In the late 1980s, a small group of educators in the United States set out to develop courses, curricula, and resources with implications for ‘a living in the universe story’. Their efforts cast seeds, which cast further seeds, bonding with multiples of other efforts across the world. Around this time I became involved with a UK initiative, kick-started by the Duke of Edinburgh, to create a new subject for the Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. At an informal dinner party at Buckingham Palace I suggested that the mood was to create a culture, where ‘ecosacy’, the language of environment, was taught together with literacy and numeracy; all three being required for a balanced view of society. My definition of ecosacy was an ability to conceptualise the wholeness of self and environment as a set of beliefs to live by and a practical context that gives meaning and continuity to life. To be ecosate means having the knowledge and mind set to act, speak and think according to deeply held beliefs and belief systems about people in nature as one community of beings. This means, as Scrooge’s nephew in A Christmas Carol points out, we should treat all people as ‘fellow-passengers to the grave and not another race of creatures on other journeys’
There was general agreement but no one could see a practical way forward unless there was a root and branch reform of the education system. When the British national curriculum emerged it was just a re-jigged version of the Victorian prescription that had been designed to expand an Empire. Its contemporary aim was to maintain national economic growth between 2-3% year-on-year, for ever. There was no mandatory architecture for the pillars of sustainable development and its associated cross-curricular topic work, which start with issues of living in an overcrowded world and centre on conservation management of nature’s assets.
I left Prince Phillip’s soiree with Angus Ogilvie, and we spent the rest of the evening in the Athenaeum where I was staying overnight. Here we were joined by a group of senior civil servants in the Overseas Development Administration, and this chance meeting was to lead to several visits as an educational advisor to Nepal where the ODA was funding a public school, under the patronage of the Nepalese Royal Family. The objective was to produce an educational model of Nepal as an exemplar for the new middle school subject that I was developing with teachers in Cambridge. The subject was to be called ‘natural economy’. Economic development was to be balanced against conservation management of landscape, wildlife and natural resources. In other words, natural economy deals with the organization of natural resources for production. It is complementary to political economy, which deals with the organization of people for production.
In Nepal, I first made contact with Buddhism as a religion working with the grain of nature. Some seeds were set, and partially developed through discussions with a postgraduate Nepalese student in my department, which set me thinking about spiritual values of natural resources, an area now described as ‘deep ecology’. By the turn of the millennium this became a small, fragmented, but committed movement on a global scale. One focus for widespread discussion was the Earth Literacy Web, where the organisers’ questions at the Millennium indicated a strong educational sentiment at that time.
“What is Earth asking of us at this moment? What if we saw ourselves as a movement giving voice to an emerging Ecozoic era? What if we viewed Earth as a connection of webs (European, Asian, Australian, African, South American, and North American), an integral Earth Literacy "campus" with each of us and countless others invited to become a vast community / faculty of learning? What if we begin to envision and design regional gatherings over the next 5-10 years, working together to host conferences and provide immersion experiences for people interested in learning about the Universe Story in settings closer to their home regions? What if we believed that we could become part of a communion with what can only be described as a sacred purpose to create a vibrant, regenerative Earth community?”
The idea of an earth literacy web is just one of many convergences of the diverse creativity of many individuals, organizations, and institutions. They mark a beginning to organise the task of educating people to accept, protect, and foster the remnants of our living Earth within this large cultural, cosmological context.
The idea of citizen’s environmental networks for local education and action had in fact emerged in the nineties with the lead up to the Environment Summit in Rio di Janeiro, which took place in 1992. Two years later, on International Earth Day, I gathered a group of teachers and students on a mountain top above the Neath Valley in South Wales overlooking the biggest open cast coal mine in Britain. The site, Maes Gwynn, was being landscaped by the National Coal Board. It was to be re-soiled and vegetated, then fertilised with tanker loads of processed human sewage to create a country park. We were there to reflect on where we are, what we are doing, and what we need to do in the future as we live into a revolutionary new Earth/human relationship. It soon became clear that everyone had memories of vast, unbounded skies, seas, jungles and wild animals; of mountains, deserts, infinite starry nights, underwater universes, flocks of migratory birds, exotic animals and the bounty of numberless small farms. But they had been obtained from television documentaries. In front of the next generation, the teachers faced the shock that it was members of their great grandparent’s generation who were the last to have seen, heard, tasted, and touched the smaller, yet equally powerful wonders of nature in their Welsh countryside. From this gathering eventually came the School and Community Agenda 21 Network (SCAN), a bilingual web resource for Welsh schools to help the communities they serve with plans for sustainable development. However, this is an optional add on and not a radical syllabus change.
A common response of teachers who have made contact with the Cambridge natural economy syllabus is, ‘I wish I had been taught this at school’. However, since that would mean replacing at least two traditional subjects, biology and geography, natural economy has only been taken up in schools operating the more flexible International Baccalaureate, or where, as in Namibia, there was a total re-evaluation of the old subjects. Most schools are unable to ideate culture and ecology and bring them to the centre of the curriculum
Prince Philip’s response to natural economy was a wish to see it extended to integrate with an ecological/conservation management dimension. This challenge was taken up by the ‘Going Green Directorate’, an informal grouping of teachers across the UK, and with the help of sponsorships from industry and the EC cultural ecology has been assembled as a web-based annotated mindmap (see my blogroll). The hope of the GGD is that this provisional interactive learning framework will help people build their own personal body of knowledge to take a political/practical stance on society’s ever-increasing ability to disrupt environmental systems on a large scale.