Monday, 24 November 2008

Ecoliteracy: EE, ESD, EfS, Earth Education - Ivan Fukuoka

The root cause of global environmental problems can be traced to a large extent to the currently dominant neoliberal industrial-capitalistic ideology, its derivative the neoclassical economic system and its cult of managerialism. Central to this belief is the [obsolete] assumption of unlimited economic growth driven by consumerism and consumption is possible. However, we must remember that centrally planned socialist or communist and "semi-socialist" state economic systems like China and Russia are also equally responsible for the destruction of their respective local/regional environments too.

The trouble with maintaining growth-economy that relies endlessly on converting natural resources faster than its regeneration is that it is not possible on two counts – first, the planet has limited reserves of natural resources and second, the Earth's growing population demands have surpassed the regenerative capacity of the planet (Wackernagel (2002) in Brown, 2006, p.6). This unsustainable practice is further exacerbated by modern industrial society education system as schools and universities  continue to teach neoclassical [i.e.growth-economy] rather than steady-state or ecological economics to students.

The clarion [economic] call here is to live within the means of our ecological regenerative interests [i.e. sustainable] and not on the principal reserves of ecological capital [i.e.unsustainable]. In financial term this situation is call a debt which is clearly not a sustainable way to live on a finite planet.

Further examination revealed that the underlying causes of unsustainable activities are usually unaddressed or ignored social problems (i.e. inequality, poverty, injustice etc). It is a systemic [human] problem of values and vision, of motive and meaning as well as of ethics and ideologies – these are the real root of environmental problems. Ecological Footprint proponent Professor William Rees put it this way, ‘…the “environmental crisis” is less an environmental and technical problem than it is a behavioral and social one’ (Rees, 1996, p.xi). To which he concluded that ‘it can be resolved only with the help of behavioral and social solutions’ (ibid.).

As the ‘environmental crisis’ alarm continues ringing the public (led by academics, scientists, radical educators and activists) are awaken and became conscious of the underlying cause of our environmental problems. A quick look at today’s news and magazines will display the planet-wide ecological destruction as scientific reports and studies from almost every parts of the world confirmed that the ‘environmental crisis’ is not only continuing but progressively worsening (Sachs,1996, p.243). Some with unprecedented direct/indirect local, national/regional and global consequences for human like climate change, food/water shortages, dwindling oil reserves etc. The planet-wide reality is this, unlimited conversion of natural resources or ecological capital (i.e. forests, oceans, fauna and flora including indigenous civilisations) into commodities for trades and consumption will have adverse ecological effects on the whole planet ecosystems. And this may interfere seriously with the provision of free ecological services such as fresh air, water availability, agreeable climate etc.

Environmental education (EE) particularly Education for Sustainability (EfS) and its many variants (i.e. Education for Sustainable Living, Education for Sustainable Future etc.) are instrumental in transmitting the concepts, values and principles of planetary ecological sustainability into public consciousness. When the transmission is successful and understood and formed strong ecological worldview then the next step would be the implementation or practice of this worldview so that the goal of achieving ecologically sustainable society is possible. However, we must understand that education cannot achieve this goal alone - it must work in cooperation and in synergy with other transformative agents of [social and cultural]change who shared similar goal in all walks of life.

The context: Sustainable Development is Qualitative Improvement
Before we proceed, I would like to mention about the two types of ‘sustainable development’ approach. The first approach is the ‘flexible’ sustainable development approach of the ‘Brundtland Report’ (WCED, 1987) which was endorsed during the Rio Earth Summit (UNCED, 1992) and later co-opted by pro-growth neoliberal forces in the second Earth Summit (WSSD, 2002), Johannesburg, South Africa. This approach has been subject to much controversy and criticism by ecocentric leaning groups and supporters. They argued about its proximity with pro-growth/status-quo proponents which are part of the problem.

And the second type is the ‘genuine’ sustainable development approach which calls for the reduction of [economic] growth to achieve a ‘steady-state-economy’ through ecologically sustainable development pathway. This school of thought is supported by scholars and thinkers from the Club of Rome with their report Limits to Growth (Meadows et al.) and by those inspired by the ideals of E.F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful. Thus sustainable development becomes the arena for two contesting worldviews of sustainability – the pro-growth technocentrism and the pro-development ecocentrism. These two perspectives are identified by Turner (1988) as ‘...the sustainable growth and the sustainable development modes of thinking’ (Turner in J.Fien and T.Trainer, 1993, p.30).

Consumerism popularised through various media and powered by global transnational corporations created an almost homogenised model of economic aspiration. This condition is particularly true for many third world countries with access to ‘western’ culture and is well represented by the ‘American Dream’. As observed by Carley and Spapen: “The consumption patterns represented by the American dream, encouraged by global marketing, television and advertising, condition social and economic aspiration of people and households around the world” (Carley and Spapens, 1998, p.29). Hence, prolonging the cycle of consumption and consequently further depleting the world’s finite resources.

UNSW's academic Dr Ted Trainer remind us that ‘...the core problems in our economy derive from the fact that it is a free enterprise or free market system. Participants are free to produce, purchase and work as they as individuals wish. This sounds ideal, but unless an economy is under considerable social control it will mostly serve the rich and powerful and deprive the poor.’(Trainer, Website, 1995).

The founder of ecological economy Professor Herman Daly explains that ‘...the term sustainable development is used as a synonym for the oxymoronic sustainable growth’ he further added that ‘[i]t must be saved from this perdition’ of misunderstanding (Daly, 1996, p.193 in J. Mander and E. Goldsmith). He did so by making a clear distinction between the meaning of growth and the meaning of development – growth in his view is quantitative physical expansion whereas ‘development’ is qualitative improvements. He then defines sustainable development as ‘...a process of qualitative improvement without quantitative increase beyond environmental [regenerative and absorptive] capacity’ in other words ‘development without growth’ (Daly, 1996, p.18-9). And considering that we all live within a finite and non-growing planet, I think it made complete sense for sustainable development to be identified as qualitative improvement and not with quantitative [economic] expansion of sustainable growth. To me this ecologically based sustainable development is the true mark of genuine sustainable development.

Table 1 – This graph shows that human has exceeded consuming one planet around mid 1980s.

Sometime in mid 1980s the world has past consuming one planet!
Disposable Planet, BBC website retrieved on 01 Sept 2008 from
  • It would take 1.2 Earths to regenerate resources at the rate we are using them.
  • Humans started to exceed nature's ability to regenerate from the mid-1980s onwards. 
  • In 1961 humans were using 70% of the capacity of the global biosphere. By 1999, that had risen to 120%.(Source: PNAS, adapted from “Disposable Planet”, website)
So it is now clear that the concept of ‘sustainable development’ as growth is misleading and is undeniably ‘part of the problem’ whereas the notion of ‘sustainable development’ as qualitative improvement is ‘part of the solution’ for social-environmental problems. The challenge ahead for those who have seen and understood the root of the problem is to assist the transformation process from the old social-economic regime of growth towards a more holistic and ecologically sustainable paradigm. In this context [environmental] education plays the critical role of guiding and ensuring smooth transition towards the ecologically sustainable global society – by steering the currently reductionist-mechanistic-Cartesian ‘traditional’ education system towards a more inclusive ecologically based environmental education (i.e. Education for Sustainability, Education for Sustainable Living, and Educating for Sustainability) in which principles, languages and stories of ecological sustainability are prominently featured, studied and practiced (Capra and Pauli, 1995, pp.2-3).

Education for SD (ESD) – More conventional approach to EE
ESD evolved from many past conferences that involve educators. This can be traced back to the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972) in Stockholm, Sweden which endorsed environmental education to address increasing environmental problems (i.e. pollutions) as the result of industrialisation. ESD is a vision of education that seeks to balance human and economic well-being with cultural traditions and respect for the earth’s natural resources through transdisciplinary educational approaches to achieve a sustainable future (CEE India,(n.a)).

The concept of sustainability contained in the ‘Brundtland Report’ (WCED, 1987) was originally developed from early 1980s by Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute – ‘[he] defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations’ (Brown (1981) in Fritjof Capra, 2002, p.200). However as noted by Capra, ‘...this definition does not tell us anything about how to build a sustainable society’ (ibid.) within the Earth’s ecological limits.

Thereafter the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED, 1987) and its publication ‘Our Common Future’ defined the concept of 'SD' as ‘...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Previously, environment and development tended to be thought of as two separate areas – the need for [economic] development on the one hand and the need to protect the environment on the other. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the main focus of SD appeared to be the environmental side. While the social aspects like poverty [social-injustice] though seen as important it was not on priority in the main documents from the Earth Summit (i.e. Rio Declaration and Agenda 21). Instead the emphasis is more on protecting the natural environment through a global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem.

A decade later a more integrated model of SD approach was endorsed at the World Summit on SD (WSSD, 2002) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its declaration states that sustainable development is built on three interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of—economic development, social development and environmental protection—which must be established at local, national, regional and global levels (WSSD, 2002). WSSD model had a strong emphasis on the socio-economic aspects such as poverty, inequity, poor quality of life and associated human suffering while still highlighting how current actions are leading to environmental degradation. And its inter-sectoral approach appeared to be geared for better quality of life for everyone now and for the generations to come – which means it seeks to secure long-term [strong] sustainability.

However, there are unfinished ‘homework’ from the ‘Brundtland Report’ on issues concerning unclear definition of SD and questions like – ‘whose development needs?’ and ‘whose future generations?’ – raised by the South remains unanswered. Furthermore, the underlying issues of inequality due to unrestrained growth-economy, unregulated financial markets and its repercussions are avoided from being discussed in Johannesburg. With this burden of unresolved issues and criticisms in the background it will be difficult to expect any real paradigm shift or transformation to emerge from ESD programmes sponsored or endorsed by the United Nations. In addition, the culture/characteristic of ‘democracy’ in the UN assembly itself is an impediment as it is [mainly] dictated by dominant member nation/s (i.e. the US, Russia, China) thus preventing it from exercising decisive power. In short, the UN (and its agencies) is not an effective agent to implement radical socio-ecological change.

Education for Sustainability (EfS) [More radical approach to EE]
Education for sustainability was the result of many international agreements (WCED 1987, Rio Earth Summit 1992, Johannesburg WSSD 2002) and the global call to actively pursue sustainable development. The interesting difference is that it facilitates new orientation for current practice in environmental education and environmentalism.

Some of the new and distinctive components in EfS are its systemic and critical thinking approach towards achieving a sustainable society. This is done by encouraging learners [and educators] to think beyond treating symptoms like raising awareness or involve in a one-off environmentally friendly activities. But to ‘think-through’ employing critical and systemic thinking to identify the root cause of the issues then work actively towards positive outcomes (Tilbury, D. and Cooke, K. (2005) in Aries).

It also regards people not as the problem instead it views them as agent of change in whatever level of their involvement in life. And more radically it challenges the concept of integration by arguing that integration maintained the status-quo and does not challenge unsustainable practice because it is transformation and innovation that lie at the heart of sustainability.

This new orientation attempts to move beyond education in and about the environment approaches to focus on equipping learners with the necessary skills to be able to take positive action to address a range of sustainability issues. Education for sustainability [supposedly]motivates, equips and involves individuals, and social groups in reflecting on how we currently live and work, in making informed decisions and creating ways to work towards a more sustainable world. Supported by the principles of critical theory, EfS aims to go beyond individual behaviour change and seeks to engage and empower people to implement systemic changes (Tilbury, 2004 in Aries).

After reviewing the main theme in EfS, which is critical and systemic thinking approach. I think the approach will have to overcome the challenge in its implementation because historically speaking radical ideas flourish when there is a person, a character which has been exemplified by many educators (i.e. Montessori, Friere or the Buddha). So shifting from symptom-based treatment to a more thoughtful process of critical and systemic thinking requires fairly developed [western-education] and limited participants.

Education for Sustainable Living/Futures: Developing Ecological Literacy
Education for Sustainable Living/futures (EfSL) originates from the awareness that current [traditional] education system is not geared for living sustainably therefore inconsiderate of future generation needs and requirements. To live sustainably according to Fritjof Capra we do not have to reinvent the wheel. He said we can learn from older sustainable societies or mimic or copy nature, he further added ‘…[that] the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that its technologies and social institutions honor, support, and cooperate with nature's inherent ability to sustain life’ (Capra, n.d.)

There are many important similarities between EfS and EfSL. Among them are the shift from structure to process; from parts to the whole (holistic-view); from objective to contextual knowledge and the prominent one being its systemic view and approach towards education. EfSL also shares at least one significant similarity with ESD, which is its focus on quality instead of quantity.

EfSL such as embodied in ecological–literacy concern itself with principles and values that foster respect for Nature’s biogeochemical cycles and processes this must be facilitated and promoted at all level of EfS. Because when a person, a community or business is ecologically illiterate then it reduces the possibility to achieve sustainable futures. Borrowing from David Orr rather funny but serious comments is that: ‘...ecological illiterates...will have roughly the same success as one trying to balance a checkbook without knowing arithmetic’ (Orr, 1992, p.86).

When ecoliteracy becomes the norms and widely understood by the majority of the planet citizens then the goal of building an ecologically sustainable society is closer to realisation. Education for sustainable living when implemented properly will insure that everyone will have a sustainable future living on this planet. 

“[T]he concept of sustainable development did emerge as a means of combining economic and ecological needs” (Odum and Garret, 2005, p.468). And the goal of sustainable development is sustainability, a journey and destination that is to be [socio] culturally negotiated. (Aries,n.a.)

The first priority for any true citizen of this Earth is to learn and realised that the primary goal of sustainability is to live within our environmental/ecological limits. To do so, what we need is not better technologies or new ideologies but social-intelligence, such as  sensitivity, care and respect – convivial and vernacular capacities we used to have and experienced but now lost or forgotten in our quest for being ‘civilised’, sophisticated and super-modern – to the point that we care-less for life and care more for the lifeless.

When this happened frequently then it’s time to rethink and reconsider all our basic assumptions, models and paradigms. EE, ESD, EfS and others like education for sustainable living/futures provide the tools to reorient our direction towards appreciating life and the living – a condition and tendency commonly found in our young. Eminent biologist Professor E.O. Wilson call it ‘Biophilia’.

Because in the end what is the use of having an educated person whose character cannot appreciate life or the living. Otherwise what radical author Derrick Jensen said about '...civilisation is inherently unsustainable' (Jensen, 2008) can be further elaborated to include industrial civilisation is absolutely unsustainable—will soon be a reality.

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