radically reorganize the way we live our lives. Consequently, people have lost the personal connection with the land, they no longer grow the food they eat, harvest the water they drink, weave the clothes they wear.
For the first time in human history there are more people who live in cities than who do not. (2) When we left our rural homes and farms, we left, along with it, the vital understanding of earth stewardship.
In simpler tribal societies education was codified through myths and rituals, and was inherited by every tribe’s person as part of their initiation into adulthood. In agrarian societies, formal education was mostly the privilege of an elite class, whereas craft and custom sufficed the general populace. Albeit historically there have been periods and places where knowledge and education have flourished, mass education is a modern and particularly novel experiment brought about largely by the industrial revolution and its need for an ‘educated’ working class to run the machines of industry. (3) What this educational model — driven by the interests of industry — most successfully produces is obedient workers and mindless consumers. This education has little to do with the intellectual tradition of man, but more to do with indoctrination into the market economy. Instead of freeing us from the shackles of our minds, it destroys our minds, with the result that today we are at the brink of potential self-extermination, and despite being the most ‘educated’ people in history, we are actively participating in a way of life that is more suicidal than anything ever undertaken in the human project.
Education today is an industry in itself, and its primary business is producing the illusion of infinite growth in a finite world, and in doing so, it perpetuates a violent cycle of abuse of the earth and her inhabitants. Our education system can perhaps best be described as a mode of entrapment: like an unwary victim entangled in a spider’s web, helpless and unable to escape, we are caught up in a worldview that leaves us with few alternatives. Go to school, “get a good job with more pay, and you’re OK” as the classic Pink Floyd song goes.
Whether one comes out of school as a doctor, lawyer, engineer, artist, or athlete, everyone comes out, like sausages in a meat grinding factory, homogenous in their outlook of life, appearance, and lifestyle; this is typified in the American suburban culture of cars, lawns, high definition TV screens, and supermarkets. The ones who refuse to conform to the mainstream to be molded into perfect sausages, are devalued and discarded.
Underpinning the educational system is the ideology that nature is a thing to be dominated. The mother that was once revered as such is now seen as a teat to be milked dry. Economy of scale has no thought for ecology; cost efficiency has no accounting of environmental or human consequences; high yield monoculture has no room for biodiversity; architecture has no relation to landscape, or biology with home gardens, or physics with energy efficiency; nothing has anything to do with the other, except that they all must be applied to the project of progress and development, and measured in stock values and GDPs. Quality of life, health of the planet, and happiness, are ‘ externalities’ that are considered, if at all, only as a second thought. The fragmentary nature of our education does not provide a holistic world view, it does not teach us to connect the dots and see the unity of things, make meaningful relations between one subject and another, to recognize the whole. Instead, it promotes a myopic world view that looks at balance sheets and ledgers, bottom lines and turnovers, short term profits and quick bucks.
The ultimate problem is not with education itself but with the type of education. The perpetrators of the holocaust were considered to be some of the most highly educated people of their times. When education is divorced from ethics or morals it inadvertently produces monsters. Today there is a different kind of holocaust taking place, and this one will not discriminate between race or religion; the victim this time is life itself.
The greatest perpetrators of today’s holocaust are, likewise, educated people “with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs. ” (4)
To correct the problems with education would require a radical paradigm shift. Society itself would have to change. Values would have to be reconsidered. Most importantly, there has to be an honest dialogue about our condition. We must begin by taking an honest look at what is happening in the world, and the role we are playing as individuals, institutions, and societies. Once we realign our priorities to “fit a finite planet [rather] than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants”, (5) we can begin the work of repairing the damage. Education can — and has to, if we are to have any hope — play a critical role in creating a better world. We have all the information, technology, skill and knowhow, to do the work that is necessary; what we do not have are people who are informed enough to make decisions for themselves — decisions that will shape the course of our lives, and human history. The restructuring that needs to happen is great, and it encompasses not only our infrastructures, but our thoughts, and while none of this can be achieved overnight, there are steps that can be taken towards a positive direction. The immediacy of our problem, given the speed at which our civilization is heading towards collapse, dictates that we begin to make those changes now.
What a truly sustainable educational model might look like is a question that needs critical thought, and is beyond the purview of this paper. There will be no simple answers, or ‘one size fits all’ type readymade solutions. People will have to respond creatively within their contexts and abilities. David W. Orr, in his book, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, suggests that “no student should graduate from any educational institute without a basic comprehension of things like the following: the laws of thermodynamics, the basic principles of ecology, carrying capacity, energetics, least-cost, end-use analysis, limits of technology, appropriate scale, sustainable agriculture and forestry, steady-state economics, and environmental ethics.” (6) Any curriculum that builds into it a framework for understanding human existence within an ecological context will prove more successful than one that does not. The science of Permaculture, which originated in Australia in the 70’s and has thus far developed largely outside the mainstream academic framework, shows great promise. The renowned Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, describes Permaculture as “the most important activity that any group is doing on the planet.” (7) Permaculture takes a whole systems design approach to creating sustainable human settlements, and is based on an ethical directive of providing for the needs of people while caring for the earth and all its life forms. It employs the concept of bio-mimicry, which seeks to emulate nature’s models in human design. Since its inception in the early 70s, Permaculture has spread around the globe, and has helped to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Applying permaculture principles, its practitioners have successfully repaired degraded ecosystems, rejuvenated landscapes, and even greened deserts. (8) (9) Permaculture provides tangible, small-scale, local solutions to intangible, mass-scale, global problems.According to Bill Mollison, the co-founder of the concept, “Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” (10)
Concepts such as outdoor education are also playing an important role to remedy ‘nature deficit disorder’, and has shown to improve academic performance greatly. (11) Homeschooling, when done appropriately by capable and conscientious parents, is far more effective in creating wholesome individuals, than public schooling. In a more sustainable future, early schooling will have to be replaced by a more community-based localized learning that will involve the whole child, and engage him not only in abstract mental tasks, but physical work on the farm and homestead, which will help to develop responsible and competent adults.
Within our universities, it is perhaps in the Liberal Arts colleges, such that exist, where environmental education will find its best home. Mark Van Doren, in Liberal Education, argues for a common curriculum to be taught to all men; the Liberal Arts, he says, is education. The purpose of the Liberal Arts, according to him, is to free the mind from its own shackles. The right education should produce mature individuals who are capable of sound reasoning and independent thought, grounded in tradition and guided by perennial principles. “The prime occupation of liberal education is with the skills of being.” (12) While we all live, we could all live better. The purpose of education is simply then to make us better at “being.” Its “subject matter” is “life” itself. (13) The liberal arts, given the breadth of its vision, I believe, is obligated to rise to the occasion, and expand its horizon to meet the demand of the times. It must train individuals not only in the art of thinking, but also in the art of living; it must teach us things that perhaps did not merit mention in the past, as they were considered so elementary to man’s existence, and perhaps even the prerequisite to his formal education.
The renowned American conservationist, Rachel Carson, in her widely acclaimed book, Silent Spring, written in 1962, left for us a dire warning against man’s encroachment on the environment:
We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one “less traveled by” — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. (14)
We find ourselves at a crossroad — a unique juncture in human history that leaves us with two choices: we could carry on as usual, and in doing so, we not only risk losing our planet, but we risk losing our very souls; or, we could decide to act — even if it is too late to save the earth, we might yet save ourselves. The silent spring that Rachel spoke of, over half a century ago, is upon us. Our educational systems have failed to secure for us a healthy and sound planet, and instead have brought us to the precipice of collapse. If we are to get out of this quagmire we must re-educate ourselves; we must begin by recognizing nature as our greatest teacher.
If we lose the forests, we lose our only instructors. People must see forests as the greatest educational system that we have on the planet. If we lose all the the universities, we lose nothing. But if we lose all the forests, we lose everything. — Bill Mollison, founder of Permaculture. (15)
- Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 1943), 6
- “Urbanization: A Majority in Cities” United Nations Population Fund, May 2007
- Noam Chomsky, Peter Rounds Mitchell, and John Schoeffel, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: The New Press, 2002), 88
- David W. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994), 7
- Orr, 9
- Orr, 14
- “Returning to Nature” Permaculture Internationale, accessed December 18, 2013
- Craig Mackintosh, “Greening the Desert” The Permaculture Research Institute, December 11, 2009
- Maurice Picow, “Wadi Rum Bedouins Defy Nature by Growing Organic Veggies” Green Prophet: Sustainable News for the Middle East, December 12, 2013
- “Studying Permaculture Design at Naropa” Naropa University, accessed on December 18, 2013
- Iris Duhn, “Making ‘place’ for ecological sustainability in early childhood education,” Environmental Education Research, 18, no.1 (2012): DOI : 10.1080/13504622.2011.572162.
- Mark Van Doren, Liberal Education (Boston: Beacon Press, 1943), 67
- Doren, 79
- Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962), 277
- “Permaculture; A Designer’s Manual” October 15, 2002
- Chomsky, Noam, Mitchell, Peter, and John Schoeffel. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. New York: The New Press, 2002.
- Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962.
- Doren, Mark Van. Liberal Education. Boston: Beacon Press, 1943.
- Duhn, Iris. “Making ‘place’ for ecological sustainability in early childhood education.” Environmental Education Research 18, no. 1 (2012) : DOI: 10.1080/13504622.2011.572162.
- Mackintosh, Craig. “Greening the Desert.” The Permaculture Research Institute. March 1, 2007.
- Orr, David W. Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Project. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1994.
- “Permaculture: A Designer ‘ s Manual.” Amazon. October 15, 2002.
- Picow, Maurice. “Wadi Rum Bedouins Defy Nature by Growing Organic Veggies.” Green Prophet: Sustainable News for the Middle East. December 12, 2013.
- “Returning to Nature.” Permaculture Internationale. Accessed December 18, 2013.
- “Studying Permaculture Design at Naropa.” Naropa University. Accessed on December 18, 2013.
- “Urbanization: A Majority in Cities.” United Nations Population Fund. May 2007.