Find your place on earth, dig in, and take your responsibilities from there.
- Gary Snyder
The earth, of which we are all a part, is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. As we approach a new millennium there is increasing awareness and concern about the effects of climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity etc. We suggest that this crisis is as much a manifestation of human consciousness (i.e. our thoughts and feelings) as it is an environmental crisis. How we think, feel and what we hold to be important shapes our relationship and attitude towards the environment. Any attempt to transform our environment without transforming our own assumptions and values is to ignore a key source of the problem. Conversely, in the face of the environmental crisis, just examining our values without also modifying our lifestyle (the way in which we live with nature and use its resources), is also a superficial and fragmented response. A holistic approach is needed to face this crisis. Hence, environmental philosophy and ecological practice need to be seen as two sides of an integrated approach.
As a response to these concerns a 10-month educational programme was created for young adults (preferably between the ages of 21 and 26) beginning in September 1999 and ending in July 2000. The course is based in the U.K. in Brockwood Park (Hampshire) and Yewfield (Lake District). It has two components: environmental philosophy and ecological practice.
Environmental philosophy is an activity
The aim of the environmental philosophy component is to actively engage in philosophical thinking and questioning on specific environmental issues, to approach them from different value bases and philosophical perspectives (e.g. Utilitarianism, Romanticism, Deep Ecology, etc.). As an ‘activity’ the course is about the process of inquiry and critical thinking rather than a discipline defined by content alone. In grappling with these issues the course tries to enable us to uncover and examine our own deep-seated assumptions and values. In this sense, environmental philosophy is as much a process of self-inquiry as it is an inquiry about the environment that we inhabit.
Ecological practice begins at home
The aim of this component is to look practically at what it might mean to live a more sustainable lifestyle. This begins with acquiring a ‘sense of place’ both ecologically and culturally. This requires learning some basic botany, taxonomy and geology, to be able to identify indigenous flora, fauna, landforms and soils. We study how local ecosystems function and investigate the human impact on our local landscapes (both past and present). We then find and study examples of good ecological practice, especially with regard to land use, energy needs and housing.
With its two components, the course attempts to bring together both academic learning and the learning of practical skills. Apart from the aims mentioned above the course intends to bring about a deep sensitivity to nature, the earth, and to all life. We attempt to do this through direct contact with nature and an inquiry into our relationship with it. It is not the intent of the course to merely indulge in ‘armchair philosophy’ nor to produce ‘environmentalists’.
In its educational methodology the course includes: staff and student-led seminars, discussions, debates, attending conferences, field work, field trips, group and solo wild-camping expeditions. The course is structured like an internship or work-study programme. In order to keep the costs low, to pay for their food and accommodation, to integrate them into the daily life of the communities where they will be staying as well as to enhance the practical component of their education, students work daily in areas such as the kitchen, garden and in the maintenance of the school.
Issues addressed by the course
- Attitudes and values towards nature—how they have evolved and how they affect our thinking, i.e. Utilitarianism, Romanticism, Deep Ecology, etc.
- Getting to know our local environment—identifying native flora and fauna, understanding and evaluating habitats; human impact on the local landscape; vegetable growing.
- Modern environmental issues and case studies—practical and philosophical implications of climate change, biodiversity, sustainable development, GMOs etc.
- Environmental economics —explores the economic issues around sustainable development and the limits to economic growth; learning to conduct environment cost-benefit analyses; environmental responsibility in modern economic systems.
- Sense of place—evolution of the Lake District landscape; a study of the work of William Wordsworth and John Ruskin and their influence on the conservation ethic; vegetable and habitat gardening including permaculture; interpretive mapping.
Because of logistical considerations we had earlier announced that the course could only take a maximum of four students this year. Consequently, however, as we had six strong applicants we had accepted all of them. The students have been able to resolve their logistical difficulties innovatively and three of the students intend to stay on at Brockwood for another year to manage the vegetable garden by themselves.
The course has also developed in an organic manner and we have been able to pursue diversions, questions and interests as and when they have emerged. There is an attempt to observe the process of learning as much as attending to any particular content that may be studied. We are quite excited and enthused by the quality of the students and the way the course has beentaking shape up till now and are eager to see what will unfold.
Because we do not love the earth and the things of the earth but merely utilize them we have lost touch with life… We have lost the sense of tenderness, that sensitivity, that response to things of beauty; and it is only in the renewal of that sensitivity that we can have understanding of what is true relationship..... If the educator and the student lose their relationship to nature, to the trees, to the rolling seas, each will certainly lose his relationship with man.
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
After you understand all about the sun and the stars and the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset.
[Alfred North Whitehead]