Repairing Ecologies

Who knew that the first-ever Earth Day in 1970 was originally planned as a college teach-in in the US? This is just one of the things I learned while writing the most recent chapter of my book, on critical-creative ways of teaching students about ecological challenges. This not really being my area of research, I learned a lot in the process of writing it, about eco-centrism, systems theory, Buen Vivir, deep ecology … Here is an attempt to summarize some of the chapter’s main points, illustrated by some photos from my recent holidays in Devon where I appreciated the marvels of nature as never before.

As in each chapter, I start with a critical take on mainstream discourses and interventions, in this case on sustainable development, with its famous but wanting Brundtland report definition of ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ Whose needs? Defined by whom? Whose development? Being neither sustainable nor developmental, sustainable development prioritizes economic growth over environmental sustainability. The green economy, ecological economics, natural resources, environmental management, carbon trading, biodiversity derivatives – to varying degrees they all show the instrumentalization of nature in the service of economic development and human needs. The alternative to this pervasive anthropocentrism is ecocentrism, as concept influenced by Aldo Leopold and his land ethic (‘a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community’), Arne Naessdeep ecology (‘the more diversity the better’) and Fritjof Capra‘s systems view of life. Eco-centrism recognizes the integrity of the whole of the environment and that nature and other-than-human species have intrinsic values, independent from their utility for human needs.

I don’t know how I feel about these tree tags. Are trees not of value in their own right?

Applied to education, sustainable development becomes Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), a global program spearheaded by the UN, which declared an ESD Decade from 2005 to 2014. ESD has resulted in declarations, summits, policy initiatives and a large field of scholarship, and many universities, Sussex included, have developed ESD-focused teaching and research programs, adjusted campus operations and developed relevant community programs. However, ESD replicates the market-driven nature of sustainable development and the larger neoliberal HE regime, while also marginalizing non-scientific knowledges from the Global South, neglecting local specificities and undermining non-Western ways of relating to other-than-human species. So, what are some alternatives?

The field of ecopedagogy extends critical pedagogy to environmental concerns and focuses on developing students’ critical eco-literacy that takes into account how unsustainable practices have been shaped by colonialism, capitalism and other structures of power. Creative approaches include incorporating the arts, emotions and place-based teaching. Decolonial pedagogies focus on ‘radical well-being notions’ such as the South African notion of Ubuntu, the Indian idea of Swaraj and the South American concept of Buen Vivir. Based on my Bolivia research for parts of the book, I trace the complex and contested ways in which Buen Vivir has transformed from an Andean indigenous cosmology centering on the inseparability of all elements of life and living in harmony with nature, humans and the spiritual world, to becoming part of global environmental and development discourses.

A small group of Devon oaks, of which they are not many left

I also write about the need for students to develop a basic understanding of complexity and systems thinking, a field I learned about from reading Donella Meadows‘ excellent primer, among others. To be able to learn with uncertainty rather than being paralyzed by it (as we all are being forced to do by COVID), to understand the unpredictability and non-linearity of change, to appreciate the long-term cycles of ecosystem sustainability and to learn about the power of leverage points, where small changes can lead to system-level shifts are all important insights students can gain from systems thinking. What surprised me most are the similarities between some of the core ideas of Buen Vivir and systems thinking, especially about the fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence of all aspects of life and the notion that all living beings are expressions of earth’s creative forces. Ideas relating to emergence (think snowflakes), self-organization (think flocks of birds) and non-linearity (think tipping points) can be found among both indigenous relational cosmologies and systems and complexity sciences.

A critical-creative pedagogy can help students better understand foundational ecological ideas, critically examine the limitations of anthropocentric sustainable development discourses and think about the importance of relating to the environment in more eco-centric ways. It also enables students to creatively explore and experience these insights, for example through designing and playing serious games and through mapping campus infrastructures during walking seminars, two teaching activities I describe in detail in the chapter and will blog about soon.

image of a forest sculpture
A mythical guardian in the Devon forest. How can environmental art be used creatively in teaching?