Violence, environmental violence, and pro-environmental action

Richard Kool
Royal Roads University

hile there are many tasks on the plate of any educator, there are two that, to me at least, really seem essential and that are often overlooked; these tasks are for the educator to both reveal things that might be hidden to the student while being always open to revelation ones’ self, and to provide the student with tools for seeing hidden things.

A domain that seems to be hidden from environmental educators is that of environmental violence: the term ‘’violence’ never appears in the titles or abstracts of our major conferences, and virtually never appears in our published literature. Yet I would argue that environmental education, from its outset, grew out of a concern for the results of the violence our society inflicts on the natural world, a violence that both diminishes the ability of humans to fully function within society and diminishes the ability of the natural world to regenerate itself and thrive.

Thinking about violence
There are many definitions of violence; for example, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that violence is

the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

An important part of this definition, though, is the idea of intent; the implication is that if there is no intent, there is no violence. The peace scholar Johan Galtung offers another definition that avoids the necessity of an actor’s intent:

I see violence as any avoidable insult to basic human needs, and, more generally, to sentient life of any kind, defined as that which is capable of suffering pain and can enjoy well-being, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible. (Galtung & Fischer, 2013, p. 35, emphasis added)

Both of these definitions offer a set of lenses through which we can understand human violence, which always involve harm to someone or something, and that that harm reduces the ability of an individual to satisfy their needs.

While the world faces many violent settings and contexts, environmental violence in the 21st century puts not only humans, but a great deal of life on earth, at risk. Humans have long had powerful influences on environments, but these influences were primarily local or at the most regional. The historical record is replete with the local destruction of environments which result in societal collapse (Tainter, 1988), and some scholars tells us to not be sanguine about the potential of the future (e.g., Turner, 2012). Violence against the environment in this context is not a natural phenomenon, not something that happens as a natural process. Environmental violence is a direct outcome of human activity, with intent or not, that results in a diminishing of the potential for flourishing of both humans and all the other creatures that inhabit a particular environment.

Forms of violence
For Galtung, the simplest and most obvious form of violence is direct violence, the violence that we do, the intentional violence that we can see and we can directly inflict, violence that can be promulgated through words, knives, handguns, stealth missiles, pesticides and carbon dioxide. Environmental educators can easily imagine direct violence against nature: our textbooks and presentations, to say nothing about the Internet, are full of images of direct violence. In a western Canadian context, the expansion of the Alberta tar sands are an extraordinary form of direct violence causing landscape-level harms, biodiversity-level harms and human harms, both social and health-related (Finkel, 2018). Although our individual acts of direct violence (we would like to believe) may be few and small, it’s hard to get through the day in our contemporary world without some form of direct environmental violence.

But violence is not always done with a knife or gun; “neglect, inaction, gross inequality and unjust structures of society, including from lack of freedom and democracy” (Fischer, 2013, p. 12) can also be forms violence. Beyond direct violence, there is the structure of society, and not simply the words or actions of a particular person, that enact violence on people and planet. This is violence that seemingly just happens, with nobody particularly responsible for it. Galtung calls this structural violence. “There are two reasons for this: it is structural in the sense that no specific actors are indicated, and also in the sense that for the concrete actors that happen to be performing roles in the structure in question no specific motivation is necessary” (Galtung, 1980, p. 183). And not only are no specific actors involved nor does anyone have a particular desire to create environmental harm, any outcome (like a day’s worth of CO2 from driving to and from work) that results from either one’s direct or structural violence is not particularly large; the impacts of all of us that drove to work today cannot individually be detected in the carbon budget of the atmosphere, or be directly related to the reduction of global biodiversity. This is akin to what Kahn (1966) talked about when he spoke of the tyranny of small decisions:

It is an inherent characteristic of a consumer-sovereign, market economy that big changes occur as an accretion of moderate-sized steps, each of them the consequence of ‘small’ purchase decisions- small in their individual size, time perspective, and in relation to their total, combined, ultimate effect. (pp. 44-45)

Structural violence can create many victims without any obvious perpetrators and since the victims are often not seen or even noticed (e.g., people in distant lands, organisms in distant habitats), the violence can seem to be invisible or at least, ignorable. Structural violence is subtle, harder to see than direct violence; we need new lenses that allow us to more-readily see these structural causes that are now obscured by both our worldviews, and by various societal screens and curtains, from our everyday vision. Structural violence can be the necessary outcome of the way a society is structured and these structures, for most citizens, are just the way things are. Structural violence hides in the background, directing our attention away from it and towards examples of direct violence which then grabs our concern and outrage.

We as teachers should be able to examine structural violence with our students as it is the one which leaves us feeling that nothing can be done and that no one is, themselves, actually doing anything particularly damaging. This is the kind of violence that was described by Hannah Arendt (1970, p. 38) when she spoke of the work of a bureaucracy as “an intricate system of bureaus in which no men, neither one nor the next, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called rule by Nobody”. The system and institutions whose structures are causing havoc in the world weren’t intended to create havoc, and we can imagine that no one who actually is responsible for those systems wants such havoc to be occurring. Nonetheless, the unintended outcomes of many small yet significant decisions have led to a world structure that is in fact creating significant and long-lasting problems.

Galtung continued his study by revealing a final category, cultural violence:

The study of cultural violence highlights the way in which the act of direct violence and the fact of structural violence are legitimized and thus rendered acceptable in society. One way cultural violence works is to change the moral color of an act to green/right or at least to yellow/acceptable from red/wrong; an example being killing in the name of the country as right, in the name of oneself as wrong. Another way is by making reality opaque, permitting us not to see the act or the fact, or at least not as violent. (Galtung, 1990, p. 292)

While structural violence normalizes violence as being inescapable given the very construction of a particular society, cultural violence offers us the salve of justification, absolving us of responsibility for the violence. Justifying violence through cultural norms, we can avoid any sense of guilt that might result from the violent actions we engage or are complicit in.

How does it all come together? We drive fossil fuel-burning cars (direct violence) because there is no way to get from our suburban homes to work (structural violence) and since everyone does it, it’s really not too bad (cultural violence). Given these realities, we need to mine tar/oil sands, create tailings, build pipelines and ship product. And some citizens get angry when they can’t engage in economic activity that results in environmental violence, and then elect governments that promise that they will help shield our consciousness from the implications of our actions. “Voltaire put it well when he said, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities’” (Bandura, 2007, p. 193).

Environmental violence and environmental education
I have three approaches that educators can take with their students to confront the reality of environmental violence in all its forms: direct, structural and cultural.

We can confront environmental violence with environmental non-violence; in the domains we live, with the tools at our disposal, we can work to reduce our engagement in direct environmentally-violent actions. While we might not be able to completely “do no harm”, we all have the opportunity to do what we can and, both individually and collectively, develop a descent strategy to reduce our direct harms. My 30 km bike ride to and from work is a small act of environmental non-violence.

In our educational institutions, we can work to first identify and then reduce direct environmental violence. For example, since the transportation sector produces 24% of all GHG emissions in Canada (just behind the 26% produced by that oil and gas sector) (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2017, p. 8), schools can look at ways to encourage low-carbon transportation. Walking, biking, skiing, skating, car-pooling, school bus and public transit are all ways of reducing the direct environmental violence of transportation associated with schooling ( . Providing large parking lots at secondary schools for students and staff gives the wrong message if we are trying to reduce direct environmental violence; we should not be encouraging single-occupancy vehicle transportation.

Buildings and electricity combined account for nearly the same GHG emissions (23%) as transportation, so energy retrofits and building conservation efforts can help to reduce the direct violence in those schools that especially use heating oil or natural gas. For example, Destination Conservation ( is a long-running program that focuses on schools, helping them make significant reductions in their energy and water usage; DC is an exemplar in reducing the direct violence of school building operations.

When environmental educators deal with environmental issues in our schools and classrooms, we tend to focus on the outcomes of the visible forms of direct violence, and can respond with non-violent alternatives.

But at least as important, in terms of our practice, is finding ways to help reveal the cloak of invisibility that hides the structural environmental violence from our purview. Revelatory tools aren’t necessarily easy to find, and we are likely going to have to make some up ourselves. But there are some means at our disposal that can help us and our students come to a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are.

The roots of environmental violence can’t be looked for in the simple surface features of littering and pollution, but rather in the systems and structures that produce as a necessary outcome of their existence the environmental problems we are confronting. As environmental educators, we all need to gain skill and experience in systems analysis (Meadows, 2002, 2008). But it isn’t enough to simply do analysis of the structures in our institutions that result in environmental violence, we need to also look for ways of changing the structure (Meadows, 1999) of the system.

Changing structures involves politics, and this kind of pro-environmental activity is what I’ve come to call environmental anti-violence; the work we do to alter those structural features of our institutions or society that facilitate, or at least fail to stop, direct environmental violence. Students and teachers can work together to change structures, whether they are school board policies, or the actions of various levels of government. Analytical and political anti-violence work of students and teachers can involve things like working to mandate pro-environmental changes of school operations, making pro-environmental presentations to municipal governments, learning how to run for elected office, organizing boycotts and engaging in protests or civil disobedience. As the noted social psychologist Kurt Lewin said, “you cannot understand a system until you try to change it” (Schein, 1996, p. 6). Try to change a system and it reveals itself, and anti-violence work is about getting clarity as to the nature of the system.

But for many of us, students, teachers and parents alike, because of the structures of our systems, we can only do so much to reduce our direct environmental violence. And it might be difficult for us to engage in political action to change those structures creating violence. However, there is always something that we can do, and those things that we can do to try and reverse or even partially-undo our destructive acts are what I have called environmental contra-violence, actions that work to undo the actions that we are all complicit in and responsible for.

In some ways, this is the easiest and most approachable form of action in the face of environmental violence that any of us can take. Actions like recycling, cleaning up local pollution and litter, picking up refuse washed up on our beaches and shorelines, healing habitat loss, alteration and destruction through replanting and re-naturalizing, are all things that we can do. The field of ecological restoration (van Wieren, 2008) is, I feel, the work of contra-violence as its practitioners endeavour to make amends, doing in whatever small and seemingly insignificant ways they can, to undo even a tiny part of the damage are all complicit in as members of our society.

Contra-violence is the kind of work that we can and should do with our students in our communities, working to reduce our wastes (and even trying to not see them as wastes, but as resources), cleaning beaches (in what is truly a Sisyphsian task as each tide can deliver its own load of garbage!), restoring wetlands, bringing butterfly gardens into cities, creating rain gardens, anything and everything that can be contra/against the environmental violence that surrounds us all. Broadly speaking, the work of ecological restoration is a moral act and for some a spiritual act, a form of repentance, of apology, of stepping gently in and assisting natural processes in healing from our damaging actions.

We cannot put an enormous burden on the children to engage in actions that they may be unable to execute; they cannot be responsible for saving the rainforests, or protecting species in habitats far away. But perhaps most important is that as educators, we help to bring the pieces of the problem together, discerning along with our students the linkages between direct, structural and cultural violence. This process of revealing what is hidden, no matter the contexts we find ourselves in is, as I noted at the outset, one of the most important skills that we can offer. And with that revelation, we can work together and can support students and teachers working from their realities, to reduce violence through non-violent, anti- and contra-violent actions.

Rick Kool is founder of the MA in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University in British Columbia. He has published on the walking speed of dinosaurs, Northwest coast native whaling, museum exhibit design, ciliated protozoan development and the sex life of marine invertebrates. His current work relates to environmental education and how it confronts hope and despair, the potential role and place of religion in environmental education, and conceptions of change in environmental education and communication. Kool is active within the Victoria Holocaust Remembrance and Education Society and is a past president. He also plays the string bass.



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