The Eco-Modernizers’ Dilemma

Way back in 1989,  The Sunday Times Magazine had a picture of the Earth from space, with the words ‘The Earth is dying. What are you going to do about it?’ I remember this, because I was in my first year of teaching geography in schools. And, at the time, I had an answer to the question. It was that geography teachers had a duty to introduce students to knowledge and ideas that would help them understand the nature of environmental issues and be able to decide for themselves what attitudes, values, if they chose, actions to adopt. This doesn’t sound very radical – but the fact that the Sunday Times was urging its readers to think about these issues reflected the increased visibility of the ‘environmental crisis’ in popular opinion. It is important to remember that the greening of industry or the rise of ‘green consumerism’ was in its infancy at this stage – supermarkets were not pushing organic food or charging for the use of carrier bags at that time!

Environmental education  was still a marginal concern at this time.

Things are different now. The acceptance of ‘the environment’ as a public and private issue is assumed. Politicians tout their green credentials, supermarkets have signs to tell us that ‘everytime you re-use a plastic carrier bag, the planet says Thanks’, and Education for Sustainable Development is a feature on the National Curriculum. Thus, the QCDA’s (2009) publication Sustainable Development in Action – a curriculum planning guide for schools states:

 “We need to find a way to live on earth that enables all people to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy quality of life, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Most experts agree that our current mode and rate of development on earth is not sustainable. The way we are living is over-taxing the planet’s supply of natural resources – from fresh water supplies to fish stocks, from fertile land to clean air. In addition, the inequalities between peoples, both within countries and across the world, are growing”.

This, coming from the government’s official curriculum authority, shows the extent to which the arguments of a generation of environmental activists have come to occupy the ‘commonsense’ of informed thinking. For some environmental educators, though, this official endorsement -is a double-edge sword, since it means that environmental education is mixed up with an education system shaped by a mechanistic world-view. An example of this is provided in the collection Green Frontiers: environmental educators dancing away  from mechanism. One of the editors, James Gray-Donald suggests that critics of the mechanistic worldview have argued that its “omnipresence lies at the roots of the global ecological crisis and parallel and connected crises in the social, economic, cultural and personal spheres within human society”.

The habit of reducing wholes to parts leads us to separate mind from body and emotions, and this is then used to distance ourselves, objectify and hence exploit nature.  In environmental education ‘the residues of mechanism’ are more than apparent. With an eye to acceptance by the educational mainstream many proponents shy away from embracing a ‘whole person, whole planet’ stance. Moreover, the central position of ‘science’ in dominant versions of environmental education means that many teachers shy away from real engagement with social justice, peace and cultural issues:

“Most renditions of education for sustainable development, as signed up to by environmental educators, involve an implicit acceptance of the principle of economic growth (oftentimes couched in the language of global competitiveness), the violence that the global marketplace is doing to the biosphere not withstanding. Interpretations of education for sustainable development are also anthropocentric, describing nature in resource terms as ‘natural’ capital or ‘natural services’.

This raises important questions about how geography educators should respond to and develop approaches to environmental education. As a curriculum subject, geography is wrapped up with many of the ‘mechanisms’ of formal education. Does this mean that it unavoidably promotes anthropocentric, ‘scientific’ and ‘growth-centric’ views of society and nature?

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1 Response to “The Eco-Modernizers’ Dilemma”


  1. 1 kevincooper777 March 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Yep, with you again all the way.

    Even most of the students I teach think I’m at best naive and at worst a dangerous wacko when I talk about things like my dream that businesses might increasingly be run with a two-fold focus: (1) provide goods and services at the highest quality and cheapest price; (2) to provide as good a quality of life (rather than standard of living) as possible to its employees, treating them with respect, giving them a genuine voice, as fully-functioning human beings rather than as cogs in a machine.

    Thank you so much for your blog – helps me to feel that at the very least there are other “naive wackos” out there too – including some who have been very successful in their spheres!

    My MBA at Keele taught me that there really is a movement away from the mechanistic towards the ‘organic’ in education management thinking – but still in my day to day life I don’t seem to meet other people who feel this is realistic, or even desirable.


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