Fearful Sightings

5 02 2011

This post is intended for Dougald Hine’s new project New Public Thinkers. I’m just a bit trepidatious about being read alongside some exceptionally sparky and knowledgeable writers so would be grateful for any comments on errors or omissions:

Right now, this is an unprecedented moment. More and more people can see the possibility of throwing off their ‘mind forg’d manacles’, to use William Blake’s phrase. This is the time of mass protests across North Africa and the Gulf but I’m thinking more broadly about global problems and the range of demotic and legislative action taking place to overcome them. The impetus for these resistant actions is a great deal of very real and shared suffering, combined with what I’m calling ‘sightings’, images which help people to see more clearly and systemically. In North Africa, the root cause of protest is rising food prices, but it’s not just what they feel in their bodies but what they can see. Egypt’s people are not insulated from imagery which directly links their hunger to climate change, and which shows them that only a 0.25 meter sea level rise would devastate many of its cities.  In Australia, moves were announced today to revive climate action following extreme storms and floods exacerbated by climate change. Seeing images like this and this and, for some, experiencing this violent reality must have had an impact on policy.

This thought train about the importance of ‘sightings’ began when I read Andy Gibson’s piece ‘Nudge vs #big society?’ Andy expressed cognitive dissonance with the UK Government’s enthusiasm for ‘nudge’ techniques (or ‘choice architecture’) to achieve mass behaviour change, combined with their expectation of a mass rising up in capacity to deliver the Big Society. Nudge is essentially a behaviourist approach which to a certain extent makes use of Persuasion Without Awareness tactics. Capacity for the Big Society requires metacognitive learning, or Self-Persuasion Through Awareness. Andy asked the Coalition’s Behavioural Insight team, ‘Have we abandoned learning?’ Of course, their answer would be ‘no, we think education is vital’. But I think no recent UK Government has ever really embraced it, the principle of self-determined lifelong limitless learning, or enlightenment. They never wanted anyone to see quite so clearly but, conversely, they fail to see that a mix of deprivation and access to knowledge will inevitably clear people’s sight. Jesse Norman, Conservative MP and author of The Big Society (on Any Questions, BBCR4 Feb 4th) said that a positive outcome of the outcry against the privatisation of public forests would be increased learning and stewardship. Now, I do believe that learning through challenge is effective but this veers towards learning through chaos, trauma and coercion. Moreover, I’m dubious about how much influence an enlightened public will be allowed to have and that this will constrain their learning. For example, if people tell the Government, having discussed and learned, that breaking up the Forestry Commission means an end to Forestry Stewardship Council membership, threatening efforts to curb global deforestation, will the Government acknowledge it? The Government has access to all the resources to give them clear sight but, in fear of losing status and status quo, they choose to obfuscate and deny the value of public wisdom.

Much has been said about the Twitterisation of the Revolution but I’m most interested in the impact on the public consiousness of imagery which makes us see a bigger picture of an anthropogenic planet, and our planet amongst others. It’s said that the first astronauts who were privileged to travel into space to see Earth as a ‘blue marble’ returned as environmentalists. In recent months, we’ve seen extraordinary advances in technologies for visualisation. Improvements to satellite imagery means, for example, that we can clearly see the effects of drought on the Amazon. NASA shows us a wealth of images of a changing planet and not only are they showing our world from a satellite view but looking outwards too: The Kepler Telescope has detected over 1200 candidates for planets in just a tiny portion of the universe, around 50 of which could host life.

Everyone with access to a screen is able to see increasingly spectacular and accurate maps, models and witness photographs of systemic change affecting land, sky and oceans, and the animal and human societies which make our community. They are also more able to place this world view in relation to the potential of other planets, which I believe must have a powerful effect.

This week I organised an event about Museums, Learning and the Environment. Anne Finlayson, CEO of Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) asked the whole room to choose where to stand on a line with two opposite world views at each pole:  Arcadian (Mother Nature is the only force that can fix this planet) and Imperialist (we’re smart enough to fix this planet). I wanted to stand outside of this line, in that I don’t think we’re smart enough yet, because we won’t accept and work with the Force of Nature. To become smart enough, we have to evolve through a mass re-vision of our world view, and visioning technology will play a major part in that.

This may seem an odd leap, but I want to shift focus from planetary sightings to sightings of exoplanetary beings. You might or might not be aware that UFO sightings have quadrupled (or more) in the past 3 years. ET chasers are galvanised by the witness statements of Stanley Fulham who has held sustained communication with the ‘regional galactic governance authority’, about its plans to save Earth from ecological collapse. The aliens gave Fulham some recent dates on which their spaceships would be disclosed over major cities. There were reported sightings on those dates but nothing quite like the scene in Independence Day. Although my father has seen what he describes as a flying saucer, I remain extremely sceptical but intrigued. I’m most interested in the stories ascribed to UFO sightings, and the effect these have on our ability to imagine an evaluation of the Earth from an alien perspective. Whether or not there are alien saviours, the imagining of them in this light is spreading the notion that if others value a biodiverse planet enough to want to keep it that way, we should value it likewise.

There may be many people who wish to be rescued by Mother Nature or angels from other planets, but the Imperialist world view dominates and will continue to do so.  God is made in the human image and we are driven by imagining ourselves as gods, as benign colonialists of other planets. The only way that we can transcend to such a capacity, is to take a radical position now, to see the prevention of ecological collapse as the only priority and as a global challenge.

Vinay Gupta wrote this week: “To act on what we know about climate and environment, to suggest a one planet lifestyle be made possible and socially acceptable brands one as a political radical of an entirely different stripe from any conventional political group, including the greens.” This really struck home. I am a Green Party member but I’m missing their local day of action today, because I’m scoping a major international learning project. I care about UK issues, such as the forest sell-off, but my prime concern is how this might affect global deforestation. Am I afraid to be branded in this way, entirely different from any conventional political group, outside the line from Arcadian to Imperialist? I used to be but I see now that the situation is too serious for that kind of fear.

Free to choose Sustainable Schools

28 09 2010

I’ve received an email from the Department of Education in response to my complaint about the axeing of the Sustainable Schools Initiative. I sent that complaint through a campaign organised by People and Planet.

Here’s an extract from the email, from Robert McAdam, Public Communications Unit:

“The government has committed itself to being the ‘greenest’ government ever. Ministers believe that it is important for schools to be sustainable and for children to learn about the key issues of sustainability. Most schools share this view and are already engaged in teaching pupils about sustainability using the large range of resources which are available. The government is committed to giving schools and teachers greater freedoms over what and how they teach. Ministers have announced their intention to review the National Curriculum in order to restore it to a core entitlement organised around subject disciplines. A smaller National Curriculum will allow schools more freedom and time to build on the core entitlement to provide a rich learning experience for all their pupils and use their professional judgement to organise learning as they see fit. It will still be up to schools to decide if becoming a sustainable school is the best way for them to operate, and the greater flexibility in the curriculum will allow schools wishing to do so an excellent opportunity to incorporate the teaching of sustainability into a broad and balanced curriculum.”

In short, they are concealing their decision to remove their funded support for sustainability in education (events, training, resources, awards, targets) with a mask of freedom and choice. Schools will be free to choose to aim for zero carbon operation and an environmentally aware approach, but they are entirely free not to, and if they want to do it they will have to find their own resources. There was an expectation that schools would make significant progress in eight ‘doorways’ to sustainability by 2020 and, as far as I can tell, there were no sanctions if schools didn’t reach that goal. So, they always were free to progress towards sustainability or not, but the difference now is that resourcing and motivation will be removed.

Another aspect of this response grates on me. This is the implication that Sustainable Schools was entirely a curriculum-related initiative, and that removing the initiative gives teachers more authority to decide what to teach. However, Sustainable Schools is also about how the school is managed and developed, about its buildings and grounds, how it enables the wider community to be sustainable and so on. The response is being used to spin a different aspect of ConDem policy.

There are so many reasons why schools should want to be sustainable. One of these is that it saves money. However, many schools may not grasp these reasons, as they succumb to pressure to be traditional or to specialise in subjects they believe are unrelated to sustainability. The most important reason to be a Sustainable School is that pupils become part of an organisation that is tackling by far the biggest threat to their future that any worldwide generation of children has ever faced.

I’m in the process of choosing a secondary school for my daughter. I may be biassed towards expressions of sustainability but I can see and feel the differences in quality between those that mention sustainability as important and those that don’t. I will name them as this is so important: Charter School and Kingsdale School have new buildings, with sustainable design at their heart, and they incorporate ecology into their arts provision. For example, Charter is the pilot school for the Cool it Schools initiative. Another great school we can choose is Sydenham School. Their vision mentions, up front, their work on environmental and sustainable development, its organic garden and its chickens! Our local school, Haberdashers Askes Hatcham College, on the other hand is a ‘good school’, but it has no mention of sustainability anywhere in its prospectus. What they do mention often are tradition, discipline, standards and skills for work. But it’s becoming clear that the skills for the future will be all about adapting to climate change and creating the conditions for sustained life on the planet. This means skills in engineering, technology, design, local food production, biodiversity awareness, empathy, creativity and imagination.  Though my daughter will opt for this school because it’s local, we’re very conscious of what it lacks. To me its lack of concern for sustainability seems to relate to its lack of promotion of creativity, design and arts education.

I also read a communication from Anne Finlayson, the CEO of Sustainability and Environmental Education, the organisation which has supported the Sustainable Schools Initiative so well. She talks about their negotiations with Government to ensure that this support remains in place and that their good work so far is not wasted.  Their questions include:

How will we all communicate effectively and efficiently with schools so that they can take a coherent, holistic approach to sustainability rather than a piecemeal approach?
How can we encourage schools to keep going with the 2020 target?
How can we continue to offer an updated and dynamic service to schools, signposting them to organisations, new programmes, new resources etc.?

If you want to help answer those questions and support SEEd, join as a member or contact them on Tel: 020 7420 4446 or Email: info@se-ed.org.uk


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