Cultivating Environmental Sustainability: The Need to Rethink Our Educational Process

In the world where the relationship between man and nature is becoming increasingly utilitarian- when nature begins to be valued merely because it can be ‘exploited’ or used as a raw material- the harmonic and sustainable bond between man and nature breaks down. In a time when humanity succumbs to greed, can a true education illuminate the path and help us rethink our relation to nature?

Clive Elwell has been interested in alternative education for many years, and has taught at several schools, including in India. Unwilling to entrust his two children to the conventional system, he home educated his two children, which was an intensive learning process (on both sides) that he has never regretted. He watches the world deteriorating at an ever increasing rate, and feels it is a matter of great urgency that people put aside their conditioning, their separative thinking, and that we feel our responsibility to the world crisis.

I would like to begin this essay with a little fantasy;

Imagine that you had a magic wand. Imagine that if you waved that wand over the Earth it would undo all the damage that mankind has ever done to the planet. Waving the wand would clean up the oceans and the rivers, making all water sparklingly clear again. It would make the air fresh and clean a pleasure to breathe. Waving the wand would restore all the forests that have been cut down, make all the ugly constructions of mankind disappear, clean up all the mess that has been created. All the animals, the birds, the fish, would come back. The soil would be fertile again. No radioactivity.

Now what would be the point of doing this? In a time spanning twenty years or so, things would be back where they are now, with all the mess.

If the meaning of this story is not immediately clear, I hope it becomes so as we go along. In this essay I am using the word ‘sustainable’ in a simple sense – that which can endure, continue, in particular through the generations. It implies the absence of deterioration, degeneration.

It is doubtful if mankind, throughout his long history, has ever lived at all ‘sustainably’. Maybe a few isolated tribal people found the necessary balance with nature, lived without the desire for endless ‘more’, but in general mankind has regarded the environment as an endless ‘resource’, to be exploited and plundered. This process has accelerated greatly since the industrial revolution, and now we have reached a point where we are on the verge of destroying ourselves and most of the life on Earth.

The oceans are dying, the forests are dying, and top soil is being exhausted and poisoned. Sources of fresh water are being depleted as once-huge aquifers are pumped dry, and many rivers no longer reach the ocean. Why is this happening? We claim to be intelligent, we have evolved large, complex brains which are capable of extraordinary technological feats, yet we are destroying our very home. We are destroying the world, and we don’t seem to care. We profess to love our children, yet we are creating a horrible and perhaps impossible future for them. The extravagant lives many of us live are only made possible by stealing the futures of our children. The concept of ‘sustainable’ is so far from reality that it is almost laughable.

What is the root cause of all this? If we do not understand the cause, how can we remedy the situation? We melt the Arctic ice, and use that as an opportunity to extract more climate-changing carbon. We watch advertising that stimulates our desire for more and more ‘stuff’. Why are we so stupefied, so blind, so uncaring? These are questions that we have to urgently address. And we have to ask: what part is the educational process playing in this unsustainable gamble?                                                                           

To understand what is going on, I think we have to look at the wider meaning of ‘sustainability’. We tend to focus on the environmental destruction going on, perhaps because this is what is most easily observable. But the crisis is manifesting itself in many areas – increasing conflict and violence, a global economy on the verge of collapse, societal breakdown, rapidly increasing disease of the body. And of course, in the education system.

If you walk down any street in any city in the world with your eyes open, you will see evidence of human deterioration. Or open any newspaper, at any page. Everyone lives with problems, problems, problems. Chris Hedges made this comment:

“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.”

He might also have given the food industry a mention. He was referring to the USA, but we know that the human malaise knows no boundaries.

Is it sustainable to build an economic system on an ever increasing mountain of debt? Is it sustainable to try to control the human mind with propaganda and conditioning? What does sustainability mean in the face of an exponentially increasing global population?

Is it sustainable to pollute the human mind by filling it, including the minds of our children, with abject nonsense and extreme violence by way of ‘entertainment’? And surely a society which is divided by race, by nationality, by religious belief, by separate political ideologies, cannot sustain itself? When there is ruthless competition between individuals, between groups, how can society survive? It must collapse, just as we are witnessing at the present time.

fact, I cannot, at the present time, see any human activity that is sustainable – and sustainability in one area is meaningless without sustainability in all areas.

How to approach the problem? Surely it cannot be coincidence that all these ‘different’ problems are coming to a head at this point of time? Surely they are manifestations of one deeper cause? In this essay I maintain that it is human consciousness, as it now is, based on the self, the ego, which is precluding the possibility of sustainable living. Human consciousness with its desires, its greed, its fears, its ambitions, its endless search for pleasure and gratification.

Is it not our greed which is producing mountains of waste, seas full of plastic, air which is almost unbreathable in many cities? Is it not fear that causes us to create bigger and bigger armies, more and more weapons of mass destruction? Is it not the self that separates people, that causes division, conflict, makes it apparently impossible for people to work together to solve our human problems?

So wave as many magic wands as we wish, the crises will only intensify as long as it is the self which is doing the waving. Is this not obvious? And as it is, it is the self which is the problem, no amount of technology can ever save us – not when egos are wielding that technology.Then one has to ask: is education, as it is mostly practiced, in any way dealing with, or even approaching, this one factor that lies behind all the unsustainability, or is education actually fanning the fires of Earth’s burning forests? Because young people, from an early age, are encouraged to be competitive? Does not education engage and nourish the ego? My exam grades, my success, my superior position, my personal wealth. Of course this generally happens in the home as well as the school – both teachers and parents have been conditioned in this way. In fact all the time society is encouraging self centered activity in us, both subtly and overtly.

Imagine a hive of bees, where each creature was raised to be an individual, out for himself, striving to get more than the others. Or a colony of ants where each ant is trying to carve out his own territory. How could there be stability? It is apparent that an educational system which fosters competition, rivalry, that encourages division between people, is fundamentally anti-social. It invites disaster.

In the modern world people are necessarily connected, and have a profound influence on each other. Environmental destruction, pollution, diseases, separative ideas/beliefs, fanaticism, quickly crosses national borders. And financial systems are very much inter-dependent. “No man is an island”, as has been said. All the problems that we are facing demand that we work together to solve them. In this sense, education is failing the human race, as it encourages separativeness.

I am not especially pointing the finger at education; it is only a reflection of society in general. It has a profound influence on society, yes, but it is also profoundly influenced by society. And society is only the relationship between you and me.

So what is one to do? This is the fundamental question. What are we to do? We can analyze the problems infinitely, describe the chaos facing the human race most minutely, but what are we to do? It seems to me that this is a question each one of us must ask of him/her self. What is our own responsibility in all this mess? It is our responsibility as teachers, if we are, as parents, as members of society – but most of all, simply as human beings.

What can we do? Develop some new ideology, and try to persuade others to join us – that is, to act against other ideologies? Start a new political party, and work against other political parties? If not, what are we to do? What is important is to ask ourselves that question, and not wait for others to tell us what to do. Waiting for others, the political and religious leaders, the psychologists, and so on, to tell us what to do has only bred apathy, has only contributed to our problems.

Nothing that we do, in any field, is sustainable as long as the human mind is in a state of deterioration. Fundamentally what is unsustainable is the human self, the me. With the ‘I’ operating, individuals and cultures will always be at war in one form or another. Consciousness in its present form can never produce a sustainable world. So surely it is the responsibility of each one of us to go beyond self-centered action? Nothing can be more important than this. This is true political action, true social action. It is in fact true religiosity in action. This is our challenge, a fundamental transformation of consciousness.

You may say this is impossible. Many do. Many consider themselves trapped in a degenerating system, regarding themselves as victims. But how do we know that it is impossible, until we have explored deeply, put all our energy into the inquiry, devoted our life to it? We may turn our back on the challenge, but nothing else is can bring about a sustainable world for our children.So what is the nature of this change of consciousness?

Unfortunately there is no space to go into that here. But is it not obvious that to bring about a sustainable world, we need to understand ourselves, the human consciousness which is the very root of our problems? And it is vital that this element is brought into education, without understanding oneself, there is no basis for understanding anything about the world, and our relationship to it. And this self-understanding is not a selfish, isolating pursuit.

If a teacher or parent – or anyone – is seriously inquiring into this question, naturally it must affect people around him or her. If a teacher is vitally concerned with this, the concern will naturally communicate itself to his/her students.


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