David Orr author of, Earth in Mind, once wrote ‘all education is environmental education…’
Simply stated. Yet, is it simple?
Hardly.It is stated as a fact, something that is.
But how is this understood as a fact?
How is education approached as environmental education? Or perhaps more significantly, how is it not?
Many times along this journey, I have been lost in my thoughts considering these questions – turning them around, stretching my mind (and heart) to answer these in different ways. I am continually amazed by the ingenuity and courage I keep encountering within the places of learning that we are visiting as to how groups of individuals have put their creative and inspiring thoughts into transformative action – to bring these two (‘education’ and ‘environment’) supposedly separate entities, into one intertwined being.
Because I have been thinking about environmental education for such a long time (through my studies but also through teaching and activism work that I have done), the forms of education and learning that we keep encountering on this journey continue to challenge my understanding of not just what ‘environmental education’ is, but equally what ‘education’ is and can be, and, where ‘the environment’ actually is.
My initial idea of what constitutes the ‘environment’, was very much the non-human environment. Before I had ever thought very deeply about it, ‘the environment’ for me could be found in its ‘pure’ form where it was that human beings were not.
I was trapped in the dualistic world within which the vast majority of us live and learn. Dualistic in the sense that nature and the environment were just down the road, out of town, separated from the rest of us human folk.
What I have come to learn through all of these 20+ years since I left home, is that the root of the multiple problems and crises we all face, are directly related to this perceived separation between ‘me’ the human and ‘the environment’ and ‘nature’. This might be quite a serious jump to make, in fact such a leap that it might seem preposterous and somehow archaic, but I keep ending up facing this conclusion. And, this journey has escorted me to that edge within every place of learning we have visited.
I grew up on the edge of a small town in southern Oregon called Klamath Falls. The closest store to my house was 5 miles away. If I walked up the large hill behind the house, I could continue walking for 20 miles or so in undeveloped wilderness.
To the east was the vast Cascade Mountain range that runs all the way from southern British Columbia down to Northern California. Growing up just west of this majestic mountain range, I could see the high and snowy peaks of Mt. Shasta and Mt. McLoughlin from town and I was just 45 minutes south of the richest blue imaginable, emanating from Crater Lake, the 7th deepest lake in the world.
This was nature, the environment at its best. It was an environment for me to visit, learn from, engage with and be inspired by. To many of the people living in Klamath Falls, these natural places (excluding Crater Lake as that is a preserved National Park) were seen as an environment to manage – to cut down, dam up, extract from – through which to earn profit. In fact, the profit motive for natural resources, particularly timber that surrounds this town goes beyond individual and family accumulation – fuelling the very public and government services of the region.
Revenue from timber receipts have historically funded up to a third of the county’s educational budget. During one of the years that I was in high school, when timber felling and harvesting became increasingly restricted due to environmentally-related policy constrictions, programs were cut, including the bus service through which the majority of students were transported to the school. The rural nature of the location of my high school then came into full fruition — several students rode their horses to school!
In spite of the various economic and recreational ties to the environmental and natural abundance surrounding this area – this nature, this environment, was not quite part of me, or else I did not (and perhaps could not) see or experience it as such.
Then I decided to study Environmental Studies during my under-graduate years – on the other side of the United States. So economically sensitive is Klamath Falls to ‘conservation of the natural environment’ that I often avoided to fully explain to friends and others what I was studying when I would return home. I discussed all that I was learning in history, philosophy, sociology, science…. avoiding the centrality of ‘environment’ within these various disciplinary perspectives.
The wonderful thing for me at that time, was that I was learning through all of these perspectives – although they were centred on ways of understanding, managing, stewarding and valuing ‘the environment’. Though largely intellectualized, it was my initial entry into multiple worlds. I began to perceive the area I grew up differently – I was more critical, more nuanced – and felt a deeper intrinsic value for these beautiful and awe-inspiring places. I was thrilled at the various thought-provoking doors that kept opening.
I was (finally) in an educative learning space that enabled me to consider the environment. Yet, I was still perceiving through a separated lens – a lens that separated me from this land, particularly in that I was learning about all of this from such a geographical distance. It was, however, the first time thoughts about how to teach and learn about the environment crossed my threshold of consciousness.
I was not studying ‘environmental education’ but I was in an educative space learning about the environment – about the varied interests and coinciding philosophies underpinning these interests. From there, my path was put on a slight hold for a couple of years as I dallied in the corporate world as a paralegal and then as a waitress in New York City looking for work. I ended up having a primary school teaching position (located in the Bronx) fall into my lap and from that point, it seems, there was no turning back. I have been either working in or studying some aspect of education and learning ever since.
Teaching year 6 is great because you teach all subjects to the same children. For 2 years I had the responsibility of teaching 25+ 11-12 year olds math, social studies, reading, science, spelling, health and religion. The best part was that I could combine these into inter-disciplinary projects. I did this very often. It made learning and teaching much more fun – for the students and for me. I also incorporated quite a lot of environmental ‘knowledge’ and ‘experiences’ into it. I felt there was a need to bring these students out of the intense (and often hostile) urban environment they were living in, to learn about different plants, biomes around the globe, environmental issues such as deforestation and water pollution – and to experience being outdoors in beautiful open places. In addition, I became acutely aware of the perversity of environmental and social injustices experienced in the day to day life of my students living in an area of the South Bronx where enormous quantities of waste is held and incinerated (more than 80% of my students each year had asthma which is directly linked to incineration smoke).
Simultaneously, during the second year of teaching, I enrolled into a Masters program at New York University called ‘Environmental Conservation Education’. During those years of study, I took several Environmental Philosophy courses which opened my mind to new world views of the ways in which we as humans relate to the environment, what in fact the ‘environment’ is and how our perceptions of it can have profound effects on how we treat the world around us, including each other. I also took courses in Environmental Health, Environmental Justice, Botany and Environmental Journalism.
Although I had explored some of this in my undergraduate years, this took it a step further, opening up yet more pathways to engaging with the complexity of inter-disciplinary and systemic issues – particularly how they related to education and communication.
I then worked as an environmental educator for an environmental non-profit organization in NYC, working with secondary schools across the city, teaching in various science and social studies-related classes and designing semester-long projects with different students and teachers. These projects brought everyone outside, engaging with not only the non-human environment of NYC, but also learning about the treatment of sewage (I think I visited all of the sewage treatment plants in NYC), the transfer of the city’s water, the health of the river and creek systems. We became more politically active – doing tabling events, holding seminars, inviting local politicians and media sources – and speaking with local businesses.
During all of this time, my engagement with the world, human and non-human expanded. I began to see myself more and more embedded within the environment in which I was living my day-to-day life. Yet, I still struggled to merge these worlds together in my work. It was not learning that I had experienced through my university studies – rather it was learning I was developing independently through a non-profit framework. And, it was still somehow a ‘special’ and ‘extra-curricular’ activity to get students and teachers outside of the school building to learn first-hand about various aspects of the world outside and about how their basic needs were met (i.e. sewage, waste, water and food) and how this connected to where they lived.
What I discovered with those students, was the all of us felt more alive, more connected during the hours that we explored and learned outside the walls of the classroom. We were all somehow more ‘home’ during that time.
Over the next 13 years, as I entrenched myself further and further into the academic/university world in the UK (after leaving NYC), I felt an increasing alienation from any sense of ‘home’. This was not just because I was living even further away from southern Oregon by staying in England. It was because I felt myself becoming more and more of a slave to the expectations of what it meant to stay working in academia. Which, is essentially to be disconnected and disengaged – from the local surroundings, from the passions that drove me to work in academia in the first place, from the people I was working and learning with – basically, from myself.
The vast majority of universities have been imposed onto the land on which they exist ( in other words, they did not arise from that particular local context). They are environmentally-orientated in that they exist on the land. Yet, for the most part, the learning is completely dis-engaged and detached from the environment, from that local context. Learning is about making your brain bigger – as well as your hands (to type) and your bum (to sit for longer periods of time). It is not about enhancing your heart (emotions) and the rest of your body for learning – moving, making and creating.
The purpose of the university these days is fundamentally about contributing to the global knowledge economy – that which is measurable and therefore profitable. This core purpose is now universal. The connection is about economic growth, disconnecting us for what makes us most human. The concept of ‘localization’ is just a mere concept that might be encountered, but beyond that, there is no practice of localized learning and action as such.
I yearned for connection – to my deepest self that makes me a human being, to learn and grow from that perspective, rather than contribute to the growth of the knowledge economy. So, I finally made the move. I found the courage to step out, to exit and move forward, to learn to let go of that alienation which had rooted itself into my soul and to go down the path of re-connection and unlearning on this Enlivened Learning journey.
As time has passed, moving around as much as we have (we have not unpacked in months), I feel in many ways ‘back home’ regardless of where we are visiting. Perhaps this ‘back home’ sense is because our intention is to connect – within ourselves to where we are – and also because we are simultaneously learning about how others are so creatively connecting themselves through the learning they are doing as part of these higher education initiatives. All of these places of learning that we are visiting, are emerging from the context they are in. They are organic, deeply rooted and connected intimately to the cultural, ecological and historical past and present within which they are a part.
It is relatively easy to see each of these places as environmental education, environmental learning – or even better, learning that is embedded in the environment. And this is evident in a myriad of ways. Learning is essentially about connecting to who we are as human beings – separately yes (in terms of connecting with your ‘inner’ self), but most importantly, how we are connected to each other and to all aspects of the world around us. The environment comprises everything – it is not just ‘extra-curricular’.
For example, in Alberta, Canada with the Blackfoot, we learned about the simplicity and profound impact of committing time to a specific place, to learn the land or through a better explanation that Ryan and Adrienne described, to ‘let the land learn you’.
In Terrace, British Columbia, with the First Nations carvers at the Freda Diesing Northwest Coast Art School, we learned about the stories, symbols that have been documented through carving as forms of literacy that are intimately inspired by, and connected to non-human beings and relationships existing all around. As outsiders, we might refer to this as ‘art’ whilst for thousands of years, carving was, in fact, localized forms of literacy.
At Unitierra, in Oaxaca, Mexico, we learned about the fluidity of learning needs and desires coming together through groups of individuals working as a community — committed to collective autonomy centred on food, water, shelter, waste, communication and festival.
With PRATEC in Peru, we learned about Quechua indigenous forms of agricultural practice that are inseparable from their spiritual cosmology which animates relationships with all non-human beings.
In Brazil, with ESPOCC, the School of Critical Media, we learned about how people living in favelas, or shantytowns, are taking control of their own image and identity – by becoming more deeply acquainted with their local cultural, social and ecological surroundings and portraying these to the local and outside worlds through various forms of media – of their choice and through their authority (rather than it coming from the outside).
Also in Brazil, we visited the Landless Movement University that brings together individuals and communities living within Landless Movement camps (that were settled to occupy and use unoccupied land) or belonging to kindred social movements or organizations engaging with issues of social and ecological justice.
All of these places of learning we have visited so far – and the myriad of places we are visiting post-Brazil all offer an incredible richness of opportunities to learn about different forms of education and learning. Education is inseparable from context – completely embedded within all aspects of ‘the environment’. It is not just learning about the environment or for the environment. They are one and the same. There is no separation. Whatever is needed and decided to be learned about is directly connected to the world around that particular learning space.
To me, these inspiring places of learning mirror the true purpose of education – to be fully realized through and within all that we are a part of – ‘the environment’.
The full quote by David Orr reads: “all education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world. To teach economics, for example, without reference to the laws of thermodynamics or those of ecology is to teach a fundamentally important ecological lesson: that phyics and ecology have nothing to do with the economy. That just happens to be dead wrong.”
For the most part, conventional schooling at all levels, helps us learn how to be further apart from the natural world. To me, this deprives us of the capacity and potential to live as more fully responsible, ethical, passionate, disciplined, generous and loving human beings.
If we are to become more fully human as the Blackfoot are trying to teach at Red Crow Community College – we must learn to adapt ourselves to our environments as indigenous people have done for thousands of years – to learn through reciprocity – rather than the other way around – through this sense of detachment.
Significantly, after so many years of schooling and education, I realize now, that I’ve only just begun to really learn…