Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?
(An Essay in Four Parts)
by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School
This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.
Why Garden in School?
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
During the fall months in my 6th grade English class, I teach gardening, ancient flood stories, contemporary dystopian literature, and ancient Mesopotamia. My colleagues and I ask our students to look backward to identify essential characteristics of the first human civilizations, so that they might look forward and imagine remaking Western civilization in the 21st century. During these lessons, my history teacher partner focuses on the development of agriculture in the Neolithic Age (8000 BCE to 3000 BCE), the rise of Sumerian city-states, the four empires of Mesopotamia, and the characteristics of ancient civilizations. In my English class, my curriculum parallels and interweaves with these topics at crucial points, especially around issues of soil, water, food, climate, environmental justice, and the stories we tell ourselves as humans to orient ourselves to Earth, to one another, to the other animals, and to the cosmos. Sixth grade students and teachers at our school can often be found outside during September and October, harvesting apples, grinding wheat, learning about bee keeping, planting overwintering lettuce, or baking pita bread in the garden cob oven. Several people have asked, “What does the garden have to do with English or history class?” or “Why do you garden in school?” This essay is an attempt to answer these questions.
The sixth grade teaching team begins its unit from the principles enunciated in the seminal curriculum design text, Understanding by Design, by Grant McTighue and Wiggins (2005). The authors show that the best teaching is, paradoxically, in preparation for college while it is also, at the same time, as John Dewey (1897) says, part of an informed “process of living and not a preparation for future living” (Article Two: What the School Is section, para. 2). We strive to present riveting, relevant, future-thinking curriculum that is rooted in solving the problems and celebrating the wisdom that exist today. The problem-based teaching with a backward design process outlined in Understanding by Design offers us a good model on how to remain, simultaneously, college preparatory and focused on today’s most pressing issues. The garden is our place of intersection for the teaching of ancient history, the novel, writing, economics, politics, anthropology, religion, myth, and science. Pedagogically, we have nine reasons for teaching the Sumerian empire in our organic garden behind the middle school building. These nine reasons grow up out of the four enduring understandings we want our students to chew on for the rest of their lives.
The first enduring idea or understanding is that the aims and desires of most people on Earth have been fundamentally similar since hunter gatherers first domesticated crops and animals in Iraq 10,000 years ago, and we can empathize with those people because we too desire, at bottom, the same things, which are connection and belonging. As humanities teachers, we do not present what some might term a traditional history curriculum to our students that focuses on names, dates, generals on battlefields, or famous men elected president. Such a presentation presupposes that the victors of confrontations make history, and that conflict, violence, and the will to power are the unconscious driving impulses scaffolding the metanarrative of the human species. Instead, influenced by new scholarship focusing on empathy, mirror neurons, the lives of women, the colonized, and ordinary people throughout history, we begin by asking, Whose stories get left out of history, and why? We unearth representative stories that could stand for the great silent majority of human history, and we presuppose, along with Jeremy Rifkin (2009, p. 9-26), that the deepest unconscious desires of Homo sapiens include companionship in towns that provide nutritious food, clean water, and safe homes for our children. By studying Mesopotamia, we get a snapshot of people putting these desires into action when they created the world’s first cities.
Our second enduring idea that we want our students to return to throughout their lives is that there exists today a phalanx of interwoven problems facing the human species—global warming, hunger, biodiversity loss, deforestation, poverty, water scarcity, topsoil depletion, each of which is exacerbated by overpopulation. While these global issues may feel both overwhelming and unapproachable, during the autumn of the sixth grade year, we teach that several of these problems are causal, one giving way to the other, and all have their roots in practices one can find in Mesopotamia. Such practices included clearing the land of trees, erecting massive irrigation systems, then farming monocultures, which led to erosion, then desertification, and then later empire collapse.
Ten years ago, Time magazine, in its August 26, 2002 edition, released a Special Report entitled How to Save the Earth. “Up to a third of the world,” the authors noted, “is in danger of starving. Two billion people lack reliable access to safe, nutritious food, and 800 million of them—including 300 million children—are chronically malnourished” (Dorfman & Kluger, 2002, p. A9). The authors also presented startling statistics on water scarcity: “At present 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and more than 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation. ‘Unless we take swift and decisive action,’ says [then] U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, ‘by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be living in countries that face serious water shortages” (Dorfman & Kluger, 2002, p. A10). Whereas Time magazine did not then connect the dots on the ecological problems it investigated, other writers since that time have.
J.R. Rischard’s (2002) High Noon was similarly foreboding but more thorough. The former vice-president of the World Bank gave us twenty years to address twenty pressing and mutually destructive environmental concerns such as global warming, deforestation, biodiversity loss, fisheries depletion, and water shortages. One wonders how far we’ve come in half our twenty years. Joining the chorus, the eminent historian Jared Diamond (2005) likewise proposed, in his book Collapse, his own list of eleven similar and overlapping ecological problems that require immediate attention: problems such as—pardon the repetition—deforestation, coral reef destruction, fisheries depletion, erosion and topsoil loss, the end of peak oil, lack of potable water, toxic chemical pollution, global warming, and overpopulation (Diamond, 2005, p. 487-496). Similarly, Clive Ponting (1991) argued that each empire, whether Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman, or Mayan, follows the same paradigm, already alluded to, during its downfall: deforestation, erosion, monocropping, overwatering, desertification, and eventual collapse.
What we want our students to investigate, as part of this second enduring understanding, is that these problems are interconnected. Global warming, peak oil, the global food crisis, poverty, the loss of healthy local economies, and biodiversity loss are mutually-supporting spokes of a wheel that continues to roll over the backs of billions, especially in the southern hemisphere. “It is wrong to grow temperate-zone vegetables [as monocrops for export, such as bananas] in the tropics and fly them back to rich consumers,” Vandana Shiva (2008) writes, articulating some of the sometimes hidden interplay between injustice and ecology. “This uproots local peasants, creates hunger and poverty, and destroys local agro-biodiversity. . . . Since vegetables and fruits are perishable, transporting them long distances is highly energy-intensive, contributing to climate change” (p. 128). Throughout the years, Shiva has continued to elucidate the point that the global food industry perpetuates economic and environmental injustice for local, most southern hemisphere economies that export monocultured cash crops such as sugar, bananas, coffee, cotton, chocolate, and tea to more wealthy countries overseas. Healthy local economies and ecosystems overseas are compromised, even ruined, by the industrialized global food system.
Carolyn Merchant (1989, p. 52) and Shiva (2008, p. 105) likewise note the tendrils connecting seemingly disparate issues: when lands are cleared for monocrop exports, pesticides and inorganic nitrate fertilizers are typically poured into the diminishing soil, which then invites pests and disease—as monocultures have easier genetic codes to crack than biodiverse fields—which in turn increases the need to clear and deforest more land for cultivation. So-called free trade agreements and exporter-friendly loaning institutions—such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization—conspire to wrest land from local subsistence farmers so that the multination agribusiness corporations can buy out smaller farmers and expand.
Noting the preceding, concerned parents might worry that their children will look around the world—at India, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia—and assume that we in the U.S. are foisting our relative strong economy on other nations and therefore insisting that the errors of Mesopotamia be repeated in other modern countries today. We teachers share this concern, but we lean toward the notion that people, in their deepest recesses, seek belonging and connection rather than power and exploitation. In addition, we resist the hard-hearted theory of British economist Thomas Malthus (1999), who in 1798 proposed that population growth would outrun the ability of the world to produce food. Overpopulation, he said, would lead to war, famine, disease, and other calamities that would curtail human reproduction in a kind of macabre, unsentimental balance. Instead of simply cataloguing wrongdoing across the world and assigning blame, shrugging our shoulders in an unfeeling social Darwinism—which is counterproductive, in the end, to the creation of the empathic civilization that we hope to create—we sixth grade teachers like to move quickly to our third enduring understanding, which seeks to empower the students with problem-solving strategies.
The third enduring understanding we unpack for our students is that just as the current aforementioned global problems are interwoven and therefore seemingly intractable, multiple solutions will be employed this century on an international scale, and we, paradoxically, might most easily help on campus by studying local, organic food, responsible water use, and enlightened community engagement. If we grow organic vegetables at school, for example, in raised beds using low-evaporation drip irrigation, using seed we’ve collected from the previous year, and then we later harvest and eat that produce at lunch in our salad bar, we show the students how to support healthy, local, biodiverse economies—and overseas farming economies, by extension, who might convert their fields back to feeding their own peoples—while also reducing the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as diminishing global warming that follows energy-intensive global packaging, refrigeration, and shipping.
Paul Hawken (2007) states that the movement to establish a more sustainable world “has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (p. 12). We in the sixth grade teach all of these topics during our fall Mesopotamia unit so that our students begin to see that environmental movements are really about social justice and health, at bottom, just as biodiversity is about local sustainability.
Various historians and social theorists suggest ways to live in post-oil economies. Indeed, the genre has become a nonfiction subgenre, claiming whole sections in bookstores. In addition, leading intellectuals, such as Richard Tarnas (2012), are pointing to ecovillages, intentional communities, and small, independent schools such as Catlin Gabel as ways to address a coming crisis of living in the world with more people and dwindling fossil fuel reserves, since smaller nontraditional living and educational sites can more deliberately incorporate the use of alternative energy sources and the new paradigms that are needed to sustain them.
What becomes clear after reviewing the three enduring understandings—human desire creates multilayered problems requiring multilayered solutions—is that the vision of human history we are presenting is paradoxical. Surely, the overall quality of life for most people on the planet today is more comfortable, safe, and enjoyable than it was for people living in the city of Ur in 2500 BCE. Smallpox vaccinations, electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, computers, automobiles, and a thousand other technological innovations have bettered the quality of human life since the great cities of Mesopotamia fell and were reclaimed by the desert. However, we also live in an age of contradiction, during a time of converging ecological emergencies, and climate scientists might easily join Hamlet in his enigmatic assessment:
“What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust?” (Shakespeare, 2.2.295-300)
How should we synopsize these seeming contradictions? The students live on a beautiful, amazing planet, but one that is engulfed in growing environmental calamities. It’s our job as educators to resist dichotomous, simplistic thinking; rather, we strive to admit the complex truths and to problem solve collaboratively across coalitions and issues. It is also our job to resist cynicism, hopelessness, and paralyzing guilt as we explore these topics with our students. When we look to the past with our students, we can see the choices our ancestors made when they settled around reliable food sources in the Middle East at the end of the last ice age, building the world’s first cities, and we can imagine remaking our future cities this century with smaller carbon footprints.
Our curriculum design around Mesopotamia and the garden is to explicitly connect issues while resisting reductionist mono-issue, silver-bullet thinking. We do not proceed with the idea that a hydrogen economy will replace the topsoil, the fish in the ocean, or the trees being clear-cut in the Amazon. At the same time, we don’t deny it won’t help. We agree, in short, with Paul Hawken’s (2007) premise, in his book Blessed Unrest, that there is a massive social justice and environmental conservation movement afoot without one monolithic mission statement or central leadership. This movement is systemic, global, and broad, focusing on many issues and comprised of thousands of groups—for clean air, better public education, water conservation, and bans on GMO in food, for example. Despite the fact that there does not exist some central agency dispensing strategy and dogma, their aims intersect around two main principles: social justice and environmental conservation, which both lead to our last pedagogical goal.
Our fourth enduring understanding is that the stories a culture tells itself about its origins, its purpose, and its future will determine to a large extent that culture’s ability to survive the tests of time. Another way of saying this is that the stories we tell ourselves will help us to imagine the solutions we will need to fix the problems we have created. We teachers find that we are able to present both the intersecting problems and the possible solutions by retelling the oldest stories humanity has told itself about its creation, its place in the cosmos, its meaning and purpose. I therefore teach Gilgamesh (McCaughrean, 2003), the first of all written stories, from Mesopotamia. I also teach Genesis (Holy Bible, 2003), perhaps the world’s most influential narrative, plus a host of Greek myths, from the beginnings with Gaea and Uranus, through Cronos to Zeus, Prometheus, and Pandora, finally culminating with Deucalion and Pyrrha (Baker & Rosenberg, 1992). Similarities jump out when the three narrative strands are laid side-by-side: Gods create the world, including humanity; humans either lose or try to gain eternal life and fail; Gods become displeased with humans and send a flood, killing all except for a favored few, who survive in a boat and then go on to repopulate the world with the Gods’ blessings. The fact that the oldest stories all focus on an ecological catastrophe that is not dissimilar to the one featured on our nightly news today is not lost on our students. They see, for example, that global warming is melting the polar ice caps today, threatening coastal civilizations with flooding. This isn’t a grim news story “out there” somewhere or a tall tale easily relegated to a bookshelf labeled “myth and legend.” NOAA reports that half of Americans live within fifty miles of the coast (2011). If the ice caps melt, hundreds of millions worldwide will become ecological refugees. Studying the ancient stories in the contexts of both the founding of human civilization and our current ecological predicaments makes sense, then, as we want the students to analyze the old stories in order to eventually imagine new narratives for the coming century that will include heroic deeds of collaboration in order to create a just global village.
In addition to studying the world’s oldest stories, I also teach contemporary dystopian literature to explore a number of possible reactions to potential environmental troubles of the future. The science fiction and fantasy novelists have been at the vanguard of imagining solutions to life’s problems for over a century. The students are directed to probe the reasons for civilization collapse in their novels and to imagine resurrections based upon sustainable principles involving soil, water, food, housing, and energy production. I also pair the dystopian novels and civilization creation projects with nonfiction reading of four National Geographic articles on the first civilizations, food insecurity, topsoil loss, and water scarcity. Students are asked to image themselves creating their own civilizations in the next century, given certain definitions for advanced civilization and all of the ecological challenges we are facing right now.
Taken together, these four enduring understandings undergird our nine reasons for teaching in the garden. We want to provide students with the backstory for how we got to 2012 as a human species, emphasizing that the study of human history should elicit our empathy rather than condemnation. We also want to provide our students with interpretive lenses with which they can analyze both our current human impact and utter reliance upon Earth. Last, we want to offer students the schemata to remake a more sustainable, just, and enjoyable civilization for the world’s citizens in the 21st century.