What is Good Environmental Education?
Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global.
by Peter Hayes
he choice to become an educator brings with it a career-long sentence to the blessing and curse of endlessly deciding what our students need to learn and how we will best help them learn it. At a recent conference, I was confronted with the honorable misfortune of joining a panel of speakers charged with provocatively stirring thoughts and feelings on the question of “what is good environmental education?”. I found the adventure to be both difficult and easy. It was difficult because the terms environment, environmental education, or environmentalist make no sense to me. They are words and concepts that have meaning only in a culture which clings to the illusion that human well-being does not depend on the health of the nature we are part of.
Because I believe that deep-seated confusion over these words and ideas is a major barrier to building a positive future, I choose to be an educator, community member, and citizen instead of accepting the destructive labels of environmental educator and environmentalist.
It was easier for me to form and share the answers that follow to the question of what makes for good education about how nature works and how humans fit into it. A simple, clear, and accessible yardstick for assessing the success of student learning is always available to us: how well do we help students become ready to do what they need to be ready? Ability – a fabric woven from the strands of knowledge, skill, and attitude – is important but not adequate; ability must be combined with motivation to create readiness.
To illustrate my belief that clues to our educational responsibilities are everpresent, and to ground these comments in the realities of my daily responsibilities, two simple, true stories – shared on the installment plan – seem helpful.
Story 1 – Part A:
It’s mid-February and Seattle’s rains are pouring down on a confused-looking ninth-grade student standing knee deep in the muddy waters of Thornton Creek. In the final hours of a weeklong study of this urban creek and its watershed, she stands in a forested wetland slated to be developed as a driving range for the adjacent golf course.
She describes her confusion over whether the best use for the land is for it to continue as a wild wetland or to be developed as a driving range: “I’m so confused – I don’t know what the right thing to do is; I began this week believing that the world was much simpler than I now see it is – that there were good guys and bad guys – and that I was a good guy – now I see that choices are more complicated, that in many ways my choices make me part of the problem. I’m no longer sure what is the right thing to do.”
Story Two – Part A:
The early morning calm at our house is punctuated by the scuffing sound of a small person’s feet on the stairs. A three foot, sleepy eyed apparition settles in at the breakfast table – tousled brown hair, fuzzy, pink, one piece pajamas “with feet” – the kind that sweat. Slurping the last of her cereal – the kind where eating the box provides more nutriment than eating the cereal – she looks across the table. Her presence asks a single, clear, unspoken question to me: “you aren’t going to let us down are you? You are responsible for helping us grow up to be ready to successfully meet the challenges ahead; will you do it?”..
If we accept that readiness is the goal, then the next question is: Ready for what? What needs doing?. Given our understandable human self absorption, we know that our students need to be ready to provide for their own needs, that is their own “self-wealth”. Because self-wealth depends on a web of relationships with fellow humans and other species, our students also must be ready to understand, maintain, and build “common wealth”. The wealth that we share in common is the blend of such diverse treasures as the love of a neighbor who brings dinner over on the eve of our first child’s birth and the lifegiving qualities of the swirling atmosphere and oceans. Our students need to be ready to invest in building positive futures for the communities to which they belong – household to global. They need to be ready to do what no preceding generation has done before: satisfy their needs and wants in ways that don’t compromise Earth’s ability to support life.
The best way to narrow this challenge from the immense and vague toward something that we can get to work on in class tomorrow, we can ask and answer the questions of where and why are we failing, or have we failed, to maintain our common wealth? Though there are remarkable cases of success in maintaining our common wealth, I will focus here on examples from each of five concentric rings of community where we have lost, or are currently losing, common wealth – situations where humans were challenged to do the right thing in relationship to the rest of nature, and failed. What would need to be different for these to be on the list of successes instead?
The cases are:
– Global: Current efforts to reach cooperative agreements about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases which are causing warming of the atmosphere.
– Continental: The failure of cooperation in water use leading to the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia and the race to pump from the rapidly dropping waters of the Ogallala Aquifer under the Great Plains in the central United States.
– Regional: The current struggle to reverse the trend of Pacific Salmon’s descent toward extinction, with hopes of not replicating the crash of North Atlantic fisheries.
– Local: The choice at the school where I teach not to match our actions as world-class consumers to our stated commitment to conservation contributes to the invisible but real erosion of common wealth around the planet.
– Next Door: Our neighbor seeks to tranform two acres of forested wetlands at the headwaters of a salmon supporting creek into five lawn- and driveway-surrounded homes, while arguing that there is no connection between his choices and the future of salmon struggling to retain their home in the creek downstream.
What do these five cases of loss of common wealth share? Why do they happen?
Decision makers failed to understand, value, and tell the story of the common wealth. Decisions were based on oversimplifications of the complex and interdependent systems of nature. Too much emphasis was placed on guaranteeing self wealth and too little on preserving common wealth. Diverse individuals and cultures failed to achieve cooperation necessary to understand and solve problems – often despite honest and major effort. Decision makers lacked integrity as defined as the agreement between actions and stated values. Participants had insufficient determined, enduring hope to solve the problem. And finally, participants believed our culturally ingrained myths of the separateness of humans from nature, of super abundance, of control, and of wilderness.
Mainstream analysis commonly describes such cases as economic, political, or environmental problems, but looked at in total, the root causes of each of these cases is our failure to understand and value community and citizenship and, taken one step further, the failure of our educational systems to help graduates be ready to do what they need to be ready to do. They are the consequence of educational systems which are more effective at equipping youth to be self-wealth pursuing predators through domination of nature than investing in education which maintains and builds our common wealth. These and other failures of community highlight where we as educators most need to concentrate our efforts. Transposing the seven common “failures” from above into positives, our students need to be ready to know and love our common wealth, recognize and be humbled by complexity; learn to balance their investment in self wealth with necessary investment in common wealth (and to see them not as a zero sum), use diversity as an asset not an impediment; have, demand, and value integrity; have an enduring sense of hope, and replace the four myths with reality. Education is now a major contributor to unworkable relationships between humans and the rest of nature; it is our challenge and opportunity to make it become a major component of the solution.
If our reasoning leads us to conclude that these outcomes are what the SATs, APs, and GREs of the future should test for, then the final step is to move from describing the desired outcomes to learning what educational experiences most effectively and consistently lead to successful student learning in these areas. The combination of personal experience and study of past and current educational practice make this task more straightforward than it would appear. While specific approaches must be adapted to match the unique needs of students and settings, education with the following characteristics appears to take us in the right direction:
1) Involving students in the real work of being active, informed citizens of the concentric, geocentric rings of community to which they belong. The smaller the unit, the sooner students learn through experience that the choice to care can lead to real change.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold
“There is an uncanny resemblance between our behaviour toward each other and our behavior toward the earth. …It is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.” – Wendell Berry
“The watershed is the first and last nation, whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable and the life that flourishes within it constitutes the first kind of community.” – Gary Snyder
2) The thread of understanding of the balance between self-wealth and common wealth runs throughout the curriculum and life of the school.
Daily school life provides an excellent learning lab for this topic, and the study of history and current events provides endless cases of the tension between self wealth and common wealth.
3) The curriculum is driven by asking, understanding, answering, and acting on real questions. Constructing knowledge and meaning from the rising sea of information and building wisdom from studying the relationship between intent, action, and consequences are central.
4) Teachers aspire to the impossible goal of non-advocacy through teaching the important skills of asking and answering questions instead of preaching personal answers.
5) Schools with clear missions are solidly connected to their surrounding community, and student generated new knowledge travels across well worn bridges of cooperation to be used by receptive members of the governmental, businesses, and general communities.
6) Educational goals are reached through the real work of building “way things work” understandings of community health.
7) Integrity – the matching of actions and beliefs – is modeled and highly valued.
“Many people want to change the world, but few want to change themselves.” – Tolstoy
8) Students develop an enduring sense of hope through experience in turning positive ideas into tangible success.
“A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the source of real hope” – Lennox
9) All ways of knowing – mathematical, artistic, scientific, historical – are blended, and real experience stirs student’s hearts as much or more than their minds.
10) Education is “story” based with students learning to be critically aware of both why we tell the stories we tell and what stories we need to tell and pay attention to in order to successfully track the health of our communities. All explanations of phenomena, even the most rule-bound science, are a form of “story”. The ability to “read”, understand, and describe the health of a landscape is given as much emphasis as the ability to read and understand written words. Cause and effect lessons from history provide necessary basis for belief that individual action can shape a positive future.
11) Materials that perpetuate the four deep seated myths of separateness of human well-being from the well-being of nature, of superabundance, of control, and of wilderness are replaced by materials that communicate the assumptions of interdependence, limits, incomplete knowledge of nature, and the reality that both human influence and wildness are found everywhere.
“To treat wilderness as a holy shrine and Kansas and East Saint Louis as a terrain of an altogether different sort is a form of schizophrenia. Either all of the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot deserves our respect or none does.” – Wes Jackson
12) Students develop a sense of awe and reverence for nature through consistant, patient practice of the skills of observation and communication (see past CLEARING articles by Saul Weisberg, Bob Pyle, and Tony Angell “Artist as Advocate for Nature”)
13) The success of students‚ learning and teachers‚ teaching is assessed through tangible results that are of real value to others. Eg. Students demonstrate mastery in research, mathematical, and writing skills through developing a report on trends in the health of the local neighborhood instead of through academic, standardized tests.
14) The language of “environment” is quietly replaced by language which more accurately communicates our beliefs and supports student learning.
The organizing concept of community, with humans as one part of larger living systems, replaces our current common use of the distinct and deceptively inaccurate concepts of “environment”, “economy”, and “culture”.
I share these approaches as ones which appear to work for me and the schools and projects with which I am involved in, not as a prescription for others. Though there are many working examples of how the approach described above is succeeding, there is much need for improvement and continued innovation. Since results, not talk, are what ultimately matter, the completion of our two opening stories will bring us back to the realities of the current students, and students yet to come, who are counting on us.
Story 1 – Part B:
The student climbed out of the creek, dried off and acted on the passion that she had discovered. Her remaining high school years were filled with mastering and adding to the knowledge of the creek and watershed, conceiving of and successfully leading a “Creek Keepers” summer camp for middle schoolers, and contributing to the recent decision to rename the golf course after the creek (instead of turning the creek into a golf course.). On graduating she reflected “It [the watershed] is a living system that I have connected with. ..[My work with it] makes me feel part of something bigger than myself”.
These comments stand out in contrast to the bluntly honest – and depressing – comments that we regularly hear from students studying the current human relationship to nature: “Like I might care if I thought I could make a difference.” (“I choose not to care about anything other than self-wealth because experience hasn’t taught me to believe that I can make a difference”). The student in the creek has gone on to apply her citizenship skills to new places and might be considered a model for American Dream 2 where success is seen in lives where investment in self wealth and common wealth merge as one.
Story 2 – Part B:
Breakfast is finished, lunch made, hair brushed, and we wait at the end of the driveway for the school bus. The unstated question is still there. What our children need to thrive and survive is a deep connection to a living system – their home community – where the questions of whether salmon will return to spawn in our river and whether any children will come to school hungry are seen accurately as one question, not two. They need to learn from experience that this place needs them and that they need it. They need to know and love where their breakfast and shoe leather comes from as much as the alpine meadow in the Glacier Peak Wilderness or the most magical rapid in the depths of the Green River Gorge.
The bus arrives. She climbs through the open doors and up the steps to settle into a seat beside a lunch box clutching friend. Waves are exchanged as the heads grow smaller in a cloud of diesel smoke. I have an enduring hope that we won’t let her down – that family and school will help our children be ready to do what they need to do – but I don’t sleep easily, knowing that there is much to be done and that we live in a world that doesn’t wait.
Peter Hayes, after 20 years of indoor and out of doors teaching and principaling in public and independent schools, as well as serving as Environmental Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle, and as Co-coordinator of the Thornton Creek Project, now runs a family woodlot in the Coast Range of Oregon.
by David A. Greenwood, Lakehead University, Canada
As part of the 2009 North American Association of Environmental Education Research Symposium, this article addresses the cultural and theoretical frameworks that we bring to environmental education, the web of ideas and experiences that define the scope and purpose of the work in its geopolitical context. Originally delivered as a keynote address at the symposium, the paper highlights two necessarily related conversations within environmental education: the first concerns the problem of empire, including its roots in imperialism and colonialism, as well contemporary problems of globalization; the second concerns the problem of nature, including the need to develop intimate connections with the non-human on a planet that everywhere bares the mark of human alteration. Nature and empire are two poles on a continuum that shape the cultural and ecological contexts of life and learning. The author argues for the need to hold empire and nature not in opposition, but in paradox. Holding the tension of paradox complicates simplistic binaries, and can contribute to a stance that appreciates the relationships between seeming polarities in the intersectional work of social and ecological change.
For starters, I want to welcome all travelers to the Columbia River watershed. Here we are. I live some 300 miles east on the Idaho border, and the Palouse River that flows full of agricultural silt and erosion through my rural town mixes here with Portland’s urban confluences on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The mouth of the Columbia is an impressive roar of waves, marine life and history, commerce, and even today, shipwreck. Historian Richard White (1995) called the great Columbia River “the organic machine”: upriver the once wild Columbia and its many tributaries are now a mechanized and politicized system of dammed, slack-water reservoirs. The organic machine, indeed.
The tension of paradox surrounds us, and it surrounds the field of environmental education: local-global; urban-rural; environment-culture; masculine- feminine; native-settler; public-private; land-property; commons-enclosure; human-more-than-human; inhabitant-refugee; social justice-ecojustice; schooling- learning; domination-resistance; me-you; us-them; nature-empire.
My thesis is a simple claim around a single paradox: environmental education of any stripe can deepen its theory and practice by purposefully embracing the tensions between nature and empire. Nature and empire are two poles on a continuum that shape the cultural and ecological contexts of life and learning.
In the tradition of 19th century natural history, imagine an object lesson. I hold in my hands two related objects: the flight feather of a barn owl, and a wallet full of plastic and paper money. Inquiry: How do these objects and what they represent implicate me and shape our work? Nature and empire, the flight feather of an owl and the wallet of a white man, generate a paradox, a paradox that we need to hold, and balance.
We need to embrace paradox because we nature-lovers and no-child-left-insiders must also face up to the eco- and genocidal politics of empire, politics we’re all complicit with everyday in our cosmopolitan superprivilege. We need to embrace paradox because as heady academics and well-meaning activists, we can easily forget the gift of our own embodied and earthy existence. This feather is perfect. No matter how scientifically rigorous, politically informed, or culturally responsive, environmental education is barren if it does not include re-enchantment with the wide world of creation, encounters with the others, and gratitude for the gift of life.
Nature, empire, and paradox.
Nature. Remember, when you walked miles into the mountains until the rant of your mind receded. The sounds around you returned. Birds, insects, movement in the cover. The air, warm and cool of sun and shade. You started to blend, quiet self diminished and enlarged by a place full of others, and though walking through, you felt belonging. Until later you startled a cougar, you had thought this impossible, your shared shock while everything stopped, her ears twitching, brown eyes locked on your next move, your heart jumping on your chest, predator, prey, you watched each other’s bodies trembling. Remember, how against reason you wanted to run, how you caught your breath and she suddenly returned easily to the ninebark. The day shimmered, your relief, you had finally come back to your senses.
Encounter, enchantment, gratitude.
Empire. Like globalization, empire describes the political economy of the planet: the new imperialism, colonization, development, free trade. Empire—a system of domination and resistance, a bio-political power that is exercised, internalized, and shaped by networks of human cultures worldwide. A system of authority and control enacted by all of us, motivated by habit, addiction, desire, necessity, dreams of a better life, fantasies of endless economic growth—all increasing the throughput of natural and human capital. Empire creates and destroys under the flashing lights of a “postindustrial” age. Empire—your I-Phone, my laptop, the G-20—ecological and social impacts concealed, denied, ignored, and masked as ecological nostalgia or market opportunities. The subject of empire is the commodity; the object is the consumer. All of us are its soldiers.
Domination, critique, resistance
Context: It’s a beautiful world, life is short, and I want to live. I want to feel the wind rushing around me. I want to walk on the land I love, every day. I want to garden with my children and watch them taste the fruits. I want friends. I want to drink starlight in the mountains and howl at the moon. I want the experience of being alive, to feel my sensuous and spiritual relation to flesh, water, rock, fire, wind, species, shooting stars. I want to keep my privileges and increase them. I want to travel to Europe with my family. I want to see my daughters in London or Paris.
Context: Planet Earth 2009, population and industrial explosions, perpetual war, mass extinctions, billions of us striving for better and more, the unthinkable suffering of others. Such beauty and possibility for wonder, connection, pleasure—and—as Barry Lopez (2001) wrote in his great essay “The Naturalist”: “To read the newspapers today, to merely answer the phone, is to know the world is in flames” (¶ 24). Earth abides; meanwhile, no one knows the full extent of the mess we’re making of habitats, species, biosphere, ecosystems, neighborhoods, cultures, selves, others, relationships. No one knows the full extent of “this entire extractive culture [of empire] that has been deforesting, defishing, dewatering, desoiling, despoiling, destroying since its beginnings” (Jensen, 2009, ¶ 10). No one knows the full scale of the problem of empire, its spiral of unintended con- sequences, and the degree of our own complicity: the way we are part of the problem we fail to understand, the way we fail to understand our part in it. Some say we are on the brink of industrial apocalypse. Others remember: we’ve been here about 500 years.
Anyone paying any attention can see that the mounting data describe an awesome mess of impacts, but fitting the fragments together is complicated. How many parts per million CO2? How many African American men in prison?
Rare is the space in which related impacts are acknowledged along with their more complex cultural causes. But increasingly, impacts are experiential, and therefore transformative. During my first week of classes this fall, a graduate student showed us a collage of photographs she made from her travels with Philippine Exchange: a dichotomous landscape of incredible beauty, destruction from mining, factories like prisons, and desperate poverty: people barely surviving, naked children playing on mountains and rivers of waste. Slumdog without millionaire; millionaire far removed. “It humbled me,” she said, and our privileged space of learning grew quiet. Breathe it in now.
I believe that appropriate responses to the facts surrounding nature and empire—what we know and don’t know, what we feel and don’t feel—are anger, fear, grief, and humility. Avoiding such emotions can lead to projections that may contribute to problems we deny or arrogantly claim to understand. We might learn to be with, rather than run from, the natural sense of despair that the field of environmental education sometimes schools us to avoid. If we are the least connected to others, we are part of a great suffering. Inquiry: Can we hold the paradox between suffering and hope, the dichotomous landscape of wretchedness and magnificence? “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald (1936/2008) wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them other- wise” (¶ 2).
Paradox. Along with grief, anger, and a rational fear of catastrophe, there is also a sense of urgency and responsibility, an embodied and shared knowing that we must do what we can, and now. From “Hieroglyphic Stairway,” by Drew Dellinger (2006, p.47):
it’s 3:23 in the morning and I’m awake because my great great grandchildren won’t let me sleep my great great grandchildren ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered? what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?
what did you do once you knew?
(See the poet perform the entire poem at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=XW63UUthwSg)
Pause. W. S. Merwin said of poetry, “Any work of art makes one very simple demand on anyone who genuinely wants to get in touch with it. And that is to stop. You’ve got to stop what you’re doing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re expecting and just be there . . . however long it takes” (Merwin in Moyers, 1995, p. 2). Like the other time I seek out on the land, poetry engenders another cultural way of knowing. It is a dissident minority tradition within my own colonized and colonizing culture. Stopping for poetry is an antidote to the morning news, to the incessant political posturing, to the super-sure academic argument, to the voice of reason that governs research methods and reports findings with caution and restraint. Poetry revives me, helps me to recover my wilder self, my possibilities, my empathy, in a domesticating competitive culture that makes me feel loss and lost. Poetry does not argue for the truth, it burns with it. “What did you do once you knew?” (Dellinger, 2006, p.47).
Pause. At 82, W. S. Merwin has won two Pulitzer prizes for poetry including this year’s prize; he is also an environmental and peace activist. What Merwin says of poetry is a fruitful beginning for any field of inquiry shaped in part by empire: we’ve got to stop what we’re doing, what we’re thinking, and what we’re expecting. Is it possible to let down our guard and just be here, together?
To deepen a felt experience of paradox between nature and empire, I want to read two poems by Mary Oliver, another great American poet of nature. The poems I’ll read are from her recent volume, Red Bird (2008); the titles are “The Teachers” and “Of the Empire.” These two poems reflect a tension in environ- mental education: between a focus on nature and human relationship with the more-than-human world, and a focus on empire and the political structures that shape people, place, and planet. My argument, again, is simple: environmental education research must hold together the tension between nature and empire or risk its own irrelevance while empire grows and nature recedes.
Mary Oliver is one of the best nature poets ever. She has taught millions to stop and wake up to their own terrestrial embodiment. In “The Summer Day” Oliver (1992) confesses:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields. (p.94)
Oliver ends this poem by asking of everyone alive, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” (p. 94). Her poem “The Teachers” (2008, p.27) is typical of her meditations on slowing and stopping to pay attention to the others and what our relationship to others might signify.
Owl in the black morning, mockingbird in the burning
slants of the sunny afternoon declare so simply
to the world everything I have tried but still
haven’t been able to put into words,
so I do not go far from that school
with its star-bright or blue ceiling,
and I listen to those teachers, and others too—
the wind in the trees and the water waves—
for they are what lead me from the dryness of self
where I labor with the mind-steps of language—
lonely, as we all are in the singular,
I listen hard to the exuberances
of the mockingbird and the owl, the waves and the wind.
And then, like peace after perfect speech, such stillness.
Pause. The teachers, the others, make me more human. The more-than-human world—as David Abram, Paul Shepard, Annie Dillard, Henry Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Jay Griffiths, Derrick Jensen, and all my friends remind me— the more-than-human-world is sacred, biological diversity makes human life possible, it makes my life, your life, potentially, beautiful. The logic of empire is destroying this world, leaving behind what David Quammen (1998) called “a planet of weeds.”
Who are the teachers, what are their names, and what, if we learn to listen, might we hear the land and the water telling us? Robert Michael Pyle (2008) wrote, “[Environmental] education, no matter how topographically or culturally informed, cannot fully or even substantially succeed without reinstating the pursuit of natural history as an everyday act” (p. 156). It’s only good manners, Pyle says, to get to know our neighbors. “What we know, we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t” (Pyle, 2001, p. 18). Nature study, from this perspective, must also include the study of what we fail to recognize, the study of what dominates our attention and stunts our ability to perceive nature. It must, in other words, include the study of empire.
Environmental education requires an expansive conceptual and experiential framework connecting local and global realities; it requires ecological attention and political edge, to make it relevant to our place and time. It also requires what Phillip Payne and Brian Wattchow (2009) call “slow pedagogy,” deep experience that helps us open and become responsive to the voices of the teachers:
Owl in the black morning, mockingbird in the burning
slants of the sunny afternoon…
…I do not go far from that school…
(Oliver, 2008, p.27)
How far gone are we now, here, today, from the teachers? Returning to the teachers, slowing to open to the more-than-human others, to the experience of habitat and biological diversity, to the interactions between land and people— this is the heart and soul of environmental education. What impedes our ability to perceive these teachings?
Aldo Leopold (1949-1968) said it over a half century ago: “our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land” (p. 223). Today, it is even possible to observe that some environmental education research is headed away from, rather than towards, intense consciousness of land, consciousness that can only develop through direct experience of sufficient frequency, duration, curiosity, and reverence, so that we may learn to listen and to love. The environmental education field has become culturally responsive, politically astute, and psychologically smart—mainly in response to empire. But we still need the teachers. What they teach us is irreplaceable, and endangered, unless we stop, look, and listen for a long time.
Pause. Before sharing Oliver’s (2008) poem, “Of the Empire,” I want to make a few paradoxical claims about the field of environmental education.
First, environmental education researchers and practitioners ought to guard against the lure of professionalization and the pressures of specialization that surround all fields of inquiry. There is a danger inherent in specialization that narrows our potential community and that distances us from the teachers. In many ways I believe, as Peter Martin wrote in 1996, that “having become institutionalized, environmental education is a lost cause and should be phased out as soon as possible” (p. 51). This obviously does not mean that I don’t support environmental education; rather, I observe that the development of environmental education as a profession can dull its political edge, and can school it far away from the teachers. What is more, as Foucault (1977) showed us, professions tend to normalize behaviour, marginalize outsiders, and disqualify dissent; they can make us docile and unresponsive to nature or empire.
In a provocative lecture titled “Professionals and Amateurs,” Edward Said (1994) noted:
Specialization means losing sight of the raw effort of constructing either art or knowledge; as a result you cannot view knowledge and art as choices and decisions, commitments and alignments, but only in terms of impersonal theories or methodologies. . . . In the end as a fully specialized . . . intellectual you become tame and accepting of whatever the so-called leaders in the field will allow. Specialization also kills your sense of excitement and discovery, both of which are irreducibly present in the intellectual’s make-up. In the final analysis, giving up to specialization is, I have always felt, laziness, so you end up doing what others tell you, because that is your specialty after all. (p. 77)
Environmental education, because of its inherent interdisciplinarity and the enormous scope of the work, ought to resist specialization by definition. The real challenge is not to advance the field, but to participate in and help shape the larger movement for cultural and ecological renewal and transformation. As Paul Hawken (2007) tells it in his book Blessed Unrest, the larger movement is huge. It is made up of diverse networks of organizations and individuals working for peace, social justice, ecological sustainability, and Indigenous and civil rights. Each of these related ideals is threatened by the same empire. Political and conceptual power capable of resisting and shaping empire can be found in the intersectionality of the larger movement. This power is also found in the arts, the soul of all social movements.
Mary Oliver’s (2008) “Of the Empire”:
We will be known as the culture that feared death and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity for the few and cared little for the penury of the many. We will be known as a culture that taught and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke little if at all about the quality of life for people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a commodity. And they will say that this structure was held together politically, which it was, and they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (p.46)
Let’s face it: environmental education is a pedagogical David to the Goliath of empire with its schools, bombs, patriarchy, and shopping opportunities everywhere. The way the U.S. national budget is prioritized is symptomatic: trillions for horrific wars; nothing for the environment within the Department of Education. Even if the United State’s No Child Left Inside Act of 2009 eventually passes, and the environment is finally noted by the Department of Education 40 years after Earth Day, it and its budget will be subsumed under No Child Left Behind, which is the climax of neoliberal education reform aligned with the politics of empire. This is not conspiracy theory or even critical theory, but the explicit expression of educational purpose from policymakers and leaders from local, state, and federal levels. No Child Left Inside is a remarkable example of grass-roots political activism in support of environmental education. May we please open a window and listen to the teachers? But obviously, the thrust of formal education in the industrial/capitalist state is aligned with the politics of empire.
Today in wartime, these politics constantly promote the expectation of “economic recovery,” and the recovery of “consumer confidence.” We might wonder what it means. Consumer confidence? Recovery back to what? The prevailing fiction of limitless growth, that logical impossibility that Edward Abby called “the ideology of the cancer cell”? Recovery back to what? An unjust colonial order? An economically exploitative and ecologically destructive culture of hyper-consumption, speculation, and debt? Today in wartime, few educators, environmental or otherwise, are questioning the profoundly pedagogical impact of empire: economic growth for the class economy, military adventurism for false security, and the erosion and commodification of the cultural and ecological commons. The most insidious effect of empire, however, may be that it functions to conceal from thought the very idea that any of this is problematic. These are the politics from which no child is left behind, and to which environmental education research must attend.
Memory and Reinhabitation
A writer and lover of beauty, my grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s the last decade of her long life. She was the matriarch of a large family, a first generation immigrant who loved America, and the American flag, for the real opportunities it represented for freedom from poverty and oppression that my ancestors fled in Eastern Europe. I remember the last time I saw her before she was placed into full-time care. I took her for a short canoe ride on a lake in northern Wisconsin. She crawled into the bow seat; I paddled from the stern. I had never paddled so intentionally, every stroke deliberate and smooth. Once out on the water, she leaned over the gunwale and let her hand dip below the glassy surface. “Soft,” she said, “it’s so soft.”
The last time I saw her before the funeral was at the nursing home in Milwaukee. The attendant who wheeled her into the common room told her, “Your grandson is here to visit with you, Liz,” and then she parked the wheelchair next to me and left us alone. I was scared. Would she know me? Was it a good day or a bad day? So, I started talking about the weather, the season, what was going on. I said: “Nonny, guess what. I moved to the country.” Instantly, as if from far away, she came back: “Smart,” she said, “smart.”
Then she must have remembered I was a teacher. She loved education, read all the time, left school after eighth grade. “You’re teaching,” she said, half statement, half question. I answered, “Yes, I’m a professor now.” Unimpressed, she asked me what I was teaching, and glibly I told her, “Well, I’m trying to help tear down the system.” Her eyes got real squinty then, and they widened and cleared as she looked up at me with the firm authority of elderhood, “You mean build it up!” She was insistent, and that was the end of that.
Most days my grandmother didn’t know her own name, her children or grandchildren’s faces, the season, the current president (she often spoke of Lincoln), or how long ago her husband had passed (it had been 30 years). But at the mere mention of tearing something down, the response from my grandmother was immediate. “Sonny,” she said, “you need to build it up.”
Today I honor my grandmother’s wisdom. She came of age during the Depression. She stretched a meager budget for food for seven children. “Sonny,” she said, “you need to build it up.”
Building things up and tearing things down—this apparent dichotomy presents another opportunity to hold and balance paradox. I’ve described nature and empire as two poles of a paradox that reflect the expansive landscape of environmental education, the linked cultural and ecological contexts of our work. I want to offer another paradox that holds together the big aims of environmental education, and that also points to pathways for pedagogy and curriculum. The paradox is between decolonization and reinhabitation, between tearing things down, and building things up.
I propose considering “decolonization” and “reinhabitation” as twin goals for education in a culture of empire. It should be said that these goals parallel other aims of educational research and practice; naming them is an effort to make inclusive space for those interested in environment and culture, nature, and empire. Like other synonymous terms, decolonization signals a strong critique of cultural practices and their underlying assumptions. The significance of decolonization as a theoretical category is that its usage specifically problematizes the colonization of people and land, both as historical practice and as the political progenitor of today’s empire. Of course critique alone is insufficient theory for environmental education research, and thus the pairing of decolonization with the vision of reinhabitation. It is the tension of paradox between decolonization and reinhabitation that gives both terms their conceptual range. Though for the sake of theory-building the two terms are called out as distinct, reinhabitation and decolonization are two dimensions of the same task. Renewal often requires that something is undone. In California, Van Jones expressed this clearly with his program, “Green Jobs, Not Jails.” Nature, empire, paradox.
Decolonization involves learning to recognize disruption and injury in person-place relationships, and learning to address their causes. Because colonization refers also to the colonization of the mind and body, it involves the practice of unlearning and undoing. Reinhabitation involves maintaining, restoring, and creating ways of living that are more in tune with the ecological limits of a place, practices that are less dependent on a globalized consumer culture that values profits and conveniences more than people and places. Reinhabitation means learning to live well socially and ecologically in a place, and learning to live in a way that does not harm other people and places (Gruenewald, 2003).1 These are big aims, but there is more. Reinhabitation also implies taking a new stance toward one’s own becoming. We reinhabit the self whenever we seek our own renewal, when we stop to listen to the teachers, or when we acknowledge the heartbeat of empire in our own bodies:
they will say also that our politics was no more than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of the heart, and that the heart, in those days, was small, and hard, and full of meanness. (Oliver, 2008, p.46)
Because decolonization emphasizes human relationship to land, Indigenous perspectives on inhabitation are vital, as are the perspectives of other displaced and minoritized groups. Acknowledging Indigenous inhabitation is not only to recognize place-based relations to nature, but also to remember the long story of colonization, resistance, and the rights of sovereignty. Indigenous cultures are not the only cultures that have histories that need to be remembered; many minority traditions tell sacred stories of land, displacement, and struggle. Even mainstream white America incubates movements for resistance and change. The voices of poets, artists, activists, and others working for peace, social justice, Indigenous and civil rights, and for environmental justice and ecological sustainability—these voices are a worldwide movement standing up to empire. Whatever success this unnamed movement will have building things up and will depend not merely on critique and vision, not merely on developing communities of congruence and resistance. Perhaps building things up will depend mainly on changes in consciousness that open the heart, reinhabitations that slow us down so that we can recognize the intersectionality of our interests, how each of us is implicated in the other.
Listen to the teachers, confront empire. I want to build now toward naming a course of action for the field. While we might celebrate No Child Left Inside and the growth of green, decolonization means that we dig deeper: that we acknowledge genocide, racism, and patriarchy, past and present; that we acknowledge the class and caste systems that our contented consumption supports; and that we face up to our militarized culture of violence, repression, and war. Decolonization and reinhabitation mean untangling the roots of empire and building something up, a process that begins with ourselves, reaches outward, and never ends. Every act is important and not without consequence; collectively all of our actions create all of our contexts. Our numbers are many.
Our numbers, in fact, and our impacts, are extreme. Chris Jordan is a photographer who creates images that communicate the otherwise ineffable scale of our culture of mass consumption (see all the following images at http://www.chrisjordon.com). What is indistinguishable from a distance is revealed on closer scrutiny. “Gyre” (2009) depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic, equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour. All of the plastic in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean. “Shark Teeth” (2009) depicts 270,000 fossilized shark teeth, equal to the estimated number of sharks of all species killed around the world every day for their fins. Jordan’s art also magnifies the social and psychological impacts of empire: “Ben Franklin” (2007) depicts 125,000 one-hundred dollar bills ($12.5 million), the amount our government spent every hour on the war in Iraq during 2007; “Constitution” (2008) depicts 83,000 Abu Ghraib prisoner photographs, equal to the number of people who have been arrested and held at US-run detention facilities with no trial or other due process of law, during the Bush Administration’s war on terror; “Barbie Dolls” (2008) depicts 32,000 Barbies, equal to the number of elective breast augmentation surgeries performed monthly in the US in 2006. The commodification of life under empire reeks of plastic, petroleum, patriarchy.
Paradoxically, the demand for Jordan’s work is high: people are drawn to the terrible truth of his poetry. Of all of Jordan’s (2009) work, his “E. Pluribus Unum,” or “the many become one,” best represents to me future directions for environmental educational research. From a distance, this image reminds me of the stories of the land told in tree rings. Complexity and beauty are revealed in proximity. This large scale mandala (the indoor wall hanging measures 45 by 45 feet) depicts the names of one million organizations around the world that are devoted to peace, environmental stewardship, social justice, and the continuation of diverse and indigenous cultures. The actual number of such organizations is unknown, but Paul Hawken’s (2007) “Blessed Unrest” project estimates the number at somewhere between one and two million, and growing. If the lines in this piece were straightened out, they would make an unbroken line of names, in a ten point font, twenty seven miles long.
What I’m suggesting is that if part of the work of environmental education is to decolonize and reinhabit empire, then we must better recognize the intersectionality of our interests with the interests of others, even or especially those whose ecological consciousness may be diminished by the ravages of empire. Green jobs, not jails. Environmental educators who can hold the paradox between nature and empire can expand the landscape of the field while enhancing the reach and impact of environmental education. In all intersectional social movements there are opportunities to acknowledge and resist the power of empire, to remember and reinhabit colonized land and colonized places, to remember their stories, and to listen for the wisdom of the teachers. We need an intersectional approach because our work is already braided in its resistance to and reconfiguration of empire, and moreover, to discount the struggles of others is to cut ourselves off from the principle of interrelationship; and to discount the struggle of others is to enact the logic of empire.
The intersectional movement that environmental education needs has been gathering: social ecology, environmental justice, ecofeminsim, ecojustice, eco-pedagogy, ecopsychology, critical geography, Indigenous ways of knowing, place-based education, peace education, humane education, sustainability education, disability studies, transformative education, Transition Towns, Wendell Berry, Jane Goodall, the Earth Charter. The shared theme of intersectional movements is their responsiveness to both nature and empire. Their movement energy is the vanguard of educational theory and practice.
The politics of empire do not change unless they are resisted by growing social movements: locally, nationally, globally. Democrats in Washington are obviously not enough. President Obama is not enough. Even if he wanted a strong climate agreement, for example, or to remove the salmon killing dams on the Snake River, or to provide affordable universal health care, or to end war–he can’t get it done, because his work is governed by the logic of empire.
History shows us that through partnership, solidarity, and persistence, social groups grow wiser and stronger in their ability to transform this logic, and to reinhabit our colonized places and lives. In the age of empire, the field of environmental education can itself become a kind of E. Pluribus Unum that invites and creates intersectional theory and action.
But—as important as it is to politicize our work and to ally the field with kindred social movements, we must remember the teachers. We need to learn how to stop, slow, and invoke their sacred presences. We need to learn how to privilege the teachers—other species, their languages, “owl in the black morning”—as full partners in E. Pluribus Unum. Nature, habitat, ecosystem, species, climate—this is not a political group; it is the context that makes all politics possible. There is a power greater than political power, and a strength greater than intellectual muscle. We know it as the experience of being alive, and being connected to others. The challenge is to hold this power and develop this strength as we participate in the larger struggle for peace, social justice, Indigenous and civil rights, and ecological well being.
Because a culture of perpetual war undermines the growth of any environmental ethic, I want to close with a poem by Judyth Hill (2002, p.4) called “Wage Peace.”
Wage peace with your breath. Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees. Breathe in the fallen and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening: hearing sirens, pray loud. Remember your tools: flower seeds, clothespins, clean rivers.
Make soup. Play music, learn the words for “thank you” in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat. Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side. Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious. Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived. Celebrate today.
Participation in the money economy makes it difficult to know how one’s consumption is impacting other people and places. The point is that to practice reinhabiting place, one must become more aware of how one’s actions have impacts “all over the place” now and in the future—and—one must begin to act ethically on that knowledge.
This paper was the concluding plenary address at the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) Annual Conference Research Symposium in Portland, Oregon, USA, October, 2009.
Excerpt from “hieroglyphic stairway” by Drew Dellinger. Copyright © 2006 by Drew Dellinger. Used by permission of the poet. www.drewdellinger.org
Excerpt from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 1992 by Mary Oliver. Used by permission of the poet.
“The Teachers” and “Of the Empire” by Mary Oliver. Copyright © 2008 by Mary Oliver. Used by permission of the poet.
“Wage Peace” by Judyth Hill. Copyright © 2002 by Judyth Hill. Used by permission of the poet.
David A. Greenwood is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education in the Faculty of Education of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada. His teaching, research, and community work revolve around place-based, environmental and sustainability education. Widely published in these areas, David recently guest edited with Marcia McKenzie Volume 14 of the Canadian Journal of Environmental Education (2009), and is editor with Greg Smith of the book Place-Based Education in the Global Age (Routledge, 2008). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dellinger. D. (2006, Summer). hieroglyphic stairway. YES!, 38, 47.
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Gruenewald, D. (2003). The best of both worlds: A critical pedagogy of place. Educational Researcher, 32(4), 3-12.
Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest. New York: Viking. Hill, J. (2002). Wage peace. In M. Adams (Ed.), Singing this great body back together:
In remembrance of September 11, 2002 (p. 4). Columbine Hills, CO: Baculite Publishing.
Jensen, D. (2009, May/June). The world at gunpoint. Orion. Retrieved from http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4697/
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Moyers, B. (1995). The language of life: A festival of poets. New York: Doubleday. Oliver, M. (1992). New and selected poems. Boston: Beacon Press.
Oliver, M. (2008). Red bird. Boston: Beacon Press.
Payne, P. & Wattchow, B. (2009). Phenomenological deconstruction, slow pedagogy, and the corporeal turn in wild environmental/outdoor education. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 14, 15-32.
Pyle, R. (2001). The rise and fall of natural history: How a science grew that eclipsed direct experience. Orion, 20(4), 16-23.
Pyle, R. M. (2008). No child left inside: Nature study as a radical act. In D. Gruenewald & G. Smith, (Eds.), Place-based education in the global age: Local diversity (pp.155-172). New York: Routledge.
Quammen, D. (1998). A planet of weeds. Harper’s Magazine, October, 57-69. Said, E. (1994). Representations of the intellectual. New York: Pantheon Books.
White, R. (1995). The organic machine: The remaking of the Columbia River. New York: Hill and Wang.
Although this article was written in 1996, and contains references to events and people from that era, much of Weilbacher’s critique remains relevant today. -Ed.
Every Day is NOT Earth Day
Reflections on the True Meaning of Earth Day
by Mike Weilbacher
‘ll admit it up front: I’m a sucker for Earth Day. I’m a child of the first Earth Day in 1970, for its tidal wave of publicity captivated my teenage attention and launched my career. My wife and I met planning Philadelphia’s Earth Day ’90 extravaganza – her parade met my outdoor stage, and the rest was history. Today, my workplace’s largest education program has become Philly’s longest running Earth Day event.
So few things annoy me more than the standard environmental knee-jerk position on Earth Day. You know it well, and have probably recited it like some Zen mantra: every day is Earth Day; make every day Earth Day.
As usual, we got it all wrong.
Because the environmental movement began as a countercultural phenomenon, we simply can’t stand our own successes, and continually sabotage our greatest gains. Like Earth Day.
Just think of what’s happened. Millions of kids across the planet are gearing up for some celebration of the day, perhaps a tree planting, a litter clean-up, a bad assembly featuring some whining folksinger (“Please save the rainforest, boys and girls, and when you’re done, please save every large endangered mammal”), or a recycled art contest, where eminently recyclable objects like cans and egg cartons are irrevocably glued to each other and turned into wholly non-recyclable monstrosities that are trashed after the event is over (and we’re teaching what here?).
OK, bad examples, but what it means is so startlingly simple it has flown way over our still-shaggy heads. Earth Day has arrived; it has planted a taproot in the mainstream of American pop culture, and like it or not, there it will stay, and grow, and blossom…
…Into a new intemational holiday that will one day rival Christmas in its scope. I’m dead serious. Signs of this were first revealed during the extraordinary event that was Earth Day’90. While the first Earth Day was an exclusively American college-oriented teach-in, Earth Day ’90 graduated into a global festival of more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries gathering to, in some cases, perform quite meaningful work: restore rivers, save species, reclaim battered landscapes. Earth Day ’90 was, barring world wars or Michael Jackson concerts, the largest mass event in world history.
Today, the sound of the holiday embedding itself in our cultural psyche can be heard everywhere. In schools: Earth Day has become a part of many school curricula; kids are growing up knowing that Earth Day is April 22nd, and doing something relevant on or near that day. In politics: every April 22nd, President Clinton – with Vice President Green, I mean, Gore, at his side – hosts a press conference to announce another underwhelming eco-initiative. On TV: every April, there’s a round of cheesy Earth Day specials featuring forgettable stars like Bob Saget performing amazing feats like installing toilet dams in their home bathrooms (that really happened a few years back.) On radio: Rush Limbaugh will likely repeat his tired tirade that the day reflects the true deep green plot against society, for April 22nd is also Lenin’s birthday – proof that environmentalism is a Communist plot! (Memo to Rush: April 22nd was chosen because it was the only spring Saturday Senator Gaylord Nelson had free in 1970, and no environmentalist I’ve ever met in 27 years of Earth Days ever knew when Lenin was born.
You’ll hear it in newspaper editorials and worldwide web pages; in store ads and nature center events; in zoos and museums; on T-shirts and coffee mugs.
Love it or hate it, you gotta admit it: Earth Day is here to stay.
And Earth Day will only grow in scope because environmental issues are not going to go away. Quite the contrary. With Pinatubo’s ash finally settling out, with atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on the rise, the global warming debate will likely warm up quite dramatically in the next few years. The biodiversity conflict is only starting to gain any intensity at all – here’s one issue guaranteed to explode as soon as a large, charismatic mammal vanishes, like the black rhino or mountain gorilla, both threatened by Africa’s political instability. And we have never properly confronted the population issue – we likely will when the next famine arrives.
On top of this, the nascent Earth Day holiday will receive a huge jolt in the year 2000. New millennium. The thirtieth anniversary. That year’s Earth Day will be a humbling event.
Sure, the “make every day Earth Day” sentiment has its place. Mostly, it serves as a reminder that the values and ethics we hold important must be cultivated daily if they will thrive. And it should remind schools of the danger of pigeonholing the ecology unit into a one-day or one-week project. Certainly, state educational mandates for ecological/environmental understandings must never be met from a one-day event, and too many schools rely on this one day to complete its environmental education requirements.
Speaking of schools, Earth Day brings out the worst in too many teacher, and too many outside educational agencies, from corporations to utilities to non-profit. There are too many lame Earth Day poster contests, where kids are asked to draw a colorful poster with an Earth Day theme. So it’s education as fascist slogan: “Don’t Pollute!” “Love the Earth!” “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” Relax already. We still labor under the horribly misguided notion that if we command kids’ knees to jerk in the proper direction, their heads will follow. Wrong, so wrong. Sloganeering is not educational in any sense whatsoever, teaches no information at all, and only confirms our kids’ worst fears about the state of the Earth: The Earth must be dying because the posters say so. Environmental education must be uplifting, never down- grading, and never be reduced to a bumper-sticker answer to a lapel-pin question.
Still, wading through all the flotsam and jetsam floating around Earth Day, there is a nugget of truth, a seed of change that we must hold onto tightly.
We need holidays. Better yet, we need holidays with meaning. Christmas resonates with so many people – even people who are barely Christian the rest of the year – because it speaks to a set of values we all want so desperately to believe, like the triumph of Light over Dark. The Fourth of July is centered on freedom, independence, and the meaning of America. Martin Luther King Day, I hope, will evolve to take on transcendent relevance around issues of equality, nonviolence, change and the need for multicultural connections.
Sadly, Memorial Day, Labor Day and President’s Day have lost so much of their original meaning, and exist only as three-day holidays for overworking people. Our culture may be seeking new holidays with new meanings for a new millennium, and the beauty of Earth Day is that it emerges as the only secular holiday the entire world will celebrate simultaneously. Earth Day will become just that, the “Earth’s day,” a holiday where people pause to consider what it means to be a planetary citizen, and reflect on how well we shared limited resources with so many other species.
My eldest daughter will be a graduate of the Class of 2010. I’ll wager that during her school career, she’ll have a day off from school for Earth Day. Banks will close. Governments shut down. Stores hold Earth Day sales. Greenpeace’s executive director will write an op-ed piece in the New York Times begging us to “put the ‘Earth’ back in Earth Day.”
And I’ll be on some stage somewhere hosting an Earth Day festival, living every minute of it all.
So remember: every day is NOT Earth Day. Once a year is fine. Happy Earth Day.
At the time this was written, Mike Weilbacher was executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy, sponsor of the Children’s Earth Day Forest, an event featuring an indoor life-size recreation of a Pennsylvania forest hand-crafted by local schoolchildren.
No Fooling: Exploring the Nature of Responsibility, Progress, Success, and Good Work
How we answer a challenge raised over half a century ago regarding the way we handle the blessings of nature will go a long way towards determining our future.
by Peter Hayes
In the roughly 10,000 years since members of our species first began to call the Pacific Northwest home, many good questions have been asked. Of all that have been posed, one continues to stand out as the most important. In 1938 during a noontime luncheon address to a group of prosperous citizens in Portland, Oregon, the thoughtful, worldly generalist, Lewis Mumford asked this question: “I have seen a lot of scenery in my life, but I have seen nothing so tempting as a home for man than this Oregon country… You have the basis here for civilization on its highest scale and I am going to ask you a question which you may not like… Have you enough intelligence, imagination, and cooperation among you to make the best use of these opportunities?”
Though he spoke to one group of people in reference to the future of one region, the question applies equally well to our entire species and our total habitat — this planet — “do we have the qualities necessary to successfully live here for the long haul?” That is the most important question in the world. The only answers which matter are those expressed through actions, not words. And what do the consequences of actions taken since Mumford’s 1938 question say about our success? There is certainly good news in the form of the development of a more crash resistant economy, a country and world which may have made progress toward the challenge of judging people by the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin, and the imagination, endorsement, and enforcement of laws which help the powers of care, cooperation, and foresightfulness get the upper hand on the powers of selfish, shortsighted greed trying to turn our commonwealth into their personal wealth.
But overall the evidence of actions taken, and not taken, since 1938 indicate that our answer to Mumford’s question is: “no, we don’t yet have the qualities necessary to successfully live here. Our perceptive abilities, values, and ethics have not yet evolved in the ways that they must in order to develop and use those qualities”.
If meeting the challenge is a matter of fundamental survival, why haven’t we done it? If we are clever enough to pull off such feats as walking on the moon, splitting atoms, and cloning creatures, why not attend to our most basic survival? The answer is that we choose to fool ourselves. Fueled by the powerful forces, including the omnipresent media and our systems of schooling, we fool ourselves in four main ways. Progress toward meeting Mumford’s challenge — our most basic responsibility — depends on recognizing and correcting the ways that we’ve been fooled and continue to fool our children.
The fooling happens in how too many of us answer these four questions: 1) What is success?, 2) What is our greatest challenge?, 3) What is the basis for our decision making?, and 4) What are schools for?
What is Success?
One major reason for our continuing failure to meet — or even acknowledge — Mumford’s challenge is that for the majority of our species the challenge is not seen to be important enough to even pay attention to; for many, there is no connection between our personal yardstick of what it means to be a successful person and progress toward the challenge. Our systems and competitive instincts program us to be amused and preoccupied by other challenges and measures of success — accumulating more money than we need, proving that we are better than other people — whether on the sports field, in the classroom, boardroom, stock exchange floor, or battlefield, and basing our identities and sense of success on the acquisition of power, prestige, and comfort — on what we can take instead of what we choose to give. So, much like the highly capable student who flunks a course because she just didn’t choose to try, the first reason we continue to not meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us continue to be fooled into believing that success is measured by actions which take us further from meeting the challenge instead of toward it. Tellingly, Mumford prefaced his question to Portland’s City Club with the caveat that he had a question which his audience probably would not like. Wasn’t this because it presented — to people who already saw themselves as successful — an alternative, ultimately more important, measure of success, which if recognized, stood to threaten and/or limit their accepted notions of success?
What is the Challenge?
As a teacher, I owe thanks to my students for helping me recognize the second way that we fool ourselves. Year after year class discussions devolve into a familiar debate over which of the challenges on humanity’s plate is most important and deserving of our attention and energies. Here is a sampler of predictable excerpts: “Yes, I know that all of the problems with the environment, such as saving the salmon, are important, but you’ve got to realize that we have to look out for the well being of our own species first; people are starving and that must be our top priority.” Or “These efforts to help people learn to treat each other well, and to solve environmental problems like global warming are important, but we have to be sure to do nothing which might threaten quarterly profits and harm the economy; if we don’t have a strong economy, things will fall apart”. They have learned what they have been taught — and been fooled, just as I was fooled. We have inherited a flawed conceptual model which is based on the assumption that our species faces three, competing challenges: the challenge of people learning and choosing to successfully live with one another, the challenge of humans learning and choosing to live within the limits of what the land can provide, and the challenge of learning and choosing to develop an economic system which can endure over time. I fell for it; conclusions such as Aldo Leopold’s: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.” fooled me into the mistaken belief that one of the three competing challenge was paramount. I now see that from birth my culture conditioned me to see myself as positioned in the center of a triangle, with compelling, competing, and insistent voices from each corner vying for my attention. Across from Aldo’s siren call come the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and others, such as “We must either learn to live together as brothers or die together as fools.” And from the third corner come the powerful economic cautions of Alan Greenspan, Wall Street, and the WTO advising that without a functioning economy we have nothing. After investing twenty five years of my working life in the wholehearted, and often zealous, service of one of the three challenges — helping people learn and choose to live within the limits of what the land can provide – I have come to see that I was wrong because my work has been based on a flawed conceptual model of the real nature of the challenges. Aldo was right, but he was also wrong; King was right, but he was wrong; Greenspan is right, but he is wrong.
While each is essential, none is in itself sufficient. An economy dependent on the degradation of land or people will never succeed; a healthy land community depends on a functional economy and healthy human community; and humans cannot resolve their differences as long as the ecosystems and economies on which they depend are in disarray. As Jared Diamond described in a post September 11th letter to the Washington Post: “If a dozen years ago you had asked an ecologist uninterested in politics to name the countries with the most fragile environments, the most urgent public health problems, and the most severe overpopulation, the answer would have included Afghanistan, Burundi, Haiti, Iraq, Nepal, Rwanda, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe. The close match between that list and the list of the world’s political hot spots today is no accident.” Though the world around us continues to do its best to fool us into seeing three competing challenges, the evidence from a careful look at how the world really works convinces me that these are not three challenges, but one — building communities which can survive and thrive indefinitely. For me, the competitive triangle model has been replaced by an interdependent, cooperative circular model of three links of chain. Healthy communities depend on meeting the challenges represented by each link, and our success is only as strong as the weakest link.
Progress depends on each of us learning to let go of our drive to see our highest priority corner or link prevail over the other three (think Earth First, WTO), and instead develop a higher commitment to the whole of being a citizen and community member than to any one of the links. Ironically it seems that the longer and harder we continue to push on our chosen corner of the competitive triangle model — as well meaning as we may be — the less likely we are to make progress toward any of the challenges. Success depends on turning all of our environmentalists, human rights activists, and economic development enthusiasts into just plain citizens — knowledgeable about and committed to all three links of the chain. These people fit into Wallace Stegner’s notion of choosing to be “stickers” instead of “boomers”, and follow the advice of Gary Snyder and others that one of the most radical — an useful – things we can do is to stay put.
What is the Basis of Our Decisions?
The third way that many of us continue to fool ourselves is pretending that the basis of our decisions can reasonably shift if distanced by time and/or space. When reduced to the most local scale, our moral evolution, as a species, has progressed toward basing an increasingly percentage of our actions on what is right to do as opposed to what we have the power to do.
Even if I am bigger and tougher than my two eating mates, I don’t eat more than my third of the pizza because that is the right thing to do; sharing a common pasture with other farming families, I choose to graze only as many cattle on it as the land can provide for, because that is the right thing to do; even if certain investments could be unusually lucrative, I choose not to invest in them because they are bad for the community. Each of these represents a choice to base decisions on ethics instead of power. In contrast to the progress we have made in what might be called moral evolution, we continue to fool ourselves with arbitrary blinders and barriers in terms of what we consider to be the domain of ethics and what is the domain of power.
Curiously something which is based on ethics when close to us in space or time, can slip back to being based on power when removed to greater distance. An example is the land use choices of forest products companies based in the Pacific Northwest. When operating within the United States the company uses a set of land use practices which their full page newspaper ads tell us are shaped not by laws, but by an abiding, ethically based commitment to land stewardship. Yet when the same companies transfer capital from domestic investments to forestry in other countries, their treatment of land is much less careful and, in the absence of land use laws in places like Russia, the basis for company decision making apparently shifts from ethics to what they have the power to do. Similarly, though I might buy a shirt made using child labor paid at unreasonably low rates — if it came from a very distant place, I would refuse, on ethical grounds, to eat at a local restaurant whose existence and profits depended on similar human abuse. Though a fisher would choose for ethical reasons not to steal fish from the hold of a fellow fisher’s boat moored alongside of his, he sees no ethical problem with overfishing a species, such as Atlantic Cod, to commercial extinction, which is effectively stealing fish from the holds of the fish boats of his children and grand children. Why do so many of us continue to fool ourselves into believing that our responsibility for ethical decision making decreases in proportion to how distant and anonymous the consequences become in space and/or time? Isn’t a consequence a consequence, no matter where and when they happen?
The Work of Schools
Mumford’s question — do we have the characteristics necessary to successfully live here — begs a preceding question: what characteristics are most important to us as we seek to meet the challenge?
Though he suggested intelligence, imagination, and cooperation, what would be your top ten essential attitudes, skills, and habits? What letter grade would you give the success of the five schools closest to your home at developing these characteristics in their students? What limits their success in doing this? The schools in my community are failing in this most important responsibility because they don’t recognize it as being their responsibility and are never held accountable for success. Instead, their missions, parental pressure, and deadening effect of school reform standards focus their attention and resources on maintaining and increasing students’ upward mobility — or put more bluntly – using the fair winds of competitive instinct to train good predators. Because of this, the final of the four barrier between us and rising to meet Mumford’s challenge is that too many of us fool ourselves into believing that our schools can be considered to be successful when they continue to put a disproportionate emphasis on preparing students to take/pursue personal gain — instead of developing in students the readiness to give in proportion to what they take, which is the measure of responsible citizenship. This status quo of schooling is a road toward diminishing returns because the pursuit of individual gain at the expense of our commonwealth leaves a dwindling world to be upwardly mobile in. We will know that this barrier is behind us when our schools are as, or more, effective at encouraging moral evolution and developing the characteristics of citizenship as they are in preparing students for upward mobility.
I was born into a world where the imbalance between what people asked of our communities and what those communities had the capacity to provide led to progressive erosion of community health and vitality. Though the decline continues, I am optimistic that within my lifetime it is possible for us to turn the corner by reconciling what our species demands with what the systems can sustainably provide. Every day I become increasingly convinced that the key to success is waking up to the four crucial ways that we fool ourselves and continue to fool each succeeding generation. What makes me hopeful is that when you look closely, in the right spots, it is easy to find, learn from, and be inspired by many remarkable examples of work that are successfully beginning to rebuild community vitality. Their success is the result of choosing to end the foolishness by redefining progress and success, re-envisioning three competing community challenges as one challenge, expanding the universe of ethical responsibility, and reshaping schooling to acknowledge that educating for responsible citizenship is our highest responsibility.
Among all of the candidates proposed as yardsticks for a successful life – educational pedigree, net worth, level of influence — is not the ultimate measure of our value and good work the degree to which we help equip our culture and its children to answer “yes” to Mumford’s challenge?
Peter Hayes is the former Ecological Studies Coordinator at Lakeside School in Seattle. He now manages a family tree farm in the Coast Range of western Oregon.